Chestnut St theatre

In this series we’re examining Philadelphia dance masters who not only taught throughout the city, but who also left a legacy of dance manuals which they published  for their students and the general public.


Charles Durang HSPThe remarkable Charles Durang, left, was born in Philadelphia in 1793, the oldest son of America’s first native-born professional dancer, John Durang. Charles’ brother, Ferdinand Durang, was the first person to publically sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in Baltimore in 1814.

Charles began his stage career at age 10 at the Chestnut Street Theatre, dancing in the early English melodrama “A Tale of Mystery.” By the time he died at age 76 in 1870, Charles had been a dancer, pantomimist, actor, author, prompter, stage manager and ballet master in almost every respectable theatre in the United States. He wrote the important “History of the Philadelphia Stage from 1752 to 1854,” which was published serially in the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch. By the age of 16, he was assisting his father in teaching juvenile pupils at his social dance academy at Harmony Hall, on south Fourth Street. In the 1840s, after retiring from the stage, Charles opened his own school on north Ninth Street. In the 1850s, his daughter Caroline (he’d father 10 children) partnered with him at “Mr. and Miss Durang’s Dancing Academy, cor. of Chestnut and Twelfth,” below. Durang continued his long dance teaching career well into his 70s. He’s buried at the German Catholic Holy Trinity Church at Sixth and Spruce Streets.

Durang Dcg Academy 1857


1848 Durang coverIn 1847, Charles Durang published a tiny, 16 page pocket sized booklet called Leaflets of the Ballroom. Later that year, he published a longer dance manual called Durang’s Terpsichore, or, Ball Room Guide. (See newspaper ad from October, 1847 below.) He’d go on to publish sections and excerpts from Terpsichore over the next ten years, managing to squeeze three additional books out of that original publication.

Like many American dance manuals from the 19th century, Durang took much of his material from extant European dance manuals and etiquette books. His guide begins with a brief history of dancing, then moves on to technical exercises to improve strength and co-ordination. The bulk of the book describes choreographies and steps for the contemporary fashionable dances, the innumerable variations and combinations of  quadrilles and cotillions that were the mainstay of formal balls. Durang stresses that, in contrast to the balletic steps we saw in Guillou’s Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing last time, cotillions “are now only walked or shuffled through, (with a few rare exceptions,) regardless of figures, step or time.”

1848 Durang curtesyHe then gives special attention to the new dances that had invaded London and Paris ballrooms from Eastern Europe in the 1840s: the polka, the valse hongroise, the redowa, the polonaise and the mazurka, describing how the steps could be used in the new “mazurka quadrilles.” After touching on old-fashioned line dances like the Virginia Reel, Durang goes on to add the obligatory chapters on ballroom etiquette and costume; “Dancing and etiquette are inseparable. They go hand in hand to impart pleasure and secure a just moral result.”  In keeping with the early romantic fascination with the foreign and exotic, he finishes his small book with descriptions of various national dances that had begun to appear on opera stages: the African Chica, the Spanish Bolero and Seguidillas and the Italian Tarantella.

1847 11 30 Durang Published

Even though they were derivative of European dance manuals, books like Durang’s Terpsichore help give us a picture of social life, dancing and manners in Philadelphia in the 19th century. In addition, in the case of Durang’s long career, the gradual movement of the locations of his dancing schools, from Fourth Street to Ninth and finally to Twelfth Street, document the residential and commercial growth of the city as it expanded westward from the original settlements along the Delaware River.

19th C doodad 3


• Charles Durang, Leaflets of the Ballroom (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1847)

• Charles Durang, Durang’s Terpsichore, or, Ball Room Guide: Being a Compendium of the Theory, Practice, and Etiquette of Dancing (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1847)

• Charles Durang, The Ball-Room Bijou, and Art of Dancing: Containing the Figures of the Polkas, Mazurkas, and other Popular New Dances, with Rules for Polite Behavior (Philadelphia: Turner & Fisher, 1850)

• Charles Durang, The Dancer’s Own Book, and Ball-Room Companion (New York: Turner & Fisher, 1854)

• Charles Durang, The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket, or, the Ball-Room Instructor: A New and Splendid Work on Dancing, Etiquette, Deportment, and the Toilet (Philadelphia: Fisher & Bro., 1856)

• Susan de Guardiola has disentangled the mysteries of Durang’s several re-publications of parts of Terpsichore on her dance history blog, “Capering & Kickery,” here:

• Edwina Hare, The Durang Family (Harleysville, PA: Alcom printing group, 2000)


Coll feet

Dancing is to the body what reading is to the mind. – V.G., Philadelphia, 1817


HowePeople 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.


Wilson - 5 positionsPrinted 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.


Durang bow 1856Dance 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.

Hillgrove two couples


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. (Last accessed March 3, 2013).

Ever since the 15th century, when the first dance manuals appeared to teach Italian nobles how to dance “correctly” at court, dance masters have been telling their students what and how to dance: “do point your toes,” “don’t shake your shoulders,” “do pay attention to the music,” “don’t show off,” and on and on and on. . .


By the end of the 19th century dancing in America was, in the eyes of some, in a sorry state. The intricate, European dances of mid-century–the polka, the mazurka and the waltz–were being slowly edged out by the simple twostep, a dance some referred to as the “idiot waltz,”  see sheet music cover, left. No one needed hours of study in a class led by a professional to romp the twostep. In 1879, alarmed at what they were seeing,  dance teachers from across the country formed the American Society of Professors of Dancing.  Four years later, in 1883, the National Association of Masters of Dancing was formed in Boston. In 1894 the International Masters of Dancing held their first convention in St. Louis and by 1905 there was a United Professional Teachers of Dancing.

Initially, the goals  of these associations were admirable. They aimed to standardize the steps that were taught across the country so that a dancer would be able to dance a waltz whether in Baltimore, Cincinnati or Boise. This tinkering with old steps inevitably led to trying their hand at choreographing “acceptable” new dances to introduce to the public.  The associations also wanted to clean up the vulgar sloppiness and slouching that had crept into ballroom dancing, right. In 1893, they deigned to view the performance of Little Egypt and her danse du ventre (bellydance) at the Chicago World’s Fair. They wrote:

“The style of movements practiced by those so called Algerian and other women is something too objectionable for people of refined taste to countenance. It is a depraved and immoral exhibition. It may well be styled an outrage to allow such an exhibition and rate it under the head of dance.”

After 1900, with the appearance of the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the shimmy and finally the charleston, dance teachers found their work cut out for them. With the bewildered public not sure of what kind of dancing was acceptable and what was not, dancing masters  found themselves in a crucial new role.  If they couldn’t continue selling the profitable lessons necessary to learn the old fashioned complex ballroom dances any more, teachers discovered that what they could sell was good taste. Each season they would decree what dances were no longer fashionable, which new dances were totally unacceptable always promoting a few new dances that they themselves had devised. Newspaper articles from those years tell the story:

“Professors of Dancing Bring the Waltz to Near Perfection”

“Dance Masters Decree Hugging Must Go”

“Dancing Experts Try to Reform Their Art”

“Dance Masters Fight Jazz”


Smaller organizations and chapters sprang up to combat problems on a local level. In 1893, the Philadelphia Association of Teachers of Dancing announced that they had enrolled nearly all the prominent dance teachers in the city. At their meetings during the summer, often held at the Jersey shore, they would announce what dances would be fit to grace Philadelphia ballrooms that fall season. In 1894, for instance, they introduced “The A l’Avenir,” “The Waltz Lancers,” and the “Chautaqua Square.” In 1914, they took it upon themselves to take on the newest dance, the foxtrot, and agreed to standardize five easy to learn figures. They dealt as decisively with the other ragtime dances that flooded ballrooms in the teens. They wrestled with  the hesitation, the maxixe, and the onestep, and reduced them all to scientific formulas. Philadelphia dance master S. Wallace Cortissoz demonstrates the “onestep maxixe” for the Inquirer, above, left. The Philadelphia Association was soon seen as a model organization for the rest of the country. As the 1915 photo, below, shows, it indeed comprised all the most eminent dance teachers in the city. Mr. Cortissoz is second from the left in the top row of the photo.


