A Civil Dance

WHEELING – Area residents can while away the winter hours and beat the post-holiday doldrums by learning the steps to Civil War-era dances this month.

Participants have an extra incentive to master dancing in the 1860s style: they can show off their newly-learned moves on the dance floor this summer at a Civil War Ball planned in Wheeling as part of the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of West Virginia statehood.

The Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee is organizing a Civil War Ball, to be held at the McLure House Hotel in downtown Wheeling on Saturday, June 22, to culminate the city’s celebration of statehood.

The Heritage Dance Association is taking the lead in preparing for the upcoming ball and for related Civil War sesquicentennial events.

Civil War-era dance classes will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, and will be held on the third floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center, 1400 Main St. There is no cost for the lessons, but after one or two classes, dancers are asked to commit to attending regularly, as the dances will progress and build on each other.

Dance lessons are being offered to any adult who has the ability to walk briskly for 10 minutes at a time. Partners are not necessary, but are preferred.

“The dances are considered to be high aerobic and low impact. That makes these dances fun and safe for most adults,” said Don Feenerty, who leads the classes with his wife, Angela.

Members from Friends of Wheeling, Civil War Roundtable, Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. and others are partnering with the Heritage Dance Association to learn the manners, customs and dance moves popular during the time of the Civil War. Area residents do not have to be associated with any historical group to take part in the lessons. The lessons are free of charge.

As a “soft launch” for the dancing project, about 20 people have been gathering for the past two months to begin learning the dance steps, Feenerty said. The participants have had a good time and are looking forward to the official start of lessons this week, he added.

People attending the first session Wednesday “will learn three dances that very night,” Feenerty said. “The following week, we’ll go over the dances. Some people will get it right away; others will take longer … Once you learn the steps, then we build to more advanced dances,” he explained.

The instructor predicted. “People will be doing more dances in a month than they ever imagined.”

Each weekly session will last 90 minutes. “We do ask for dedication – try to come every week,” he said.

The first dance that class members will practice is the Virginia Reel. “They will remember having done this” in school or with other organizations, he said. By the third week, the instruction will turn to more “modern” dances such as the polka and waltz.

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One of the newest – and most enthusiastic – dancers in the group is Rebekah Karelis, who is the archivist for the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.

Karelis could offer the face – and the feet for promoting the fact that Civil War dancing doesn’t require prior dancing experience or a particular talent. She remarked, “I never expected myself to be a dancer. Actually, I love it.

“It (dancing) was something I was always kind of interested in. I had heard about the Heritage Dance Association for years,” she said. “At the Civil War 150 meetings, there was talk about the ball and they were interested in doing some Civil War dancing.”

In addition, Karelis said, “I’ve recently started doing Civil War ‘dress-up,'” so learning the dances was the next logical step. “I love it,” she said.

Asked whether the dances were difficulty to learn, Karelis said, “No, that was my biggest hang-up. I thought, ‘I’m too awkward and not graceful enough.'” But, she discovered, “They are fun dances. It’s not rocket science. It is not that difficult. I can do it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

She added, “It’s great people who are in this group. It’s a lot of fun.”

The participants in the informal session “have been doing a soft start as an experiment,” she said. “The true class starts on Jan. 9th. We will be able to lend our experience to the new group.”

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Heritage Dance Association members perform traditional period dances at the annual Fort Henry Days observance at Oglebay Park. Many of the dances that were popular during the Revolutionary War era would still have been done during the Civil War years, Feenerty said.

Some of the dances, in fact, have been done since the 1600s, he said. For instance, the schottische, a partnered country dance, is danced the same way it was 200 or 300 years ago.

“Dancing during the Civil War was a very elegant affair, with a little bit of rowdiness thrown in for fun and excitement,” he said. “A grand ball would have begun with a grand march. Gentlemen on the left, with their lady on their right, couples would lead into the ballroom and show themselves to the gathered crowd.

“Many of the dances of the day were done in long lines of couples facing each other. An untrained eye might think that the dancers just walk up to and around each other. In reality, there were many steps and moves that had to be mastered in order to accomplish even the simplest of dances. Any self-respecting dance group would have had a dance master teaching and leading the dances. After a few long line sets, the dance master would have divided the group into squares, with four couples in each. These squares were called quadrilles, and were quite popular. They were the predecessors of modern square dancing,” he said.

Participants in the dance classes also will learn to waltz and polka – two dances that were considered “scandalous” when introduced to the dance floor. In the older style of dancing, couples would touch hands briefly as a group performed line dances. However, Feenerty related, “When new dances, such as the waltz and polka, were introduced, men are holding women.”

In a waltz or polka, a man places his hand on the back of his female partner, while the woman places her hand on the nape of the man’s neck, Feenerty explained. With people unaccustomed to this level of closeness on the dance floor, such familiarity was deemed scandalous in some quarters.

People feared that the waltz and polka would degrade society and bring about moral ruin, he said. “Up until the time of the Civil War, dancers were lucky to hold hands with the opposite sex. It was considered undignified for a lady to be flung around the dance floor in the grips of a man,” he related.

“The waltz and polka may have been scandalous, but they were also very popular. We liked them so much that we still do them today,” he remarked. “Both the waltz and the polka are done to the count of 1, 2, 3. These steps are very easy to learn, and many people quickly realize that they have either done them before, or have at least seen them being done.

“Of the two, the waltz is considered the more elegant, where the polka is thought to be more bouncy and fun. Add theses dances to the grand march and long ways sets, and throw in a schottische, and you have yourself a grand ball,” Feenerty said.

The Civil War Ball will provide opportunities for everyone to dance, formally dressed or not. The Heritage Dance Association has resources to help direct dancers who want to purchase or make their own period-style suits and ball gowns, he said.

Anyone interested in attending the dance classes can contact the Heritage Dance Association by email at HDA@feenerty.com or call 304-232-2223.