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.

* * *

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


– motto over the Southwark’s proscenium

* * *


     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

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