English Country Dance and it's History in America
Updated: Feb 16
Last time we talked about the Importance of Social Dance in Early America. This post we will take a quick look at the origins of English Country Dance, and its history in America.
Many people have never heard of English Country Dancing but they have probably seen it. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, both at the cinema and on TV, featured English Country Dance (ECD) in their Ball sequences. Throughout the Colonial and Early Republic period, English Country Dance, a dance form dating from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was the most common type of social dance in the English-speaking world.
English Country Dance in Europe
As we well know, back in Elizabethan England what interested Her Majesty interested her Court. Since Queen Elizabeth was fond of ECD, the nobles of her Court began engaging dance masters to teach them. In time, interest in this new form of country dancing spread from the royal court to other aristocratic and cultured venues, including the grand country houses.
Some dance historians have noticed similarities between certain “figures in ECD and Italian dances. The Elizabethan Court’s Italian Dancing Master, Jasper Gaffoyne may have introduced a number of Italian “refinements” to the English style of dance since he not only served Elizabeth’s Court but also those of her father, Henry VIII, and her sister Queen Mary. Similarly, Italian Fencing Masters in London, such as Rocco Bonetti, who ran a school in Blackfriars, may have introduced the Italian “refinements” to a more general public since fencing masters of this period often taught dance to improve their student’s agility for fencing.
Whatever the origins of English Country Dance, as time went on, English Country Dancing gained popularity throughout England, as well as Scotland, Ireland, Europe, and the English, French and Spanish colonies in the new world.
In the Colonies and the Early Republic
The English colonists in the early years had mixed opinions about dance. Among the Puritans in Massachusetts, there was the complete disapproval due to what they perceived as its inherent licentiousness. In other colonies, reactions to dance varied from a tacit toleration to the complete embrace of it and the irrepressible urge to dance. Much of the difference of opinion was based upon religious views or socio-economic status and often tended to vary regionally. Let’s look at three colonies, representative of the New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern colonies.
While we know that the Puritans in Massachusetts opposed dancing, one colonist there, Thomas Morton, an Anglican, was not. He founded the town/colony of Mount Wollaston, also known as Merry Mount located at modern-day Quincy Mass. Morton wrote that the conservative separatists of Plymouth Colony to the south were "threatening to make it a woeful mount and not a merry mount", referencing the fact that they disapproved of his libertine practices such as dancing. As the Puritan Governor William Bradford wrote in his history Of Plymouth Plantation,
"They ... set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices.”
In June of 1628, the Plymouth Colony Militia, under Miles Standish, took the town without resistance and arrested Morton for violating the code of conduct in a way harmful to the colony. The Puritans tried Morton, expelled him from the colony, and returned him to England.
With the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Company’s charter in the 1680s, the influx of French Huguenots in the last half of the 1680s, and the extension of voting rights to non-Puritans things began to change. In 1692, it became a Royal Colony and with that came a “begrudging acceptance” of more liberal views toward dancing.
By 1744 things had changed significantly. Dr. Alexander Hamilton (a Maryland Physician, not the Founding Father) noted in an August 16 diary entry on a visit to Boston:
“Assemblies of the gayer sort are frequent here, the gentlemen and ladies meeting almost every week at concerts of music and balls. I was present at two or three such, and saw as fine a ring of ladies, as good dancing, and heard music as elegant as I had been witness to anywhere”.
Thirty years later aiming at the newly wealth merchants of Boston, we see William Turner’s advertisement in the Boston Evening Post of May 30, 1774, that, having just returned from London where he gathered the latest dance fashions, he offered private lessons to “grown gentlemen and ladies, & assures the utmost secrecy until they are capable of exhibiting high taste.”
Some things don’t change though. In 1834, the Viennese-style waltz, with its closed position between the partners, was first performed in America by Lorenzo Papanti at a demonstration given at Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis’ Beacon Hill mansion in Boston, MA. Harrison Gray Otis and his wife were noted for their frequent and lavish entertaining. According to some accounts, Boston society was shocked by the “indecorous exhibition”, particularly because Mrs. Otis is alleged to have been Papinti’s dance partner. Papanti (sometimes spelled Papatino) was a successful dancing master who taught the children of Boston’s elite.
As early as 1682, William Penn's Body of Laws prohibited such amusements as card-playing, gambling, stage plays, masques (masked balls), cockfights, and the like. In 1716 the Quaker Yearly Meeting reiterated this prohibition, specifically citing dancing as an evil to shun. Quaker condemnations of "vain Sports and Pastimes" repeated throughout the century, kept some hold on the population even as the city's residents became increasingly liberal and cosmopolitan. This was due to both the increase in the non-Quaker population as well as contact with foreigners. A Frenchman visiting in the 1790s, for example, commented that the Quakers were to blame for "the melancholy customs of this city," although he expected this to change eventually.
Aside from the Quakers' influence, Citizens of Philadelphia also proved susceptible, at least temporarily, to the powerful itinerant preacher, George Whitefield. The Pennsylvania Gazette of May 1, 1740, credited Whitfield with causing the city's dancing schools to shut their doors, as he considered them "inconsistent with the Doctrine of the Gospel”. Although the Quakers and some other religious groups continued to object to dancing, the entertainment persisted and increased, even winning grudging acceptance from John Swanwick, a leading educator of the Academy of Philadelphia in 1787, who noted that dancing
"May be suffered as an agreeable substitute for the ignoble pleasures of drinking and gaming in our assemblies of grown people”.
Some of the city's leaders recognized the need to set up acceptable forms of entertainment for the city’s elite – the leaders of commerce and culture. They decided that one sort of assembly where both young and grown people might gather was a ball and held these in greater numbers as Philadelphia's prominence in trade and government increased.
Many of the dancing masters who taught residents of Philadelphia deportment, polite behavior, and the latest dances held regularly scheduled balls in order to allow students' parents to monitor the scholars' progress, allowing the students to polish their skills in an actual social-dance situation, and providing an introduction to the balls of polite society. By the end of the 18th century, balls were a regular part of the teaching curriculum, Tuesdays and Thursdays being particularly common choices for these fortnightly events. Tickets were necessary for “scholars' balls”, sometimes also called “practicing balls”.
The architecture of the city's most elite taverns and hotels shows the importance of dancing. The finest such buildings included special dancing halls, called assembly rooms, where one might hold a variety of events, including private celebrations, public balls with admission by ticket only, as well as dancing assemblies - regularly occurring subscription events. Philadelphia's City Dancing Assembly was a particularly elegant one, with a history beginning in 1748 and stretching into the twentieth century. The wealthiest and most distinguished of Philadelphia's citizens were founders, managers, and subscribers to the Assembly, and it occupied the finest halls in town for its weekly or fortnightly meetings.
During the American Revolution, festivities, balls, and theater continued, despite resolutions by the struggling nation's leaders to halt "every species of extravagance and dissipation," including all sorts of "expensive diversions and entertainments." A second resolution, passed a few weeks later, urged
"the suppression of Theatrical Entertainments, horseracing, gaming, and other diversions, which are commonly productive of Idleness, dissipation & general depravity of principles and manners."
Yet, dancing's promise of diversion and opportunities for conversation and discussion proved indispensable in this difficult period. A French diplomat wrote to a compatriot about the Philadelphia newspapers' publication of these resolutions, and he specifically named dances as among the entertainments interdicted. Nevertheless, he reported that the very next day after the publication, the Governor of Pennsylvania gave a ball, which was "numerously attended."
During the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-1778, the city's social life blossomed. British Officers held a regular Thursday ball at Smith's Tavern throughout that winter and spring, and dancing often followed the musical concerts sponsored by the army's officers. When the Americans recaptured Philadelphia, social life continued for the elite in much the same manner—if on a more modest scale—as it had before the war and then under the British occupation. Upon recapturing the city, the Americans planned a grand ball for their officers and those of the French army.
During the last decade of the eighteenth century, when Philadelphia served as the nation's capital, social life reached its peak, with many entertainments for and by federal officials and foreign diplomats. Through all of this, dancing played a key role. In fact, the enthusiasm of Americans for dancing was remarked on by one French traveler in the 1790s, Moreau de St. Mery, who noted that "All American girls or women are fond of dancing, which is one of their greatest pleasures. The men like it almost as much."
Moreau de St. Mery further commented:
“I believe I have already said elsewhere that dancing, for the inhabitants of this 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 her granddaughter. If a Frenchman comments upon this with surprise, he is told that each one dances for his own amusement, and not because it's the thing to do”.
