America's founding fathers
worked to establish a nation unlike the European countries they had left,
one that was grounded in freedom and equality. While this was the main
objective during the nation's formative years, there was an undeniable
undercurrent of European emulation. Though they did not want to be
oppressed under an absolute monarchy, Americans could not deny the
fashions and customs that made their neighbors from across the Atlantic so
In addition to bringing
families, traditions and customs, colonial Americans brought with them
involved aspects of their home culture -- dance was no exception. With no
royal court to look to for social trends, Americans initially followed
European precedents and continued dancing their country's native dances.
a result, much of the American dance technique is derived from Europe,
particularly England and France.
The above BINDING and TITLE PAGE of a 1730 London dance
manual, The Dancing-Master, is located in the AAS collections.
The text contains numerous titles, music and directions for the social
dancer. Note the intricate binding and worn edges of the artifact
demonstrating its high use. Also note the detailed London dance scene
depicted on the title page.
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With the advantages of new book technology, print culture increased
dramatically in the early republic. Not only was there an upsurge in dance
manuals, but in sheet music as well. The above pictorial cover for the
sheet music The Jolly Birthday Polka illustrates a scene in which
taken into consideration in preparing for a masque or ball. Note the
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While early settlers were burdened by
religious leaders' warnings against the evils of dancing and merry making,
as time went on dance came to occupy an increasingly important role in
American society. Unlike European countries, where royal courts and
aristocracy set ruling trends for the public to follow, American was a new
and developing nation --
a veritable clean slate.
America was also a land of opportunity for
those escaping religious persecution or attempting to make their fortune
in a place where there was no established aristocracy, or "old wealth," to
regulate the rules of social acceptance thus opening the doors for a blend
of new dances as well as old.
Those who immigrated to America with a
fortune and those who quickly made a fortune upon arriving were few and
far between. But they came to form the elite aristocratic class, and
filtered the new European standards of style and culture through to the
rest of the nation.
The above page from Charles
Durang's Terpsichere is filled with descriptions and rules of
etiquette. Here Durang notes on the French to English translation. He
states, "these words would be exceedingly difficult to translate into
English, there being no words in our language, literally equivalent to
their meaning and succinct point, as applied to dancing" and so
provides the reader a glossary.
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The accumulation of wealth increased,
however, over several generations, spawning a social class of self-made
wealthy citizens -- the "nouveau riche." This burgeoning social class
could now afford the luxuries that only the wealthy few could obtain in
the past. The elitism that had once prevailed was replaced by the new
attitude that personal liberty should be within one's reach. The pursuit
of leisure was now a publicly sought after goal; increased wealth
permitted an increase in the printing of books and an increase in
education. Dance manuals were among the most desired newly printed
materials and dance masters who taught lessons both privately in homes and
in dance schools proliferated.
Americans took to emulating
European trends in dance, fashion, and etiquette in order to establish
their position in society. Those who possessed the most wealth and
prestige were able to afford the most luxurious ballroom accoutrements and
were thus regarded as social elite.
In the South, those who possessed the
most land had the most wealth; in contrast affluent northerners earned
their money from commercial enterprises that were growing in abundance
during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Having arrived in America
in 1778 to bolster the war effort, the French--as paragons of style and
culture-- inspired an increase in the number of balls and parties that
took place. Americans, in an attempt to refute their reputation for being
unrefined Yankees, rushed into the ballroom to soak up all they could
While too much print culture suggests a dominance of upper-class social
dancing, between the lines there exists the history and emergence of a
deep and soulful dance form. Tap is probably the most popular of all
American dance forms and its roots are a hybrid of Slave and Irish Clog
dancing. Similarly the history of the Cake Walk is in slave dancers
impersonating and parodying their masters' behaviors and dress.
British Isles- England, Ireland, Scotland
Step dancing, which combined rhythmic taps and shuffles
to create a lively and dynamic dance, came to America from the British
Isles. Also referred to as hornpipes, step dances were divided into two
types: one type involved improvised movements performed in time with the
music, while the other was characterized by choreographed series of dance
This detail from the 1800 Sorrows of Yamba: illustrating the cruelty of
the slave-trade is only a small part of the origins of African
dance. Though African American dance would enliven much of the 20th
century, we find tortured evidence of its 18th and 19th century roots in
poem by Hannah More based on the lamentation of an slave woman forced to
dance for the ship's captain.
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The sheet music cover
displays dancers dressed in European finery, engaging in a polka.
Originating in Eastern Europe, polkas came to America after having gained
popularity in Parisian ballrooms and salons in the 1840's. The polka is
just one example of the immigrant influence on dancing style and
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The cotillion comes to us from England, though it traveled through France
before coming to America. Designed as a dance for four couples, the
cotillion became a tour de force in the ballroom in the 1770's. It is the
forebear of the very "American" square dance.
France- Louis XIV's
In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV (1638-1715)
brought dance to new heights; he used
dancing not only as a courtly amusement but also as a shrewd political
tool to showcase his wealth and power to foreign diplomats without ever
having to speak a word.
Raoul Auger Feuillet's
"Choreographie" was important for publicizing dance its execution; he
created a dance notation system that served as a point of reference for
dancers both professional and recreational.