Importance of Social Dance in 18th and Early 19th Century America
Updated: Feb 16
“Every savage can dance”. Anyone familiar with the book Pride and Prejudice, or its movie adaptations, knows this notion, expressed by Mr. Darcy to Sir William Lucas. In today’s world, dance can be, among other things, an occupation, a part of traditional weddings, a hobby, or a pastime. However, unlike the late-18th and early-19th centuries, it is not essential to success in life when it was a vital part of social and professional life, especially for the wealthier classes, and those who aspired to achieve success and wealth. In fact, they regarded being able to dance well so important that members of the Upper and Upper-Middle Classes spent substantial amounts of money hiring Dance Masters to teach their children and themselves the latest dances and how to perform them with grace and elegance.
Changing Social Structure Brings Dance to the Forefront
In the century between 1660 and 1760, as the merchant class gained in size and power and the old, court-directed, society crumbled, the need to create a new social order, with trappings that all would recognize, became urgent. In time, this social order came to rely on the acquisition and public display of consumer goods, which showed both one’s wealth and position in society. Domestic architecture, clothing, dining customs and material goods served these functions. Additionally, physical demeanor played an increasingly key role in defining one’s position in society. Manners, genteel behavior, and movement, commonly referred to as deportment, created visible and portable signs of personal and commercial achievement.
Dance, with its elegance of movement, helped to fill this need to show who “fit in” to the higher levels of the social order. Where seventeenth-century sumptuary laws had kept newcomers at bay in the past, a new code of conduct developed that did not require legislation. The test of a gentleman, or gentlewoman, was whether he had the time to absorb the mounting intricacies of taste, grace, fashion, and elegance. The eighteenth-century aesthetic of effortlessness and nonchalance was harder to emulate than seventeenth-century opulence and bravado.
At the same time, life on the frontier of America was a different matter. Frontier and plantation communities were small and tightly knit. Everyone knew everyone else and there was no need to engage in one-upmanship. It was in the cities and the more densely settled areas that dance came to be used as a badge of membership. Like paper money, gentility was presumed to stand for tangible social assets and was accepted at face value. The dance floor was the place where a person’s command of the attributes of gentility: costume, manners, movement grace and ease, were put to the ultimate and most public test. In 1776, John Adams both acknowledged and decried this display as the “exterior and superficial accomplishments of gentlemen upon which the world has foolishly set so high a value”
Dance fashions were set by cultivated urban societies as expressions of social status and enterprising dance professionals devised movement systems to satisfy these needs. Successful dances were promoted as “the latest” or “the most fashionable”, and they displayed the performers to best advantage. Dancing teachers reaped financial gains from the sale of public classes, private lessons, and pre-ball review events.
The social structure of Colonial America in the 18th century reflected different social classes; however, the basis for these divisions was not the same in all geographic regions.
The Gentry were the "upper crust" of colonial society. In the southern colonies, they were large landowners, while in the north, they were the very wealthy merchants, and financiers. Members of the Gentry forged close ties with each other to protect and expand their economic and political interests. Inter-marriages between leading families formed a crucial strategy in this respect.
In the 18th century, a new group, the "middling sort" or Middle Class, gained a larger role in society and government due to their newfound wealth. These men and women worked in trades - blacksmithing, silversmithing, printing, and millinery. In smaller towns and rural communities, they worked as professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, the more successful small farmers, and merchants who owned stores. Most of the population in Colonial America belonged to this group.
The Working Class was the poorest and least powerful of the social classes and was inclusive of sailors, laborers, servants, apprentices, wage workers, less successful small farmers, slaves, and free blacks.
The frontier, whether defined as the Ohio country (Northwest Territories) as in the 1790s, or the area west of the Mississippi in the late 1820s, was a different creature socially. Land ownership was available to all free men and so the frontier was more egalitarian than the settled areas of the East. Due to the hardships faced by all on the frontier, class deference initially faded away and new levels of political equality came about through the ideas of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy. Slowly, as areas became more settled and no longer the frontier, social class structures reformed but usually not as rigidly as that in the East.
Significance of Balls
As we mentioned earlier, the Gentry, or upper class, solidified their positions, with the idea of preserving power and influence, both in the community and in business, through marriages among families in their social circle. At the same time, wealthier members of the Middle Class were trying to work their way into the social circle of the Upper Class to create their own place there through business connections and eventually marriage.
