July 7, 2014
THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
These next few posts will explore the urban spaces where Philadelphians danced—where they performed for audiences, taught classes for adults and children and where they hosted their elaborate balls during their winter social seasons. In this post, I’ll talk about two halls, two hotels and two theatres. Clicking on any image will open it larger in a new window.
The map above, from 1795, shows the dark shaded triangle that was the built up part of Philadelphia about 1795. Its broad base stretches along the Delaware Riverfront on the right and its apex barely reaches to 10th Street just north of High (Market) Street, pointing toward the empty Public Square to the west where the tower of City Hall would rise a hundred years later. Click on the map to see a larger version.
The cluster of green dots just below the market stalls of High Street show the concentration of dance spaces in Old City. They are at the heart of a densely populated commercial area, full of inns, banks and shops. The long sets of country dances popular in the eighteenth century required long unobstructed dance floors. In the 1790s, this meant using academic classrooms after school hours, Masonic lodges, taverns, hotels and the large spaces found in public theatres. Only a very few private homes, like that of Samuel and Elizabeth Powel on Third Street south of Walnut, had any kind of space large enough to be called a ballroom.
From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the political and social capital of America. Dance teachers and the schools they established flourished, catering to the elite clientele that competed for places in the capital city’s brilliant social scene.
On Church Alley, just west of Christ Church, “1,” above, was Stephen Sicard’s 30 by 40 foot “noted dancing-room.” Sicard had come to Philadelphia from France about 1783, well before the French Revolution. He advertised himself as “a pupil of the celebrated Mr. Vestries, and assistant master of Mr. Gardell, the first dancing master of the Opera at Paris.” His advertisements made it clear that “he would address his pupils in English.” In 1791, he composed a ballet entitled Congress Returns for his young pupils. Sicard was also a musician and composer. He wrote “The President of the United States’ March” to honor George Washington as well as several sets of cotillions for dancing. Sicard taught dance to hundreds of students in Philadelphia for over thirty years, until his retirement in 1815.
The large room Sicard taught in was also used for lectures, a fencing school, and a concert series. It was owned by Peter le Barbier Duplessis, another Frenchman who came to Philadelphia after the War of Independence. Duplessis was a notary public as well as a certified translator. He was also a Freemason and rented or loaned his room for masonic lodge meetings. Although a French Catholic, Duplessis became involved with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, on Pine Street, where he is buried.
The little cobblestone and brick brick path that now runs from 4th to 3rd Street just behind the Todd House and the Bishop White House on Walnut Street was once an alley called Harmony Court, above. All the buildings on Harmony Court were razed in the 1950s for the landscaping of what is now Independence Park.
The building there, marked in red on the map above, was called Harmony Hall. The dancing hall was on the second floor above a livery stable. Like its counterpart in Church Alley, it hosted meetings, lectures and performances as well as dance classes. At the end of the eighteenth century, several dance masters taught there, including William McDougal, Balthazar Quesnet, Mr. Francis and his good friend, the first American born professional dancer, John Durang.
Harmony Hall and the livery stable were owned by an interesting Philadelphian named Israel Israel, right. Despite his name, he was only half Jewish and married a Quaker wife, Hanna Erwin. He ran the Cross Keys Tavern at Third and Chestnut Streets, rented out stables, owned several buildings and served as the High Sheriff of Philadelphia County. He was also Grand Master of the Grand Lodge for many years, so as with the long room on Church Alley, Harmony Hall was also used for lodge meetings. The Israels now rest in the beautiful Laurel Hill Cemetery.
In the early 1790s, the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly held their dancing season at Old City Tavern, seen next to the Bank of Pennsylvania, left on 2nd Street near Walnut Street for many years. When Oellers’ Hotel opened on Chestnut near 6th they moved there. I’ve talked a bit about Oellers’ Hotel in another blog post here. Among the Philadelphia dancers who taught at Oellers’ were Gaspard Cenas, Mr. Lancon and James Robardet, who instructed George and Martha Washington’s two grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington Custis in the art of dancing. In 1792, George wrote a letter of recommendation for Robardet:
Dear Sister & Dear Madam,
Mr James Robardet, who has taught my two Grand children dancing, proposes going into your part of the Country to establish a School, if he should meet with sufficient encouragement, and has requested that I would give him a line of recommendation to some of my friends. Mr Robardet’s attention to my grand children, and the progress which they have made under his instruction, induce me to recommend him on these accounts from my own knowledge: He has likewise kept a dancing School in this City the winter past—in which I am informed he has given much satisfaction, and his conduct has been marked with decency & propriety, so far as I have heard.
