Doing It by the Book – Part I
March 3, 2013
Dancing is to the body what reading is to the mind. – V.G., Philadelphia, 1817
TEN EASY LESSONS
People have always learned social dances in many ways. For most, watching others dance out in public and imitating their moves was the easiest and most common way; a little practice at home and they were set to go. The advent of movies and later, of television dance shows, like “American Bandstand” in the 1950s, added another dimension to this learning model.
Some would-be dancers spent a great deal of time and money in dance studios and academies studying with professional teachers. For others, the next best thing to studying with a master was buying his or her “Learn to Dance” book; Arthur Murray made his name and fortune through the mail order home-study dance courses he promoted in the early 1920s. It’s the published dance texts and their authors that we’re going to examine here.
THE DANCE MANUALS
Printed dance manuals are our primary sources for learning about the details of dances of the past. The social hierarchy that developed during the Industrial Revolution created a need for books of rules and regulations to help navigate the complex social landscape, so these handbooks proliferated through the 1800s.
The typical nineteenth century dance manual contained a brief preface on the history of social dance, an essay on the physical and mental benefits of learning to dance, a section on dance steps and technique, example, right, a reference section on specific dances, usually organized by type, and almost always a guide to ballroom behavior and rules of etiquette. Nineteenth technological advances in printing, such as the use of steam power and the invention of the rotary press, made made these books and pamphlets cheap to produce and affordable to more people than ever.
Dance masters and mistresses wrote these books for a number of reasons. Some did it specifically for their own students, some to publicize their classes and themselves, some simply for extra income. Many stressed that their books were meant as a memory aid and were not meant to replace personal classroom instruction.
Some authors simply translated popular European manuals of the time, (Americans were still very much influenced by European fashion). Even the ones who created new works borrowed heavily, even verbatim, from other dance manual authors, sometimes acknowledging them, sometimes not. The issue of copyright and intellectual property did not become much of a problem until the twentieth century.
USING THE MANUALS
These detailed dance manuals, although primary source for the study of dances of the past, have their limitations. Above all, they are still limited verbal descriptions of complex movements and interactions. Contemporary readers would have been familiar to some extent with the dances and the ballrooms they were done in; they didn’t have to work to place them in a long-gone aesthetic and social milieu the way that we do. Most manuals were written for a specific place and social class and all of them reflect the biases and limitations of their authors. Finally, there was then, as today, a difference between the rules and ideals that dance masters were prescribing and what was actually being done in private parties, dance halls and ballrooms. Every dancer makes a dance his or her own.
Over the next few posts I’ll examine the works of several Philadelphia dance masters who published books between 1817 and 1922. I’ll discuss the format and content of the books as well as details of the lives of the authors and the part they played in the fabric of Philadelphia’s changing urban life.
Next: The French Connection – Victor Guillou
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Schneider, Gretchen, “Using Nineteenth Century American Social Dance Manuals,” Dance Research Journal 14/1&2 (1981-1982)
“An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals,” The Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html (Last accessed March 3, 2013).