Dance programs such as this one for the Grand Centennial Military
and Civic Ball highlighted the events and music for the evening.

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One of the goals of the Society's Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAVIC) is to engage students and scholars with American prints and ephemera to enhance our understanding of America's history and culture. A life-long interest in classical ballet led Meghan Meade, a student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and Graphics Arts Intern, to undertake a project describing the history of social dance. The content of the project is driven by the holdings of the Society and we are pleased to present her work as a supplement to present scholarship; we encourage others to develop this topic using the Society's collections.

The illustrations and objects depicted in this exhibition provide a brief glimpse into the history of social dance. The abundance of artwork and social artifacts available attest to dance's importance throughout American history. Featured is not only its origin, fashion and forms, but also the unspoken language of dance. Always moving, always changing, dancing has never failed to enchant American society.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dance became a forum for purposeful social activity; elaborate balls and private parties offered a means for a gentleman to seek his wife and allowed friends and family to share the new trends in music and dance. In the political sphere, balls provided a setting for politicians to exhibit their wealth and standing by their knowledge of the most fashionable dances.

Descriptions of costumes and parties are located in some diaries at the Society, one of which is Anna Quincy Thaxter Cushing's. The text provides an account of a Bal Masque on February 26, 1858. A PDF of the transcription of the event is available here. Click here to see the catalog record and other details of the Anna Quincy Thaxter Cushing papers.

Many dances had specific steps and figures, while others were themed; military dances were both. This sheet music cover of “Quadrille Millitaire: Les Hussards” demonstrates this military theme and shows the formal and disciplined positions of the body.

Early Americans were significantly restricted in their forms of communication. Because it was considerably inaccessible, communication was very valuable to eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans. Limited technology meant limited communication which in turn created an environment where people could not contact each other with the ease and comfort we enjoy in modern society.

The social institution of dance provided an arena for people to communicate with each other through the use of non-verbal and culturally acceptable movements and gestures. Since social values and rank were conveyed through movement and bodily expression, mastering dance technique was paramount to those who wanted to be accepted by elite society. With just a tip of a hat or a twirl of a parasol, one could announce his or her interest in another individual without so much as saying a word.

As a cultural melting pot, America welcomed a variety of dances. The stately and ceremonial minuet came from France, freewheeling country-dances arrived from England, and lively hornpipes and reels flooded in from Scotland and Ireland. Countless other dances were the products of cultural mixing; some dances originated in one country and traveled through several others before infiltrating American culture. Some dances now considered characteristically “American” can be traced back to European roots.

Dancing was not always received openly by society as a whole. Certain conservative and religious groups objected to the practice of dance, and delivered harsh criticisms and condemnations to prevent recklessness and disorder. These obstacles diminished over time as changing cultural circumstances gave rise to an era in which dance was not only as an amusement but also a powerful social tool.

One example of a dance traveling from one culture to the American dance scene is the Kaliszanka Polka. View details of the hands, feet and body positions of the dancers or

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