Today, we think of the golf course and the Country Club/Yacht Club as the venue where one develops business and personal relationships with the “movers and shakers” of a community. In the Colonial and Early Republic periods of the United States, balls were the venues where people went to network, develop business connections, and give young people an opportunity to meet “socially appropriate” prospective future spouses. Therefore, to “fit in” and be accepted, it was imperative for a gentleman or lady to have mastered the social graces, including dancing.
To understand why balls were so important for finding a spouse, one must consider the rules of conduct that society placed upon young ladies in this era. Unchaperoned contact between unmarried young men and “young women of quality”, the term for women from well-to-do families of marriageable age, was not acceptable. Such a situation, if the knowledge became public, could ruin a young lady’s reputation and her chances to “marry well”. Without a formal introduction, one-on-one conversation between a young lady and a gentleman, beyond a simple “good day” and tip of the hat when passing on the street or after Sunday Services, was considered forward, rude, and an affront to the rules of polite conduct.
Introductions - The key to social success
The purpose of an introduction was to allow for “screening” to determine that it was proper for two people to know one another. In a time and place when one’s status in society was of the utmost importance, an introduction cemented one’s place in the social sphere. Etiquette manuals urgently reminded those tasked with introducing two parties to remember that he was serving as an advocate for both parties– that is, through his acquaintanceship with both parties, the person making the introduction was vouching for the fact that both parties were upstanding individuals who were on equal, or nearly equal but acceptable social footing and thus could be acquaintances without besmirching the reputations of any of them.
Normally, at Assembly or Public Balls, there were “Managers” or else a Master of Ceremonies who controlled the ballroom. He was responsible for introductions, instructing the musicians, deciding which dances to do and in what sequence, maintaining order and settling any disputes. If a young gentleman or a young lady wished to “be known” to someone they could apply to these “gatekeepers” for an introduction. Since the Master of Ceremonies was required to know the details of those attending the Ball, he could facilitate introductions if he considered them proper. The rules around introductions were as follows:
A young gentleman can always go to a lady friend and request introduction to a young lady if she is known to his friend.
At a Public Ball or Assembly Ball, he can apply to the master of ceremonies, whose job it was to know the names and social standings of all in attendance.
The Stewards/Master of Ceremonies undertake to present young men to ladies.
It is better taste to ask the steward to introduce you simply to a partner, than to point out a specific lady. He will probably then ask you if you have a choice, and if not, you may be certain he will take you to an established wall-flower as public balls are scarcely enjoyable unless you have your own party.
At a private ball or private event, one would apply to the host or hostess, who would obviously know everyone in attendance, and be able to make the appropriate introductions.
A lady's permission should always be asked before a gentleman is presented.
As a rule, gentlemen are introduced to ladies, and younger people are introduced to older people.
When gentlemen are introduced to one another, they remove their hats and bow.
When ladies meet, they curtsey to one another.
When a lady meets a gentleman, she curtsies, and he bows. They rarely shake hands.
Gentlemen and ladies only shake hands if they are on very intimate terms with one another – that is, if they are family or have an obvious and noted affection for one another.
Gentlemen only shake hands if they are good friends who are well acquainted and of similar social standing.
Married couples are introduced together – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Senator and Mrs. Wadebridge, etc.
In addition, other items kept the Master of Ceremonies busy throughout the evening. For instance, there were rules that no gentleman could enter the ballroom in half boots or boots, nor carrying a cane, nor could any military man enter carrying his sword; and that no two ladies could dance together without his express permission. (It is doubtful how often this was enforced during wartime when many of the eligible bachelors were away serving in the Army and Navy) In fact, a good Master of Ceremonies was so important to the Ball culture of the period, due to his selection of dances, instructing the musicians, and making good introductions, that the name of the Master of Ceremonies was often publicized along with the Ball announcements.
Even if introduced, young people, unless they were engaged, were not allowed time together off the ballroom floor without a chaperone. Because of this, English Country Dancing, with its requirement for couples to “stand out” at the top and bottom of the dance set, was one of the only opportunities young people might have to speak together without the prying ears of parents and chaperones.
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