February 19, 2012
* * *
WHAT WOULD WASHINGTON DANCE?
We don’t have any evidence about how or when George Washington learned to dance, but it probably wasn’t from a book. His formal education, provided to him as one of ten children of an aristocratic Virginia family, ended in his early teens. The dances of 18th century ballrooms, the minuet, the reel, the jig, the cotillion and the country dance all required skill, grace, rhythm and balance. Washington loved music but was not a musician. Even so, while in Philadelphia, he held his own in company with polished dancers, all the while under the scrutiny of the highly critical public. He must have had instruction somewhere, especially to execute the complicated rhythms, patterns and steps of the minuet.
Below is a letter of recommendation by Washington on behalf of Philadelphia dance master James Robardet, who had instructed the President’s grandchildren at his dancing school on Walnut St. between 3rd and 4th Sts.:
Philad. April 26th 1792.
Dear Sister & Dear Madam,Mr James Robardet, who has taught my two Grand children dancing, proposes going into your part of the Country to establish a School, if he should meet with sufficient encouragement, and has requested that I would give him a line of recommendation to some of my friends. Mr Robardet’s attention to my grand children, and the progress which they have made under his instruction, induce me to recommend him on these accounts from my own knowledge: He has likewise kept a dancing School in this City the winter past—in which I am informed he has given much satisfaction, and his conduct has been marked with decency & propriety, so far as I have heard.
* * *
THE MINUET: THE PERFECTION OF ALL DANCING
The minuet was to 18th century ballrooms what the waltz would be in the 19th century, the enduring grande dame of dances. The dance steps and musical form of the minuet had originated in France in the 1660s. Under the watchful eye of Louis XIV, France had come to dominate European–and therefore American–fashions in clothing, food, art, music and dance and it would maintain that cultural dominance for several hundred years.
The 18th century ballroom minuet began every formal ball. 18th century dance manuals give detailed descriptions of the form and steps of the minuet. More “Dancing With the Stars” than leisure activity, it was performed by one couple at a time while the rest of the assembly looked on. The highest ranking or most honored couple would lead off the first one. In keeping with its highly ceremonial quality, the minuet began and ended with formal bows and curtsies called “honors” to partner and to the company. (See illustration, right, from Kellom Thomlinson’s Art of Dancing, London, 1735.) The unique quality of the minuet was that unlike other choreographed ballroom dances of the time, where certain steps went to certain parts of the music, it allowed for improvisation and spontaneity within a framework. There were sections that had to be performed, alternating with “S” patterns, where the couple exchanged places, that could be repeated at will. (See the illustration from Thomlinson below, left.) There was a step vocabulary particular to the minuet, but the steps chosen and the number of steps used to complete each figure could vary. Good dancers were also encouraged to make figures NOT fit perfectly with the eight bar sections of the music. The dance demanded focus, control and spatial awareness of both the partner and the onlookers, all to achieve an air of unaffected ease and nonchalance. The dancers approached and withdrew from each other in a display of courtship, grace, skill and power. The level of skill necessary to carry all this off was akin to the training and technique a competent tango dancer needs today.
When the most important couple had completed the first minuet of the evening, they would separate and alternately choose another partner. There was an inherent protocol; being asked to dance the minuets was a distinct honor. Philadelphia ladies proudly noted in their journals and diaries when they had been asked to dance by Mr. Washington. On the other hand, there was also a certain social power that women could yield in the right of refusal. A 1749 letter to Thomas Penn describes an incident at a ball between his brother, Governor John Penn, and a certain Mrs. Taylor: “The Governor would have opened the Assembly with Mrs. __ but she refused him, I suppose because he had not been to visit her. After Mrs. __ ‘s refusal, two or three Ladies out of modesty & from no manner of ill design excused themselves so that the Governor was put a little to his Shifts; when Mrs. Willing, now Mrs. Mayoress, in a most genteel manner put herself into his way & on the Governor seeing this instance of her good nature he jumped at the Occasion and they danced the first Minuet.”
These technically challenging, presentational, single couple minuets would usually go on for the first few hours of the evening before giving way to the popular, more relaxed cotillions and country dances.
* * *
Much more democratic than the minuet, the country dances were done by couples in long parallel lines, men on one side, women on the other. In the course of the dance each couple proceeds up and down the rows to dance figures with all the other couples. (See the illustration, above, from Hogarth’s 1753 Analysis of Beauty.) Each “set” could contain up to ten couples, and large ballrooms could hold several sets of dancers, so the entire assembly could dance at once. The rows of dancers that country dances required help explain the long, narrow shape of the 18th century Philadelphia rooms that were used for dancing, such as the ballroom in the City Tavern and the upper floor of Independence Hall.