It’s difficult to assess whether either the Philadelphia or the national associations realized many of their goals. They were making a valiant effort to take control of their field, all the while promoting themselves and their services.

Did they “clean up” the dances? Nagging couples about dancing too closely, or about hopping too much seemed all too much like simply taking the fun out of dancing. Teachers could demand strict posture and decorum in their classes, but monitoring what actually went on out in public was another story. Usually, the things they objected to were exactly what made new dances they tried to ban so appealing.

Did they standardize dances? When the tango was introduced about 1913, a dance master complained that he had read over 120 variations of tango steps! Certainly, reducing dances to a manageable number of steps and figures made them easier to teach; standardization had its good points. However, just the fact that there were multiple national dance associations shows that in a large country like the U.S.A., there would always be regional tastes, styles and differences. Standardization of dances was much more successful in a small country like England, where dance masters from all over that nation taught identical curricula. Their success at standardization is one of the main reasons that the English became the main force in international competetive ballroom dance  by the 1930s. It explains why competitors on Dancing with the Stars, a show created by the BBC,  do British jive and not American swing dance.

Did dance masters introduce new dances to the ballroom that caught on with the public? Hardly. It seems that dance associations were even less successful in selling their choreographies to the public than they were in banning dances they didn’t care for. At each convention, dance teachers would submit their own choreographies and the best new dance would be chosen by vote.  In 1915, the Philadelphia Dancing Masters created the “Philadelphia Six Step,” above, right, for which I would love to find music and directions. In 1920, they tried to replace the popular Shimmy with a dance they invented called the Radnor. In 1921, in a misguided attempt to appease anti-dance Methodists, the Dancing Masters named one of their new dances for the season “The Wesleyan.” The Methodist Conference was so insulted, they issued a statement calling the action of the Dancing Masters “an outrage against decency and an offense to every Methodist.” The Dancing Masters Association withdrew the dance. At best, the dances the associations created had limited popularity among their own students. The fact that we have never heard of the “Philadelphia Six Step,” or of the “Waltz Lancers,” “Radnor,” “Chautaqua Square,” or almost any other dance association creation for that matter, says a lot.

The tension between systemization and spontaneity, between doing what is correct and doing what is fun has, I think, led to the extreme dichotomy of social dancing today, where we have highly technical and stylized competitive ballroom dancing on one hand, and the uninhibited and unstructured but socially engaging dancing done at weddings, parties and bars in the real world on the other. On Dancing With the Stars, when the couple voted off go out on the floor and do a final, unrehearsed farewell dance, do they break into a foxtrot, a samba or a jive? No, they just rock back and forth, exactly like you or I do.

The Quaker City Takes the Cake

September 17, 2012

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       Throughout most of the 19th century, the dances that Americans did were the same ones being done in elegant European ballrooms; the waltz, the polka, the schottische and the quadrille. All that changed toward the end of the century, when the first American-born popular dance swept over the country, then the world. That dance was the cake walk.

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        Like most of the later dances that America would export to the rest of the world – think the charleston, the lindy hop and the twist – the cake walk was a distinctly African-American product. The cake walk’s exact origin was already more myth than fact by 1899, but it was probably born on southern plantations around the time of the Civil War.  During their Saturday night dances, slaves would exaggeratedly mock the stiff and prim way they had seen white people dancing. They strutted and pranced, using canes props and odd costumes. The dance thus held many layers of meaning. For slaves, it was a joyous realease as well as a veiled jab at white masters. For the same masters who looked on, the cake walk could be seen as an innocent amusement performed by slaves who “couldn’t dance any better.” The exaggeration and theatricality of the dance naturally led to competition, with a cake being offered as the prize for the best dancers.

