THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

These next few posts will explore the urban spaces where Philadelphians danced—where they performed for audiences, taught classes for adults and children and where they hosted their elaborate balls during their winter social seasons. In this post, I’ll talk about two halls, two hotels and two theatres.  Clicking on any image will open it larger in a new window.

1790 Phila dance spots

The map above, from 1795, shows the dark shaded triangle that was the built up part of Philadelphia about 1795. Its broad base stretches along the Delaware Riverfront on the right and its apex barely reaches to 10th Street just north of High (Market) Street, pointing toward the empty Public Square to the west where the tower of City Hall would rise a hundred years later. Click on the map to see a larger version.

The cluster of green dots just below the market stalls of High Street show the concentration of dance spaces in Old City. They are at the heart of a densely populated commercial area, full of inns, banks and shops. The long sets of country dances popular in the eighteenth century required long unobstructed dance floors. In the 1790s, this meant using academic classrooms after school hours, Masonic lodges, taverns, hotels and the large spaces found in public  theatres. Only a very few private homes, like that of Samuel and Elizabeth Powel on Third Street south of  Walnut, had any kind of space large enough to be called a ballroom.

From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the political and social capital of America. Dance teachers and the schools they established flourished, catering to the elite clientele that competed for places in the capital city’s brilliant social scene.

Rococco 1

church alley

CHURCH ALLEY

On Church Alley, just west of Christ Church, “1,” above, was Stephen Sicard’s 30 by 40 foot “noted dancing-room.” Sicard had come to Philadelphia from France about 1783, well before the French Revolution. He advertised himself as “a pupil of the celebrated Mr. Vestries, and assistant master of Mr. Gardell, the first dancing master of the Opera at Paris.” His advertisements made it clear that “he would address his pupils in English.” In 1791, he composed a ballet entitled Congress Returns for his young pupils. Sicard was also a musician and composer. He wrote “The President of the United States’ March” to honor George Washington as well as several sets of cotillions for dancing. Sicard taught dance to hundreds of students in Philadelphia for over thirty years, until his retirement in 1815.

The large room Sicard taught in was also used for lectures, a fencing school, and a concert series. It was owned by Peter le Barbier Duplessis, another Frenchman who came to Philadelphia after the War of Independence. Duplessis was a notary public as well as a certified translator. He was also a Freemason and rented or loaned his room for masonic lodge meetings. Although a French Catholic, Duplessis became involved with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, on Pine Street, where he is buried.

1796 Harmony Hall

HARMONY HALL

The little cobblestone and brick brick path that now runs from 4th to 3rd Street just behind the Todd House and the Bishop White House on Walnut Street was once an alley called Harmony Court, above. All the buildings on Harmony Court were razed in the 1950s for the landscaping of what is now Independence Park.

The building there, marked in red on the map above, was called Harmony Hall. The dancing hall was on the second floor above a livery stable. Like its counterpart in Church Alley, it hosted meetings, lectures and performances as well as dance classes. At the end of the eighteenth century, several dance masters taught there, including William McDougal, Balthazar Quesnet, Mr. Francis and his good friend, the first American born professional dancer, John Durang.

1797

IsraelHarmony Hall and the livery stable were owned by an interesting Philadelphian named Israel Israel, right. Despite his name, he was only half Jewish and married a Quaker wife, Hanna Erwin. He ran the Cross Keys Tavern at Third and Chestnut Streets, rented out stables, owned several buildings and served as the High Sheriff of Philadelphia County. He was also Grand Master of the Grand Lodge for many years, so as with the long room on Church Alley, Harmony Hall was also used for lodge meetings. The Israels now rest in the beautiful Laurel Hill Cemetery.

TWO HOTELS

Old City TavernIn the early 1790s, the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly held their dancing season at Old City Tavern, seen next to the Bank of Pennsylvania, left on 2nd Street near Walnut Street for many years. When Oellers’ Hotel opened on Chestnut near 6th they moved there. I’ve talked a bit about Oellers’ Hotel in another blog post here.  Among the Philadelphia dancers who taught at Oellers’ were Gaspard Cenas, Mr. Lancon and James Robardet, who instructed George and Martha Washington’s two grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington Custis in the art of dancing. In 1792, George wrote a letter of recommendation for Robardet:

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.

