Yes, Washington Danced Here. – Part I
February 13, 2012
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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.
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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?