Coll feet

Dancing is to the body what reading is to the mind. – V.G., Philadelphia, 1817


HowePeople have always learned social dances in many ways. For most, watching others dance out in public and imitating their moves was the easiest and most common way; a little practice at home and they were set to go. The advent of  movies and later, of television dance shows, like “American Bandstand” in the 1950s, added another dimension to this learning model.

Some would-be dancers spent a great deal of time and money in dance studios and academies studying with professional teachers. For others, the next best thing to studying with a master was buying his or her “Learn to Dance” book; Arthur Murray made his name and fortune through the mail order home-study dance courses he promoted in the early 1920s. It’s the published dance texts and their authors that we’re going to examine here.


Wilson - 5 positionsPrinted dance manuals are our primary sources for learning about the details of dances of the past. The social hierarchy that developed during the Industrial Revolution created a need for books of rules and regulations to help navigate the complex social landscape, so these handbooks proliferated through the 1800s.

The typical nineteenth century dance manual contained a brief preface on the history of social dance, an essay on the physical and mental benefits of learning to dance, a section on dance steps and technique, example, right, a reference section on specific dances, usually organized by type, and almost always a guide to ballroom behavior and rules of etiquette. Nineteenth technological advances in printing, such as the use of steam power and the invention of the rotary press, made made these books and pamphlets cheap to produce and affordable to more people than ever.


Durang bow 1856Dance masters and mistresses wrote these books for a number of reasons. Some did it specifically for their own students, some to publicize their classes and themselves, some simply for extra income. Many stressed that their books were meant as a memory aid and were not meant to replace personal classroom instruction.

Some authors simply translated popular European manuals of the time, (Americans were still very much influenced by European fashion). Even the ones who created new works borrowed heavily, even verbatim, from other dance manual authors, sometimes acknowledging them, sometimes not. The issue of copyright and intellectual property did not become much of a problem until the twentieth century.

Hillgrove two couples


These detailed dance manuals, although primary source for the study of dances of the past, have their limitations. Above all, they are still limited verbal descriptions of complex movements and interactions. Contemporary readers would have been familiar to some extent with the dances and the ballrooms they were done in; they didn’t have to work to place them in a long-gone aesthetic and social milieu the way that we do. Most manuals were written for a specific place and social class and all of them reflect the biases and limitations of their authors. Finally, there was then, as today, a difference between the rules and ideals that dance masters were prescribing and what was actually being done in private parties, dance halls and ballrooms. Every dancer makes a dance his or her own.



Over the next few posts I’ll examine the works of several Philadelphia dance masters who published books between 1817 and 1922. I’ll discuss the format and content of the books  as well as  details of the lives of the authors and the part they played in the fabric of Philadelphia’s changing urban life.

Next: The French Connection – Victor Guillou

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Schneider, Gretchen, “Using Nineteenth Century American Social Dance Manuals,” Dance Research Journal 14/1&2 (1981-1982)

“An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals,” The Library of Congress. (Last accessed March 3, 2013).

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. . .


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”


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.


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.

The Quaker City Takes the Cake

September 17, 2012

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       Throughout most of the 19th century, the dances that Americans did were the same ones being done in elegant European ballrooms; the waltz, the polka, the schottische and the quadrille. All that changed toward the end of the century, when the first American-born popular dance swept over the country, then the world. That dance was the cake walk.

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        Like most of the later dances that America would export to the rest of the world – think the charleston, the lindy hop and the twist – the cake walk was a distinctly African-American product. The cake walk’s exact origin was already more myth than fact by 1899, but it was probably born on southern plantations around the time of the Civil War.  During their Saturday night dances, slaves would exaggeratedly mock the stiff and prim way they had seen white people dancing. They strutted and pranced, using canes props and odd costumes. The dance thus held many layers of meaning. For slaves, it was a joyous realease as well as a veiled jab at white masters. For the same masters who looked on, the cake walk could be seen as an innocent amusement performed by slaves who “couldn’t dance any better.” The exaggeration and theatricality of the dance naturally led to competition, with a cake being offered as the prize for the best dancers.

       By the 1870s, the cake walk had travelled from the plantation to the minstrel stage. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 featured a romanticized recreation of  ante-bellum plantation life that included a cake walk contest. In 1877, vaudevillians Edward Harrigan and Dave Braham published “Walking for Dat Cake,” above, left, and launched a flood of cake walk compositions that introduced the dance to a broad range of audiences. Before long, expressions like “that takes the cake,” or “that was a cake walk” entered America’s everyday vocabulary.

