Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson
Including The Kitchen Musician's "In Tune With The Times" Articles
From Smoke & Fire News

Dancing in the Colonies

A Minuett by James Fishar
From an early time, Americans were said to be "Immoderately fond of dancing". Morris dancing may have been performed in the Americas in Newfoundland in 1583 on Sir Humphrey Gilbert's second voyage. (Sir Humphrey was the half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh.) Edward Haies, the captain of the Golden Hinde, wrote "Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the savages, we were provided of Musike in good variety not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, Hobby horses, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people, whom we intended to winne by all faire means possible."

In the 1630s, at Wollaston, Massachusetts, certain folks were accused of lewd behavior and of dancing around a large maypole, until outraged locals drove them out and cut down the maypole. Other maypoles sprang up in Massachusetts, were cut down, and replaced by even larger maypoles.

Country dancing probably arrived in the 16th century also, though we have no early documentation. We do have records that Charles Cheate taught dancing in Virginia by 1670, and then in Boston in 1676, and we begin to have mention of other dance teachers. By 1706, there were established dance academies in Boston and Philadelphia and a few other places. And not just colonists were learning to dance - a French dance instructor named Monsieur Violet taught country dance to the Iroquois Indians, who paid him with beaver skins and cured bear meat.

Chains of schools were established to teach dance and culture, and Dancing Master John Griffiths wrote the first book of dances published in America in New Haven in 1786. Teaching dance was a profession open to women, and at Williamsburg, there were at least three who made their living that way. Elegant dances with fancy footwork such as the minuet were mainly taught to the upper classes, as they were the only ones with enough leisure time to learn and practice the steps, while country dances could be learned and danced by about anyone. Dance taught good posture and grace, and so lessons were commenced at an early age. A good reason to dance was to keep warm, due to the lack of centralized heating, as not only a person but a room or house might be warmed up to a comfortable temperature by an evening of vigorous dancing. Some people danced almost every night in winter, in fact. An important reason for dancing was also the opportunity to meet people of the opposite sex. You were not supposed to speak to anyone to whom you had not been formally introduced. However, you were allowed to talk to anyone who had ever danced in the same set, and couples could spend much time chatting and flirting during the dance.

The wealthy had ballrooms in their houses, while balls were also held in public buildings, such as statehouses and courthouses, or taverns. Occasionally dances were held outdoors as part of some public festivity. In the 18th century, dancing assemblies were regulated by strict rules. Subscribers paid to attend, and were given a ticket for admittance, and the managers judged in advance whether the attendees had the proper social credentials, and matched minuet partners accordingly. The event usually started with a minuet danced by one couple at a time in strict order of social standing. This was followed by a few reels, generally Scottish reels for three couples at a time. The rest of the evening everyone danced country dances. And, as the rules for the Savannah Georgia assembly state, " No card playing till the country dances begin. No Gentlemen to be admitted in boots."

(Much of the above information is taken from John Fitzhugh Millar's book Country Dances of Colonial America, Thirteen Colonies Press, Williamsburg VA, 1990.)