La Valse

April 29, 2012

“No dance, indeed, tends more to turn the heads of women, and to inflame their senses.”

                     – The Balance, Hudson, N.Y. 1808

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When we hear the word “Waltz,” chances are we envision dashing, mustachioed cavaliers whirling crinoline-skirted beauties around a candlelit Viennese ballroom. Violins throb, sabres and jewels flash; the scent of gardenias and the sound of laughter fill the air. We have Johann Strauss Jr. and, of course, Hollywood to thank for that image.

The Waltz, like many later 19th century ballroom dances, had its origins somewhere in central Europe, appearing first in the 1770s as a variation used in cotillions and contredances, then gaining popularity as a dance in its own right in Vienna and Berlin before being exported to Paris and London. By the time Strauss, “The Waltz King,” introduced his stirringly sentimental composition “The Blue Danube,” in 1867, the Waltz had reigned in European ballrooms for over seventy years.

The road from little known dance variation to “Queen of the Ballroom” had been slow, unsteady and beleaguered by opposition. The staples of the 18th century dancing assemblies had been the Minuet and the Country Dance (see the February 19 post, below.) Both comprised strictly regulated movements,  allowed only minimal physical contact between dance partners and demanded awareness of not only other dancers, but of the scrutiny of onlookers as well. The Waltz, however,  was done in close embrace, with partners gazing into each others eyes, isolating each couple in their own private sphere of enjoyment (see illustration below). In this sense, the Waltz was the first of what we would consider our repertoire of modern social ballroom dances.

Arms were wrapped about each other, heads were flung from side to side in abandon and legs were intimately intertwined as the pair glided counter-clockwise around the room while rotating clockwise about each other (see illustration, right), like the celestial dance of the earth and the moon as they revolve around the sun. Worried mothers not only complained that their daughters now appeared in the intimate embrace of a man in public, but they feared  that the constant voluptuous whirl of the dance would make young girls giddy and prone to lapses of good judgment, claiming that dancing three Waltzes made females as light headed as drinking three glasses of champagne. Rumors even spread of young married women who, “running into the vortex of the waltz with impaired features and fatigued organs,” were seen to fall dead in the arms of their partners!


The early illustrations of the Waltz, above, showing skimpily clad couples dancing in intimate physical contact and enjoying it immensely, help us to understand that many of the initial objections to waltzing were not unfounded. American reactions to the dance were as varied as European ones, from enthusiastic acceptance, to ambivalence to outright condemnation. In 1802, indignant reader wrote to the Federalist Gazette of the United States:

“. . .the Waltz dance, by the discreet and correct part of our community, is decisively conceived to be incompatible with the dignity and delicacy of the “American fair,” and to be only adapted to the character of an hireling or a slave in the halls of an Eastern despot, where the effeminate lord and the abject ministers of his pleasure are upon the same level of baseness and degradation.”


Seen as the product of foreign sensuality and degeneracy, in “Lyttleton’s” eyes, the Waltz had no place in virtuous American ballrooms.

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In 1802, Jewish educator, philanthropist and celebrated beauty Rebecca Gratz, left, was 22. Philadelphia at the time was swarming with French emigrés; it was said that one could not walk down city streets without hearing French spoken. In a letter to her friend Maria Fenno, she described her reaction to first seeing the Waltz done at a ball attended by many of the French community: “The French ladies & gentlemen danced the volts [sic]. It is not a delicate or I fancy an agreeable dance.”

Some feared that the democratization of the French during their revolution led to the democratization –and corruption– of popular dancing there. It would take several years before the Waltz would become an accepted part of genteel social dance in Philadelphia.

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The first treatise on the Waltz to appear in English was Thomas Wilson’s “A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing,” which was published in 1816. Like all dance masters, Wilson tried to regulate the more objectionable parts of the Waltz, strictly describing the dance’s steps using the technical balletic five positions of the feet and warning against all attitudes and movements that were not “graceful and pleasing.” He attributed the bad reputation of waltzing to the fact that “every dance was subject to abuse, and now that waltzing was more prevalent among other than the first classes of society, it was in danger of being less refined, less proper and far less than correct.” He claimed to have published his book, therefore, with the intention “of remedying so great an evil.” The reference plate of acceptable Waltz positions from his treatise, below, certainly shows a far more formal and controlled style than the wild abandon apparent in the French engravings, above, from ten years before, but many more holds and positions than are seen in ballrooms today. Wilson also distinguished between two main types of Waltz: French Waltzing, done high on the toes to slower music and German Waltzing done on a flat foot to faster music.

