March 19, 2013
FRENCH REFUGEES IN PHILADELPHIA
Most of the the early dancing masters who came to Philadelphia were professionals who were attached to a theatre or acting troupe. Many of them had performed in London or at the Paris Opéra. They taught classes in social dance to the public to supplement the income they earned from stage dancing. At the end of the 18th century, however, Philadelphia found itself flooded with aristocratic refugees from both the French Revolution and Haitian slave revolts, below, left. It was said that in the 1790s, it was impossible to walk down the streets of the city without hearing French spoken. Some of these impoverished nobles had to support themselves by now teaching the skills that their social positions had required them to learn: drawing, painting, fencing, music and dance. One of these refugees was Victor Guillou, a sugar plantation owner turned dance teacher and educator who would also publish the first dance manual printed in Philadelphia.
The French Revolution, with its “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” and its radical ideals of freedom and equality, first took root on the French island colony of Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was then called, in 1791, fomenting an unprecedented bloody civil war between African slaves and white plantation owners. Slaves at the time outnumbered whites and free blacks ten-to-one. The war dragged on for 13 years, longer than the French Revolution itself, claiming the lives of an estimated 350,000 Haitians and 50,000 European troops, until the free republic of Haiti was declared in 1804.
Victor Guillou, the great-grandson of a white Haitian sugar and coffee planter, had been sent to France to study as a youth. In 1794, when the French officially abolished slavery in their colonies, he returned to Saint-Domingue to join the military. As violence worsened, he was able to ship the women in his family off the Philadelphia where he eventually joined them, settling in a house at 294 Market Street.
Guillou helped support his transplanted family by teaching dance while his wife opened a boarding school for young ladies. From 1812 until 1819 he held classes and balls at the new Masonic Hall, right, on the north side of Chestnut Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. The Grand Saloon there was 36 feet wide and 77 feet long, illuminated with gas lit chandeliers. Below is a lithograph of a costume ball inside that Masonic Hall done some years later. It was badly damaged in a fire in 1819, partially rebuilt, then torn down in 1853.
For the next 20 years he’d teach dancing in Philadelphia, at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street, at Washington Hall on Third Street near Spruce, then at the new Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street. However, Guillou never lost his desire for the life of a planter. In 1825, he left Philadelphia for a plantation in Puerto Rico. When this venture failed, three years later he returned to Philadelphia and the life of a city dancing master. In the 1830s, Guillou became the first American teacher to employ the pedagogical techniques of Joseph Jacotot, who believed that all men were equally intelligent and that anyone could teach themselves anything. Finally, in 1836, he retired to a sugar estate in Santiago de Cuba, where he lived until his death in 1842. His son Constant would become a prominent Philadelphia attorney and the founder and first president in 1860 of the Philadelphia Photographic Society, the first in the country.
THE ART OF DANCING
In 1817, Victor Guillou published an English translation of a Parisian dance manual for use by his students and for sale to rural dancers who had no dance master available. This Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing is important because of its description of the steps used in the newly fashionable quadrilles, which Guillou calls “cottillions” here.
The book begins with a brief history of dancing and its benefits. It then describes the principles necessary to make a good dancer: good taste, an ear for music, elasticity of physical form and a relaxed comportment. It continues with some exercises and a discussion of the five basic dance positions, related to those still used in classical ballet today. The illustration of those basic dance positions, right, is from a dance manual by English dancing master Thomas Wilson from about the same period. There follow detailed descriptions of various steps, such as assemblé, jeté, sisone, échappé, temps levé and chassé. These steps are then arranged into combinations which are fitted to figures of the quadrille, such as “ladies’ chain,” “right and left,” “half promende” and “hands around.” Each of these figures takes four measures of music in 2/4 or 6/8 time. The high level of technical ability required to execute any of these steps and combinations correctly can be best illustrated by a sample description of the assemblé:
ON THE STEP CALLED ASSEMBLÉ,
Executed in the third position.
In order to perform this step place yourself in the third position, &c. as explained in the former chapters; then place the weight of the body entirely upon the fore foot and straight on the hips. This will naturally disengage the foot behind; bend on the fore knee, raising at the same time the foot behind on the toes, which will cause the hind knee to bend also; hold that knee out well, and unfold it by sliding the foot (near to the floor without touching it) as far as the second position, which it will reach extended at the same instant the leg you stand on will reach its bend. To finish this step, elevate and bring down, at the same time, the extended leg upon the other, in the third position. Where the knees must be straight, you must alight on the toes upon the floor and not suffer the heels to come down heavily; they must be brought down gradually, making use of the strength and elasticity of the muscles of the instep to support the body until they reach the floor. Then push them a little forward, which will considerably assist the turning of the toes and knees out. Practice this alternately with both feet.
Whew. These were technically difficult 18th century balletic steps that were still being used in the new cotillions and quadrilles of the 19th century. They required hours of practice and instruction by a dancing master to execute correctly and gracefully. Some teachers and dancing schools even employed stocks, called tourne hanche or “hip turners” on their pupils. These machines were boxes with wooden rails that forced the student’s legs to turn out until the ideal 180 degree angle was reached. The poor anguished girl on the right in the picture, below, is standing in one of these boxes. (Guillou’s book calls the use of such stocks “vicious and dangerous.”)
By the 1830s, most of the figures of quadrilles were being done using only walking steps. By the 1840s any of the steps mentioned above were out of style in ballroom dancing; using them in 1850 would have been seen as vulgar and exhibitionistic.
Victor Guillou, Elements and Principles of Dancing., Philadelphia 1817
John Thomas Sharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia 1609-1884, Philadelphia, 1884, Vol. 2, p 964.