Jane Austen's Views on Dance, Physical Activity, and Gender as an Interdisciplinary Topic

By Hearn, Colleen Porter | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen's Views on Dance, Physical Activity, and Gender as an Interdisciplinary Topic


Hearn, Colleen Porter, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Right now, the United States Department of Education recommends that teachers should make connections between abstract and concrete concepts as part of best practices, in order to

  help students understand challenging topics and learn to transfer
  their understanding to new situations. There are many ways teachers
  can connect the abstract and the concrete including using stories,
  simulations, hands-on activities, visual representations, and
  real-world problem solving. (Doing What Works, n.d.)

Many required readings have references to dance, physical education, recreation, or health. What better way to understand an author's meaning than by analyzing the HPERD disciplines as "hands-on activities" and "visual representations?" This article describes how one author makes this connection between abstract and concrete concepts, namely Jane Austen (1775-1817)--who advocated for all of our disciplines in her writings. This article will also examine a few ways that teachers can help their students to appreciate the dance and sports-oriented topics within Austen's novels.

Whatever one's opinion of the writings of Jane Austen, an examination of the author's words reveals that she clearly supported dance and other forms of physical activity as a creative, healthy lifestyle - perhaps even as a form of women's rights in a time when society taught ladies to be demure, delicate, and never super-athletic. "True" ladies were generally restricted to their domestic and social activities within the confines of the home or other places considered appropriate, while the gentlemen demonstrated their physical prowess through competitive outdoor sports and military exercises. Although not a rebel, Austen did indeed challenge these restrictions, even earning a living briefly as a celebrated author, a profession that was generally unacceptable for women of her class. Austen lived for a while in Bath, a popular English resort of hot springs and spas, which the Romans had constructed centuries before. Perhaps this atmosphere, which society then believed contributed toward a healthy lifestyle, influenced Austen's own belief in the importance of exercise.

Dance: A Proper Way to Socialize

There were many treatises on the benefits of dance in this period, such as Thomas Wilson's (1815) Complete System of English Country Dancing, first published in 1808. Dance appears throughout many of Austen's novels as an important way for young people to socialize, which was true not only in fiction, but in real life. In Pride and Prejudice (Austen, 1991/1813), the lead characters Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy meet for the first time at a raucous provincial assembly where all are invited to dance (chapter 3); later, they dance together to more stately music at a sumptuous ball (chapter 18).

Anne, a character accompanying the Musgrove family in Persuasion (Austen, 2002/1817), observes how her hosts receive many jolly visitors, not just by formal invitation but by chance; she is struck by how "the [Musgrove] girls were wild for dancing; and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball ... a family of cousins [would] dance anywhere; and Anne ... played country dances [on the pianoforte] to them by the hour together" (p. 78).Thus Austen discusses how country people dance impromptu as opposed to the more restricted decorum of urban society.

The advantage to dancing was not just the socialization, of course, but the exhilaration of exercise while chasseing across the floor. In Emma (Austen, 2002/1816) there are wonderful descriptive passages of dancers engaged in quadrilles, cotillions, reels, jigs, and other dance styles. In one sequence, Austen sketches a picture of a couple at the top of a set, traveling down the line (chapter 8). Unfortunately, she omits details of specific dances, perhaps because everyone was expected to know them by heart before promenading into the hall. …

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