His journals show that the residents of Philadelphia had embraced dancing just like their European counterparts but in a different manner. His comments suggest that, while individuals seemed to have gained enough composure to relax their ruled behavior and enjoy themselves, while snobbery and sharply drawn class lines were still in evidence at the city's balls where "no one is admitted unless his professional standing is up to a certain mark." Once again, just as before the Revolutionary War, admission to dancing events marked the achievement of social status.
The attitude toward dancing in the southern colonies was quite different than that in their northern neighbors due, in large part, to cultural differences in the makeup of the Gentry or “elite” of the southern colonies. One could argue that the foundation for anchoring dance in Virginia society, if not that of all the southern colonies, was an action taken by Sir William Berkeley, the Royal Governor of Virginia. Sir William recruited English cavaliers, refugees from Puritan oppression in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, to come to Virginia as settlers. Many of these “immigrants” had served Charles I in the English Civil War, while others had been supporters of Charles son’s attempt to regain the throne. When they arrived in Virginia, Berkeley placed them in high offices, gave them large estates, and in doing so created a gentry class - with liberal attitudes toward dance - that dominated Virginia politics and society for generations.
By the second quarter of the 18th century, this gentry class was firmly rooted in Virginia. Governor Berkeley’s recruiting of “distressed cavaliers” had resulted in the heads of most of the newly founded gentry families being steadfast loyalists who tried to reconstruct here in the colonies the social and cultural system they had left in England. By the mid-1720s, Hugh Jones would write:
“At the Capitol [in Williamsburg], at publik times, may be seen a great number of handsom, well-dress’d, compleat Gentlemen. And at the Governor’s house upon Birth-nights, and at Balls and Assemblies, I have seen as fine an appearance, as good diversion, and as splendid entertainments in Governor Spotswood’s time, as I have seen anywhere else”.
In reading copies of The Virginia Gazette throughout the 18th century we see accounts of boarding schools teaching dance, a myriad of dance masters and dance schools advertising their businesses, dance contests being set up at fairs, as well as Balls held in Hanover, Fredericksburg, King William Courthouse, Sussex Courthouse, Charles City County, Great Bridge, Hampton, Norfolk, and Williamsburg, as well as at the Governor’s Palace.
The Gentry also held private balls, at their homes. Evidence of this comes from the journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, a graduate of Princeton, hired out as a tutor and dance master to the family of Robert Carter III at his "Nomini Hall" plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia. On August 25, 1774, when one of his charges expressed concern that the “Nor’easter” they were experiencing might keep people from attending a ball scheduled there on the plantation, Fithian wrote in his journal:
“This is a true August Northeaster, as we call it in Cohansie—Ben is in a wonderful Fluster lest he shall have no company to-morrow at the Dance—But blow high, blow low, he need not be afraid; Virginians are of genuine Blood—They will dance or die!”
Balls, other than those organized by the military, came to a halt during the American Revolution. However, once the war ended, and Virginia got back on its feet, things picked up where they had left off.
Once the seat of Virginia's government moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, government officials, lawyers, and other professional, crowded into the town. Social events like balls and celebrations helped the newcomers meet and blend with the local gentry and their families. By 1783 a group of Richmond gentlemen had decided to share, the expenses of a series of dancing parties and so founded the Richmond Assembly. Admission to the group was by invitation--only the elite of town, could hope to attend and through the assembly dances make contacts, meet prospective spouses, gain business, and increase their visibility in the community. Minor merchants, tradesmen, and apprentices were not welcome at the Assembly Balls. They had to satisfy themselves with public dances at local taverns where they could meet women and enjoy more informal social interactions.
Large towns were not the only locations supporting an active dancing community. In 1784, a Capt. Benjamin Walker was running a dancing school in Lunenburg, VA. A broadside advertisement for his school lists dances he was teaching as well as his rules for his students. Because of location, Walker’s class of teenage dancers were of Scottish as well as English origin and his dances reflect both traditions of social dance. Walker drew his repertory from the latest fashions in London and Edinburgh, but he changed them for his rural Virginia patrons.
One other note of interest, in 1824-25, the Marquis de Lafayette toured all fifteen of the United States. During this tour, he was feted at every stop with entertainments, dinners, and balls. In October of 1824, after visiting Yorktown and Williamsburg, he made a stop in Norfolk for 4 days. During his stay in Norfolk he was honored with 2 balls, the first in Portsmouth at the Gosport Navy Yard, and a second in Norfolk at the US Customs House, only recently completed in 1819.
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