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        In February of 1892, the cake walk craze burst onto the scene with a huge “Cake walk Jubilee” held at New York’s Madison Square Garden, see a contemporary photo, “Cake walk Leaders,” above. Not to be outdone, that same month, Philadelphia planned its own “mammoth cake walk” to be held at Horticultural Hall on Broad Street, right. The lady who would take first prize would not only be awarded a cake, but an upright piano, while her partner would receive a gold watch. The second place couple would receive a plush coat for the lady and a silver watch for the gentlemen. The third place couple would be awarded a sewing machine and a silk top hat. The prizes were all on display at Blasius & Sons piano shop on Chestnut St. near 11th St. for a week before.

        On the night of the event, the huge hall was packed. The audience was mixed, with blacks outnumbered fifty to one by whites, and women outnumbered four to one by men. City Councilmen, Magistrates and the Fire Commissioner all attended. At 9 pm, the Washington Grays Band struck up a grand march and the “walkers” appeared, to thunderous applause. All eleven couples competing were, as the rules demanded,  African-American. After two preliminary cake walks, during which the contestants were judged by style, grace and execution, finalists were narrowed down to four couples. At last, after much of the audience had cheered itself hoarse, the first place was awarded to Miss Martha Pitts and Mr. John Montier. The evening was so successful and the response of the audience was so positive that the cake walk was assured of becoming an institution in Philadelphia.


        Not only was the Cake walk Contest repeated annually at Horticultural Hall, but similar “Cake walks and Colored Jubilees” were held at The Academy of Music and other large venues as well.  Philadelphia hosted all the companies of  mammoth, all-black productions that began touring the country. “Black America,” with a cast of over 300, performed at the Grand Opera House on North Broad Street in 1895. The Primrose and West Minstrel Show, above, performed at Gilmore’s Auditorium on Walnut St. in 1896. Smaller vaudeville houses like Carncross’ 11th St. Opera House began featuring African-American acts who performed elaborate cake walk finales. These cake walk production numbers were possibly the first time that whites and blacks performed together on stage. In 1897, Charles Johnson and his wife, the beautiful Dora Dean, left, introduced the graceful, elegant style of cake walk to the Broadway stage. Many in the black community had objected to cake walks,  seeing them as “black people making fools of themselves for the amusement of white people.” Transformed by performers like Johnson and Dean, the cake walk would open the door for a new wave of African-American performers at the turn of the century.

African-Americans in Atlantic City – 1902

        Throughout the 1890s, Philadelphia’s black community sponsored local cake walk contests with one neighborhood or ward competing against another. Prizes were often awarded for both the best comic interpretation and for the most graceful. Often these contests were used as ways to raise money for African-American charities. At first, white charities would hire African-American performers to entertain at functions, but then white Philadelphia caught the cake walk fever. The cakewalk became the first American dance to cross color lines. Dancing schools in fashionable areas began teaching the cake walk and hosting cakewalk contests for their white students. Elite “Society Cake Walks” became the fashion. White country clubs, Elks and Oddfellows lodges began presenting their own cake walks. There were Chinese and Japanese themed cake walks. The Tannheuser Wheelmen bicycle club even presented a “Hebrew Cake Walk,” with ragtime songs performed entirely in Yiddish.

        In 1897,  the dance got another boost when ragtime composers like Kerry Mills began churning out cake walk music, left. The lively syncopation of the melody against a steady bass line made rag time tunes perfect for the cake walk.  Cake walk illustrations were found not only on sheet music but in popular advertising as well. In 1899, acknowleding the “new cake walk craze,” the Art Supplement of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday edition published a “rollicking rag-time” picture, suitable for framing, right.


        Just past the turn of the century, the cake walk reached Europe. It became a huge hit in Paris, with French dance masters complaining that “Le Cake Walk Americain” had replaced the French can-can. As the Inquirer reported, “It is not only the worn out aristocracy that asks for new sensations from far off lands, but the idle bourgeoisie as well, grown neurasthetic in its turn,” below. After almost two hundred years of taking its cue from European society, America was beginning to export its home grown culture to the rest of the world.


