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


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


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.


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.


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.



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.

Rococco 1

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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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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:


“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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Right from the beginning, the fate of dance in Philadelphia was in jeopardy. The city’s formidable Quaker population saw theatre, music and dance as frivolous, dissipated and immoral. As early as 1695, they submitted a petition to the governor and the Pennsylvania Assembly,  ” . . . that fidling, dancing, gameing and what Elce may tend to debauch the inhabitanc and to blemish Christianity and dishonour the holy name of God, may bee curbed and restrained both at fairs and all other times.” The petition was in vain, and at their Yearly Meetings in 1696, 1705 and again in 1716,  the Friends had to admonish their members against dancing, gaming and music. The need to constantly repeat these warnings tells us how strong the temptations of music and dance were in the early colony. Twenty years later, this address printed in the August, 1736 American Weekly Mercury still summed up the Quaker attitude:

“There are a sort of Idle Artists that strole about the World, called Fencers and Dancers, who make it their Business to accomplish the Hands and Heels, rather than the Heads of our Youth; who under pretence of Teaching them what they call Good Breeding, too often teach them that of Sinning: At best they teach them but certain fashionable Airs or Gestures (which I count unnecessary, wanton, and effeminate) and this at the Expence of much Money, and the precious Time of our Youth: the only Time of Life, best suited, for learning ingenious, commendable and profitable Things.”


William Penn’s original Charter had provided for the formation of a committee of manners, education, and arts, “that all wicked and scandalous living may be prevented.” At first, Quaker doctrine and discipline prevailed, but as the 18th century progressed, the Society of Friends gradually became less and less of a dominant force in Philadelphia and they found it difficult to hold others to their strict standards of piety and virtue. By 1706, the Quakers were complaining that a dancing and fencing school was being tolerated in the city and in 1710 we read in a private letter of a dancing master intriguingly referred to as “the facetious Mr. Staples.”

The first really magnificent documented ball in the city  was given by Deputy Governor Patrick Gordon for the newly crowned King George II’s birthday, during a three day festival in the fall of 1727. The next year George Brownell and his wife opened a boarding school on Second Street, where they taught reading, writing, cyphering, dancing and needlework to young Philadelphia ladies and gentlemen. This was the same peripatetic George Brownell who, years before, in Boston, had taught writing and arithmetic to a very young Benjamin Franklin.

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By the 1740s, Penn’s idealized Utopia had become a fairly secularized city. Quakers, although a dwindling minority, stubbornly tried to retain political power. Tensions led to the “Bloody Election Riots” of 1742, where they saw their dominance violently, but unsuccessfully, challenged.

Quaker influence in other areas of daily life in Philadelphia would not be so enduring. In 1748, the city’s elite came together to form its most exclusive social group, The Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. Over that winter of 1748-9 they held 9 balls, complete with lavish late night suppers with tea, madeira and chocolate. Dance was now more than just “frivolous” or even “dissipated,” it was a mark of social status and privilege. The subscribers included the governor, the mayor and most of the provincial council. It included wealthy merchants, bankers and professionals. There were Hamiltons, Bonds, Shippens and McCalls; there were Anglicans, two Jews, a few Presbyterians and even two ministers. There was not, however, even in 1748, a single Quaker.
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