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KEEPING THE HOLY EXPERIMENT HOLY

Right from the beginning, the fate of dance in Philadelphia was in jeopardy. The city’s formidable Quaker population saw theatre, music and dance as frivolous, dissipated and immoral. As early as 1695, they submitted a petition to the governor and the Pennsylvania Assembly,  ” . . . that fidling, dancing, gameing and what Elce may tend to debauch the inhabitanc and to blemish Christianity and dishonour the holy name of God, may bee curbed and restrained both at fairs and all other times.” The petition was in vain, and at their Yearly Meetings in 1696, 1705 and again in 1716,  the Friends had to admonish their members against dancing, gaming and music. The need to constantly repeat these warnings tells us how strong the temptations of music and dance were in the early colony. Twenty years later, this address printed in the August, 1736 American Weekly Mercury still summed up the Quaker attitude:

“There are a sort of Idle Artists that strole about the World, called Fencers and Dancers, who make it their Business to accomplish the Hands and Heels, rather than the Heads of our Youth; who under pretence of Teaching them what they call Good Breeding, too often teach them that of Sinning: At best they teach them but certain fashionable Airs or Gestures (which I count unnecessary, wanton, and effeminate) and this at the Expence of much Money, and the precious Time of our Youth: the only Time of Life, best suited, for learning ingenious, commendable and profitable Things.”

FALL FROM GRACE

William Penn’s original Charter had provided for the formation of a committee of manners, education, and arts, “that all wicked and scandalous living may be prevented.” At first, Quaker doctrine and discipline prevailed, but as the 18th century progressed, the Society of Friends gradually became less and less of a dominant force in Philadelphia and they found it difficult to hold others to their strict standards of piety and virtue. By 1706, the Quakers were complaining that a dancing and fencing school was being tolerated in the city and in 1710 we read in a private letter of a dancing master intriguingly referred to as “the facetious Mr. Staples.”

The first really magnificent documented ball in the city  was given by Deputy Governor Patrick Gordon for the newly crowned King George II’s birthday, during a three day festival in the fall of 1727. The next year George Brownell and his wife opened a boarding school on Second Street, where they taught reading, writing, cyphering, dancing and needlework to young Philadelphia ladies and gentlemen. This was the same peripatetic George Brownell who, years before, in Boston, had taught writing and arithmetic to a very young Benjamin Franklin.

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THE PHILADELPHIA DANCING ASSEMBLY

By the 1740s, Penn’s idealized Utopia had become a fairly secularized city. Quakers, although a dwindling minority, stubbornly tried to retain political power. Tensions led to the “Bloody Election Riots” of 1742, where they saw their dominance violently, but unsuccessfully, challenged.

Quaker influence in other areas of daily life in Philadelphia would not be so enduring. In 1748, the city’s elite came together to form its most exclusive social group, The Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. Over that winter of 1748-9 they held 9 balls, complete with lavish late night suppers with tea, madeira and chocolate. Dance was now more than just “frivolous” or even “dissipated,” it was a mark of social status and privilege. The subscribers included the governor, the mayor and most of the provincial council. It included wealthy merchants, bankers and professionals. There were Hamiltons, Bonds, Shippens and McCalls; there were Anglicans, two Jews, a few Presbyterians and even two ministers. There was not, however, even in 1748, a single Quaker.
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EARLY  LITHOGRAPHY

The proliferation of the use of lithography in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century dramatically changed the world of popular visual art. The first lithograph in America had been made in Philadelphia by Bass Otis in 1818. Unlike woodblocks or etching, the process could cheaply and easily produce multiple copies of an image which retained the subtleties of a drawing or painting. Posters, books, advertising cards and even sheet music, were now alive with images of people, places and things both familiar and exotic. Lithographed sheet music covers were an odd marriage of musical composition and advertising; a union that produced a lively and spontaneous record of the mid-nineteenth century streetscape.

THE IMAGES
Below are some of those contemporary views of Philadelphia from dance music published here from 1836 to 1861. I like to imagine them propped up on the pianos that stood in the parlors of so many Philadelphia rowhouses of the time, part of the reassuring iconography of the middle class city.

You may click on any of the images below for a larger view

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1836 – FAIRMOUNT QUADRILLES

The view is from the first landing on the steps leading up Faire Mount where the Art Museum stands today. We are looking south along the Schuylkill at the fountain just below the Water Works, with the upper Ferry Bridge beyond and Harding’s Hotel on the other bank. By this time Fairmount Park was being celebrated as a natural resource for residents and tourists and was on its way to becoming the largest municipal park in the country.

The music is for a quadrille, a ballroom dance done in a square by four couples, similar to modern square dancing. Inside are instructions for doing the particular set of figures for the “Fairmount Quadrilles.” The quadrille had been introduced to America in the early 19th century and was reaching the height of its popularity when this music was published. Quadrille parties blossomed in public halls and in fashionable private homes all over the city.

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1849 – THE LEDGER POLKA

The Ledger PolkaThis is the second location of the Public Ledger Building, at the SW corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets. The Ledger had begun publishing in 1836, as the city’s first penny paper. The street corner in the image is crowded with top-hatted Philadelphia gentlemen eager to read the latest headlines. One lad stands amusingly on tiptoe to read over someone’s shoulder. The last home of the Ledger, built in 1921 on the SW corner of 6th and Chestnut Streets, is still standing.

The eastern European polka invaded Paris and London ballrooms in 1844 and “polkamania” swept Philadelphia that same year. By the fall, local belles were wearing fashionable polka dots and polka jackets and the city’s dance teachers were vying with each other to teach “the celebrated and real dance called the Polka” in the “latest, most elegant and brilliant style as danced in the best circles in Paris and London.” Would anything less do for Philadelphians?

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1852 – GIRARD HOUSE POLKA

The Girard House, on the north side Chestnut Street near 9th, across from the Continental Hotel on the south side,  had just opened in 1852 when this sheet music was published. The building was designed by John McArthur Jr., architect of Philadelphia City Hall. The hotel was very popular with European visitors; William Makepeace Thackeray stayed there the following year, 1853. In 1861 the Girard was commandeered as a uniform sewing factory and barracks for Union soldiers.

As for the1850s polka, Philadelphia dance master Charles Durang said of it: “There is only one Polka known or recognized in the fashionable world.; but the style of dancing it varies considerably. The most elegant people, and the best dancers, always dance it in a quiet, easy style; and those gentleman who rush and romp about, dragging their partners with them until they became red in the face and covered with the dewdrops of a high corporeal temperature, are both bad dancers, and men of very little good breeding.” Indeed.

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1855 – GRAND MASONIC MARCH

The Masons had moved from away this location earlier, in 1835, at the height of anti-masonic sentiment in Philadelphia. They were able to recover this property later and erected this magnificent Gothic structure here, dedicating it in September of 1855. The street level was rented for commercial space and the large assembly hall inside was used for lectures and balls. The interior ornaments were done by Joseph Bailey, whose most famous work is the statue of George Washington outside Independence Hall. The Masons moved out of the building when their new hall was completed next to City Hall on north Broad Street in 1879. The site continued to be used as a public venue until it burned in 1886.

The Grand March or Polonaise was a prelude to many formal balls in the mid-nineteenth century. Couples would enter the ballroom in a line, promenade around the room, separate and rejoin, walking various figures and patterns at the whim of the lead couple. More than a dance, it was a chance to see and be seen.

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1861 – ARCH STREET THEATRE POLKA

The venerable Arch St. Theatre, designed by William Strickland, opened in 1828. Mrs. John (Louisa Lane) Drew, to whom this musical composition is dedicated,  took over the management in 1861 and ran it as one of the nation’s leading stock companies for three decades. Louisa Lane Drew was the grandmother of the three Barrymores, Lionel, John and Ethel and the great-great-grandmother of Actress Drew Barrymore. John Wilkes Booth was perhaps the Arch St. Theatre’s most infamous company member.

By the end of the 19th century the Arch Street Theatre was home first to German language productions, then Yiddish. It was razed in the 1930s.

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THE PROBLEM

Dance masters have always tried to control – and condemn – what the untutored masses do on the dance floor. In 1884, appalled by the vulgar habits and sloppy styling that had crept into our nation’s ballrooms, American dance teachers formed The National Association of Masters of Dancing. For decades, they tried unsuccessfully to refine or abolish, in turn, the two-step, the turkey-trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, the tango, the foxtrot, the toddle, the shimmy, the charleston and the lindy hop. Whew! They knew that casting themselves as arbiters of taste and as the only authorities on the latest steps was good for 1. their prestige and 2. their business. The chronic problem, however, was that although teachers could monitor what went on in their classes, they had no control over what the fun loving public was actually doing in dance halls and at public dances.

MISS WALZ TO THE RESCUE

It was Marguerite Walz, a Philadelphia dance teacher and Association member, who decided to change that. In an article entitled “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!,” The Ladies Home Journal reported: “Miss Walz went to the mayor of Philadephia in the spring of 1921 and suggested that the authorities should supervise public dancing. The mayor declared a cleanup was due and he appointed Miss Walz policewoman to supervise dancing in conjunction with the Rev. H. Cresson McHenry, who conducts a mission. ‘My duties,’ said Miss Walz,’ are largely the instruction of about seventy-five policemen who are detailed to enforce the dancing regulations. They are taught what is permissable and what is not . . . The police class in censorship is told not to permit cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, shimmy, toddle or the Washington Johnny, in which the legs are kept spread apart.” Walz thus became not only the city’s first official dance censor, but the first Philadelphia policewoman . . . all without pay. The Evening Public Ledger used the awkward and slightly deprecatory term “copette” to describe her position.

CITY DANCES ON THE PARKWAY

1922 Parkway 2nd placeIn order to get dancers out of dark, smoky dance halls – there were 4,000 licensed in Philly – and out in public where they could be monitored, the city decided to sponsor outdoor summer dances on the new Parkway, right, and in West Philadelphia. Marguerite’s short film “Etiquette and Dancing” was screened continually during the events and professional dancers were provided as “models” while the city’s police band played waltzes, polkas and very restrained modern tunes. Cash prizes were given to the best – i.e. “approved” – dancers. Although the Parkway was jammed with a crowd of 18,000 dancers in July, Walz made no arrests; the police would step forward and touch offenders on the shoulder and “that was the end of it.” At first demanding that men wear jackets, she settled for banning males with collarless shirts. At the Dancing Masters’ convention in New York in 1921, Miss Waltz could cheerfully report, “ . . . block parties, with thousands fox-trotting on the streets had improved the reputation of dancing in her city.” Was this anything more than optimistic posturing? We can’t know.

The Walz Dance Studio at 1601 Walnut

FAME

By 1922, Miss Marguerite Walz, (the real life Mrs. Charles Townsend of Lansdowne), had earned a national repution as “The East Coast Dance Censor.” Articles about her and quotes from her appeared in newspapers across the country. Touting her alleged Philadelphia accomplishments to Gothamites, she soon opened a branch dance studio in New York City. Paraphrasing Woodrow Wilson, she proposed forming a union of dance instructors, “to make dancing safe for decency.”  When later that year she was involved with scandal by association when her brother “Chubby” from Camden, NJ was arrested for murder, Miss Walz coolly and somewhat self-servingly replied, “This whole thing is terrible. You can tell the mothers of America that if the youth of today were not so blatant and vulgar in their speech, this terrible tragedy would never have occurred.”

LOOKING BACK

Today, 90 years later, it’s hard to judge Miss Walz’s motives and intentions. Was she a truly moral minded reformer, or was she a small time dance teacher with ambition and a keen eye for publicity? Early in 1922 Rev. McHenry distanced himself from the whole dance reform movement,  publicly charging that Miss Walz had distorted the dance evil facts for “self-glorification and business reason.” Walz replied, “For my part, it is much more fitting that this should be taken up and discussed in the privacy of the committee.”

How was a local dance teacher able to gain media attention and rise to national celebrity status?  How, not long after the frankly unenforceable Prohibition Amendment had taken effect, was the city able to spare seventy-five officers to police public dances? Perhaps frustrated reformers saw this as one small step in trying to control the social upheavals caused by jazz music, short skirts, technology, bootlegging and general lawlessness that threatened the complacency of 1920s Philadelphia.

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Evr’ybody shimmies now, ev’rybody’s learning how.
Brother Bill, Sister Kate, shiver, like jelly on a plate.
Shimmie dancing can’t be beat,
moves evr’ything except your feet.
Feeble folks mighty old,
shake the shimmie and they shake it bold.
Oh! Honey won’t you show me how,
‘cause ev’rybody shimmies now.

                              – 1919, Eugene West

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● I just discovered that the Fairmount Park Association’s “Museum Without Walls” Audio has more about these 1920s dances on the Parkway here:

http://museumwithoutwallsaudio.org/dance-history/

Here’s a picture of the Parkway dances they posted from the Evening Bulletin:

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