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 compelling.

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. As 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.

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 style is taken into consideration in preparing for a masque or ball. Note the elaborate dress.

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.

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 learn.

African American
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 steps.

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 American dance. Though African American dance would enliven much of the 20th century, we find tortured evidence of its 18th and 19th century roots in this poem by Hannah More based on the lamentation of an slave woman forced to dance for the ship's captain.

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 technique.



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 Court
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.

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