Dancing in Colonial America
by Jacob Bloom, Dancing Master
781-648-8230 Jacob@DanceHistoryAlive.comWe would be happy to bring dancing to your children! See our home page for more information.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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
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.”
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
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.