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. . .

ASSOCIATIONS GALORE

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”

PHILADELPHIA ENTERS THE FRAY

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.


WERE THEY SUCCESSFUL?

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.

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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.

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GEORGE BROWNELL & MR. FRANKLIN

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

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

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

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

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

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ROBERT BOLTON

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

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

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

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

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

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