"Worth Looking At": Performance Prowess in Emma's Scenes of Dance

By Bjarnason, Palma | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

"Worth Looking At": Performance Prowess in Emma's Scenes of Dance


Bjarnason, Palma, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


[S]he led off the dance with genuine spirit and enjoyment.... [T]he rarity and the suddenness of it made it very delightful, and she found herself well matched in a partner. They were a couple worth looking at.

--Emma (230)

IN CONJURING UP IMAGES of social life in the novels of Jane Austen, one instantly envisions the ballroom. Dances in Austen's novels are a forum where evaluations of potential marriage partners may be carried out: Austen therefore makes full use of these all-important social occasions as pivotal events in the lives of her heroines. Although dance scenes comprise a small fraction of any one of Jane Austen's novels, they are always crucial to the complication of the plot.

Many scholars have discussed Austen's use of dance as a metaphor for marriage; a less explored issue is the way in which dance, the most visible of the courtship rituals, takes place entirely in the public eye and thereby becomes a social performance. (1) Thus not only prospective marriage partners but all members of society (and by extension, society itself) may evaluate characters through the medium of the ball. Ballroom dance--both the actual dance figures and the social manoeuvres that frame them--becomes a public text read simultaneously by participants and spectators.

The emphasis placed on prestige and social acceptability (versus the state of disgrace that is their alternative) points to the importance of public approbation in Austen's world. Isobel Armstrong's observation of "a chronic structure of surveillance and concealment" (87) in Sense and Sensibility is applicable to any Austen novel. The consciousness of being watched reaches its greatest intensity for Austen's characters during dances, one of the only societally sanctioned opportunities for the sexes to intermingle with relative freedom. In Northanger Abbey, this generalized watching presence is referred to as "the eye of the world" (53). All the heroines, whether or not they dance themselves, must by their attendance at social dances participate in the rite of voyeurism that characterizes dancing in public view. (2) For Austen, the dance scenario becomes the locus for an investigation of female response to societal surveillance. The author accentuates the different ways in which variously situated females experience the two acts that concur in ballrooms: performing and spectating.

A brief reference to dance in Persuasion suggests that the feminine sphere is defined mostly by performance: "the females were fully occupied in all the other common subjects of house-keeping, neighbours, dress, dancing, and music" (42-43). In contrast to the conventional association of male-public and female-private, four of the five "female" concerns listed involve other people: neighbors, dress (important only insofar as seen by others), dancing and music (both requiring participants and an audience). As delineated here, female concerns are in a sense not at all private, given that they are performative. Further, since within these socio-performative areas a woman herself becomes the performance piece, women are socialized to be aware of their own visible exterior selves as vital to an ongoing public display. This feature of female existence has been identified in a well-known passage by Laura Mulvey: "in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness" (19). Thus any female character's experience of the ballroom is inextricably bound up with both the consciousness of being seen and the need to perform well.

Austen's female protagonists are objects and/or perpetrators of the voyeurism of social dance; they are performers and/or spectators; they both read and write the pervasive public text with varying levels of fluency. Given that the ballroom is a symbol of society, the ability of Austen's central characters to grasp ballroom politics is of far more moment than simply influencing how they will fare at dances. …

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