        It had crossed color lines and international boundaries and had leaped from the stage to the ballroom floor, but by 1910, the “old time” cake walk was giving giving way to new dances spawned by ragtime music. Philadelphia would forget the cake walk as it dealt with the even more alarming grizzly bear, bunny hug and turkey trot that invaded its ballrooms.

        Luckily, the Library of  Congress has preserved some fascinating footage of a 1903 cake walk, filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. You can see some of the grace and style of the “walkers” here:


– motto over the Southwark’s proscenium

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     As I’ve noted before, Philadelphia Quakers frowned on theatre, dancing and for that matter, most worldy amusements. When Lewis Hallam and his London Company sought permission to perform here in  1754, they raised a storm of controversy. The citizenry urged Governor Hamilton with petitions to prohibit and counter-petitions to allow stage performances. Finally, reason prevailed, and the Hallam Company gave their first performance in a makeshift theatre in a warehouse near the river on Water Street,  see ad, below. Knowing there was still local disapproval for their profession, they passed out handbills which touted the harmlessness of the theatrical arts and also donated a night’s proceeds to the Charitable School of the newly founded Academy.  (Along with the College and Medical School, these institutions would later become the University of Pennsylvania.) No worry. After the intense controversy, performances were packed by curious audiences.

     Even so, when the troupe returned in 1759, now under the direction of David Douglass, who had married the widowed Mrs. Hallam, they shrewdly it renamed themselves “The American Company.” That same year, Lewis Hallam Jr., above, left, would be the first actor to play Hamlet on an American stage. They cautiously avoided municipal objections another way; they erected a series of temporary playhouses just outside the city limits, just to test the waters. In 1766, they constructed a more substantial structure on the south side of Cedar (now South) Street near 4th, again outside the city limits and against the protests of the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Elders of the German Lutherans and the Baptists. This building, the Southwark Theatre, below, was the first permanent theatre building in Philadelphia. It was fairly plain outside, the bottom half of brick, the upper half of wood, the roof topped by a single cupola, but most agreed the inside was well suited for the lively and very vocal crowds it drew. Until the mid 19th century, in most theatres the house was as well lit as the performers on the stage. This meant that audiences and their reactions were more of an integral part of the whole theatrical experience than today. In fact, the motto over the Southwark’s proscenium aptly read: “Totus mundus agit histrionem: everybody plays a role;” the same motto that was over the Globe Theatre in London and the same motto that William Shakespeare paraphrased as “All the world’s a stage.”


     Performances started early, usually about 6:00 pm. The candles in the chandeliers over the stage and house would be lit, as well as the oil lamps that ringed the apron at the foot of the stage. Tickets, available at the London Coffee House, were 7 s, 6 d for the boxes, 5 s for the pit and 3 s for the gallery. An evening’s entertainment was more like a variety show and could include not only a a serious dramatic piece, but also a prologue, an epilogue, songs, character dances, tightrope walking, a pantomime and a comic afterpiece. Many of the dances presented in 18th century theatres were theatricalized versions of currant social dances: minuets, jigs, hornpipes and country dances, done as solos, or in duets, trios or groups. Actors from the main piece also performed in the songs and dances, or even played violin. James Godwin, for instance, who had come from Dublin, played the role of Ostrick in Hamlet in 1767, see the advertisement from the Pennsylvania Gazette, above right, but primarily performed as a dancer during the “Entertainments.” Like many theatrical dancers in 18th century Philadelphia, Godwin supplemented his income by teaching social dancing and held balls and dances for his students and the general public. He’d later open a school with his partner and own teacher, John Baptiste Tioli,  at William Penn’s old Slate Roof House on Second Street.


     Plays, balls and concerts faded away during the larger spectacle of the Revolutionary War; Congress, in fact, had passed resolutions against such costly and extravagant entertainments. Only briefly, when British officers took it over during their occupation of the city from 1777 to 1778,  was the Southwark open for performances, and those were for the English themselves and for local Tory sympathizers. In the 1780s, the Hallams were still struggling with obtaining permission from the state to open; most of the time they simply operated illegally. In 1783, someone jocularly wrote to the papers that the Hallams had simply decided to attach their playhouse to hot air balloons and raise it 1300 miles above the State House where it would surely be out of the jurisdiction of the Pennslyvania State Assembly! It wasn’t until nearly the end of the century when music and theatre really flourished here.

     Even George Washington, while he resided in Philadelphia during his presidency, was criticized because of his fondness for theatre. He attended performances at the Southwark regularly, seated in a box fitted with cushions, red drapes and the coat of arms of the United States. The opening of the elegant new Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Steet, above,  in 1794, soon eclipsed the Southwark. Bolstered by an influx of talented dancers fleeing revolutionary France in the last decade of the 18th century, it helped make Philadelphia the nation’s dance as well as political capital.

     The old Southwark continued to be used, though, until 1821, when it was partially destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt as part of the neighboring distillery, below. Finally, falling under the axe of Prohibition, it was entirely demolished in 1921.  An empty storefront that housed a Payless Shoes stands where the city’s first theatre once stood, a few doors west of another Philadelphia institution, Jim’s Steaks.


■ “Against Vain Sports and Pastime: The Theatre Dance in Philadelphia, 1724-90,” Lynn Matluck Brooks, Dance Chronicle, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1989)

■ “A Decade of Brilliance: Dance Theatre in Late-Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Lynn Matlick Brooks, Dance Chronicle, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1989)

Dance and Its Music in America, 1528-1729, Kate Van Winkle Keller, Pendragon Press, 2007

History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884,  J. Thomas Scharf & Thompson Westcott, L.H. Everts & Co., 1884

Philly on Tap: Part II

July 30, 2012

Baby Edwards – of all the girl dancers . . . she’s the best I’ve seen. But she didn’t get the breaks . . .  Shirley Temple’s good. But she wasn’t as good as Edith. I’m not talking that for color. I’m talking about what I see.

– John Hart

        There are so many African American women dancers who never got the recognition they deserved: Cora La Redd, Harriet Browne, Ludie Jones, Tina Pratt, Lois Miller, Juanita Pitts, Alice Whitman, Libby Spencer, Edwina Evelyn, Mildred Thorpe, Louise Madison, Jeni LeGon and Philadelphia’s Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt. The list could go on and on. These women competed in the traditionally male world of tap and challenged the conventions of what it meant to be a woman dancer.


        Edith Edwards, left, was born the youngest of seven children in South Philadelphia in 1922. She always gave credit to her brother Harry who taught her and other neighborhood kids to tap dance in their kitchen. “I danced more like a boy,” Edith said about her training. By the time she was 3, she was performing as “Baby Edwards,” winning amateur kiddie contests at places like the Standard Theatre on South St. and the Gibson on Broad St. She’d be the first black performer to dance on the Sunday morning “Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour” radio show. She became a regular performer there, singing and dancing on the show for about five years. Below is a photo of performers from the Horn and Hardart Show from 1934. Baby is in the second row from the top, second from the left, the only African-American in a sea of white faces. The photo is from the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.

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        It was hard to make it as a solo tap act, but even harder if you were African American and a woman. Despite that, in the ‘30s, Edith performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, above, sharing a stage with Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Billie Holiday. She’d do a song and dance solo in front of the chorus. In 1939 she performed on Broadway in  Swingin’ the Dream,  a jitterbug and swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


        In the ‘40s  she teamed up with Willie “Span” Joseph to form an act they called Spic and Span. The duo toured the African American club and theatre circuit and did USO shows in Europe. They’d perform an energetic series of flash and rhythm steps, usually including her specialty – dropping into a front split as Willie did a side or “straddle” split in the air over her, right.

         By the 1960s, “Baby” had largely retired, taking care of her mother in Philadelphia and teaching tap through the Philadelphia Recreation Department. In 1995 she was one of the featured performers in Stepping in Time,  a celebration of the long tradition of Philadelphia African American performers at the Arts Bank on south Broad Street. Edith died in 2000, at the age of 78.

        Edith “Baby Edwards” Hunt has been described as a truly charismatic performer. She was a great tap dancer, but it was said that she simply had to appear to get applause; audiences just loved her.


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here:

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge:  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a short clip of “Baby” performing. The clip is undated, but it’s probably at “Stepping in Time” in Philadelphia, in 1995, when she was 73:

Philly on Tap: Part I

July 19, 2012

Did they just do it faster in Philly? To be sure, there is an impressive short list of tap dancers hailed as having “the fastest feet in the business” who had come from Philadelphia. They include Honi Coles, Earl “Groundhog” Basie, Teddy Hale, Charlie Rice, Henry Meadows, LaVaughn Robinson, Steve Condos and the Condos Brothers, the Clark Brothers and (if you count their five-year residency in Philly when their parents directed the pit orchestra band at the Standard Theatre) the Nicholas Brothers.

 – Constance Vallis Hill, from “Tap Dancing in America.”


        No city in America could beat Philly for tap dancing talent in the 1920s and ’30s. It seemed that every street corner along South St. and in South Philly was alive with rhythm. Dancers would show off their tap skills trying to outdo each other with “over-the-tops,”” barrel turns” and “wings” on street corners for an appreciative audience that would shower them with money. Everyone staked out and fought for their own spaces, the best dancers claiming the corners nearest to Broad St. Local black tappers could find plent of inspiration on the stages of Philadelphia’s venues for African-Americans: the Standard Theatre (right) at 1124 South St. and the Royal at 1524 South St., or the Gibson at Lombard and Broad Sts. Philadelphia would generously send out all that talent to fill the stages of New York and to light up the silver screen in Hollywood.

         It would be easy to devote an entire blog to the incredible array of tap dancers that Philadelphia gave birth to in the first half of the 20th century. I’ll write about more of them over the next few weeks, but this post is devoted to Charles “Honi” Coles.


          Charles “Honi” Coles (left), was born in Philadelphia on April 2, 1911, the son of George and Isabel Coles. It was on the music-filled streets of Philadelphia that he learned to tap dance. He was also influenced by performers he saw on Philly stages, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. In 1931, at age 20, he’d leave for New York, performing there as one of the Three Millers. When he discovered his partners had replaced him, he returned to Philadelphia for a while to hone his technique, practicing for long  hours to add speed and complexity to his steps. He returned to New York in 1934, and at the Apollo Theatre and the Harlem Opera House, he gained a reputation for being one of the fast tappers in the business. At 6’2”, he was tall, lanky, precise and elegant.

        He then toured the country with the best  ‘30s big bands like those of Count Basie, Cab Calloway  and Duke Ellington. While with Calloway, he met and partnered with Charles “Cholly” Atkins. They’d perform everything from exquisitely slow soft shoe to precision high-speed tapping, (right). Through the 1940s, they appeared with almost every band in America, as well as on the Broadway stage. Their partnership would last 19 years.

         In the 1950s, even as tap was declining in popularity, Honi Coles opened a dance studio in  New York. He survived by working as a stage manager at the Apollo Theatre and also served as president of the Negro Actors Guild. In the 1970s, when America was rediscovering tap, Coles would help lead that revival, partnering with tap exponent Brenda Bufalino, (below). He’d go on to teach master classes at Yale, Cornell and Duke Universites. In the ’70s and ’80s, he’d appear on Broadway in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” impersonating the legendary Bert Williams and in “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune and Twiggy.

         In 1988, Charles “Honi” Coles was given the Capezio Award for lifetime achievement and in 1991, a year before he died, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.  In 2003,  he was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame.

It was Lena Horne who said of Coles: “Honi makes butterflies look clumsy. He was my Fred Astaire.”


■ “Tap Dancing in America: A Cultural History,” by Constance Vallis Hill, Oxford University Press, 2010.

■ “Plenty of Good Women Dancers: African American Women Hoofers from Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 2009. Learn about the exhibit and video here:

■ The Philadelphia TAP Challenge:  founded and directed by the amazing historian, tap proponent and dancer Jaye Allison.

■ Here’s a 1949 clip of Coles and Atkins about the time they were performing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”:

Her step so light–her brow so fair,
She boundeth like a thing of air;–
Or fairy in her wanton play,–
Or naiad on the moonlight spray.
Like gossamer on wings of light,
She floats before our tranced sight.
Let’s gaze no more–nor speak–nor stir–
Lest we fall down and worship her.

Memoir of Fanny Elssler, 1840

In the late 1830s, all of Europe was caught up in the intense rivalry between two star ballerinas, Swedish born Marie Taglioniand the Austrian, Fanny Elssler. Taglioni, left, embodied the early romantic balletic ideal of the ethereal, spiritual and sylph-like female, while Elssler was fiery, earthy and sexy.  If Taglioni became associated with La Sylphide, Elssler took as her signature dance the exotic Spanish cachucha, which she executed with spirit and attack, below, right. Even from these romantic-era lithographs, it’s easy to see the difference in temperament and style of the two. This period was the beginning of the nineteenth century “cult of the ballerina”  when male dancers were relegated to character roles and female dancers were idolized.  It was not unusual for ballet  stages to be so strewn with flowers and bouquets by audiences that dancers could scarcely proceed.

By 1838, Philadelphia newspapers, keen to keep up with European gossip,  avidly reported on the state of the Taglioni-Elssler rivalry.  Incidents at theatres reached a fevered pitch which would be shocking today. For instance, when Elssler appeared for the first time at the Paris Opéra as Ondine, la Fille du Danube, The Philadelphia National Gazette reported:

“At length, when the Elsslerites were so bold as to call for an encore in the last act, the Taglionites rose in a body, and poured in a volley of hisses . . .  the claquers of her (Elssler’s) party pummelled without mercy some of the refractory of the opposite party, and the police coming to their aid, the most prominent unfortunate Taglionites were hauled out of the pit by main force. Fanny Elssler remains mistress of the field, or rather of the flood, and she is now the Daughter of the Danube.”

When Stephen Price, the manager of the Park Theatre in New York decided it might be good business to take advantage of all this media attention and engage Elssler to perform in the U.S., he enlisted the aid of Henry Wikoff, left, a Philadelphian who was living in Paris at the time. Wikoff has been called, at times, a gossip, a globe-trotting rogue and a philanderer. Wikoff was, however,  able to make the dancer’s acquaintance and talked Elssler into signing a contract. When Price’s partner at the Park Theatre decided not to honor the contract, Wikoff stepped in and took over the role of impresario, bringing her to America himself.

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When she arrived in New York, on May 3, 1840, the anti-Elssler forces were already at work. The French had assured her that she would not be received well here. It’s important to remember that ballet dancers were often seen as “loose women” at this time, not much better than actresses or chorus girls. The fact that Wikoff and Elssler had adjoining rooms when travelling scandalized Philadelphia matrons staying at their Coney Island hotel.  All the gossip and the efforts of the anti-Elssler faction were a dismal failure, however; the Park Theater in New York where she performed sold out every night.

In June, she moved on to Philadelphia and the Chestnut Street Theatre, near 6th Street, above. The French diplomat the Chevalier de Bacourt, who was passing through Philadelphia at the time, complained about the railroads, the rudeness of servants here and the uncomfortableness of the hotels, but had this memory of Fanny:

“All Philadelphia was astir to see Fanny Elssler, who danced this evening. She is staying at the same hotel as me. I was very much pleased with her dancing, but what amused me as much was to see the hall crowded, and to hear the furious applause, far exceeding London or Paris, and that applause at Philadelphia, the chief city of the Quakers–Quakers wildly excited over the dancer Fanny elssler. The theater is neither large nor well arranged; on the first row were many very pretty women, all young, and dressed so exactly alike, that one would have taken them for sisters had there not been so many of them.”

The National Gazette proclaimed: “Every dance was encored and she was twice called for to receive bouquets and wreaths by the bushel.” Just as would happen in Baltimore, below, after the performance, cheering Philadelphia dandies unhitched the horses from her carriage and pulled it themselves back to the City Hotel on 3rd Street. The North American, just short of calling them asses, quipped: “The two legged donkeys engaged in this enterprise were, we hope, well fed and curried after their laborious duties were performed.”

For her 10 performances in Philadelphia that summer, Elssler received $6,386. This was at a time when most laborers earned about $3 a week!

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Elssler had come to America with her dancing partner and ballet master, James Sylvain. They had difficult finding adequate stages, orchestras and corps de ballet to work with in the U.S. While in Philadelphia, they hired and trained both Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, right. Both of them would accompany Elssler and Sylvain on their American tour and both would become important dancers in their own right.

Elssler would return to Philadelphia a few times. Her six month leave of absence from the Paris Opéra extended into a two year tour of America and Cuba. She would not return to Paris until July of 1842, having earned an astounding $100,000 in the U.S.

Fanny was more than just the first European superstar, dance or otherwise, to enthrall the American public. Her impact on the popularity of romantic ballet in America was phenomenal, directly inspiring Philadelphia dancers Mary Ann Lee and George Washington Smith, who later formed their own successful touring company. Lee retired at 24, but Smith would have a long career and later founded one of the first classical ballet schools in Philadelphia. In 1858, he paid a great tribute to the divine Austrian ballerina by naming his daughter, Fanny Elssler Smith, after her.

■ Below is a video of Yulia Makhalina dancing a reconstruction of Fanny Elssler’s Cachucha at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. I think Makhalina beautifully captured the energy, precision and spirit of Elssler’s dancing:

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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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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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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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