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.

The Seventeenth Century

A Festive Dance

The colony’s first settlers brought musical instruments with them to Jamestown in 1607, so dancing is sure to have occurred among colonists from time to time. The first Virginia colonists were familiar with hornpipes—sprightly, free-form solo dance pieces—and saw similarities to them in the dances performed by the Virginia Indians they encountered. Anglican minister Alexander Whitaker compared the Indians’ dancing to that of English Morris dancers, who often wore bells on their ankles. Until English society stabilized at the turn of the eighteenth century, however, there is little specific information about what types of dances the settlers performed, and with what frequency.

By 1700, mortality rates in Virginia had declined; certain families began to amass land, wealth, and enslaved people, allowing the emerging gentry class more leisure time. Virginians at this time were determined to build a culture modeled on that of the mother country, where dancing was very popular, and dancing began to occur with more frequency in plantation homes, taverns, and in official buildings. Williamsburg, made the colonial capital in 1699, was constructed with several buildings that might accommodate balls. The College of William and Mary had a suitable hall and the governor’s house began to host members of Virginia’s most prominent families for evenings of entertainment.

Theatrical Dancing

A Theatrical Event

A common place for white colonial Virginians of varying classes to encounter dance was at the theater. Williamsburg was home to the first theater in British North America, the Play Booth, which was opened in 1718 by William Levingston, a dance master. A standard playbill of the time lists several theatrical pieces of varying lengths, their acts interspersed with solo or company dances; individual actors performed hornpipes, minuets, and other technical pieces. One 1751 offering of William Shakespeare’s Richard III included “a Grand Tragic Dance, compos’d by Monsieur Denoir; call’d the Royal Captive, after the Turkish Manner.”

Where playhouses were unavailable, private ballrooms or taverns served as stages for similar theatricals. A 1738 advertisement in the Virginia Gazette lists the Capitol building as the location of an event that may have been theater, a public ball, or, most likely, both. Several “Grotesque” dances, “never yet perform’d in Virginia,” were scheduled to be presented, probably by actors or dancing masters. It was not uncommon for exhibitions of this kind to precede a ball, though more often they featured the “scholars” of a local dance master, or teacher. Local fairs played host to specialized dancers as well, such as the “rope dancers” at a Fredericksburg fair mentioned in the journal of the indentured servant John Harrower. Fairs might also include dancing contests with prizes.

The Functions of Dance

Invitation to a Williamsburg Entertainment

The purpose of dancing was recreational, but also political and social. At a ball, one might put one’s gentility, accomplishment, beauty, and economic means on display in hopes of impressing—or, in some cases, intimidating—the company. In Virginia, as in England, a ball was one of the few events at which young men and women spent significant time in each other’s company, and dancing in particular provided opportunities for conversation, courtship, and forging social connections. This was especially crucial if the Virginia gentry were to maintain their power, which was consolidated largely through intermarriage among leading families.

Good dancing was associated with good breeding, such that a man’s prowess at the minuet—an especially complicated dance, requiring excellent balance and coordination with one’s partner—could buoy his social position, whereas a poor minuet might leave him out of favor. Eighteen-year-old Lucy Lee Orr confided to a friend in 1782 that “I don’t think I ever laugh’t so much in my life as I did last night at Captain Grigg’s minuet. I wish you could see him. It is really the most ludicrous thing I ever saw; and what makes it more so is, he thinks he dances a most delightful one …”

Alexander Spotswood

At a ball, the minuet was danced one couple at a time in descending social order; for instance, the Virginia governor would partner with the colony’s highest-ranking woman. On February 6, 1711, William Byrd II attended a ball in Williamsburg with his wife, Lucy Parke Byrd. He recorded in his diary that Governor Alexander Spotswood (then a bachelor) chose her for his partner in a “French dance,” likely the minuet. The choice honored not only his wife but also Byrd, because it publicly demonstrated his position as the highest-ranking male after the governor. Men with political aspirations were thus wise to practice their dance steps often, as indeed Byrd seems to have done. The note “danced my dance” appears frequently in his diary.

