Posted by: Isabelle Kirwin | November 7, 2018

First Impressions: Dance and Social Performativity

First Impressions: Dance and Social Performativity

We view most of the visual culture in our course out of time, in a context that the creators could never have dreamed. The art and culture that is based on time, however, cannot be recontextualized in this way and we are left with only the nonvisual descriptions in written text or the incomplete visual depictions in still images. Of these, Bleak House is the only textual representation of dance in our coursework thus far, through the character of Caddy Jellyby and her quest for respectability and status.

As many of us know from Regency novels and certainly from Bleak House, dance in the 19th century was a form of social interaction and a status symbol. It often sets up important first impressions – think of Mr. Darcy refusing to dance in Pride and Prejudice, and how this social performance impacted the villagers’ opinions of him. Fearing something similar, Caddy Jellyby bemoans her awkwardness to Esther by describing Ada as an accomplished lady who “can dance, and play music, and sing” (60). When Caddy determines “to be improved in that respect at all events” she declares that she “must be taught to dance” (220). This is the first step she takes toward becoming accomplished, something Caddy sees as necessary in order to raise herself above her current social status. Dance requires no specialized equipment like painting or piano playing – it is located entirely within the body, and is thus visual by nature. The accomplishment of dance, which includes deportment in Bleak House, is a visual presentation of status that affects physical appearances and thus first impressions, the first ‘barrier’ Caddy must overcome to break into new social circles.

Dance is a performative skill in all contexts, though we generally think of dance a little differently than in the Victorian era. Social dance has become a ‘lower’ form of dance, with concert/performance dance rising in popularity and status through the decades. Performance dances, particularly in classical ballet, are representations of individuals other than the dancer; the dancer performs a narrative while representing a particular character. For Caddy Jellyby and women like her, however, dance is a performative representation of the self. This function of dance has become less vital to socialization in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Nowadays, the stakes are lower in social dance scenarios now (e.g., clubbing, contradance, concerts), and the use of these situations as important first impressions has been rendered mostly obsolete. Dance as a performative accomplishment in the Victorian sense has lost popularity for the masses, and concert dance has taken hold as the dominant form of the art.

The social dances we think of from the Regency era (the Quadrille, the Scottish Reel, etc.) were already falling out of style in favor of ballroom dances in the Victorian period (“Social Dances of the Nineteenth Century”), though ballroom dance is still considered social in comparison to concert dance. The outdatedness of some of these dance forms leads us of course to Mr. Turveydrop and his obsession with the Prince Regent. He is depicted as teaching an outdated form of dance with outdated methods. Dickens may poke fun at deportment and dance, but for Caddy, upward social mobility – and thus independence from her less than ideal family situation –  hinges on the first impressions garnered by trained physicality. That she meets and falls for Prince Turveydrop in the pursuit of her dance training could be interpreted as a sign that this type of performative physicality is not necessary, that Caddy simply needed to be out from under her mother’s thumb. Conversely, it reveals that Caddy took the correct first step in ‘bettering’ herself in the model of Ada, learning to perform the social signals of gentility.

 

Sources

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Edited by Joseph Hillis Miller, Penguin, 2012. Print.

Powers, Richard. “Social Dances of the Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Social Dance, socialdance.stanford.edu/Syllabi/19th_century.htm.

 


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