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.

Rococco 1

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.

ChestnutTheatreInterior

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.

* * *

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.

Rococco 1

La Valse

April 29, 2012

“No dance, indeed, tends more to turn the heads of women, and to inflame their senses.”

                     – The Balance, Hudson, N.Y. 1808

* * *

ON THE BEAUTIFUL, BLUE DANUBE

When we hear the word “Waltz,” chances are we envision dashing, mustachioed cavaliers whirling crinoline-skirted beauties around a candlelit Viennese ballroom. Violins throb, sabres and jewels flash; the scent of gardenias and the sound of laughter fill the air. We have Johann Strauss Jr. and, of course, Hollywood to thank for that image.

The Waltz, like many later 19th century ballroom dances, had its origins somewhere in central Europe, appearing first in the 1770s as a variation used in cotillions and contredances, then gaining popularity as a dance in its own right in Vienna and Berlin before being exported to Paris and London. By the time Strauss, “The Waltz King,” introduced his stirringly sentimental composition “The Blue Danube,” in 1867, the Waltz had reigned in European ballrooms for over seventy years.

The road from little known dance variation to “Queen of the Ballroom” had been slow, unsteady and beleaguered by opposition. The staples of the 18th century dancing assemblies had been the Minuet and the Country Dance (see the February 19 post, below.) Both comprised strictly regulated movements,  allowed only minimal physical contact between dance partners and demanded awareness of not only other dancers, but of the scrutiny of onlookers as well. The Waltz, however,  was done in close embrace, with partners gazing into each others eyes, isolating each couple in their own private sphere of enjoyment (see illustration below). In this sense, the Waltz was the first of what we would consider our repertoire of modern social ballroom dances.

Arms were wrapped about each other, heads were flung from side to side in abandon and legs were intimately intertwined as the pair glided counter-clockwise around the room while rotating clockwise about each other (see illustration, right), like the celestial dance of the earth and the moon as they revolve around the sun. Worried mothers not only complained that their daughters now appeared in the intimate embrace of a man in public, but they feared  that the constant voluptuous whirl of the dance would make young girls giddy and prone to lapses of good judgment, claiming that dancing three Waltzes made females as light headed as drinking three glasses of champagne. Rumors even spread of young married women who, “running into the vortex of the waltz with impaired features and fatigued organs,” were seen to fall dead in the arms of their partners!

WICKED, WICKED

The early illustrations of the Waltz, above, showing skimpily clad couples dancing in intimate physical contact and enjoying it immensely, help us to understand that many of the initial objections to waltzing were not unfounded. American reactions to the dance were as varied as European ones, from enthusiastic acceptance, to ambivalence to outright condemnation. In 1802, indignant reader wrote to the Federalist Gazette of the United States:

“. . .the Waltz dance, by the discreet and correct part of our community, is decisively conceived to be incompatible with the dignity and delicacy of the “American fair,” and to be only adapted to the character of an hireling or a slave in the halls of an Eastern despot, where the effeminate lord and the abject ministers of his pleasure are upon the same level of baseness and degradation.”

– LYTTLETON

Seen as the product of foreign sensuality and degeneracy, in “Lyttleton’s” eyes, the Waltz had no place in virtuous American ballrooms.

* * *

AMONG PHILADELPHIANS

In 1802, Jewish educator, philanthropist and celebrated beauty Rebecca Gratz, left, was 22. Philadelphia at the time was swarming with French emigrés; it was said that one could not walk down city streets without hearing French spoken. In a letter to her friend Maria Fenno, she described her reaction to first seeing the Waltz done at a ball attended by many of the French community: “The French ladies & gentlemen danced the volts [sic]. It is not a delicate or I fancy an agreeable dance.”

Some feared that the democratization of the French during their revolution led to the democratization –and corruption– of popular dancing there. It would take several years before the Waltz would become an accepted part of genteel social dance in Philadelphia.