While most political maneuvering on the dance floor was subtle, there were times when it could be overt. In the years leading up to and during the American Revolution (1775–1783), dancers used the environment of the ballroom to make political statements through their dress, their choice of partners, or their selection of dances. For instance, wearing a homespun gown or suit to a ball demonstrated an alliance to the patriot cause, as did refusing to dance with Tories (those loyal to the Crown). In 1770, the General Assembly threw a ball in Williamsburg at which the ladies “appear’d in dresses of Virginia manufacture,” which indicated their refusal to purchase fabric of British origin or import. During moments of political turmoil, the ballroom accorded American women an unusual amount of power, since it was a place—perhaps the only place—where propriety demanded that they make conversation with men. The environment of the ballroom thus allowed women to voice their opinions without stepping outside the bounds of acceptable female behavior.

Types of Dances

The Cotillion Dance

Performance pieces included minuets, allemandes, hornpipes, and other “fancy” dances. Formal events would begin with fancy dances, specifically the minuet. Originating in the court of French king Louis XIV, the minuet followed a “Z” pattern on the floor, and dancers might employ several styles of steps, usually the English or the French step. Both involved rising onto the ball of the foot on certain beats and dropping the heel almost to the floor on others, an effort requiring balance, concentration, and unspoken communication with one’s partner. Other fancy dances might follow at a ball, after those who wished to perform the minuet had done so.

“Country” dances, the prevailing social style, would then commence. A manual containing the most famous series of country dances, John Playford’s The English Dancing Master (later simply The Dancing Master), was published in London. Over eighteen editions, published from 1651 to 1728, the book collected more than one thousand distinct dances, both steps and music. These dances were often written to accommodate “as many as will” and were performed in two long lines, partners facing one another in what was called a longways set. Unlike the minuet, country dances did not reinforce the established social hierarchy—in fact, they were democratic. They were “progressive” dances, meaning that the dancers moved up and down the long lines and danced with every other couple. Dancers embellished with elaborate steps as they knew them. The different skill levels within country dancing allowed it to be a widespread pastime among the gentry and, increasingly as the century progressed, among the “middling sort.”

The most loosely structured dances were jigs and reels, the first derived from the traditions of African slaves and the second from those of the Scots. Jigs involved two dancers at a time, while reels were more flexible, accommodating three to six participants, depending on the style. (The so-called Virginia Reel, with two long lines, did not exist until the nineteenth century.) Both dances were regular features of “Virginia hops,” informal dancing parties frequented by lower-class whites or enslaved people that featured a fiddler responding to the whims of the crowd. Landon Carter‘s daughter Lucy Carter attended a hop at a tavern in 1772. Such gatherings seem to have been a Virginia tradition, and, even when held in other colonies, featured dances particularly associated with Virginia. Jigs and reels also infiltrated formal events. Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman visiting Alexandria in 1775, described one such event in his journal. He dubbed jigs “everlasting” because fresh dancers frequently cut in to continue the dance until the musician was exhausted.

Teaching and Learning

While country dances utilized simple figures and might be learned by observation, dancing was still an art best acquired through instruction. Dancing masters who could not purchase Playford’s book at least transcribed dances from it. The most frequently referenced technique manual, however, was French: Raoul-Auger Feuillet’s Chorégraphie, ou L’art de décrire la dance par caracteres, figures et signes desmonstratifs, avec lesquels on apprend facilement de soy même toutes sortes de dances (1700). Feuillet used an innovative notation system that allowed pupils to master the steps of both fancy and country dances by way of detailed diagrams. Translated to English in 1706 under the title The Art of Dancing, it was a staple teaching tool for Virginia actor and dance master Charles Stagg and his wife, Mary Stagg.

