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.

1790 Phila dance spots

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.

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church alley

CHURCH ALLEY

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.

1796 Harmony Hall

HARMONY HALL

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.

1797

IsraelHarmony 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.

TWO HOTELS

Old City TavernIn 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.

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TWO THEATRES

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.

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WHAT WOULD WASHINGTON DANCE?

We don’t have any evidence about how or when George Washington learned to dance, but it probably wasn’t from a book. His formal education, provided to him as one of ten children of an aristocratic Virginia family, ended in his early teens. The dances of 18th century ballrooms, the minuet, the reel, the jig, the cotillion and the country dance all required skill, grace, rhythm and balance. Washington loved music but was not a musician. Even so, while in Philadelphia, he held his own in company with polished dancers, all the  while under the scrutiny of the  highly critical public. He must have had instruction somewhere, especially to execute the complicated rhythms, patterns and steps of the minuet.

Below is a letter of recommendation by Washington on behalf of Philadelphia dance master James Robardet, who had instructed the President’s grandchildren at his dancing school on Walnut St. between 3rd and 4th Sts.:

Philad. April 26th 1792.
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.

                                                                       G.W.

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THE MINUET: THE PERFECTION OF ALL DANCING

The minuet was to 18th century ballrooms what the waltz would be in the 19th century, the enduring grande dame of dances. The dance steps and musical form of the minuet had originated in France in the 1660s. Under the watchful eye of Louis XIV, France had come to dominate European–and therefore American–fashions in clothing, food, art, music and dance and it would maintain that cultural dominance for several hundred years.

The 18th century ballroom minuet began every formal ball. 18th century dance manuals give detailed descriptions of the form and steps of the minuet. More “Dancing With the Stars” than leisure activity, it was performed by one couple at a time while the rest of the assembly looked on. The highest ranking or most honored couple would lead off the first one. In keeping with its highly ceremonial quality, the minuet began and ended with formal bows and curtsies called “honors” to partner and to the company. (See illustration, right, from Kellom Thomlinson’s Art of Dancing, London, 1735.) The unique quality of the minuet was that unlike other choreographed ballroom dances of the time, where certain steps went to certain parts of the music, it allowed for improvisation and spontaneity within a framework. There were sections that had to be performed, alternating with “S” patterns, where the couple exchanged places,  that could be repeated at will. (See the illustration from Thomlinson below, left.) There was a step vocabulary particular to the minuet, but the steps chosen and the number of steps used to complete each figure could vary. Good dancers were also encouraged to make figures NOT fit perfectly with the eight bar sections of the music. The dance demanded focus, control and spatial awareness of both the partner and the onlookers, all to achieve an air of unaffected ease and nonchalance. The dancers approached and withdrew from each other in a display of courtship, grace, skill and power. The level of skill necessary to carry all this off was akin to the training and technique a competent tango dancer needs today.

When the most important couple had completed the first minuet of the evening, they would separate and alternately choose another partner. There was an inherent protocol; being asked to dance the minuets was a distinct honor. Philadelphia ladies proudly noted in their journals and diaries when they had been asked to dance by Mr. Washington. On the other hand, there was also a certain social power that women could yield in the right of refusal. A 1749 letter to Thomas Penn describes an incident at a ball between his brother, Governor John Penn, and a certain Mrs. Taylor: “The Governor would have opened the Assembly with Mrs. __ but she refused him, I suppose because he had not been to visit her. After Mrs. __ ‘s refusal, two or three Ladies out of modesty & from no manner of ill design excused themselves so that the Governor was put a little to his Shifts; when Mrs. Willing, now Mrs. Mayoress, in a most genteel manner put herself into his way & on the Governor seeing this instance of her good nature he jumped at the Occasion and they danced the first Minuet.”

These technically challenging, presentational, single couple minuets would usually go on for the first few hours of the evening before giving way to the popular, more relaxed cotillions and country dances.

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COUNTRY DANCE

Much more democratic than the minuet, the country dances were done by couples in long parallel lines, men on one side, women on the other. In the course of the dance each couple proceeds up and down the rows to dance figures with all the other couples. (See the illustration, above, from Hogarth’s 1753 Analysis of Beauty.) Each “set” could contain up to ten couples, and large ballrooms could hold several sets of dancers, so the entire assembly could dance at once. The rows of dancers that country dances required help explain the long, narrow shape of the 18th century Philadelphia rooms that were used for dancing, such as the ballroom in the City Tavern and the upper floor of Independence Hall.

There are choreographies for thousands of 18th century country dances from England, Ireland and America. One of the earliest collection of these was John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, published in 1651. In the late 1680s, English country dances were introduced to France. There, they were fitted up with French dance steps: pas de bourrée, glissade, sissone, balancé etc. The term “country dance” was taken into French as “contredanse.” Ironically, the French “contredanse” wass then introduced to New England, where the French “contredanse” then became “contra dance.” The country dances and tunes found in early American collections took on a patriotic hue, boasting names like “Burgoyne’s Defeat,” “Washington’s Reel,” “City of Philadelphia” and “Lafayette Forever.”

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LEGACY

Most of the figures of the 18th century English country dance were used the cotillion, a country dance variation where four couples faced each other in a square, rather than in long rows. Cotillions developed into quadrilles in the 19th century and eventually into western square dances. The steps and figures of country dancing, like allemande, casting off, changing places, ladies change and hands across are all familiar to modern recreational dancers who do square dancing or English country dancing. Its minimal skill requirement and sociability have served country dancing well; new dances. tunes and figures are still being created today in the tradition of 18th century English country dance.

The minuet hasn’t fared so well. By the time Washington was leading off the first dance at the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly, the minuet was already well over a hundred years old. Dances, like people, tend to slow down and become more sober as they age. By the 1810s, the minuet was a stodgy ballroom relic, used for only the most formal occasions. The minuet faded from national memory until 1876, the great Centennial of American Independence. When the dance was reconstructed for centennial celebrations, it became what 19th century Philadelphians wanted, a nostalgic symbol of a nobler, idealized era. Victorian reconstructions of the “stately” minuet featured much fussy bowing and scraping, fingertip hand holds and mincing,  daintily pointed feet – all of which would have been alien to the 18th century aesthetic. (See the illustration, above, right, “The Stately Minuet – the dance of our great-grand-sires,” from a 1900 stereopticon slide.) That precious, mincing minuet style reared its badly-wigged head again for the Sesquicentennial in 1926, where colonial dames appeared in white cotton wigs and ’20s-style dropped waist “revolutionary war-era” gowns.  It was this theatricalized style of minuet, filtered through the prism of Victorian romanticism, that has appeared in dozens of Hollywood movies from the 1910s right up to the present. Dancing, like history, tends to be what each generation needs it to be.

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● Since dance is a visual medium, here’s a sample of a good reconstruction of part of an 18th century minuet on YouTube by Atlanta Baroque Dance:

● You can read more about George Washington and 18th century American dance in: George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance by Kate Van Winkle Keller, The Hendrickson Group, 1998 and in Dance and Its Music in America: 1528-1729, also by Kate Van Winkle Keller, Pendragon Press, 2007

● The inexpensive 1984 Dance Books Ltd. reprint of John Playford’s 1651 The English Dancing Master seems to be out of print, but there is an online facsimile of it here.

● Lastly, all of Kellom Thomlinson’s 1735 Art of Dancing is available on the Library of Congress wonderful “American Memory” website here.

Oh, and a happy Presidents’ Day 2012 to all!

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DANCE AS STATECRAFT

George and Martha Washington lived here in Philadelphia, in the large house on Market St. near 6th, from November of 1790 until March of 1797.  During those seven years, they were an important part of the social as well as political fabric of this city. An increasingly evolving protocol demanded that they host and attend formal dinners and parties, attend concerts and theatre and that they be present at countless balls, dances and assemblies.

The first president, although a large-framed man, was  graceful and athletic and thoroughly enjoyed dancing. The self control that Washington had mastered in his political demeanor served him well in the ballroom. History records him partnering with many Philadelphia belles on the dance floor; he danced at the City Tavern, Oeller’s Hotel on Chestnut St. near Sixth St. and often at the Powel House on Third Street. As for Martha, we have no record of her dancing and no reason given for that fact. Whether she couldn’t or wouldn’t dance remains a mystery.

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THE PHILADELPHIA DANCING ASSEMBLY

Of all the social functions in the city, the most exclusive was the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. The Assembly, founded in 1748, was an organization that sponsored formal balls every other week during the winter social season. Following the model of English upper class society, its membership was restricted to those who were of high enough social status, who could afford the subscription fee, maintain the necessary wardrobe and who had the leisure time and self-assurance to learn to dance well. By the 1790s, the Assemblies had outgrown their usual venue at the City Tavern. When Oeller’s Hotel, pictured above, far right, opened on the south side of Chestnut St. near 6th st., they moved their fortnightly dances there. Oeller’s was the first establishment in the city to call itself a “hotel.” Its Assembly Room, according to Henry Wansey’s Excursion to the United States, was “a most elegant room, sixty feet square, with a handsome music gallery at one end . . . papered after the French fashion, with the Pantheon figures in compartments, imitating festoons, pillars and groups of antique drawings, in the same style as lately introduced in the most elegant houses in London.”  The circular building in the center of the drawing, above, is Rickett’s Circus and to the left, across 6th St., is Congress Hall.

Each February, from 1791 to 1797, the Dancing Assembly hosted a birth night ball, in honor of President Washington.  The Federal Gazette described the 1791 ball: “. . . it is with particular pleasure we record one of the most elegant, numerous and splendid dancing assemblies ever in this city . . .  At the ball were present  besides our beloved General, his lady, the Vice-President of the United States and lady, several members of the United States and State Legislatures with their ladies, and a very brilliant concourse of strangers and citizens; the whole exhibiting the rapid growth and advancement of the refined and social pleasures in America.” In 1792, when a rival “New Dancing Assembly” was formed, there were TWO birthday balls on consecutive nights; Washington attended them both. Some of the birth night balls were so large that the dancing took place in the Rickett’s Circus building and refreshments were served next door in Oeller’s Hotel, with communicating doors added between them.

The birth night balls in Philadelphia became a tradition honoring America’s highly esteemed first president. The first of these was in February of 1798, almost a year after Washington had left office. The same invitation was sent to President John Adams as was sent to everyone else. Feeling slighted and perhaps insulted by the fact that there had been no ball honoring his own birthday the preceding October, Adams’ reply to the Dancing Assembly managers was short and to the point:

GENTLEMEN,

“I have received your polite Invitation to a Ball on Thursday the 22nd inst. & embrace the earliest opportunity to inform you that I decline accepting it.”

I am, Gentlemen,
Your most obedient
& humble Servant.

next: What Would Washington Dance?

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