       By the 1870s, the cake walk had travelled from the plantation to the minstrel stage. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 featured a romanticized recreation of  ante-bellum plantation life that included a cake walk contest. In 1877, vaudevillians Edward Harrigan and Dave Braham published “Walking for Dat Cake,” above, left, and launched a flood of cake walk compositions that introduced the dance to a broad range of audiences. Before long, expressions like “that takes the cake,” or “that was a cake walk” entered America’s everyday vocabulary.

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        In February of 1892, the cake walk craze burst onto the scene with a huge “Cake walk Jubilee” held at New York’s Madison Square Garden, see a contemporary photo, “Cake walk Leaders,” above. Not to be outdone, that same month, Philadelphia planned its own “mammoth cake walk” to be held at Horticultural Hall on Broad Street, right. The lady who would take first prize would not only be awarded a cake, but an upright piano, while her partner would receive a gold watch. The second place couple would receive a plush coat for the lady and a silver watch for the gentlemen. The third place couple would be awarded a sewing machine and a silk top hat. The prizes were all on display at Blasius & Sons piano shop on Chestnut St. near 11th St. for a week before.

        On the night of the event, the huge hall was packed. The audience was mixed, with blacks outnumbered fifty to one by whites, and women outnumbered four to one by men. City Councilmen, Magistrates and the Fire Commissioner all attended. At 9 pm, the Washington Grays Band struck up a grand march and the “walkers” appeared, to thunderous applause. All eleven couples competing were, as the rules demanded,  African-American. After two preliminary cake walks, during which the contestants were judged by style, grace and execution, finalists were narrowed down to four couples. At last, after much of the audience had cheered itself hoarse, the first place was awarded to Miss Martha Pitts and Mr. John Montier. The evening was so successful and the response of the audience was so positive that the cake walk was assured of becoming an institution in Philadelphia.


        Not only was the Cake walk Contest repeated annually at Horticultural Hall, but similar “Cake walks and Colored Jubilees” were held at The Academy of Music and other large venues as well.  Philadelphia hosted all the companies of  mammoth, all-black productions that began touring the country. “Black America,” with a cast of over 300, performed at the Grand Opera House on North Broad Street in 1895. The Primrose and West Minstrel Show, above, performed at Gilmore’s Auditorium on Walnut St. in 1896. Smaller vaudeville houses like Carncross’ 11th St. Opera House began featuring African-American acts who performed elaborate cake walk finales. These cake walk production numbers were possibly the first time that whites and blacks performed together on stage. In 1897, Charles Johnson and his wife, the beautiful Dora Dean, left, introduced the graceful, elegant style of cake walk to the Broadway stage. Many in the black community had objected to cake walks,  seeing them as “black people making fools of themselves for the amusement of white people.” Transformed by performers like Johnson and Dean, the cake walk would open the door for a new wave of African-American performers at the turn of the century.

African-Americans in Atlantic City – 1902

        Throughout the 1890s, Philadelphia’s black community sponsored local cake walk contests with one neighborhood or ward competing against another. Prizes were often awarded for both the best comic interpretation and for the most graceful. Often these contests were used as ways to raise money for African-American charities. At first, white charities would hire African-American performers to entertain at functions, but then white Philadelphia caught the cake walk fever. The cakewalk became the first American dance to cross color lines. Dancing schools in fashionable areas began teaching the cake walk and hosting cakewalk contests for their white students. Elite “Society Cake Walks” became the fashion. White country clubs, Elks and Oddfellows lodges began presenting their own cake walks. There were Chinese and Japanese themed cake walks. The Tannheuser Wheelmen bicycle club even presented a “Hebrew Cake Walk,” with ragtime songs performed entirely in Yiddish.

        In 1897,  the dance got another boost when ragtime composers like Kerry Mills began churning out cake walk music, left. The lively syncopation of the melody against a steady bass line made rag time tunes perfect for the cake walk.  Cake walk illustrations were found not only on sheet music but in popular advertising as well. In 1899, acknowleding the “new cake walk craze,” the Art Supplement of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday edition published a “rollicking rag-time” picture, suitable for framing, right.


        Just past the turn of the century, the cake walk reached Europe. It became a huge hit in Paris, with French dance masters complaining that “Le Cake Walk Americain” had replaced the French can-can. As the Inquirer reported, “It is not only the worn out aristocracy that asks for new sensations from far off lands, but the idle bourgeoisie as well, grown neurasthetic in its turn,” below. After almost two hundred years of taking its cue from European society, America was beginning to export its home grown culture to the rest of the world.


        It had crossed color lines and international boundaries and had leaped from the stage to the ballroom floor, but by 1910, the “old time” cake walk was giving giving way to new dances spawned by ragtime music. Philadelphia would forget the cake walk as it dealt with the even more alarming grizzly bear, bunny hug and turkey trot that invaded its ballrooms.

        Luckily, the Library of  Congress has preserved some fascinating footage of a 1903 cake walk, filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. You can see some of the grace and style of the “walkers” here:

Her step so light–her brow so fair,
She boundeth like a thing of air;–
Or fairy in her wanton play,–
Or naiad on the moonlight spray.
Like gossamer on wings of light,
She floats before our tranced sight.
Let’s gaze no more–nor speak–nor stir–
Lest we fall down and worship her.

Memoir of Fanny Elssler, 1840

In the late 1830s, all of Europe was caught up in the intense rivalry between two star ballerinas, Swedish born Marie Taglioniand the Austrian, Fanny Elssler. Taglioni, left, embodied the early romantic balletic ideal of the ethereal, spiritual and sylph-like female, while Elssler was fiery, earthy and sexy.  If Taglioni became associated with La Sylphide, Elssler took as her signature dance the exotic Spanish cachucha, which she executed with spirit and attack, below, right. Even from these romantic-era lithographs, it’s easy to see the difference in temperament and style of the two. This period was the beginning of the nineteenth century “cult of the ballerina”  when male dancers were relegated to character roles and female dancers were idolized.  It was not unusual for ballet  stages to be so strewn with flowers and bouquets by audiences that dancers could scarcely proceed.

By 1838, Philadelphia newspapers, keen to keep up with European gossip,  avidly reported on the state of the Taglioni-Elssler rivalry.  Incidents at theatres reached a fevered pitch which would be shocking today. For instance, when Elssler appeared for the first time at the Paris Opéra as Ondine, la Fille du Danube, The Philadelphia National Gazette reported:

“At length, when the Elsslerites were so bold as to call for an encore in the last act, the Taglionites rose in a body, and poured in a volley of hisses . . .  the claquers of her (Elssler’s) party pummelled without mercy some of the refractory of the opposite party, and the police coming to their aid, the most prominent unfortunate Taglionites were hauled out of the pit by main force. Fanny Elssler remains mistress of the field, or rather of the flood, and she is now the Daughter of the Danube.”

When Stephen Price, the manager of the Park Theatre in New York decided it might be good business to take advantage of all this media attention and engage Elssler to perform in the U.S., he enlisted the aid of Henry Wikoff, left, a Philadelphian who was living in Paris at the time. Wikoff has been called, at times, a gossip, a globe-trotting rogue and a philanderer. Wikoff was, however,  able to make the dancer’s acquaintance and talked Elssler into signing a contract. When Price’s partner at the Park Theatre decided not to honor the contract, Wikoff stepped in and took over the role of impresario, bringing her to America himself.

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When she arrived in New York, on May 3, 1840, the anti-Elssler forces were already at work. The French had assured her that she would not be received well here. It’s important to remember that ballet dancers were often seen as “loose women” at this time, not much better than actresses or chorus girls. The fact that Wikoff and Elssler had adjoining rooms when travelling scandalized Philadelphia matrons staying at their Coney Island hotel.  All the gossip and the efforts of the anti-Elssler faction were a dismal failure, however; the Park Theater in New York where she performed sold out every night.