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Philadelphia lays claims to many American innovations; the first hospital, fire insurance company, lithographer, steamboat, horticultural society, even American’s first carpet factory.  The list may seem endless, but perhaps we can add one more item.

In 1793, Thomas Wignell and Alexander Reinagle opened their beautiful New Theatre on Chestnut Street west of 6th Street. The opening season was spoiled by the onset of the Yellow Fever epidemic in the city. Wignell used this unfortunate delay to sail for England to hunt for talent for his theatre. Among the many performers he hired were the accomplished dancer, comedian and character actor, William Bodley Francis, right, and his actress wife. In the fall of  1796, Wignell also hired James Byrne, who had been the ballet master and principal dancer at London’s prestigious Covent Garden, and Byrne’s wife, who was also a dancer. After only a few weeks, Byrne and Francis had formed a partnership and opened a dancing academy at Oeller’s Hotel on Chestnut Street across from the Theatre where they performed; many 18th century Philadelphia stage dancers supplemented their incomes by teaching social dancing classes. (For a description and illustration of Oeller’s, see the February 16th post, below). Philadelphia city directories from the period show the Byrnes and the Francises all sharing a house at 70 N. 8th Street.

On February 25th, 1797, Francis and Byrne placed the following advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette:

It is possible that Byrne, having just arrived in Philadelphia from Europe a few weeks before, could have brought the new dance with him. This would mean that Philadelphia ladies were ahead of their Boston and New York sisters in having their senses inflamed and their organs fatigued, and adds another in the long list of firsts for Philadelphia. I wonder if the “German Waltz” the ad refers to is the flat-footed style that Thomas Wilson described in his treatise, a style that would have been more popular before the Waltz was metamorphosed in Paris. Byrne and his wife returned to London a year later, but Mr. Francis made his home here in Philadelphia, teaching and performing at the Chestnut Street Theatre until his death in 1827. He is buried in Christ Church Burial Ground, only a few blocks from the Chestnut Street hotel where he first helped introduce Philadelphia, if not America, to the voluptuous whirl of the Waltz.

“Get all the ladies that you can
And let each lady have a man;
Let them in a circle plac’d,
Take their partners round the waist;
Then by slow degrees advance,
Till the walk becomes a dance;
Then the twirling face to face,
Without variety or grace,
Round and round and never stopping,
Now and then a little hopping;
When you’re wrong, to make things worse,
If one couple, as perverse,
Should in the figure be perplex’d,
Let them be knocked down by the next,
‘Quicker now!’ the Ladies cry,
They rise, they twirl, they swim, they fly;
Pushing, blowing, jostling, squeezing,
Very odd, but very pleasing–
Till ev’ry Lady plainly shows,
(Whatever else she may disclose,)
Reserve is not among her faults,
Reader, this it is to waltz!”

The Newburyport Herald, 1820


  French illustrations from Le Bon Genre, 1801 and 1806

  “The Circle Formed in Waltzing” and the Waltz “Reference Plate,” from Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of Waltzing, London, 1816

  Portrait of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully, 1831

  Excerpt from a letter of Rebecca Gratz to Maria Fenno from the Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress

  Engraving of Mr. Francis after a painting by J. Neagle. The engraver, James Barton Longacre, is best known for designing the Indian Head Cent. This print was published in Philadelphia in 1826, shortly before Francis’ death.

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“It is a dance-intoxication, in which people for the moment release themselves from every care, every burden and oppression of existence.”

– Frederika Bremer

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In the long history of ballroom dances, there is only one of them whose American debut would be forever linked with a presidential race. In June of 1844, Philadelphia’s North American reported:

“We are not given to faith in the marvelous, but it is passing strange that at the moment when fantastic toes in Europe are busy with the Polka, equally fantastic pates in America are busy with a Polk.”

His campaign against Henry Clay would be subject to endless jokes, but Democratic candidate James K. Polk, whose running mate was Philadelphia born George M. Dallas, would survive the unfortunate similarity of his name to that of the dance to become the 11th President of the United States. As for the Polka, its rise from obscurity to universal fame had began only a few short years before.

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The Polka originated somewhere in rural eastern Europe and appeared in salons in Prague and Vienna by the late 1830s. By the time it exploded upon the ballroom dance world of Paris in the early 1840s, its origin had been lost in myth; those who can profit by a new fad always like to claim a role in its success.  Overnight, all of Paris was in the thrall of what was commonly called  “Polkamania.” As the public clamored for lessons to learn the new dance, well-known teachers like Henri Cellarius, featured left, on the cover of an 1848 Polka published in Philadelphia, and his rival Jean Coralli of the Paris Opera Ballet nearly came to blows in a public showdown, each claiming to be teaching the “authentic” version of the Polka. The dance’s popularity was helped in no small measure by the fact that in an effort to take advantage of the demand for lessons, these and many other Parisian dance teachers had hired attractive ballet-girls as teachers. This filled their dancing salons with hormonal young men as eager to embrace their lovely teachers as to learn the proper mechanics of the dance.

Early in 1844, ballerina Carlotta Grisi, who had originated the role of “Giselle,” danced the Polka with her partner Jules Perot on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, right, thus introducing it to English audiences. Not everyone was thrilled with the dance. The April, 1844 The Illustrated London News stated:

“It is a waste of time to consider this nonsense. The weathercock heads of the Parisians have been delighted always by any innovation, but they never imported anything more ridiculous or ungraceful than this Polka. It is a hybrid confusion of Scotch Lilt, Irish Jig and Bohemian Waltz, and need only to be seen once to be avoided forever.”

The fact was that the small, graceful hops of the Polka  could easily turn into a rollicking, raucous romp – fun, yes, but unacceptable in the polite ballroom, see illustration below.  It presented the tempting possibility to deviate from the physical control and decorum that was the hallmark of Victorian gentility. In only a few months, this controversial new dance would reach Philadelphia.

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Polka sheet music was being published here in Philadelphia by Fiot at 169 Chestnut St. by 1843, but as late as June 4th, 1844, the actual dance was still only a rumor to readers of the North American:

“The Polka is the name of a Bohemian dance, now the rage in London and Paris. Nearly all the professors of the ‘poetry of motion’ have recently visited Paris for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of the dance, and each maintains that his is the only true Polka.  . . . The “hard-fisted democracy” will find it extremely difficult to learn this new dance, however fascinating and easy it may be to their willing teachers. It may be more difficult for them to to introduce the Polka into the country than they imagine”

Rumor would become reality in a few weeks. By the end of August, Philadelphia Dance Mistress, Madame Hazard, advertised that she would begin classes the first of September in:

Not to be outdone, a Miss Mallet announced that she had the pleasure to announce to her patrons and Ladies of the city that she was now ready to teach

On September 18th, Henry Whale, at the Assembly Buildings at 10th and Chestnut Sts, joined the fray, offering simply to teach:

“The Bohemian and Parisian Polka, Waltz and all the new and fashionable dances will be taught during the season.”

The key words in dance instruction advertisement during most of the 19th century  were “new” and “fashionable.” Many local dance masters traveled to Paris and London each summer to learn the latest dances being done there so they could bring them back in time for Philadelphia’s winter social season. It’s no wonder that the same atmosphere of rivalry that set Parisian dance academies at each other stirred up Philadelphia competitions. Things begin to heat up as the season progressed, as Madame H. modified her advertisement to read:

“Mad. H.’s great success in teaching the very elegant and brilliant dance called the Polka, as danced in all the brilliant circles of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, London &c., is rewarded by a numerous class at her residence. She will be happy to receive a few more pupils to prevent delay.”

She now not only advertised the authenticity of her dance instruction, but actually claimed the Polka as her own. Miss Mallet soon countered, claiming:

“. . . she is ready to teach the celebrated POLKA DANCE. It is an easy, graceful and most fascinating dance, having nothing Theatrical about it, and can be learned in a very few lessons, either in a class or privately.”

Mallet was hinting that perhaps Madame Hazard’s version was the crass theatrical variety, while hers was “graceful” and suitable for the genteel young ladies who were her pupils.

The last entrant in Philadelphia’s “Polka Wars” was an exiled Hungarian army officer dashingly named Gabriel de Korponay, left, who arrived in December at middle of the season. A dancer and teacher, he conducted classes here in English, German and French and  claimed to have introduced the Polka to America. His wife played piano, composed and gave music lessons. Korponay would settle in Philadelphia and later served as a captain in the Mexican War and as a colonel in the 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

These extravagant claims and the one-upmanship continued to appear in the advertisements of the North American throughout the rest of the 1844-45 social season. However, the fact is that by 1844, the “authenticity” of any Polka style being taught was really a moot point. The dance, like most of the fashionable dances of the nineteenth century, had been entirely re-made in Parisian ballrooms to suit polite tastes and had lost most of the rough edges of its peasant origin. This same phenomenon would appear again in 1913 when the Tango was introduced to America from Argentina after being sanitized by Parisian dance masters.

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For a brief period, the Polka replaced the Waltz as the most popular couple dance in Philadelphia ballrooms. Polka Quadrilles were now all the rage, replacing the usual simple walking steps used in the figures with the Polka “hop, step, step.” In early 1845, Godey’s Ladies’ Book published a color lithograph called “The Polka Fashions” below:

The Polka was the topic of conversation on everyone’s lips, “Have you seen it?” “Can you do it?” Philadelphia stores sold Polka hats, Polka jackets, Polka boots and the only Polka fashion that has endured to this day – fabrics covered with Polka dots.

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“Polkamania” lasted only a brief time. The European and American interest in the struggles for independence among the Czechs and Poles that had turned all eyes on eastern Europe and discovered the Polka now welcomed newer dances like the Mazurka, the Redowa and the Polonaise. The Polka would continue on as a staple of fashionable society balls until the end of the nineteenth century, when it would wane and finally give way to the two-step and American-born ragtime dances. It wouldn’t see a major revival in the U.S. until around World War II,  becoming a source of traditional ethnic pride among eastern European immigrant communities in American cities and celebrated in popular songs like “The Pennsylvania Polka” and “The Beer Barrel Polka,” composed by the Czech musician Jaromír Vejvoda:

“There’s a garden, what a garden,
Only happy faces bloom there
And there’s never any room
For a worry or a gloom.
There’s music, and there’s dancing
And a lot of sweet romancing.
When they play the polka.
They all get in the swing!”

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●  The Polka quote from Swedish writer and feminist Frederika Bremer is taken from the 1844 New Monthly Magazine and Humorist.

●  The 1848 Cellarius Polka Quadrilles were truly a local production. The sheet music was printed by the Philadelphia publisher A. Fiot,  the dance sequence was choreographed by Philadelphia dance master Jules Martin and set to music composed by Philadelphia African-American musician  A. F. R. Conner.

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     This month I’ll concentrate on dance crazes that swept Philadelphia: the waltz in the late 18th century, the polka in the 19th century and the ragtime mania of the early 20th century. Click on any image for a closer view.

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In 1914, Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote a memoir called “Our Philadelphia,” which her husband Joseph illustrated.  In it, she recalls her childhood in the late nineteenth century, her grandfather’s house on Spruce and 11th Sts., right, and the Philadelphia world in which she moved. Here she describes the sometimes frustrating predictability of  Philadelphia society and dancing during her youth at the end of the 19th century:

“Philadelphia had a standard for its parties, as for everything, and to deviate from this standard, to attempt originality, to invent the “freak” entertainments of New York, would have been excessively bad form. You danced in the same spacious front and back parlors . . . to the same music by Hassler’s band; where you ate the same Terrapin, Croquettes, Chicken Salad, Oysters, Boned Turkey and Ice Cream, where the same Cotillon began at the same hour with the same figures and the same favors and the same partners. There was no getting away from the same people in Philadelphia. That was the worst of it.”

She had grown up in that timeless post-Civil War Philadelphia where  “good” Philadelphia families, meaning those residing south of Market Street, sent generations of children to the right dancing school, i.e. Solomon Asher’s Academy at the venerable Natatorium at 219 South Broad Street, below, to learn the correct Philadelphia deportment while doing the correct quadrilles, waltzes and two-steps.

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Those same proper Philadelphians were far from prepared when the “modern” ragtime music and dance craze swept across the Quaker City in the 1910s just as it did across the rest of the country. These new dances didn’t come from the elegant Paris and London salons that had been regarded as the ideals of taste and culture for so long, but from the dance halls and honky-tonks of the notorious Barbary Coast in San Francisco. They were a veritable menagerie of dances like the Grizzly Bear, (left), the Turkey Trot, the Chicken Scratch and the Bunny Hug. First seen as novelty dances on Philadelphia vaudeville stages, they soon swooped, loped and trotted their way into Philadelphia society. They were raucous, they were lively, they were fun and they were truly American in origin, but were they “decent?” Philadelphia wasn’t sure. At first, the New York Times reported,

“The Turkey Trot has invaded Philadelphia’s most exclusive dancing circles. ‘Everybody is doing it this season,’ Mrs. Drexel Biddle said, ‘and I am doing my best to learn it . . .  It is a hard dance to do.’”

Within a month, though, the city’s taste makers thought better of it, and in a total about-face, headlines now read,

“PHILADELPHIA BANS THE TROT! The turkey trot and grizzly bear will no longer be tolerated in society here. It is understood that the two dances have all but caused several scandals in some of Philadelphia’s best families.”

Within the next few months universities, clubs and churches all over the Philadelphia region vied in banning these new dances.

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To make matters worse, 1913 saw the introduction of the most insidious, controversial and exotic dance of all – the tango.  The tango came to Philadelphia from Argentina by way of Paris. The Pope in Rome immediately forbade all Catholics from dancing the tango, but Philadelphians took more time about making up their minds. Some condemned it without ever seeing it, some ran to be the first to take lessons. Within a few months, however, restaurants and hotels were clearing spaces for  late afternoon “tango teas” so that downtown shopgirls and secretaries could spend an hour or two practicing the latest steps –and imbibing a cocktail or two– before heading to the trolleys and trains that took them home. Wanamakers, Strawbridges and Lit Brothers sold “tango shirts” and “tango shoes” for men  and “tango sashes,” “tango hats” and even flexible “tango corsets” for women. Bolts of brilliant orange fabric that had sat unsold in dry goods stores flew off the shelves when the color was dubbed “tango.”

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The number of studios in the city teaching the “modern dances” tripled within a year. The Inquirer and the Evening Ledger competed to print whole series of articles describing the latest steps and the newest dances; the Hesitation Waltz, the Castle Walk, and something called the Foxtrot.  Advertisements for locally made Victrola gramophones assured Philadelphians that they could now practice their tango variations in the privacy of their homes, even on Sundays, when Pennsylvania Blue Laws forbade public dancing. Respectable ballrooms and “dance palaces” appeared in the city for the first time. (In 1918 The Roseland Ballroom would open on Market Street, long before its more famous other location in New York.)

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Riding on the crest of this dance mania were the first American ballroom stars, Vernon and Irene Castle, right. The Castles removed all the objectionable elements from ragtime dances, and shrewdly marketed themselves, their dances and their elegant New York studio to the best society in the city. They warned “Do not wriggle the shoulders. Do not shake the hips. Do not flounce the elbows. . . Remember you are at a social gathering, and not in a gymnasium. Drop the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug, etc. These dances are ugly, ungraceful, and out of fashion.” When they appeared at B.F. Keith’s vaudeville stage at 1116  Chestnut Street in November 0f 1914, the house was sold out and many were turned away as Philadelphians thronged not only to see the newest dances performed by America’s ballroom dance stars, but to catch a glimpse of Irene’s bobbed hair and latest, fashion-setting gowns.

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America’s entrance into World War I put a sober end to that incredible “modern dance mania.” When the doughboys returned after the war, something called “jazz” had taken the place of ragtime music.  But in those amazing few years before  the war, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug had shaken up traditional Philadelphians, forever changing the way they danced and the kind of music they danced to. As the story of Marguerite Walz, January 22 post, below, shows us, in the 1920s jazz music and jazz dances like the Charleston along with the impossible task of enforcing of National Prohibition would create new scandals and problems for Philadelphians.

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●  “Our Philadelphia,” Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1914, illustrated by Joseph Pennell

  The Philadelphia Inquirer 1911-1916

●  “Modern Dancing,” Vernon and Irene Castle, 1916

  The New York Times, December 22, 1911 and January 5, 1912

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