Local Jane Austen Fans Gather for Monthly Dance

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This Sunday night, PBS continues its Jane Austen series with a new version of "Emma." But one group of fans has been celebrating the world of Jane Austen every month for nearly three decades. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde puts on her gown and takes us out on the dance floor.

Kitty Felde: It's just the rec room in Culver City's Lindberg Park, with a beat-up wooden floor and kids' toys pushed up against the turquoise walls. But the first Saturday night of every month, this room is transformed to a Regency era assembly hall, where the world of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer comes alive.

[Sound of period dance music]

Felde: The dance is called Miss Haseltine's Drum. What's a drum?

Susan Haseltine: It was sort of an informal party during the Regency; it actually was usually more of an afternoon party.

Felde: Susan Haseltine wears a lavender print frock with a monocle dangling around her neck. She's one of half-a-dozen ladies in high-waisted gowns.

Haseltine: I had been putting these on since about 1980, and people were calling it "the dance practice," which I didn't like. I wanted them to be more of a social event rather than a teaching event.

Felde: Haseltine describes the dances as "lightweight pretend historical reconstruction." The evening begins promptly at 7:30 with the dance master teaching the first dance. Newcomer Nick Morgan was nervous. But he was bowing and promenading the minute after he walked in the door.

Nick Morgan: I think it's like any situation where we come in and we know nothing about it but we're meeting a group of people who obviously a lot of them have done it for a very long time. I was actually expecting it to be harder to get involved or sort of break into the group, and everyone's been very friendly, so it's been better than expected, I would say.

Felde: Morgan was an English major. His wife teaches English lit to high schoolers.

Morgan: It's a family affair. We have two daughters, and they actually have Jane Austen character action figures. So they're a little warped.

Felde: You might expect a bunch of English majors at a Regency dance. But math majors are also well represented.

Mary Saunders: I like the geometric nature of it; that appeals to me.

Felde: Mary Saunders has been Regency dancing for 15 years.

Saunders: It combines grace and geometry, and I love that. Felde: Now, is your day job somehow mathematically inclined? Saunders: I'm an engineer. You'll probably find a lot of engineers and math geeks doing this kind of dancing, I think because of that combination of grace and geometry.

Felde: Many of the regulars at Miss Haseltine's Drum are science fiction fans. In fact, Sue Haseltine's first introduction to the dancing came at the Westercon science fiction convention.

Haseltine: I was at Westercon in 1979, and wearing a gauze dress held up by Mylar balloons, and I followed a boy, a young man, into Regency Dancing. And it was totally different than the rest of the science fiction convention. It was elegant and polite and there was nice music...

Felde: Sue's husband, Mike Frank, explains the nexus between sci-fi and Jane Austen.

Mike Frank: So what is an historical novel? It's a novel set in a different period of time than yours. A different world, with different people. Basically an alien culture. Correct?
Felde: Yes.
Frank: What is science fiction about? Set in the future in a different history with an alien culture. This is all about putting yourself in a different place and doing a little bit of make-believe. What if I lived in this different period of time?
Felde: You know, you're not wearing what I would describe as the typical Austen era outfit – the Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants.
Frank: Well, the monthly dances are very casual. They're not the formal affair, so if you look around, most people are not wearing costume. This is mostly for learning the dances, learning the basic steps.

Felde: Mary Saunders – the engineer – says most of the men eventually adopt the costume of Austen's romantic character Mr. Darcy... or at least that of the cad – Mr. Wickham.

Saunders: If you have a guy who's interested, but isn't quite sure about the clothes, a lot times he'll get very enthusiastic about wearing a military uniform of the period, because they look splendid.

Felde: Miss Haseltine's next Drum is tomorrow night at 7:30. Admission is $5.00. Empire dresses and white gloves are optional.

[Music ends; dancers applaud]