There are choreographies for thousands of 18th century country dances from England, Ireland and America. One of the earliest collection of these was John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, published in 1651. In the late 1680s, English country dances were introduced to France. There, they were fitted up with French dance steps: pas de bourrée, glissade, sissone, balancé etc. The term “country dance” was taken into French as “contredanse.” Ironically, the French “contredanse” wass then introduced to New England, where the French “contredanse” then became “contra dance.” The country dances and tunes found in early American collections took on a patriotic hue, boasting names like “Burgoyne’s Defeat,” “Washington’s Reel,” “City of Philadelphia” and “Lafayette Forever.”
* * *
Most of the figures of the 18th century English country dance were used the cotillion, a country dance variation where four couples faced each other in a square, rather than in long rows. Cotillions developed into quadrilles in the 19th century and eventually into western square dances. The steps and figures of country dancing, like allemande, casting off, changing places, ladies change and hands across are all familiar to modern recreational dancers who do square dancing or English country dancing. Its minimal skill requirement and sociability have served country dancing well; new dances. tunes and figures are still being created today in the tradition of 18th century English country dance.
The minuet hasn’t fared so well. By the time Washington was leading off the first dance at the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly, the minuet was already well over a hundred years old. Dances, like people, tend to slow down and become more sober as they age. By the 1810s, the minuet was a stodgy ballroom relic, used for only the most formal occasions. The minuet faded from national memory until 1876, the great Centennial of American Independence. When the dance was reconstructed for centennial celebrations, it became what 19th century Philadelphians wanted, a nostalgic symbol of a nobler, idealized era. Victorian reconstructions of the “stately” minuet featured much fussy bowing and scraping, fingertip hand holds and mincing, daintily pointed feet – all of which would have been alien to the 18th century aesthetic. (See the illustration, above, right, “The Stately Minuet – the dance of our great-grand-sires,” from a 1900 stereopticon slide.) That precious, mincing minuet style reared its badly-wigged head again for the Sesquicentennial in 1926, where colonial dames appeared in white cotton wigs and ’20s-style dropped waist “revolutionary war-era” gowns. It was this theatricalized style of minuet, filtered through the prism of Victorian romanticism, that has appeared in dozens of Hollywood movies from the 1910s right up to the present. Dancing, like history, tends to be what each generation needs it to be.
* * *
● Since dance is a visual medium, here’s a sample of a good reconstruction of part of an 18th century minuet on YouTube by Atlanta Baroque Dance:
● You can read more about George Washington and 18th century American dance in: George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance by Kate Van Winkle Keller, The Hendrickson Group, 1998 and in Dance and Its Music in America: 1528-1729, also by Kate Van Winkle Keller, Pendragon Press, 2007
● The inexpensive 1984 Dance Books Ltd. reprint of John Playford’s 1651 The English Dancing Master seems to be out of print, but there is an online facsimile of it here.
● Lastly, all of Kellom Thomlinson’s 1735 Art of Dancing is available on the Library of Congress wonderful “American Memory” website here.
Oh, and a happy Presidents’ Day 2012 to all!
* * *
February 13, 2012
* * *
George and Martha Washington lived here in Philadelphia, in the large house on Market St. near 6th, from November of 1790 until March of 1797. During those seven years, they were an important part of the social as well as political fabric of this city. An increasingly evolving protocol demanded that they host and attend formal dinners and parties, attend concerts and theatre and that they be present at countless balls, dances and assemblies.
The first president, although a large-framed man, was graceful and athletic and thoroughly enjoyed dancing. The self control that Washington had mastered in his political demeanor served him well in the ballroom. History records him partnering with many Philadelphia belles on the dance floor; he danced at the City Tavern, Oeller’s Hotel on Chestnut St. near Sixth St. and often at the Powel House on Third Street. As for Martha, we have no record of her dancing and no reason given for that fact. Whether she couldn’t or wouldn’t dance remains a mystery.
* * *
THE PHILADELPHIA DANCING ASSEMBLY
Of all the social functions in the city, the most exclusive was the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. The Assembly, founded in 1748, was an organization that sponsored formal balls every other week during the winter social season. Following the model of English upper class society, its membership was restricted to those who were of high enough social status, who could afford the subscription fee, maintain the necessary wardrobe and who had the leisure time and self-assurance to learn to dance well. By the 1790s, the Assemblies had outgrown their usual venue at the City Tavern. When Oeller’s Hotel, pictured above, far right, opened on the south side of Chestnut St. near 6th st., they moved their fortnightly dances there. Oeller’s was the first establishment in the city to call itself a “hotel.” Its Assembly Room, according to Henry Wansey’s Excursion to the United States, was “a most elegant room, sixty feet square, with a handsome music gallery at one end . . . papered after the French fashion, with the Pantheon figures in compartments, imitating festoons, pillars and groups of antique drawings, in the same style as lately introduced in the most elegant houses in London.” The circular building in the center of the drawing, above, is Rickett’s Circus and to the left, across 6th St., is Congress Hall.
