At noon last Nov. 14, tickets for a hotly anticipated event went on sale. Brown Paper Tickets told the organizers that at exactly 12 p.m. it received more than 500 discrete requests for admission. By 12:01, the event was sold out.
But this wasn’t a concert, comedy show or sporting event. It was “an afternoon of tea, discourse, music and dance in the spirit of the estimable Miss Austen,” otherwise known as the Jane Austen Evening, held Jan. 23. Now in its 18th year, the Pasadena-based re-enactment event has developed a zealous fan base.
Many regular attendees, unable to get tickets and frustrated by the purchasing process, flooded the event’s Facebook page with angry comments. Apparently a computer glitch had prevented the sale of 80 tickets. When those were made available a week later, they sold out within minutes.
As a dancer and historian, I’ve attended many Jane Austen balls, but I’d never seen a response like this. Yes, it’s a wonderful event, but this year’s sell-out was so immediate and bred so much ire among people who were shut out. There are plenty of other local Austen events — for instance, the Victorian Tea & Dance Society’s Jane Austen Social, on Jan. 24, and its Jane Austen Spring Assembly on March 12.
Why has the Jane Austen Evening become the event of the year?
Walter Nelson, a dancer and presenter of many historically themed events, started JAE in 1998 as a way to jump-start the English country dance community in Southern California. The world was firmly in the grips of Austen fanaticism and had been since 1995, the year Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (a modernized Emma) and the essential Colin Firth–starring Pride and Prejudice miniseries were all released. Nelson clearly had found the perfect hook to attract newcomers to his events.
“It really is about a hook,” Nelson says. “I’ve become rather cynical about marketing, [but] I think people feel a greater draw to an event that has Jane Austen’s name on it. If I called it ‘the Prince Regent’s Assembly,’ we would get half the turnout.”
But clearly there’s more to JAE’s popularity than just a name.
Inside the Pasadena Masonic Lodge, the Jane Austen Evening begins at 4 p.m. with an elegant tea and dinner, followed by English country dancing — a traditional, community-building folk dance with couples in long lines, often seen in Austen films — until 11:30 p.m. I spoke to attendees as young as 13 and as old as 76, from places as far away as San Francisco and Las Vegas. Formal attire is required, and the majority of revelers wear Regency-era clothing straight out of an Austen novel.
“When you walk through those doors, you really are walking through 200 years in time,” says Tim Steinmeier, who took over organizing the event when Nelson’s day job became too demanding. “People behave differently because of the costumes and the formalwear. It’s totally amazing. You just can’t get that anywhere else in today’s society.”
Nelson agrees that the ambiance is a huge factor. “I think [attendees] are looking for something that feels ‘Austen-y,’?” he says.
But what does that mean? It’s not necessarily about historical authenticity, at least as far as the dancing’s concerned. The movies attract many people — especially women — to these events by portraying Austen’s era in a way that makes it seem especially romantic: the slow, gentle movements; joining gloved hands with your partner and gazing into his eyes; flirting yet keeping your distance. They want to go back in time. They want to live it.
This was certainly true for author Syrie James, who writes Austen-style novels. “When I first fell in love with Jane’s books after seeing the movies, what I really wanted was to live in a Jane Austen novel,” James says. “Since I couldn’t do that, the next best thing was to write about it. Actually, the next best thing is to attend one of these balls.”
Darlene Hamilton, organizer of the Victorian Tea & Dance Society’s Jane Austen Social, says, “Why is Halloween so popular? People like stepping into an alternative personality/reality, and this one’s a very lovely one.”
But sometimes this kind of perfectly healthy escapism turns ugly, particularly when tickets to the most anticipated Austen-related event of the year disappear too quickly. The event has always been popular, but sell-out times have decreased dramatically, from three months to two weeks to, now, a matter of minutes.
“We really broke some records here,” Nelson says. “It’s a little distressing, and people are getting nasty and angry and bitter.”
Some of the people who attend these gatherings are costumers first: They sew beautiful, historically accurate costumes, and they start dancing as an excuse to wear their finery. Others — like me — are dancers first: Their love of dance leads them to learn more about the clothes and the history, and to find or create outfits to wear. With JAE, a third group enters the mix: the Janeites, Jane Austen aficionados who take their Austen events very seriously.
The differences between the various attendees aren’t typically a problem. Each group is happy to help the other, but here (perhaps because of the nature of the Internet), some people responded in ugly, decidedly non-Austen ways.
There were those who felt that dancers should have first shot at tickets, lest the event turn into a fashion show instead of a ball. Others said that to divide things in such an unwelcoming way was unfair; after all, they argued, the costumes are an important part of the ambiance.
It’s disheartening — and odd — to watch members of a group bound by its affinity for a novelist of manners and country dancing turn on one other.
Fortunately, this divide is not apparent at the ball itself. Nelson and Steinmeier know their audience and keep the dances simple, maintaining that smooth elegance seen in films, achieved from walking steps rather than the energetic skipping actually danced in Austen’s day.
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For example, “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” is a popular dance for Austen-based events because of its use in two filmed versions: the Firth Pride and Prejudice and Emma (1996). But the dance is actually from 1695 and would have been out of fashion by 1813, when Pride and Prejudice was published. Nelson explains, “It’s a minuet, and really should be danced in powdered wigs and panniers.”
But it’s a beautiful dance that captures the quintessence of that Austen romanticism and ambiance.
“It’s not necessarily reality, but it’s what people are looking for in this particular ball,” Steinmeier says. “It’s not a dancer’s ball. It’s a mystique. It’s a conception. It’s their idea about how things were in the past.”
Jane Austen Spring Assembly, South Pasadena Masonic Lodge, 1126 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena; Sat., March 12, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; $105 . victorianteaanddance.org.