"The domain of dancing . . . enhances, embellishes, and perfects
the work of nature. To enter an assembly and salute the company with unaffected
ease; to approach a person with affection; to present or receive anything;
to sit down with an agreeable deportment; to do away with awkward timidity
and mauvaise honte which denote weakness of character; to display
a frank and open countenance, sweet and agreeable manners; to ban a foppish
and sometimes insipid appearance; such are the objects and benefits derived
from this elegant art."
- V.G., Professor of Dancing, Philadelphia, 1817.
Throughout most of the 19th century
America was still very much a cultural colony of Europe. Americans played
the music, wore the clothing and did the dances that were fashionable in
European ballrooms. By 1900 all that would change.
The dances that were popular at the beginning of the 19th century were
those that had been popular at the end of the 18th century; the Minuet,Cotillions,
and Country Dances. With the arrival of the Waltz
in the teens, we see the beginning of the modern ballroom era. Until this
time social dances done by couples were done with limited physical contact;
the gentleman and lady barely touched hands. The waltz however was done
with a couple in a close embrace, the gentleman's hand around the lady's
waist as they continually spun around the ballroom together.This intimate
"waltz position" was initially shocking to a society where close physical
contact with a member of the opposite sex, especially in public, was nothing
short of scandalous.
from "Elements of the Art of Dancing"
Alexander Strathy, 1822
F avorites since the 17th century,
Dances remained highly popular in the Federal period. These were dances
done in long rows, usually gentleman on one side ladies on the other. Couples
progressed up and down the row to dance with every other couple in the
course of the dance.
from "Hillgrove's Ballroom
Thos. Hillgrove, 1863
a form of country dance done in a square by four couples, came into its
own in the first half of the 19th century. Quadrilles were generally done
in five sections, with each section played four times to allow each couple
in turn to lead off the figures. The floor patterns or "figures" in each
particular dance were fixed, but personal variation in the steps used to
execute each figure seems to have been permitted. It was popular in America
for a "caller" to call out each quadrille figure before it was done. This
practice continues today in classic country western square dancing.
"Nothing is more indicative of vulgarity than the habit of
beating time with the feet or hands during the performance of an orchestra.
It should be borne in mind that, however agreeable to one's self, it is
extremely annoying to the company.
The practice of chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor,
is not only nauseous to ladies, but is injurious to their dresses. They
who posses self-respect, will surely not be guilty of such conduct."
- Thomas Hillgrove, "Hillgrove's Ballroom Guide,"
New York, 1868
from "The Ball-room Guide"
By the middle of the century ballroom
dances were divided into "round" dances, done in closed position by individual
couples, and "square" dances done in groups. Round dances included the
in its original form "ˆ trois temps," or in a newer form as the
Two-Step Waltz "ˆ deux temps,"
the Five-Step Waltz, the Polka,
which had arrived in the 1840's, and the Schottische and Galop
which became popular soon after.
The influence of the polka also paved the way for the introduction of other
Eastern European round dances into elegant ballrooms. These dances - The
the Redowa and the Polka Redowa
- were done in 3/4 time with intricate hops, glides and leaps. Quadrilles
continued to dominate the ballroom, although all figures were now done
mostly with plain, unaffected walking steps. Compare this mid-century Quadrille
with the earlier 19th century quadrille above. Country dances were
seen more and more as being too "uncouth" for polite society. Popular square
or set dances in the middle of the century included the Virginia
Reel, the Schottische and
Goes the Weasel. Other group dances like Money Musk, the Spanish
Dance and the French Four used waltz or polka steps to perform
The middle part of the century also saw the rise of the German or
Cotillions, dance "games" which involved all present. More about those
in the Late 19th Century.
Luckily for us, the desire among the rising middle class to achieve "gentility"
and all its trappings gave birth to the printing of dozens of books devoted
to the art of dancing and the rules of ballroom etiquette.The mid-nineteenth
century is a treasure trove of material published to suit a remarkably
class conscious society.
"To sum up, the 'German' is by far the most agreeable of
modern dancing entertainments, beside being the least expensive and the
best adapted to all styles of houses, while it also gives the least least
trouble and most satisfaction to all concerned.
We fully believe that it is destined to be the dance
of the future, and we only hope that our modest effort will aid in making
it more fully the dance of the present."
- Two Amateur Leaders, "The GERMAN. How to give
it. How to lead it. How to dance it.," Chicago, 1897
The late 19th century saw invigorating
new influences in social dancing. The mix of races and cultures in America
was beginning to have a strong effect on music, art and dancing. By the
end of the century a dramatic change was taking place. America was not
only lessening its slavish imitation of European dancing, but was beginning
to export its own homegrown music and dance to the rest of the world.By
the 1890s the lively American Two-step had supplanted the waltz
as the ballroom staple. It could be done both to rousing march music, like
that of John Philip Sousa, or 3/4 time waltz music. Dance cards and programs
of the period show that most dances and balls of the period consisted almost
entirely of waltzes and two-steps.
Quadrilles, especially the Lancers
remained popular. There also appeared many waltz and two-step variations,
such as the Boston, the Newport,
the Racket, and the Yorke
The old fashioned schottische saw new life at the end of the century as
the Barn Dance.
"Modern Quadrille Call Book"
The second half of evening dances was given over to the extremely popular
Germans, or German Cotillions as they were called earlier in the century,
were games or mixers that involved several couples. These dance games were
led by a Master of Ceremonies and often involved props like fans or handkerchiefs.
Most Germans seem particularly silly to late 20th century tastes.
from "Leitfaden für den
Late 19th C
The most exciting new influence on
American dance toward the end of the 19th century was Ragtime music, and
it was a dance born in the Black community that was particularly suited
to early ragtime music - the Cakewalk.
The Cakewalk began as a way for black slaves to poke fun at the prissy
pompous way that they saw whites dancing. Ironically, the Cakewalk became
a fad even in the most elegant ballrooms all across America. The popularity
of black music and dance contributed to the tremendous appeal of ragtime
dancing in the next decade.
A fundamental change was taking place. In the 20th century the dances that
the lower classes did would have much more profound an effect on American
social dancing than the dances being done by the wealthy. We would look
not to the elegant ballroom, but the rowdy dancehall for inspiration.