ChestnutTheatreInterior

TWO THEATRES

Many of the dance teachers who came to Philadelphia were professional performers who taught classes to supplement their incomes. The two most important theatres in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century were the Southwark, or “Old” Theatre, on the south side of Cedar or South Street near 4th, and the Chestnut Street, or “New” Theatre on the north side of Chestnut near 6th Street. I’ve already given a detailed account of the Southwark Theatre here, and described how the Chestnut Theatre eclipsed it in 1794. A view of the interior of the original Chestnut Theatre, above, shows the rows of plain benches in the pit and the elegant tiers of  boxes on either side.

* * *

The Chestnut Theatre and Oellers’, both just west of 6th Street mark the gradual shift of the city’s commercial center west that would begin in the second half of the 18th century  and culminate in the construction of a new City Hall at Market and Broad Streets at the end of the 19th century.

Rococco 1

1827 Ball Clay

FRENCH REFUGEES IN PHILADELPHIA

Most of the the early dancing masters who came to Philadelphia were professionals who were attached to a theatre or acting troupe. Many of them had performed in London or at the Paris Opéra. They taught classes in social dance to the public to supplement the income they earned from stage dancing. At the end of the 18th century, however, Philadelphia found itself  flooded with aristocratic refugees  from both the French Revolution and Haitian slave revolts, below, left. It was said that in the 1790s, it was impossible to walk down the streets of the city without hearing French spoken. Some of these impoverished nobles had to support themselves by now teaching the skills that their social positions had required them to learn: drawing, painting, fencing, music and dance. One of these refugees was Victor Guillou, a sugar plantation owner turned dance teacher and educator who would also publish the first dance manual printed in Philadelphia.

Haitian_RevolutionThe French Revolution, with its “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” and its radical ideals of freedom and equality, first took root on the French island colony of Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was then called, in 1791, fomenting an unprecedented bloody civil war between African slaves and white plantation owners. Slaves at the time outnumbered whites and free blacks ten-to-one. The war dragged on for 13 years, longer than the French Revolution itself, claiming the lives of an estimated 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 European troops, until the free republic of Haiti was declared in 1804.

VICTOR GUILLOU

Victor Guillou, the great-grandson of a white Haitian sugar and coffee planter, had been sent to France to study as a youth. In 1794, when the French officially abolished slavery in their colonies, he returned to Saint-Domingue to join the military. As violence worsened, he was able to ship the women in his family off the Philadelphia where he eventually joined them, settling in a house at 294 Market Street.

Masonic Hall 1813Guillou helped support his transplanted family by teaching dance while his wife opened a boarding school for young ladies. From 1812 until 1819 he held classes and balls at the new Masonic Hall, right, on the north side of Chestnut Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. The Grand Saloon there was 36 feet wide and 77 feet long, illuminated with gas lit chandeliers. Below is a lithograph of a costume ball inside that Masonic Hall done some years later.  It was badly damaged in a fire in 1819, partially rebuilt, then torn down in 1853.

For the next 20 years he’d teach dancing in Philadelphia, at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street, at Washington Hall on Third Street near Spruce, then at the new Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street. However, Guillou never lost his desire for the life of a planter. In 1825, he left Philadelphia for a plantation in Puerto Rico. When this venture failed, three years later he returned to Philadelphia and the life of a city dancing master. In the 1830s, Guillou became the first American teacher to employ the pedagogical techniques of Joseph Jacotot, who believed that all men were equally intelligent and that anyone could teach themselves anything.  Finally, in 1836, he retired to a sugar estate in Santiago de Cuba, where he lived until his death in 1842. His son Constant would become a prominent Philadelphia attorney and the founder and first president in 1860 of the Philadelphia Photographic Society, the first in the country.

Masonic 1850 Ball Masonic Lodge copy

THE ART OF DANCING

1817 VG FrontispieceIn 1817, Victor Guillou published an English translation of a Parisian dance manual for use by his students and for sale to rural dancers who had no dance master available. This Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing is important because of its description of the steps used in the newly fashionable quadrilles, which Guillou calls “cottillions” here.

The book begins with a brief history of dancing and its benefits. It then describes the principles necessary to make a good dancer: good taste, an ear for music, elasticity of physical form and a relaxed comportment.Wilson - 5 positions It continues with some exercises and a discussion of the five basic dance positions, related to those still used in classical ballet today. The illustration of those basic dance positions, right, is from a dance manual by English dancing master Thomas Wilson from about the same period. There follow detailed descriptions of various steps, such as assemblé, jeté, sisone, échappé,  temps levé and chassé. These steps are then arranged into combinations which are fitted to figures of the quadrille, such as “ladies’ chain,” “right and left,” “half promende” and “hands around.” Each of these figures takes four measures of music in 2/4 or 6/8 time. The high level of technical ability required to execute any of these steps and combinations correctly can be best illustrated by a sample description of the assemblé:

19th C doodad 4

ON THE STEP CALLED ASSEMBLÉ,
Executed in the third position.

