Stepping into the Salem Old Town Hall in Salem, MA, on December 10, for a moment, you might think you have time traveled where people from all across the 19th century converged for a Christmas celebration. Ladies in hoop skirts with their hair in intricate curls converse with men in Regency tailcoats in the downstairs hall. Outside, distant voices singing Christmas carols grow stronger, and the singers emerge from the darkness holding songbooks with lanterns, decked in furs and cloaks to keep out the winter chill. The carolers join the others in the vestibule, ready for the Fezziwig Ball, held annually by Commonwealth Vintage Dancers (CVD). Upstairs in the main dance hall, the room is lit from the chandeliers and the doorways and windows are festooned in evergreen garlands and poinsettias. “It’s such a fun place to dance!” says Antonia Pugliese, one of the current co-artistic-directors alongside her mother, Barbara Menard Pugliese.
The historic dance troupe was founded in 1983 by Patri J. Pugliese, Hannah Roberts Artuso, and Robert Duffy. Under the direction of Pugliese and Menard Pugliese, CVD reconstructs, teaches, and performs dances from the 19th and 20th century, specializing in Regency/Federal era, Civil War, Gilded Age, Ragtime, and the Roaring Twenties. Many of the dances have been reconstructed by the founding members as well as the current directors who interpreted the dances from original 19th-century dance manuals. “We like to go back to the very original sources,” Pugliese says.
Her father, Patri J. Pugliese, collected copies of vintage dancing and fencing manuals. These books became the source material from which CVD interpreted the dances for their yearly events. “We read what they wrote and we try desperately to figure out what they meant,” says Pugliese. “Without [seeing] the cultural context but also seeing the dances, sometimes it’s weird the way [the dance masters have] written things and it’s very […] difficult to interpret what they want you to do physically. So we play this nice game of read the different manuals and put all the pieces together to figure out how to interpret what they really mean. Sometimes we’re wrong but we try really hard to be right!”
Whether or not the interpretation is exactly accurate or not, there is undeniable joy amidst everyone at the Fezzwig Ball. When musicians, Spare Parts, strike up the first notes for the Grand March, the high energy of the crowd buzzes like electricity as the dancing begins. A few popular dances for the crowd seem to be the lively ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ which was performed in the United States in the 1850s, and the Gothic dance, where dancers’ long lines of raised arms resemble Gothic architecture as their dance partner goes underneath the archways.
The Fezziwig ball is a great introductory ball to CVD events and the world of historical dance. “The dancing is easy and everything is taught. […] It’s a very fun ball. There’s a lot of energy and people come and they are all excited about Christmas!” says Pugliese. “Most of our other balls are at least as good for beginners because we do try to teach everything. We try to make all our balls something that people could come to without ever coming [previously] to anything.” Her advice for newcomers: “I always tell people in classes, if things go wrong, you just smile just really big because no one is going to get mad at you for messing up a dance you just learned.”
The historic nature of the ball isn’t just in the dancing, but also in the guests’ attire. While CVD events are usually set in one distinct moment in time, the Fezziwig Ball encourages, but doesn’t require, guests to wear anything appropriate from Charles Dickens’ lifetime, 1812-1870. “There was never a moment in time when all of those styles were being worn at the same time, other than [at] a fancy dress ball,” says Pugliese of seeing an early 19th-century Regency dress next to an 1860s ball gown. Many attendees sew their outfits themselves but those who don’t yet have the courage to don historical garb are welcome to attend in modern evening attire. Many of CVD’s events allow a mixture of modern and historic clothing, except for the annual Returning Heroes ball, in which Civil War-era dress is required. “We allow people to wear modern clothing if they don’t have anything else, so it should never be the clothes that [deter] you out of coming,” Pugliese adds.
Finishing the night’s festivities is one of the most common 19th century dances, Sir Roger de Coverley, which was performed at the Fezziwig ball in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.As guests leave, Pugliese and members of CVD bid personal farewells to attendees while handing out festive popcorn balls. “I love when we’re saying goodbye to everyone after a really successful ball and everyone is smiling and happy, and we are tired, […] and we know we made this beautiful magical thing for all of these people to go to,” says Pugliese. All three ghosts might have had enough magic for Scrooge in one night, but at Commonwealth Vintage Dancer’s Fezziwig Ball, there is enough Christmas Spirit to put a smile on even the coldest miser’s face.
For more information, visit Commonwealth Vintage Dancer’s website here.
© Chelsea E. Dill 2016