– motto over the Southwark’s proscenium

* * *


     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.”


     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.


     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.


■ “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


Philly on Tap: Part II

July 30, 2012

Baby Edwards – of all the girl dancers . . . she’s the best I’ve seen. But she didn’t get the breaks . . .  Shirley Temple’s good. But she wasn’t as good as Edith. I’m not talking that for color. I’m talking about what I see.

– John Hart

        There are so many African American women dancers who never got the recognition they deserved: Cora La Redd, Harriet Browne, Ludie Jones, Tina Pratt, Lois Miller, Juanita Pitts, Alice Whitman, Libby Spencer, Edwina Evelyn, Mildred Thorpe, Louise Madison, Jeni LeGon and Philadelphia’s Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt. The list could go on and on. These women competed in the traditionally male world of tap and challenged the conventions of what it meant to be a woman dancer.


        Edith Edwards, left, was born the youngest of seven children in South Philadelphia in 1922. She always gave credit to her brother Harry who taught her and other neighborhood kids to tap dance in their kitchen. “I danced more like a boy,” Edith said about her training. By the time she was 3, she was performing as “Baby Edwards,” winning amateur kiddie contests at places like the Standard Theatre on South St. and the Gibson on Broad St. She’d be the first black performer to dance on the Sunday morning “Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour” radio show. She became a regular performer there, singing and dancing on the show for about five years. Below is a photo of performers from the Horn and Hardart Show from 1934. Baby is in the second row from the top, second from the left, the only African-American in a sea of white faces. The photo is from the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.

* * *


        It was hard to make it as a solo tap act, but even harder if you were African American and a woman. Despite that, in the ‘30s, Edith performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, above, sharing a stage with Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Billie Holiday. She’d do a song and dance solo in front of the chorus. In 1939 she performed on Broadway in  Swingin’ the Dream,  a jitterbug and swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


        In the ‘40s  she teamed up with Willie “Span” Joseph to form an act they called Spic and Span. The duo toured the African American club and theatre circuit and did USO shows in Europe. They’d perform an energetic series of flash and rhythm steps, usually including her specialty – dropping into a front split as Willie did a side or “straddle” split in the air over her, right.

         By the 1960s, “Baby” had largely retired, taking care of her mother in Philadelphia and teaching tap through the Philadelphia Recreation Department. In 1995 she was one of the featured performers in Stepping in Time,  a celebration of the long tradition of Philadelphia African American performers at the Arts Bank on south Broad Street. Edith died in 2000, at the age of 78.

        Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt has been described as a truly charismatic performer. She was a great tap dancer, but it was said that she simply had to appear to get applause; audiences just loved her.


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here: http://www.folkloreproject.org/folkarts/resources/documentaries/plenty/plenty.php

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge: http://www.phillytapchallenge.com/  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a short clip of “Baby” performing. The clip is undated, but it’s probably at “Stepping in Time” in Philadelphia, in 1995, when she was 73:

Philly on Tap: Part I

July 19, 2012

Did they just do it faster in Philly? To be sure, there is an impressive short list of tap dancers hailed as having “the fastest feet in the business” who had come from Philadelphia. They include Honi Coles, Earl “Groundhog” Basie, Teddy Hale, Charlie Rice, Henry Meadows, LaVaughn Robinson, Steve Condos and the Condos Brothers, the Clark Brothers and (if you count their five-year residency in Philly when their parents directed the pit orchestra band at the Standard Theatre) the Nicholas Brothers.

 – Constance Vallis Hill, from “Tap Dancing in America.”


        No city in America could beat Philly for tap dancing talent in the 1920s and ’30s. It seemed that every street corner along South St. and in South Philly was alive with rhythm. Dancers would show off their tap skills trying to outdo each other with “over-the-tops,”” barrel turns” and “wings” on street corners for an appreciative audience that would shower them with money. Everyone staked out and fought for their own spaces, the best dancers claiming the corners nearest to Broad St. Local black tappers could find plent of inspiration on the stages of Philadelphia’s venues for African-Americans: the Standard Theatre (right) at 1124 South St. and the Royal at 1524 South St., or the Gibson at Lombard and Broad Sts. Philadelphia would generously send out all that talent to fill the stages of New York and to light up the silver screen in Hollywood.

         It would be easy to devote an entire blog to the incredible array of tap dancers that Philadelphia gave birth to in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll write about more of them over the next few weeks, but this post is devoted to Charles “Honi” Coles.


          Charles “Honi” Coles (left), was born in Philadelphia on April 2, 1911, the son of George and Isabel Coles. It was on the music-filled streets of Philadelphia that he learned to tap dance. He was also influenced by performers he saw on Philly stages, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. In 1931, at age 20, he’d leave for New York, performing there as one of the Three Millers. When he discovered his partners had replaced him, he returned to Philadelphia for a while to hone his technique, practicing for long  hours to add speed and complexity to his steps. He returned to New York in 1934, and at the Apollo Theatre and the Harlem Opera House, he gained a reputation for being one of the fast tappers in the business. At 6’2”, he was tall, lanky, precise and elegant.

        He then toured the country with the best  ‘30s big bands like those of Count Basie, Cab Calloway  and Duke Ellington. While with Calloway, he met and partnered with Charles “Cholly” Atkins. They’d perform everything from exquisitely slow soft shoe to precision high-speed tapping, (right). Through the 1940s, they appeared with almost every band in America, as well as on the Broadway stage. Their partnership would last 19 years.

         In the 1950s, even as tap was declining in popularity, Honi Coles opened a dance studio in  New York. He survived by working as a stage manager at the Apollo Theatre and also served as president of the Negro Actors Guild. In the 1970s, when America was rediscovering tap, Coles would help lead that revival, partnering with tap exponent Brenda Bufalino, (below). He’d go on to teach master classes at Yale, Cornell and Duke Universites. In the ’70s and ’80s, he’d appear on Broadway in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” impersonating the legendary Bert Williams and in “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune and Twiggy.

         In 1988, Charles “Honi” Coles was given the Capezio Award for lifetime achievement and in 1991, a year before he died, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 2003,  he was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame.

It was Lena Horne who said of Coles: “Honi makes butterflies look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire.”


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here: http://www.folkloreproject.org/folkarts/resources/documentaries/plenty/plenty.php

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge: http://www.phillytapchallenge.com/  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a 1949 clip of Coles and Atkins about the time they were performing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”:

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.

* * *


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!

* * *


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:

* * *

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.

* * *


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.

* * *


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

* * *


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.

* * *


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 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.

* * *


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

* * *

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.

* * *


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.

* * *


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.

* * *


“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!”

* * *


●  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.

* * *

* * 

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

* * *


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

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

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

* * *


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

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

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

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

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

* * *


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

* * *


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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *


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

  The Philadelphia Inquirer 1911-1916

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

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

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