     In order to perform this step place yourself in the third position, &c. as explained in the former chapters; then place the weight of the body entirely upon the fore foot and straight on the hips. This will naturally disengage the foot behind; bend on the fore knee, raising at the same time the foot behind on the toes, which will cause the hind knee to bend also; hold that knee out well, and unfold it by sliding the foot (near to the floor without touching it) as far as the second position, which it will reach extended at the same instant the leg you stand on will reach its bend. To finish this step, elevate and bring down, at the same time, the extended leg upon the other, in the third position. Where the knees must be straight, you must alight on the toes upon the floor and not suffer the heels to come down heavily; they must be brought down gradually, making use of the strength and elasticity of the muscles of the instep to support the body until they reach the floor. Then push them a little forward, which will considerably assist the turning of the toes and knees out. Practice this alternately with both feet.

19th C doodad 4

Whew. These were technically difficult 18th century balletic steps that were still being used in the new cotillions and quadrilles of the 19th century. They required hours of practice and instruction by a dancing master to execute correctly and gracefully. Some teachers and dancing schools even employed stocks, called tourne hanche or “hip turners” on their pupils. These machines were boxes with wooden rails that forced the student’s legs to turn out until the ideal 180 degree angle was reached. The poor anguished girl on the right in the picture, below, is standing in one of these boxes. (Guillou’s  book calls the use of such stocks “vicious and dangerous.”)

Dancing Lesson Cruikshank

By the 1830s, most of the figures of quadrilles were being done using only walking steps. By the 1840s any  of the steps mentioned above were out of style in ballroom dancing; using them in 1850 would have been seen as vulgar and exhibitionistic.

19th C doodad

REFERENCES

Victor Guillou,  Elements and Principles of Dancing., Philadelphia 1817

John Thomas Sharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia 1609-1884, Philadelphia, 1884, Vol. 2, p 964.

○ TOTUS MUNDUS AGIT HISTRIONEM ○

– motto over the Southwark’s proscenium

* * *

HAMLET ON SOUTH STREET

     As I’ve noted before, Philadelphia Quakers frowned on theatre, dancing and for that matter, most worldy amusements. When Lewis Hallam and his London Company sought permission to perform here in  1754, they raised a storm of controversy. The citizenry urged Governor Hamilton with petitions to prohibit and counter-petitions to allow stage performances. Finally, reason prevailed, and the Hallam Company gave their first performance in a makeshift theatre in a warehouse near the river on Water Street,  see ad, below. Knowing there was still local disapproval for their profession, they passed out handbills which touted the harmlessness of the theatrical arts and also donated a night’s proceeds to the Charitable School of the newly founded Academy.  (Along with the College and Medical School, these institutions would later become the University of Pennsylvania.) No worry. After the intense controversy, performances were packed by curious audiences.

     Even so, when the troupe returned in 1759, now under the direction of David Douglass, who had married the widowed Mrs. Hallam, they shrewdly it renamed themselves “The American Company.” That same year, Lewis Hallam Jr., above, left, would be the first actor to play Hamlet on an American stage. They cautiously avoided municipal objections another way; they erected a series of temporary playhouses just outside the city limits, just to test the waters. In 1766, they constructed a more substantial structure on the south side of Cedar (now South) Street near 4th, again outside the city limits and against the protests of the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Elders of the German Lutherans and the Baptists. This building, the Southwark Theatre, below, was the first permanent theatre building in Philadelphia. It was fairly plain outside, the bottom half of brick, the upper half of wood, the roof topped by a single cupola, but most agreed the inside was well suited for the lively and very vocal crowds it drew. Until the mid 19th century, in most theatres the house was as well lit as the performers on the stage. This meant that audiences and their reactions were more of an integral part of the whole theatrical experience than today. In fact, the motto over the Southwark’s proscenium aptly read: “Totus mundus agit histrionem: everybody plays a role;” the same motto that was over the Globe Theatre in London and the same motto that William Shakespeare paraphrased as “All the world’s a stage.”

