Early opposition to dancing in America came primarily from the Puritans, who equated the favored pastime with promiscuity and sinfulness. They did not go so far as to condemn all dancing as evil, but pointed out that "mixt" dancing, which included both men and women, led to temptation, especially the temptation to commit adultery.

Prominent dance opponents were Increase Mather, the seventeenth-century Boston minister, and his son Cotton Mather, who followed in his footsteps. George Whitefield, a skilled orator who played a key role in the Great Awakening, also had much to say about the evils of dancing. Each preached against the form, saying that it distracted the mind and soul from their true focus, God. In his Necessity of Reformation Increase Mather states, "Temptations thereunto are become too common, viz. such as immodest apparel, Prov. 7:10 laying out of hair, borders, naked necks and arms, or which is more abominable naked breast and mixed dancings."

An early publication on the evils of dancing, An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of the Scriptures arguably by Increase Mather and other ministers makes the case that dancing is not only frivolous, but wrong in the eyes of God. Cotton Mather continued his father's tradition of sermons against dancing in his A Cloud of Witness Cloud of witnesses; darting out light upon a case, too unseasonably made seasonable to be discoursed on.

The Puritans viewed the ideal person as someone who separated himself from the world, resisted its evils and focused on the work that had to be done. It is therefore not surprising that they viewed dancing as an activity that led its followers to pride and vanity.

Above is a photograph of the Increase Mather (1639-1723) portrait in the AAS collections.

Title page of John Phillips' Familiar dialogues on dancing, between a minister and a dancer, :against the entertainments of the stage, and other vain amusements which closely examines the moral aspects of dancing.


As the American dance culture developed, so did their critical attitudes towards dances and dancers of other countries. An article appearing in the Harper's Weekly November 23, 1867 issue provides a less than flattering account of the balls of Paris stating "the Frenchman...is like some snake so held and throttled by a firm and cunning hand that it can neither breathe nor sting but only wriggle an innocuous tail". The accompanying pictorial work by Winslow Homer is above.


Strong convictions against dance did not necessarily stop with Puritans, as it manifested over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. "What, know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost -- for ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit which are God's" Corinthians 6:19 begins the 1798 title page of John Phillips' attack on dance. His pamphlet, organized as a discussion and interview for the education of Christians, highlights the vice and sin of dance.

The debate over the morality of social dancing was waged not only between religiously driven adversary and the public, but also between adversary and dance master. The dance master, despite his growing popularity in the post-Revolutionary and antebellum period, was thoroughly rebuked by dance opponents. Regarded by dance antagonists as ambassadors of the devil's work, dance masters were frequently forced into itinerant work, gaining private employment by families and organizations preparing to host a ball.


Some adversaries of dance also spoke out against the time-honored Maypole tradition, in which young ladies would create flower garlands and wind them around a pole while dancing. May dancing was regarded as a pagan ritual and was thus deemed sacrilegious by dance opponents. Subsequently, in the early period Maypoles were frequently ordered to be cut down.

There were some individuals and groups who looked upon dancing with disfavor, not due to any religious affiliation, but because they saw it as denying more worthy and intellectual pursuits, such as reading and writing. They posited the question, would it not have been better to sit down and discuss politics than to engage in unrefined antics?

This pictorial scene taken from the cover of the sheet music "May Queen Waltz" illustrates the newly crowed May Queen leaving the Maypole Dance. May Pole Dancing was one area of social dance consistently criticized in the early republic.

This broadside advertising a ball in Fitchburg, Massachusetts is evidence of the growing popularity of dance. This advertisement extended an open invitation to the public, indicating that dance-related events had garnered social acceptance on the popular level.

In general the act of dancing was not necessarily seen as a problem by authorities, but as a potential catalyst of civil unrest and pagan rituals. As time passed, more and more immigrants filtered in from Europe, bringing with them new dance techniques and trends. The number of Americans who favored dancing grew so large that they eventually drowned out the voices of opponents and dancing grew in popularity.

While it is true that many Americans fell into the category of either harsh critic or adamant proponent, many more took a moderate stance. Most people could see some benefit to dancing, as it bestowed upon the body grace of carriage and ease of movement that unfortunately did not come naturally.

Dancing was also valuable in the sense that it was a means for an individual to convey to others his or her social standing, thoughts and desires through pure body language -- without speaking a word.

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