William Byrd II

The first dancing master, or teacher, in colonial Virginia, Charles Cleate, arrived sometime prior to 1676 but departed after his participation in Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677). Over the course of the eighteenth century, at least thirteen dance masters operated in Williamsburg and many more served in other towns or as itinerants. Because the population of Virginia was not concentrated in urban centers, but scattered among plantations and farms, dance masters frequently traveled to their far-flung pupils. In 1721, Barbara de Graffenreid instructed dance in several prominent households, including that of the Harrison family. At some point, she also served the Byrds, as William Byrd II later wrote her a letter of recommendation. The Staggs schooled Robert “King” Carter‘s children at Carter’s Corotoman estate. Later in the century, dance master Francis Christian visited another Carter home: Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County, where, according to tutor Philip Vickers Fithian, Christian subjected the children to very strict instruction. Fithian writes of one instance when Christian “struck two of the young Misses for a fault in the course of their performance”; on another occasion, the instructor threw out a young man who could not keep up with his peers. Despite this, observed Fithian, the colonists had an uncommon enthusiasm for the art of dance: “Virginians are of genuine Blood. They will dance or die!”

Dance lessons at country homes sometimes concluded with a dance for the entire household and surrounding neighbors, since they could not often attend assemblies in town. Weddings brought families and friends together for days at a time, and the guests might dance every evening until the early morning hours. Stagg supervised the dancing at Anne Carter’s wedding celebration in 1722. Music at events both rural and urban were provided by professional consorts, military bands, or single, often enslaved, fiddlers.

A Servant Teaching Dance

It is curious evidence for the cross-class appeal of dance that while de Graffenreid was the wife of a baron, the Staggs were indentured servants, having signed a labor contract to William Levingston in 1716. Their case was not unusual, as several articles from the Virginia Gazette illustrate. In 1739, Stephen Tenoe’s employer advertised that the dance master was a servant and that all his earnings should revert to his employer until his term was complete. Similarly, that same year, a notice appeared for a runaway servant from Maryland, thought to have escaped to Virginia. His wronged employer warned that the runaway professed to teach dancing. A similar notice appeared in 1745. Thus, in addition to the legitimate dance masters in Virginia, there may have been a number of charlatans.

Cities, especially the capital, had the advantage of a denser population and an influx of visitors during regular court sessions. Thus, cities often boasted multiple dancing schools. A dancing school for “gentlemen’s sons” was held at the College of William and Mary in 1737, under the supervision of William Dering. Dancing masters operated in Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hampton by 1739. A Frenchman styling himself “Le Chevalier de Peyrouny” (the Knight of Peyrouny) instructed dance, fencing, and the French language in Williamsburg before serving in the French and Indian War (1754–1763) with the young George Washington, who was himself acclaimed as a fine dancer, though he never took formal lessons.

Dancing schools generally taught the sexes separately, at different hours or different days of the week. One notable exception to this rule was a dancing school active in Richmond in 1784, also unusual in that it served exclusively teenagers. Given the ages of the mixed company, the Richmond school saw fit to include among its official rules that there was to be “no kissing in school.” Many schools also instructed adults; some provided evening classes to accommodate those who, unlike the planter elite, had regular daytime professions.

Assemblies and Balls

Dance at a Williamsburg Home

Subscription “assemblies” in major cities such as Williamsburg, Norfolk, Alexandria, Winchester, Fredericksburg, and Richmond brought together the surrounding population for evenings of dance. Tickets for subscription balls could be purchased from local businesses or the assembly’s manager. In the 1730s, the Staggs and Graffenreid each managed regular assemblies, vying for the loyalty of clients in Williamsburg. At least once, Graffenreid invited dancers to her own home in lieu of her regular assembly. It seems evident from surviving records that subscription assemblies were already regular and popular features of urban life by the second quarter of the eighteenth century, and they continued to be so into the nineteenth century. At the end of the American Revolution, a group of gentlemen founded the Richmond Assemblies in the new capital to continue this tradition. Richmond hosted a more elite collection of guests at its assemblies—government officials and respected professionals, included by invitation only.

Balls were also held to commemorate royal birthdays or other special events, like coronations, military victories, or the arrival of an important dignitary. After the defeat of the Jacobite rebels at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, a number of Virginia towns and counties funded celebratory entertainments that included dancing: Williamsburg, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Hanover County at least did so. The ball Nicholas Cresswell attended in 1775 was an annual event held in January to commemorate the birthday of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and similar observations took place throughout Virginia.

French Influence in the Revolution and Beyond

The Victory Ball

France, always a hub of fashion, became even more so for the brief period when Americans rejected British example. Alexander Quesnay was one of a number of Frenchmen to settle in America after the Revolution, and in the 1780s, French dancing masters and French dances such as the cotillion were in vogue. Traditional Virginia dances, like the jig, fell out of favor as the presence of French soldiers reinvigorated the “fancy” dances. Balls often would open with a minuet—the most aristocratic dance of all—in a supposedly democratic nation. Democratic tendencies did exist within dancing, though. In the 1790s, the number and popularity of dancing schools in Virginia grew. This may have diluted the quality of instruction, but it certainly reflected the new ability of Americans of various income levels to afford dancing lessons.

The egalitarianism of country dance had reached its zenith during the Revolution. Virginia gentry in the 1780s and 1790s moved to shut the “middling sorts” out of their social lives once more. New styles of dance, such as the French cotillion introduced around 1770, assisted them. A square-formation dance for four couples, the cotillion and its nineteenth-century successors reduced the social mixing that had been a feature of the longways set in country dances. Still, by the end of the century, the minuet became a casualty of rotating fashions, in part because the French Revolution had forcibly associated aristocratic privilege with decapitation. In 1790, the Richmond Assemblies limited the number of minuets that opened a ball to four. Minuets were still written and performed for special occasions, but they would never regain their former standing. Especially after a type of dance called the Carmagnole became symbolic of the Jacobin insurgents in France, country dance, too, was seen to have a dual nature. On one hand, it was an emblem of American values—of simplicity, equality, vigor, and the self-made man. On the other, it threatened social discord, and even blurred racial boundaries in a culture becoming increasingly defensive of its system of enslaved labor.

