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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.