Many of the dance teachers who came to Philadelphia were professional performers who taught classes to supplement their incomes. The two most important theatres in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century were the Southwark, or “Old” Theatre, on the south side of Cedar or South Street near 4th, and the Chestnut Street, or “New” Theatre on the north side of Chestnut near 6th Street. I’ve already given a detailed account of the Southwark Theatre here, and described how the Chestnut Theatre eclipsed it in 1794. A view of the interior of the original Chestnut Theatre, above, shows the rows of plain benches in the pit and the elegant tiers of boxes on either side.
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The Chestnut Theatre and Oellers’, both just west of 6th Street mark the gradual shift of the city’s commercial center west that would begin in the second half of the 18th century and culminate in the construction of a new City Hall at Market and Broad Streets at the end of the 19th century.
January 28, 2012
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KEEPING THE HOLY EXPERIMENT HOLY
Right from the beginning, the fate of dance in Philadelphia was in jeopardy. The city’s formidable Quaker population saw theatre, music and dance as frivolous, dissipated and immoral. As early as 1695, they submitted a petition to the governor and the Pennsylvania Assembly, ” . . . that fidling, dancing, gameing and what Elce may tend to debauch the inhabitanc and to blemish Christianity and dishonour the holy name of God, may bee curbed and restrained both at fairs and all other times.” The petition was in vain, and at their Yearly Meetings in 1696, 1705 and again in 1716, the Friends had to admonish their members against dancing, gaming and music. The need to constantly repeat these warnings tells us how strong the temptations of music and dance were in the early colony. Twenty years later, this address printed in the August, 1736 American Weekly Mercury still summed up the Quaker attitude:
“There are a sort of Idle Artists that strole about the World, called Fencers and Dancers, who make it their Business to accomplish the Hands and Heels, rather than the Heads of our Youth; who under pretence of Teaching them what they call Good Breeding, too often teach them that of Sinning: At best they teach them but certain fashionable Airs or Gestures (which I count unnecessary, wanton, and effeminate) and this at the Expence of much Money, and the precious Time of our Youth: the only Time of Life, best suited, for learning ingenious, commendable and profitable Things.”
FALL FROM GRACE
William Penn’s original Charter had provided for the formation of a committee of manners, education, and arts, “that all wicked and scandalous living may be prevented.” At first, Quaker doctrine and discipline prevailed, but as the 18th century progressed, the Society of Friends gradually became less and less of a dominant force in Philadelphia and they found it difficult to hold others to their strict standards of piety and virtue. By 1706, the Quakers were complaining that a dancing and fencing school was being tolerated in the city and in 1710 we read in a private letter of a dancing master intriguingly referred to as “the facetious Mr. Staples.”
The first really magnificent documented ball in the city was given by Deputy Governor Patrick Gordon for the newly crowned King George II’s birthday, during a three day festival in the fall of 1727. The next year George Brownell and his wife opened a boarding school on Second Street, where they taught reading, writing, cyphering, dancing and needlework to young Philadelphia ladies and gentlemen. This was the same peripatetic George Brownell who, years before, in Boston, had taught writing and arithmetic to a very young Benjamin Franklin.
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THE PHILADELPHIA DANCING ASSEMBLY
By the 1740s, Penn’s idealized Utopia had become a fairly secularized city. Quakers, although a dwindling minority, stubbornly tried to retain political power. Tensions led to the “Bloody Election Riots” of 1742, where they saw their dominance violently, but unsuccessfully, challenged.
Quaker influence in other areas of daily life in Philadelphia would not be so enduring. In 1748, the city’s elite came together to form its most exclusive social group, The Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. Over that winter of 1748-9 they held 9 balls, complete with lavish late night suppers with tea, madeira and chocolate. Dance was now more than just “frivolous” or even “dissipated,” it was a mark of social status and privilege. The subscribers included the governor, the mayor and most of the provincial council. It included wealthy merchants, bankers and professionals. There were Hamiltons, Bonds, Shippens and McCalls; there were Anglicans, two Jews, a few Presbyterians and even two ministers. There was not, however, even in 1748, a single Quaker.
