19th Century Social Dance

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Early 19th Century
"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, Country 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 Guide"
Thos. Hillgrove, 1863

The Quadrille, 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.
Mid 19th Century
"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 Waltz, in its original form " trois temps," or in a newer form as the Two-Step Waltz " 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 Mazurka, 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 Pop, Goes the Weasel. Other group dances like Money Musk, the Spanish Dance and the French Four used waltz or polka steps to perform multi-couple figures.
The middle part of the century also saw the rise of the German or German 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. 
Late 19th Century
"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 still 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"
A.C.Wirth, 1902

The second half of evening dances was given over to the extremely popular German. 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 tanz"
Bosshardt-Strübi, 1897

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.


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