Each February, from 1791 to 1797, the Dancing Assembly hosted a birth night ball, in honor of President Washington. The Federal Gazette described the 1791 ball: “. . . it is with particular pleasure we record one of the most elegant, numerous and splendid dancing assemblies ever in this city . . . At the ball were present besides our beloved General, his lady, the Vice-President of the United States and lady, several members of the United States and State Legislatures with their ladies, and a very brilliant concourse of strangers and citizens; the whole exhibiting the rapid growth and advancement of the refined and social pleasures in America.” In 1792, when a rival “New Dancing Assembly” was formed, there were TWO birthday balls on consecutive nights; Washington attended them both. Some of the birth night balls were so large that the dancing took place in the Rickett’s Circus building and refreshments were served next door in Oeller’s Hotel, with communicating doors added between them.
The birth night balls in Philadelphia became a tradition honoring America’s highly esteemed first president. The first of these was in February of 1798, almost a year after Washington had left office. The same invitation was sent to President John Adams as was sent to everyone else. Feeling slighted and perhaps insulted by the fact that there had been no ball honoring his own birthday the preceding October, Adams’ reply to the Dancing Assembly managers was short and to the point:
“I have received your polite Invitation to a Ball on Thursday the 22nd inst. & embrace the earliest opportunity to inform you that I decline accepting it.”
I am, Gentlemen,
Your most obedient
& humble Servant.
next: What Would Washington Dance?
February 3, 2012
* * *
We’re goin’ hoppin’ , we’re goin’ hoppin’ today
Where things are poppin’, the Philadelphia way
We’re gonna drop in, on all the music they play
on the Bandstand . . . Bandstand!
– Charles Albertine
It was a simple, low-cost idea: spin pop records on TV and show local Philly teen-agers dancing to them. It was pure gold.
* * *
• BOB HORN
In 1952, WFIL TV (now WPVI) in West Philadelphia asked veteran DJ Bob Horn to move his radio show to TV. After experimenting with music and videos (shades of MTV!), Bob began inviting local high school students into the studio to dance live before the cameras and decorated the studio set with Philadelphia high school pennants. He called the show Bob Horn’s “Bandstand.” The local ABC affiliate’s daytime broadcasting schedule was nearly non-existent at the time, so the producers ran the show in the after-school 3 – 5 pm slot. The show was an immediate hit. Philly teens rushed home from school to catch the latest dance moves. Dancers on the show became minor local celebrities; it was “Dancing with the Stars” where the stars were the kids next door.
In 1956, Bob Horn was involved in two drunk driving incidents as well as accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor. There was a lot of controversy over the legitimacy of the sexual misconduct charge. He was found innocent or sexual wrongdoing, but the three allegations put an end to Bob’s career at WFIL. In the wings his replacement was waiting; the young Dick Clark.
• DICK CLARK
Dick Clark was just what the station needed to take the spotlight off Bob Horn’s tarnished imaged. Dick was young, clean-cut and wholesome. He took over hosting the show changed its name to “American Bandstand.” A year later, he was able to talk ABC into airing the show nationally. The New York Times had this to say about the show:
“Presiding over the show, which originates in Philadelphia, is Dick Clark, a well-groomed young man richly endowed with self-assurance. Mr Clark is inclined, when expressing agreement with guests on the program to use contemporary idioms such as ‘Crazy!’, ‘I’m With You’ and ‘Ah, too much.’ . . . The girls wore pretty gowns and the boys were dressed conservatively. There were no motorcycle jackets and hardly a sideburn in the crowd.”
Overnight, local high school kids who appeared on the show regularly became national celebrities, getting fan mail and gifts from all over the country. America had its eyes on how Philadelphia teens were dancing. Philly gave birth to new dances and styles that spread across the country: the Bunny Hop, the Bop, the Slop and the Stroll. Philadelphia artists like Fabian and Frankie Avalon got national exposure on Bandstand. From the beginning, the show had also been a platform for African-American artists, including groups like The Chiffons, The Ronettes, the Coasters and the Five satins. It was a black teenager who gave the classic review of a song played on the “Rate-a-Record” segment of the show: “I like the beat and it’s easy to dance to.”
In 1963, American Bandstand and Dick Clark moved from their Philadelphia home out to Los Angeles. In a few short years the show had had an incredible influence on American music and dance. It had placed Philadelphia and Philly style dancing in the national spotlight. It had showcased countless upcoming rock and roll artists, both black and white. Dick Clark’s clean cut looks and jacket and tie had somehow sanitized what seen as anti-establishment rock and roll music and made it palatable for Americans. Importantly, the show had also helped create a new, teen culture in America; it was as if there had been no “teen-agers” before Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Finally, it had inextricably linked innovations in American music and dance to this emerging youth culture, something that would determine the course of pop music and popular dance in the psychedelic ’60s and ’70s.
* * *
The singers’ croonin’, he ain’t the greatest, but gee
My baby’s swoonin’, in front of all of TV
So if you tune in, you’ll see my baby and me
On the Bandstand . . . Bandstand!
* * *