The above ticket for a Bal Masque in Worcester, Massachusetts admitted one lady to the event; there she could expect to engage in any number of different dances. The intimacy and action of the scene suggests a certain amount of freedom to their movement but the couple had to no doubt work tirelessly to perfect their dance. FOR A DETAIL OF THE DANCERS CLICK HERE, OR CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

Subject to society's politics and whimsy, the popularity of certain dances waxed and waned over the decades, so that certain dances were either discarded altogether or merely altered to fit shifting social tastes.

A ball or impromptu party might feature any combination of different dances, depending on what was most popular at the time. Though the dance trends varied through the years and among class lines, one thing was certain: where there was dancing, joyfulness followed.


Dancing took shape in many different ways; some dances required meticulous and controlled movements, while others employed exhaustive spinning and turning. The goal of all dancers was to give the impression of effortlessness, a feat that required strength, agility, and skill.

Technique was crucial to all dances; a good dancer was expected to be familiar with the basic figures of a dance before starting in. Whether it was a Quadrille or Cotillion, Jig or a Reel, all dances had their own sets of rules and movements fundamental for its successful execution. If one was not well acquainted with a particular dance, he risked making mistakes -- an error that carried with it the burden of not only embarrassing one's self but also of making one's partner look bad.

At the very least, one had to master the fundamentals of dance technique -- the carriage of the arms, the positioning of the feet, the necessary methods and procedures, where to cast one's gaze, among other essentials.

The Evening amusement : containing fifty air's, song's, duett's, dances, hornpipe's, reel's, marches, minuett's, &c, &c, for 1, and 2 German flutes or violins includes the piece of sheet music above "Minuet de la Cour" demonstrating the practice of this form of dance in the late eighteenth century.
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The above lithographed sheet music cover from c1830 Tri-Colored Quadrilles illustrates a scene where the figures are participating in a dance. Onlookers watching the quadrille highlight the social aspect involved with balls and dances.
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In period dress of the 1860s, a young couple participate in a special dance -- the "Ruck-Ruck-Galop". Often times sheet music covers would illustrate new and unique dances of the nineteenth century.

A product of the seventeenth-century French court, the minuet -- taken from the French menuet -- became the ultimate representation of ceremony and distinction. Once imported to America in the eighteenth century, this meticulous dance signaled the opening of many a political gathering, where the most prestigious man and the most eminent lady took the first steps, reminding the rest of the company of their position.

In performing the minuet, two dancers snaked around a room on a symmetrical track, occupying all of the available space. While smooth execution was the goal for all dances, the minuet was particularly difficult to perform so that it looked as if it was danced with ease.


The above Twenty four fashionable country dances for the year 1799, : with their proper figures as performed at Court, & Bath. and all the public assemblys contains unparalleled examples of country music from 1799; the Songster is also engraved throughout.
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This chart from Elias Howe's American dancing master and ballroom Prompter lays out the form to be observed in country dances, where varying numbers of couples assemble in two long lines.
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Country dances were more egalitarian in nature; all who were willing were encouraged to participate. Partners faced each other and progressed down a line performing repetitions of the figures, so that the first couple moved to the second place after the first repetition.

This sequence would continue until the first couple had returned to the front of the line, and each couple taken a turn in leading the dance. Though country dances were among the most democratic, dancers were still expected to be elegant and formal in their carriage, and not uncivilized and reckless.

The cotillion was born from the country dance when the French pieced together elements to create the contradanse. The steps, however, were complex and could not be easily illustrated in a manual. In the 1760s French dance master LaCuisse publicized the dance steps in a manual, from which the English drew inspiration for their "cotillion."

The cotillion was usually performed in a square of four couples. Cotillion steps were similar to those seen in country dances but usually employed more intricate combinations.

Common to all cotillions were verses known as "changes," that would come before a chorus that was particular to the dance being performed. Changes signaled movements such as circles and various types of turns, and occurred up to nine or ten times during a cotillion.

Arriving in America in the 1770s, the cotillion rose to the height of its popularity between 1780 and 1810. Later, pioneers carried the dance westward, where it became the foundation for the square dance.

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. A truly versatile dance, hornpipes were seen both on opera stages and in more commonplace spots, such as taverns.

The image "Fancy German Cotillion" from Howe's American dancing master depicts dancers executing a cotillion; dancers are holding hands.

This image is an example of a Horn-Pipe. The Hornpipe is remembered as a dance which was non-exclusive as it was danced by people from all classes.

In addition to the music, "Miss Jarvis's Reel" from Twenty-four fashionable country dances also contains instructions on performing the dance.

Hailing from Scotland, reels were executed by three or four people in a line who moved along a weaving track.

Performing a reel required little instruction, although some footwork skill was needed. Popular during the second half of the eighteenth-century, reels were often the dance of choice among the lower classes.

An interesting departure from the typical social dancing, the Shakers used dancing as part of their religious ritual.

They did not follow set figures as did dancers of more mainstream dances but rather freely engaged in several distinctive moves, such as whirling and marching.

Supposedly led by inspiration, the Shakers would whirl rapidly, propelling themselves in circles by having one foot continually stepping around the other. Much of the time the whirling would continue for ten or fifteen minutes, though it was known in some instances to have lasted for up to forty-minutes. The Shakers believed that in order to obtain religious revelation one had to labor; part of this endeavor involved writhing and twirling of the body. Though seemingly eccentric, this ritual was a key part of Shaker religious culture.

This D.W.Kellogg lithograph entitled "Shakers, their mode of worship" highlights the untraditional movements. A detail of the faces and body positions of the Shaker dancers is available here.

This detail from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper is captioned, "Contraband Children Dancing the Breakdown". The representation is one example of a series of images which appeared in Frank Leslie's and Harper's Weekly on the subject of slave dancing. The illustration appeared January 31, 1863.

While on the Middle Passage many slaves were forced to "dance" or exercise for captains, the crew and guests. Though frequently forbidden on the plantations, African slaves nonetheless practiced elements of their social and cultural heritage, and this included dance.

Many dances formed on the American continent were a mixture of dances learned from masters and other slaves and consisted of steps which were easily disguised in their everyday work -- but had distinct elements which were African in origin. Slave dances of the nineteenth-century include the pigeon walk, the buzzard lope, the breakdown, and the Charleston. While slave dancing was originally discouraged or ignored, after Emancipation there existed a strong interest and curiosity in contraband dance.

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