In June, she moved on to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Street, above. The French diplomat the Chevalier de Bacourt, who was passing through Philadelphia at the time, complained about the railroads, the rudeness of servants here and the uncomfortableness of the hotels, but had this memory of Fanny:

“All Philadelphia was astir to see Fanny Elssler, who danced this evening. She is staying at the same hotel as me. I was very much pleased with her dancing, but what amused me as much was to see the hall crowded, and to hear the furious applause, far exceeding London or Paris, and that applause at Philadelphia, the chief city of the Quakers–Quakers wildly excited over the dancer Fanny elssler. The theater is neither large nor well arranged; on the first row were many very pretty women, all young, and dressed so exactly alike, that one would have taken them for sisters had there not been so many of them.”

The National Gazette proclaimed: “Every dance was encored and she was twice called for to receive bouquets and wreaths by the bushel.” Just as would happen in Baltimore, below, after the performance, cheering Philadelphia dandies unhitched the horses from her carriage and pulled it themselves back to the City Hotel on 3rd Street. The North American, just short of calling them asses, quipped: “The two legged donkeys engaged in this enterprise were, we hope, well fed and curried after their laborious duties were performed.”

For her 10 performances in Philadelphia that summer, Elssler received $6,386. This was at a time when most laborers earned about $3 a week!

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Elssler had come to America with her dancing partner and ballet master, James Sylvain. They had difficult finding adequate stages, orchestras and corps de ballet to work with in the U.S. While in Philadelphia, they hired and trained both Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, right. Both of them would accompany Elssler and Sylvain on their American tour and both would become important dancers in their own right.

Elssler would return to Philadelphia a few times. Her six month leave of absence from the Paris Opéra extended into a two year tour of America and Cuba. She would not return to Paris until July of 1842, having earned an astounding $100,000 in the U.S.

Fanny was more than just the first European superstar, dance or otherwise, to enthrall the American public. Her impact on the popularity of romantic ballet in America was phenomenal, directly inspiring Philadelphia dancers Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, who later formed their own successful touring company. Lee retired at 24, but Smith would have a long career and later founded one of the first classical ballet schools in Philadelphia. In 1858, he paid a great tribute to the divine Austrian ballerina by naming his daughter, Fanny Elssler Smith, after her.

■ Below is a video of Yulia Makhalina dancing a reconstruction of Fanny Elssler’s Cachucha at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. I think Makhalina beautifully captured the energy, precision and spirit of Elssler’s dancing:

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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The Poetry of Skirts

March 17, 2012

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In 1889 and again in 1891, the London Gaiety Girls descended on Philadelphia. They were the girls of the chorus line from London’s Gaiety Theatre – polite, genteel, well-bred young ladies. They introduced Philadelphians to a novelty dance originated by one of their members, Miss Kate Vaughn; see photo right. Kate had costumed herself in a long, black, accordion-pleated skirt which she swirled about as she danced around the stage, creating with it images of voluminous  silken butterflies, flowers and serpentine forms. Audiences were enthralled. “Skirt dancing” didn’t require years of ballet training and impeccable technique, it only needed a few dozen yards of silk, a lithe figure and some feminine gracefulness.

Within a few years Miss Vaughn had spawned hundreds of disciples, variations and imitations in England and America, including Letty Lind, Mable Clark, Chrissie Sheridan, Chicago’s Annabelle Moore and Philadelphia’s own Bessie Clayton.

In 1892, Lottie Collins, left, appearing at the Walnut Street Theatre, brought the house down by adding a little bit of the naughtiness of the  can-can, as she did her high-kicking rendition of the skirt dance to the immensely popular tune “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay!” Depending on the venue, the skirt dance could supply enough artistry to satisfy the ladies and enough glimpses of leg to satisfy the men in the audience.