A NIGHT AT THE SOUTHWARK

     Performances started early, usually about 6:00 pm. The candles in the chandeliers over the stage and house would be lit, as well as the oil lamps that ringed the apron at the foot of the stage. Tickets, available at the London Coffee House, were 7 s, 6 d for the boxes, 5 s for the pit and 3 s for the gallery. An evening’s entertainment was more like a variety show and could include not only a a serious dramatic piece, but also a prologue, an epilogue, songs, character dances, tightrope walking, a pantomime and a comic afterpiece. Many of the dances presented in 18th century theatres were theatricalized versions of currant social dances: minuets, jigs, hornpipes and country dances, done as solos, or in duets, trios or groups. Actors from the main piece also performed in the songs and dances, or even played violin. James Godwin, for instance, who had come from Dublin, played the role of Ostrick in Hamlet in 1767, see the advertisement from the Pennsylvania Gazette, above right, but primarily performed as a dancer during the “Entertainments.” Like many theatrical dancers in 18th century Philadelphia, Godwin supplemented his income by teaching social dancing and held balls and dances for his students and the general public. He’d later open a school with his partner and own teacher, John Baptiste Tioli,  at William Penn’s old Slate Roof House on Second Street.

FEDERAL ERA SPLENDOR

     Plays, balls and concerts faded away during the larger spectacle of the Revolutionary War; Congress, in fact, had passed resolutions against such costly and extravagant entertainments. Only briefly, when British officers took it over during their occupation of the city from 1777 to 1778,  was the Southwark open for performances, and those were for the English themselves and for local Tory sympathizers. In the 1780s, the Hallams were still struggling with obtaining permission from the state to open; most of the time they simply operated illegally. In 1783, someone jocularly wrote to the papers that the Hallams had simply decided to attach their playhouse to hot air balloons and raise it 1300 miles above the State House where it would surely be out of the jurisdiction of the Pennslyvania State Assembly! It wasn’t until nearly the end of the century when music and theatre really flourished here.

     Even George Washington, while he resided in Philadelphia during his presidency, was criticized because of his fondness for theatre. He attended performances at the Southwark regularly, seated in a box fitted with cushions, red drapes and the coat of arms of the United States. The opening of the elegant new Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Steet, above,  in 1794, soon eclipsed the Southwark. Bolstered by an influx of talented dancers fleeing revolutionary France in the last decade of the 18th century, it helped make Philadelphia the nation’s dance as well as political capital.

     The old Southwark continued to be used, though, until 1821, when it was partially destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt as part of the neighboring distillery, below. Finally, falling under the axe of Prohibition, it was entirely demolished in 1921.  An empty storefront that housed a Payless Shoes stands where the city’s first theatre once stood, a few doors west of another Philadelphia institution, Jim’s Steaks.

REFERENCES

■ “Against Vain Sports and Pastime: The Theatre Dance in Philadelphia, 1724-90,” Lynn Matluck Brooks, Dance Chronicle, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1989)

■ “A Decade of Brilliance: Dance Theatre in Late-Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Lynn Matlick Brooks, Dance Chronicle, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1989)

Dance and Its Music in America, 1528-1729, Kate Van Winkle Keller, Pendragon Press, 2007

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884,  J. Thomas Scharf & Thompson Westcott, L.H. Everts & Co., 1884

* * *

Between 1710 and 1776, at least 27 dance masters taught, hosted balls  and performed here in Philadelphia. That’s a good number for a city where Quaker objections to frivolous amusements still had an effect on both legislation and social life.  In the early party of the 18th century, most of these dance masters came from England or English-dominated Ireland. Some were schoolteachers who boarded pupils, some were down on their luck gentlemen who came to America for the economic opportunities that England couldn’t afford them, and some were skilled professional dancers who had performed all over Europe.

* * *

GEORGE BROWNELL & MR. FRANKLIN

One of the first recorded dance masters in Philadelphia was George Brownell, who was probably one of the first in the American colonies as well. Born in London, he appeared in Charleston, South Carolina in 1703. By 1712, he was running a boarding school in Boston with his wife, where they taught “Writing, Cyphering, Dancing, Treble Violin, Flute, Spinnet &c. Also English and French Quilting, Imbroidery, Florishing, Plain Work, marking in several sorts of Stiches and several other works, where Scholars may board.” His most illustrious boarder, it would turn out, was our own Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin recalled:

“My father . . . sent me to a school for writing and arithmetic, kept by a then famous man, George Brownell, very successful in his profession generally, and that by mild, encouraging  methods. Under him I acquired fair writing pretty soon,, but I failed in the arithmetic, and made no progress in it.”

