April 2, 2013
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: LUMINARY OF THE PHILADELPHIA STAGE
The 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.
ONE BOOK, MANY TITLES
In 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.”
He 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.
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.
• 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: http://www.kickery.com/2008/02/bits-of-bijou-o.html
• Edwina Hare, The Durang Family (Harleysville, PA: Alcom printing group, 2000)