* * *

THE CORRECT METHOD

The first treatise on the Waltz to appear in English was Thomas Wilson’s “A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing,” which was published in 1816. Like all dance masters, Wilson tried to regulate the more objectionable parts of the Waltz, strictly describing the dance’s steps using the technical balletic five positions of the feet and warning against all attitudes and movements that were not “graceful and pleasing.” He attributed the bad reputation of waltzing to the fact that “every dance was subject to abuse, and now that waltzing was more prevalent among other than the first classes of society, it was in danger of being less refined, less proper and far less than correct.” He claimed to have published his book, therefore, with the intention “of remedying so great an evil.” The reference plate of acceptable Waltz positions from his treatise, below, certainly shows a far more formal and controlled style than the wild abandon apparent in the French engravings, above, from ten years before, but many more holds and positions than are seen in ballrooms today. Wilson also distinguished between two main types of Waltz: French Waltzing, done high on the toes to slower music and German Waltzing done on a flat foot to faster music.

* * *

ONE MORE FIRST FOR PHILADELPHIA

Philadelphia lays claims to many American innovations; the first hospital, fire insurance company, lithographer, steamboat, horticultural society, even American’s first carpet factory.  The list may seem endless, but perhaps we can add one more item.

In 1793, Thomas Wignell and Alexander Reinagle opened their beautiful New Theatre on Chestnut Street west of 6th Street. The opening season was spoiled by the onset of the Yellow Fever epidemic in the city. Wignell used this unfortunate delay to sail for England to hunt for talent for his theatre. Among the many performers he hired were the accomplished dancer, comedian and character actor, William Bodley Francis, right, and his actress wife. In the fall of  1796, Wignell also hired James Byrne, who had been the ballet master and principal dancer at London’s prestigious Covent Garden, and Byrne’s wife, who was also a dancer. After only a few weeks, Byrne and Francis had formed a partnership and opened a dancing academy at Oeller’s Hotel on Chestnut Street across from the Theatre where they performed; many 18th century Philadelphia stage dancers supplemented their incomes by teaching social dancing classes. (For a description and illustration of Oeller’s, see the February 16th post, below). Philadelphia city directories from the period show the Byrnes and the Francises all sharing a house at 70 N. 8th Street.

On February 25th, 1797, Francis and Byrne placed the following advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette:

It is possible that Byrne, having just arrived in Philadelphia from Europe a few weeks before, could have brought the new dance with him. This would mean that Philadelphia ladies were ahead of their Boston and New York sisters in having their senses inflamed and their organs fatigued, and adds another in the long list of firsts for Philadelphia. I wonder if the “German Waltz” the ad refers to is the flat-footed style that Thomas Wilson described in his treatise, a style that would have been more popular before the Waltz was metamorphosed in Paris. Byrne and his wife returned to London a year later, but Mr. Francis made his home here in Philadelphia, teaching and performing at the Chestnut Street Theatre until his death in 1827. He is buried in Christ Church Burial Ground, only a few blocks from the Chestnut Street hotel where he first helped introduce Philadelphia, if not America, to the voluptuous whirl of the Waltz.

“Get all the ladies that you can
And let each lady have a man;
Let them in a circle plac’d,
Take their partners round the waist;
Then by slow degrees advance,
Till the walk becomes a dance;
Then the twirling face to face,
Without variety or grace,
Round and round and never stopping,
Now and then a little hopping;
When you’re wrong, to make things worse,
If one couple, as perverse,
Should in the figure be perplex’d,
Let them be knocked down by the next,
‘Quicker now!’ the Ladies cry,
They rise, they twirl, they swim, they fly;
Pushing, blowing, jostling, squeezing,
Very odd, but very pleasing–
Till ev’ry Lady plainly shows,
(Whatever else she may disclose,)
Reserve is not among her faults,
Reader, this it is to waltz!”

The Newburyport Herald, 1820

SOURCES

  French illustrations from Le Bon Genre, 1801 and 1806

  “The Circle Formed in Waltzing” and the Waltz “Reference Plate,” from Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of Waltzing, London, 1816

  Portrait of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully, 1831

  Excerpt from a letter of Rebecca Gratz to Maria Fenno from the Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress

  Engraving of Mr. Francis after a painting by J. Neagle. The engraver, James Barton Longacre, is best known for designing the Indian Head Cent. This print was published in Philadelphia in 1826, shortly before Francis’ death.

* * *

* * *

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.

* * *

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?

%d bloggers like this: