Wealthier women’s additions of panniers (French for basket), a wide dome-like structure that tied around the waist and covered the hips to minimize the size of the waist, caused the petticoats worn over them to flare out, sometimes as wide as an arm’s length on either side. This was considered the woman’s compass, and it took great skill to dance within the restricted area allowed by her clothing—or her partner to dance around it!
For those living in the aristocratic southern colonies of America, balls provided a means of socializing for families who lived on estates separated by long distances. Guests found pleasure in attending all day and through most of the night, and many celebrations continued three to four days.
A favorite dance called the minuet, first performed as a court dance in France, then in England, became popular with the wealthy after 1700 in the colonies. Dancers followed the French court models using English translations of Feuillet’s Treatise on Dancing, frequently used by dancing masters after 1706.
For those of modest means in the northern and southern colonies, dancers preferred Scottish reels and other country dances. These dances appeared to deftly avoid the code of status by grouping several people together in order to carry them out. During the Commonwealth period (1649-1660 under the rule of Oliver Cromwell), court dances were forbidden. Puritan John Playford’s popular English Dancing Master (1651), published through the eighteenth century, contained almost one thousand country dances.
Note from the Federalist/Regency period: Mr. Darcy’s (Pride and Prejudice) refusal to dance did cause a flurry among the guests, but as the wealthiest man there, he’d hardly have to worry about banishment. Not so easily managed by those of lower economic status in the room however, even though they might be born to the peerage.
Another Note: In 1789, the first inaugural ball was held in New York City for George Washington and his wife Martha.
Below is a video of dances favored during colonial times; the first six or seven are country dances (note the simpler homespun clothing). Further along, a minuet is performed by a solo couple. Enjoy!