In 1728, just about the time Franklin was beginning to establish himself as a printer here, Brownell and his wife began teaching in Philadelphia at a school room on Second Street near Chestnut, see map, left, where about a half dozen successive Philadelphia dance masters would eventually teach. The 1930s WPA U.S. Custom House stands there today. In this small city of about 10,000, did Franklin know of  and perhaps visit his old school master?

The Brownells taught there three years, then, in April of 1731, announced that they were leaving for New York. They stayed there a few years, went back to Boston for a short time, then sold their Boston house and returned to Philadelphia in 1736. They remained here until Mrs. Brownell died in 1738 and  George left Philadelphia for good. From the mid-1740s he taught in Charleston, until his death in 1750. An interesting part of his legacy in Charleston was his having taught an African-American carpenter named Noko to play the violin.

Brownell’s constant moving among the largest American cities; Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, every few years was not at all unusual for early American dance masters. Many Philadelphia masters  taught in the city during the winter, then made the rounds of smaller, rural towns in the summer. They’d rent spaces in schoolhouses, as the Brownells did, or Masonic lodge halls, more easily done if they were Masons themselves. Women are less often  mentioned as dance teachers in the 18th century, but it is likely that Mrs. Brownell also taught dancing and music as well as needlework. The fact that Brownell, who was primarily an educator, included dancing in his curriculum in each city shows what an integral part dancing was to a genteel 18th century education.

* * *

ROBERT BOLTON

In 1738, Robert Bolton, who had settled in Philadelphia in 1718,  occupied Brownell’s old schoolroom.  He gave dancing classes for children and adults and hosted balls, assemblies and concerts there. The diary of Bolton’s wife, the widow Ann Curtis Clay, gives us a rare look into the life of an early Philadelphia dance master and helps explain to us why some English and Irish immigrants turned to dance teaching:

“Robert Bolton was born in the same year that my husband, Mr. Robert Clay, was (that is, in 1688), in Yorkshire, of religious and godly parents. His father dying young, left his son Robert and only one daughter, named Ann, to the care of his wife, who was a woman of exemplary piety and prudence; so she carefully educated her two children in all manner of ingenious and skilful learning and knowledge; but much more careful she was in teaching and having them taught and brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

Bolton was apprenticed to a rich relative who taught him his business. Unfortunately, he became ill with a lingering consumption and at the age of 21 his physicians concluded that he was beyond recovery. He was at the point of death for almost a year. He was then advised to go to Ireland, when, after a few months some he showed some signs of recovery.

He lived in Dublin for a while and recovered his health in that city “through the kindness of friends, the skill of his physicians and the blessings of God.” But his long illness had drained his family’s purse and the future looked bleak. This situation drove him into a melancholy, which was perceived by a grave old gentleman, a dancing-master, who offered to teach him the art of dancing. This offer was accepted and “besides this, he learned the art of embroidery in gold and silver, for which he was beholden to his own sister.”

Sickly all his life, Robert Bolton struggled to provide for his family.  When his attempts at business in Philadelphia failed, he turned to the skills his genteel education had given him and resorted to teaching dance. From  newspaper articles like those above, it seemed like the community was ready to support him. Soon after he opened his school, however, he became involved with the evangelical Rev. George Whitefield who preached here in Philadelphia against the evils of cursing, drinking and dancing; see illustration, right. In a highly publicized event, Whitefield’s followers shut up the dancing and concert room, claiming they had “saved” sinful Philadelphia.  It was later revealed that, in fact,  the room had simply been re-opened the next day. Bolton himself, however, was converted to the gospel by Whitefield and gave up “retailing amusements,” so even his dance teaching career was now cut short by his religious convictions. Robert Bolton closed his school and died impoverished in Philadelphia in 1742 at the age of 54.

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

* * *

ON THE BEAUTIFUL, BLUE DANUBE

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!

WICKED, WICKED

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.”

– LYTTLETON

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

* * *

AMONG PHILADELPHIANS

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.

* * *

THE CORRECT METHOD

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.

* * *

ONE MORE FIRST FOR PHILADELPHIA

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

SOURCES

  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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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.

                                                                       G.W.

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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.

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COUNTRY DANCE

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.”

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LEGACY

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.

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● 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!

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DANCE AS STATECRAFT

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:

GENTLEMEN,

“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?

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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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