Dancing in Colonial America

by Meryl Baer
Different religious and ethnic groups had their own dancing styles, including the Shakers.

Different religious and ethnic groups had their own dancing styles, including the Shakers.

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"And I went ashore, to what they call a reaping frolic, that is a Harvest Feast. The people very merry, Dancing without either Shoes or Stockings and the Girls without Stays..." This description of Colonial dancing is from the papers of Nicholas Cresswell, written sometime between 1774 and 1777. Mr. Cresswell, an Englishman visiting the American colonies, kept a journal. Dancing was an important part of the social life of Americans throughout the colonies.

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Dancing in Early American Life

The Puritans, among the first religious groups to establish and rule a colony, were not tolerant of pleasurable activities, including dancing. The strictures modified over the years as the harsh life in a new land and additional immigrants with varied backgrounds moved into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Other immigrants brought dances from the Old Country to the New World. There is a reference to dance teachers in the colonies as early as the 1670s. Dance academies were established in cities after 1700.

Formal Dancing

Two main styles of dancing existed in the colonies. There were the formal, elegant dances of the wealthy and upper middle classes and the carefree, easier-to-learn country dances of the rest of the population. An example of a formal dance is the minuet, initially a slow dance with small, graceful, specific movements completed in a prescribed order. Originally danced as couples, the dance morphed into sets being done by three people together; two women and one man or two men and one woman. Two sets faced each other, one with two women and the other with the two men. The intricate steps of the minuet and other European-inspired dances were taught by itinerant English and French teachers. French immigrants often did not speak English. Teaching dance was a way to earn money. Proper manners and social graces were an important part of the lessons. The wealthy could afford to pay for classes and had the time to practice and learn the complicated steps. Over the years the dances modified, becoming simpler, easier to learn and less structured.

Country Dances

Country dances were easy to learn. Anyone could participate. Steps were not choreographed or staged. Dances were a respectable way to meet neighbors and socialize. In cold weather -- long before central heating -- the constant movement kept people warm and comfortable. Dances were an opportunity for young people to meet and get to know one another. The social mores of the times forbid women from talking to anyone to whom they had not been formally introduced, but the protocols permitted people to talk to anyone they had danced with in a set. Dances were often done in small circles or squares. Dances became major social events and young people conversed and flirted freely.

Dance Halls

Ballrooms were considered a necessary part of a proper wealthy home. Formal dances were also held in taverns, hotels and public buildings. By the eighteenth century strict rules governed formal dances. Participants bought tickets, but before they entered, their social credentials were reviewed and approved. Dances began with a minuet performed by one couple at a time. The prearranged order centered on a couple's social standing, the most important couple dancing first. A series of Scottish reels followed, presented by three couples at a time. Reels are fast-paced dances, consisting of gliding steps and circular movements carried out in small circles. The rest of the evening everyone danced a variety of dances, including country dances.

About the Author

Meryl Baer worked at a financial firm for 15 years, researching investments and writing newsletters and marketing materials. She also worked at two business schools as an English/business writing instructor, department head and placement director. Baer holds a master's degree in American studies from Pennsylvania State University and a master's degree in business administration from Robert Morris University.

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