May 1607
The English colonists arriving in Virginia bring musical instruments with them and make comparisons between their own traditional forms of dance—such as hornpipes and Morris dancing—and the dances they witness among Virginia Indians.
John Playford publishes the first edition of The English Dancing Master, the most famous and widely distributed collection of country dances. The book will run to eighteen editions, the last appearing in 1728.
The first known dance master in America, Charles Cleate, participates in Bacon's Rebellion and leaves Virginia after its failure.
Spring 1699
The House of Burgesses votes to move the capital of Virginia from Jamestown, which had been plagued by fires, to Williamsburg. Construction of the College of William and Mary has recently been completed; the college building has a suitable hall for dancing, and other buildings are being planned to accommodate the activity.
Raoul-Auger Feuillet's Chorégraphie, ou L'art de décrire la dance par caracteres, figures et signes desmonstratifs, avec lesquels on apprend facilement de soy même toutes sortes de dances is published. In his book Feuillet pioneers a notation system that shows the steps of both fancy and country dances by way of detailed diagrams.
John Weaver translates Raoul-Auger Feuillet's Chorégraphie into English. The translation is published under the title The Art of Dancing.
February 11, 1711
William Byrd II records in his diary that Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood opened a ball at the governor's house in Williamsburg by partnering with Byrd's wife, Lucy Parke Byrd, in a minuet. Spotswood's choice of partner indicates that Byrd is the second most powerful man in the colony.
Charles and Mary Stagg, a dance master and his wife, sign an indenture contract to dance master William Levingston, who has just signed a contract to build the first playhouse in British North America.
The first recorded performance takes place at the Play Booth Theater in Williamsburg, run by dance master William Levingston and featuring actors and dancers Charles and Mary Stagg.
Barbara de Graffenreid serves as dance master for several elite families in Virginia, including the Harrisons.
Charles Stagg, dance master for the Carter family, oversees the dancing at the celebration of Anne Carter's marriage to Benjamin Harrison IV.
Charles and Mary Stagg and Barbara de Graffenreid hold competing dancing assemblies in Williamsburg.
January 1736
After the death of Charles Stagg, William Byrd II writes a recommendation for dance master Barbara de Graffenreid.
November 1737
William Dering opens a dancing school for "gentlemen's sons" at the College of William and Mary, probably in the Great Hall. Dering claims to teach in the latest French manner.
April 1738
The Virginia Gazette advertises an event that may be theater, a public ball, or both, to be held at the Capitol building in Williamsburg. The advertisement promises that several new dances will be performed.
April 1739
The Virginia Gazette notifies its subscribers that Stephen Tenoe, a dance master, is an indentured servant and his earnings should revert to his employer. At this point there are dancing masters or schools operating in Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Hampton, and possibly in other towns as well.
September 26, 1745
The Virginia Gazette notifies readers of a runaway servant who "pretends to teach Dancing."
August 1746
A number of towns in Virginia host balls and festivities to commemorate the defeat of the Jacobite rebels at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland on April 16, 1746. Among them are Williamsburg, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Hanover.
October 3, 1751
The Virginia Gazette promotes a Williamsburg performance of William Shakespeare's Richard III and advertises that it will incorporate a recently written dance called "The Royal Captive."
March 1752
A Frenchman who calls himself Le Chevalier de Peyrouny runs a school in Williamsburg where he teaches dancing, fencing, and the French language.
June 1752
Lewis Hallam and his company of traveling actors visit Williamsburg.
ca. 1770
The cotillion, a French dance done in a square formation, makes its first appearance in America.
August 25, 1774
Philip Vickers Fithian, a tutor at Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County, makes the observation, "Virginians are of genuine Blood. They will dance or die!"
October 1774
John Harrower, an indentured servant, observes rope dancers at a fair in Fredericksburg and records the event in his diary.
January 7, 1775
Englishman Nicolas Cresswell attends a dance in Alexandria and describes the jigs performed as "everlasting," because the guests will continue dancing "as long as the Fiddler can play."
Frederica von Riedesel, the wife of a German officer who was captured during the Saratoga campaign, writes, "Virginians are mostly indolent, which is ascribed to their hot climate, but with the slightest inducement they are ready in an instant to dance."
The presence of French soldiers in America prompts a resurgence in the popularity of "fancy" dances.
A group of gentlemen found the Richmond Assemblies, a series of subscription balls, in Virginia's new capital.
A dancing school in Richmond, unusual in that it teaches teenagers and instructs both sexes simultaneously, admonishes its students against kissing during class time.
Alexandre du Quesnay, a Frenchman who settled in America after the American Revolution, founds a school in Richmond. He discovers, to his disappointment, that most of his pupils prefer dance to the academic instruction he provides.
The Richmond Assemblies declare that only four minuets may be performed at the start of each ball they host.
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  • Corry, Mary Jane. The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690–1783: Text Database and Index. New York: University Music Editions, 1997.
  • Keller, Kate Van Winkle. Dance and Its Music in America, 1528–1789. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, 2007.
  • Keller, Kate Van Winkle. Social Dances from the American Revolution. Sandy Hook, Connecticut: The Hendrickson Group, 1992.
  • Keller, Kate Van Winkle and George A. Fogg. “No Kissing Allowed in School!” A Virginia Dancing School in 1784. Annapolis, Maryland: The Colonial Music Institute, 2006.
  • Keller, Kate Van Winkle and Charles Cyril Hendrickson. George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance. Sandy Hook, Connecticut: The Hendrickson Group, 1998.
APA Citation:
Stallings, Amy. Dance during the Colonial Period. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/dance-during-the-colonial-period.
MLA Citation:
Stallings, Amy. "Dance during the Colonial Period" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 09
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