Dancing in Colonial America

by Jacob Bloom, Dancing Master

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In colonial America, as at any time, it made a difference how wealthy you were.  The rich wanted to show off their status.  Colonial America was not England, where the aristocracy was entrenched and well defined.  Some merchants were becoming quite wealthy and wished to enter upper-class society.  Upper-class colonial society was willing to accept them provided that they fit in socially.  

In order to fit into society, they needed to be able to dance, because the main entertainment at parties in colonial America was participatory dancing.  Although the Quakers in colonial Pennsylvania and some Puritans in New England disapproved of dancing, most people in the colonies thought that learning to dance taught good manners, good balance, and grace.  They also appreciated that it gave young people a chance to meet and court in a supervised setting, and they enjoyed it for its own sake.  (It also helped warm the house - this was long before central heating!)

Balls which lasted several days were especially common in the colonial South.  In the North, dances were often held at special occasions: when a new minister was appointed to a church, at weddings, at barn raisings.  Dances were held in church halls, in town halls and in taverns.  The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, for example, has a room on its second floor that was especially built for dancing.  In some large homes, special rooms were built for dancing.  The Salem Towne house at Old Sturbridge Village has a dancing room which takes up half of the second floor.

However, one difference between people raised in the upper-class and those who weren’t, was the amount of time they had been able to devote to learning dancing.  The rich had taken dancing lessons.  The newly rich had not, and it showed.

This made the dancing master important as the gatekeeper to joining polite society.  The newly wealthy merchant, if he wanted to be accepted by those he hoped to become friends with, needed to learn how to do their dances without looking out of place. (A dancing master’s ad from 1774 said, “Mr. Turner will attend two Days in the Week at any House from 6 o’Clock in the Evening on grown Gentlemen and Ladies, and assures the utmost Secrecy shall be kept till they are capable of exhibiting in high Taste.”) Dancing masters started establishing schools in the major cities, or traveling to smaller cities to hold short-term classes.  More people were joining the middle class, and they felt that they should learn to dance, to improve their standing in society.  Those who could afford it also sent their children to classes with a dancing master, starting when they were eight years old.  (The same 1774 ad said, “Those Gentlemen and Ladies who propose sending their Children to be instructed may depend the best Care will be taken as to their Behaviour.”)    

Fortunately for our wealthy merchant and his family, the dances done at parties were not limited to the minuet.  The structure of the minuet was very simple - but it was done by one couple at a time with everyone else at the party watching the dancers and judging whether or not they did the footwork perfectly.  The rich still did the minuet, but “country dances” were the most popular form of dance.  These dances were done by many couples at one time.  They still required learning footwork, and had more complex patterns than the minuet, but they were more of a social experience than a performance.  

In country dancing, you danced with a partner as part of a long line of couples.  The same steps would be done with one couple after another.  Some of the couples would have the "active" part, and get to dance more.  The other couples would have the "inactive" part, and get to talk more with their partners.  This kind of dancing is a descendant of English country dancing and the French contredanse.

In short, dancing was seen in colonial America as both a necessary accomplishment and an enjoyable activity.  As a Philadelphia dancing master put it in 1753, it taught “a discreet and courteous behaviour, a genteel easy carriage, without constraint, and how to appear in the politest company with a becoming grace and modest assurance.”  And as a French visitor to Philadelphia put it around 1795, “All American girls or women are fond of dancing, which is one of their greatest pleasures. The men like it almost as much. ... Dancing, for the inhabitants of the United States, is less a matter of self-display than it is of true enjoyment. At the same dance you will see a grandfather, his son and his grandson, but more often still the grandmother, her daughter and the granddaughter. ... Each one dances for his own amusement, and not because it's the thing to do.”


Bibliography

Daniels, Bruce, "Frolics for Fun: Dances, Weddings, and Dinner Parties in Colonial New England," Historical Journal of Massachusetts Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer 1993), Retrieved from HJM's online archive at http://www.westfield.ma.edu/mhj/.

Hendrickson, Charles Cyril. Colonial Social Dancing for Children: Social Dancing of Washington’s Time Arranged for Today’s Young People.  Sandy Hook, Connecticut: The Hendrickson Group, 1995.
An excellent book, outlining a program for teaching colonial dancing in the schools.

Hendrickson, Charles Cyril. Early American Dance and Music: A Colonial Dancing Experience, Country Dancing for Elementary School Children.  Sandy Hook, Connecticut: The Hendrickson Group, 1989.
An earlier version of Colonial Social Dancing for Children, now out of print.

Keller, Kate Van Winkle and Ralph Sweet.  A Choice Selection of American Country Dances of the Revolutionary Era: 1775-1795.  New York: Country Dance and Song Society of America, 1975.
Authentic colonial dances notated for modern dancers.  

Lizon, Karen Helene. Colonial American Holidays and Entertainment. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.

Millar, John Fitzhugh. Country Dances of Colonial America. Williamsburg, Virginia: Thirteen Colonies Press, 1990.
Historical background, dance steps and figures, and period clothing for colonial dance.  

Nevell, Richard. A Time to Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash. New York: St Martin's Press, 1977.
An overview of American country dancing, concentrating on New England, Appalachian and Western Square dance.

Page, Ralph. Heritage Dances of Early America. Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Lloyd Shaw Foundation, 1976.
Colonial dances adapted for modern dancers.

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