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January 22, 2012
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Dance masters have always tried to control – and condemn – what the untutored masses do on the dance floor. In 1884, appalled by the vulgar habits and sloppy styling that had crept into our nation’s ballrooms, American dance teachers formed The National Association of Masters of Dancing. For decades, they tried unsuccessfully to refine or abolish, in turn, the two-step, the turkey-trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, the tango, the foxtrot, the toddle, the shimmy, the charleston and the lindy hop. Whew! They knew that casting themselves as arbiters of taste and as the only authorities on the latest steps was good for 1. their prestige and 2. their business. The chronic problem, however, was that although teachers could monitor what went on in their classes, they had no control over what the fun loving public was actually doing in dance halls and at public dances.
MISS WALZ TO THE RESCUE
It was Marguerite Walz, a Philadelphia dance teacher and Association member, who decided to change that. In an article entitled “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!,” The Ladies Home Journal reported: “Miss Walz went to the mayor of Philadephia in the spring of 1921 and suggested that the authorities should supervise public dancing. The mayor declared a cleanup was due and he appointed Miss Walz policewoman to supervise dancing in conjunction with the Rev. H. Cresson McHenry, who conducts a mission. ‘My duties,’ said Miss Walz,’ are largely the instruction of about seventy-five policemen who are detailed to enforce the dancing regulations. They are taught what is permissable and what is not . . . The police class in censorship is told not to permit cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, shimmy, toddle or the Washington Johnny, in which the legs are kept spread apart.” Walz thus became not only the city’s first official dance censor, but the first Philadelphia policewoman . . . all without pay. The Evening Public Ledger used the awkward and slightly deprecatory term “copette” to describe her position.
CITY DANCES ON THE PARKWAY
In order to get dancers out of dark, smoky dance halls – there were 4,000 licensed in Philly – and out in public where they could be monitored, the city decided to sponsor outdoor summer dances on the new Parkway, right, and in West Philadelphia. Marguerite’s short film “Etiquette and Dancing” was screened continually during the events and professional dancers were provided as “models” while the city’s police band played waltzes, polkas and very restrained modern tunes. Cash prizes were given to the best – i.e. “approved” – dancers. Although the Parkway was jammed with a crowd of 18,000 dancers in July, Walz made no arrests; the police would step forward and touch offenders on the shoulder and “that was the end of it.” At first demanding that men wear jackets, she settled for banning males with collarless shirts. At the Dancing Masters’ convention in New York in 1921, Miss Waltz could cheerfully report, “ . . . block parties, with thousands fox-trotting on the streets had improved the reputation of dancing in her city.” Was this anything more than optimistic posturing? We can’t know.
By 1922, Miss Marguerite Walz, (the real life Mrs. Charles Townsend of Lansdowne), had earned a national repution as “The East Coast Dance Censor.” Articles about her and quotes from her appeared in newspapers across the country. Touting her alleged Philadelphia accomplishments to Gothamites, she soon opened a branch dance studio in New York City. Paraphrasing Woodrow Wilson, she proposed forming a union of dance instructors, “to make dancing safe for decency.” When later that year she was involved with scandal by association when her brother “Chubby” from Camden, NJ was arrested for murder, Miss Walz coolly and somewhat self-servingly replied, “This whole thing is terrible. You can tell the mothers of America that if the youth of today were not so blatant and vulgar in their speech, this terrible tragedy would never have occurred.”
Today, 90 years later, it’s hard to judge Miss Walz’s motives and intentions. Was she a truly moral minded reformer, or was she a small time dance teacher with ambition and a keen eye for publicity? Early in 1922 Rev. McHenry distanced himself from the whole dance reform movement, publicly charging that Miss Walz had distorted the dance evil facts for “self-glorification and business reason.” Walz replied, “For my part, it is much more fitting that this should be taken up and discussed in the privacy of the committee.”
How was a local dance teacher able to gain media attention and rise to national celebrity status? How, not long after the frankly unenforceable Prohibition Amendment had taken effect, was the city able to spare seventy-five officers to police public dances? Perhaps frustrated reformers saw this as one small step in trying to control the social upheavals caused by jazz music, short skirts, technology, bootlegging and general lawlessness that threatened the complacency of 1920s Philadelphia.
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Evr’ybody shimmies now, ev’rybody’s learning how.
Brother Bill, Sister Kate, shiver, like jelly on a plate.
Shimmie dancing can’t be beat,
moves evr’ything except your feet.
Feeble folks mighty old,
shake the shimmie and they shake it bold.
Oh! Honey won’t you show me how,
‘cause ev’rybody shimmies now.
– 1919, Eugene West
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● I just discovered that the Fairmount Park Association’s “Museum Without Walls” Audio has more about these 1920s dances on the Parkway here:
Here’s a picture of the Parkway dances they posted from the Evening Bulletin: