November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In Ye Olden Days: Dance in the Colonial Period

By Pat Iacuzzi
Dancing in the eighteenth century, an important social and courting ritual, was a good way to discover if a partner had sound teeth, pleasant breath, good confirmation, and was generally healthy. Dancing also taught poise, grace and balance.

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.

The minuet called for the highest ranking couple in the room to dance first, holding the floor on their own, (similar to a bride and groom’s first dance at a wedding reception today) then each couple down the social scale presented themselves for a solo performance. Each dancer was carefully scrutinized by the other guests, and the slightest mistake in step patterns was duly noted. Too many errors could mean loss of invitations and banishment of a dancer for the season, thus damaging prestige and social opportunity. After the formalities, the floor was open for contra, or country dances, the more common line and square dances where all could unwind and enjoy themselves.

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.

Attending balls and dances in both north and south was one of the few ways colonists could meet a future husband or wife. Indeed, a pleasant task for most, dancing contributed to courting and marriage—and most likely, avoidance of the Bachelor Tax!

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!  


  1. Ah, such wonderful stuff! Post, pics, and that great video just create a wonderful picture of what was a very enjoyable part of life then. And how much we miss out on today! You've brought out such good points and have given me food for thought as I have a dancing heroine:) Bless you, Pat!

  2. Good morning all!
    First, thanks Carla for setting this up--didn't expect the wonderful Pics! And Laura--thank you. The idea for a dance theme came up as I needed a heroine to attend a dance, and wasn't sure exactly when the minuet was popular. (1650-1750) After that, it was contra dances.

  3. I love learning about all the dances that took place in the colonies. I'll be studying more on this very subject in a few months.

  4. This such a wonderful post, Pat! I've enjoyed every word and the video is great, too. Thanks so much for helping us learn more about 18th century dancing.

  5. Dance sure has changed over the centuries. I don't suppose "dirty dancing" would have been well received in colonial days. :) Nice post, Pat.

  6. Hi Jennifer...Hope this post has helped in some way, and certainly look forward to hearing about your study experience!

    Carla--thanks for stopping in. I'd love to use one of those stills as a resource for a painting! Hm-m-m, I can see it above my mantle now....

    Kim: Nope....Alas, no "dirty dancing". It was all about self-control and anticipation. :) And thank you so much for stopping in--and becoming a follower!

  7. Pat, I so loved this post! So interesting and such wonderful stuff as my dear friend, Laura, so aptly put it!...as is everything else on this new blog. So much talent, what am I doing here?? lol Time to take my leave and leave all of you creative ladies to it!

  8. Pat (and Carla!) what an awesome post. Really loved the content and also the pics. I posted this on FB and Twitter this morning and just saw that I did not comment! Great stuff!

  9. Hi Diana and Carrie--Picking up where I left off; Thanks for stopping in; this is so cool--having so much fun. Somehow we gotta make some of those dresses. This whole investigation led me to check into dancing groups in my area, too. Has anyone had an opportunity to join one?

  10. Great post! I love the old dances and wish ta tthey were better perserved and passed down through the generations better. Great post!

  11. My spelling is awful today! I meant, "That they." *sigh* Sorry!

  12. What a wonderful way to go courting!
    Pat, that sounds like so much fun! You'll have to let us know if you find a dance group. I'd love to do something like that, but my poor joints wouldn't keep up. It's so much fun to watch though! I love the music, too.

  13. Faye--Thanks so much for stopping in; your comment about dances being passed down reminded me about the search for dance groups.

    When I retired recently from teaching, I had to stay "in the traces" and found an opportunity to teach classes of home schooled students. They are very much into historical music, art and culture, and were the ones who mentioned that many of them took Regency dancing classes. The boys too.

    Carla, if you ever get the notion, you may find groups that also offer English dance. That's the one for me. Much more formal, at a walk usually--but great fun and exercise!
    I always loved dancing, and I think with the historical costuming, we're forever going to those proms :)!

  14. A few years ago, i enjoyed the privilege of dressing up and going to a colonial ball in Great Falls, VA, which is a wealthy area. Gorgeous costumes. Lots of fun. People enthusiastic to talk about the dance and their clothes and silly things that have happened that are fun to save for books because they could probably happen to our characters, too, if they happened at these balls. Even the men embroidered stuff to make it authentic. Minuets danced, too. Got me into a few of the country dances. Very flirtatious stuff, too, but i laugh now at books where the h/h talk all through the dance.

  15. Hi Laurie Alice--Your experience sounds like fun!
    It's almost midnight here, so will be turning in. Thanks for stopping in, and Blessings to everyone!

  16. I would have totally been banished!

  17. Hi Stacie--
    Look on the bright side--it would only have been for a season. Speaking of seasons, they still have "a coming out" for young women, or a social season in parts of this this country. Anybody ever attend one?

  18. Stacie, I was thinking the same thing. They took their dancing seriously, didn't they?

    Great post, Pat. I learned a few things. I've never featured dancing in any of my stories so far. Maybe I'll need to rectify that.

  19. What a delightful post--thank you for sharing. I used to do English country dancing, and the video brought back happy memories!

    1. This is great for a Colonial research project, such as I am doing, Bravo!!!!!! BIATCH SLAP!!! YAYAYAYAYA

  20. Thank you for posting this,Mrs. Pat! I´m doing a colonial dancing report, like my partner, who left the comnet above and I found it really helpful!
    - O.R.R


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