Author: Amy Stallings

a doctoral candidate at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her master's thesis, Dance

Dance during the Colonial Period

Dancing was the dominant pastime of colonial Virginians of all classes, though it was a special occupation of the planter elite. As the Virginia colony stabilized late in the seventeenth century, its inhabitants attempted to model their emerging culture after that of England, where dancing was hugely popular. Soon dancing began to take place in plantation homes, taverns, and halls built for the express purpose of hosting formal parties. A market developed for professional instructors, or dance masters, who were expected to know the latest dances from Europe. Dancing served a recreational, social, and political purpose; being a skilled dancer was an indication of good breeding, while balls gave men and women the opportunity to express themselves through their dress, partner, and choice of dance. Most dances fell into two main categories: “fancy” dances, such as minuets, allemandes, and hornpipes; and “country” dances. Country dances were simpler to learn and more egalitarian, as each dancing couple interacted with every other couple on the floor. Enslaved persons and lower-class whites held their own informal dance parties where they often performed jigs and reels—more loosely structured dances derived from the traditions of Africans and Scots, respectively—which were adapted by the upper class. By the 1790s, dancing schools had grown in number and in popularity, and lessons became available to Virginians of various classes. At about this time, the gentry class began to feel more ambivalent toward the more democratic country dances, which threatened social discord and even blurred racial boundaries in a culture that was becoming increasingly defensive of its system of enslaved labor.