And now we dance

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In my survey of British Literature course, I assigned a contexts section from our anthology that talked primarily -- though not exclusively -- about leisured entertainments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  I always like taking a look at sections about non-literary culture in my literature courses, because it gives us the opportunity to think about the relationship of the author and the world she or he lived in.  I work to impress upon my students the idea that this is not simply about “background” vaguely understood, but that it’s about understanding the interaction of art and ideas.  As a guiding principle, we talk a bit about M. H. Abrams’ classification of literary theories based on the concepts of the text, the world, the audience, and the author.

It’s also a good opportunity to have students think materially about the world that the authors lived in.  While on this particular day I did spend a good bit of time talking about tobacco (and looking at anti-tobacco broadsides) and time talking about the non-theatrical entertainments that a person might find in the suburbs of London, I also introduced the students to a fairly basic but important courtly dance: the pavane.

The dance itself is one I learned in a workshop at the 2013 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.  Up until this particular class I hadn’t had opportunity (or courage) to introduce my students to a dance.  However, because the steps are simple and the tempo is slow, it’s one that I can do fairly easily -- and I told my students, many of whom looked a bit weary, that if I was the one teaching it, they would certainly be able to do it, as I am famously clumsy.

So I sent them outside and lined everyone up with a partner.  And we danced.  At least, we tried to dance.  We were able to discuss how this dance could inform social customs, and I’m trying, in turn, to show the students how those things should inform our understanding of the literature we’re reading.  At the very least, my students will remember that the study of literature is something that we do.  Even if it means doing something that feels a little silly.

Link for the pavane (it’s a download):

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.