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From about 1890 to 1910, skirt dancing was synonymous with dancing that was modern and artistic.  It captured both the spirit of the healthy, athletic, “New Woman,” and the aesthetics of the blossoming Art Nouveau movement, which celebrated the curving, sinuous lines found in nature; see William H. Bradley’s 1894 cover for the Chapbook entitled “The Skirt Dance,” below, right.

Soon dance masters in Philadelphia were teaching skirt dancing to every female in their classes between the ages of 5 and 45. Since it required more charm and gracefulness than technique, skirt dancing often showed up at recitals and soirées at the  homes of the social set all around the city. (The New York Times reported that a craze for skirt dancing even appeared among the pupils of a private boys’ school – Columbia University – until it was stopped by the officials of the college on the ground that “the exhibitions are not manly. There is something distinctly effeminate in the spectacle of a boy in girl’s clothing, talking and acting like a girl.”)

Here, the debutante who once entertained guests with tearful ballads warbled at the piano now displayed her terpsichorean skills in a parlor version of the skirt dance. The Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say:

“The muscles of the skirt dancer are so symmetrically developed that there is no touch of ungainliness about the physical form. The unattractive lumps that are painfully visible in the legs of the pirouetting French danseuse are replaced by the long slim lines that bend as gracefully as a reed.

The plump woman must bow to her slim sister’s superiority in this profession, as every teacher of the art will confess . . . her preferable weight is 96 pounds.”

This was, perhaps, the beginning of the 20th century American obsession with the slim, athletic woman and the death knell for the Victorian idealization of the hourglass figure.

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In 1891, Illinois born actress Loie Fuller appeared in a bit part in a vaudeville melodrama called “Quack, M.D.” In it, she portrayed a character who performed a skirt dance while under hypnosis. The play was a mediocre flop, but Loie was a hit. She soon found herself drawn more to dance than to acting. She began experimenting with costume design for her “Serpentine Dance,” using hundreds of yards of gauzy silk for her skirts and manipulating them with long bamboo wands, left.  She also created innovative lighting designs, bathing herself with electric lights, brightly  colored with gels and luminescent salts. Art Nouveau glassmakers were known to consult her about colors and dyes. Her stage craft innovations and effects, using as many as eight lighting technicians, multiple mirrors and projections, were so creative that they were featured in an 1895 issue of Scientific American; see illustration, right.  An article in Cosmopolitan Magazine entitled “The Poetry of Skirts” remarked:

The blackness of the night, the brilliancy of noon, the fluttering of the leaves in the forest, the undulation of the grass on the prairie, the yellow waves of a field of wheat, the tossing surf of the rocky coast, the gleam and glister of the frost on the deadened turf, the sweep of the blowing, blustering, billowing snow – all can be portrayed.”

Fuller found her most responsive audiences in Paris, who called her “La Loïe” and she became the first American expatriate dancer. She returned to the U.S. on  tour many times, however, performing to adoring crowds in Philadelphia’s Walnut Theatre and Chestnut Street Opera House.

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Fuller did something entirely new; she created a dance form that involved her entire body; she was entirely transformed into an abstract, evocative swirl of color and light. The effect was “unique, ethereal and delicious.” Before Ruth St. Denis and Isidora Duncan, whom she introduced to Parisian audiences, she abandoned corsets, danced in bare feet and trained a company of women dancers in her style. She lived openly as a lesbian in Paris for decades, continuing as a pioneer in both dance and technology. She proved that other types of dance than classical ballet could have an intense emotional impact and be perceived as serious art.  Her integration of music, movement, lighting and costume influenced theatre for years after her death.  Fuller had opened the door to 20th century modern dance.

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The beautifully hand colored silent film “Danse Serpentine,” below, was made in 1896 at the Lumière Brothers studio in France. The identity of the dancer on the stage is unknown, but she comes closer to capturing the style of Fuller than some of the dancers filmed by the American Edison studio around the same time.

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● “Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life,” Loie Fuller, 1913

● “The Poetry of Skirts,” Cosmopolitan, April, 1900

● “The Skirt Dance,” Scientific American, June, 1896

● “Skirt Dancing and Its Charms,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 1895

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