Dancing masters arrived on American shores nearly as soon as European settlers had landed. Puritans, who held that morality and movement were linked, permitted dancing and dancing masters as long as they functioned within the bounds of Christian precepts.
American cities attracted adventurous dancing masters willing to cross the ocean. By 1706, even dour Philadelphia had a dancing and fencing school, despite protests by the Society of Friends. Some dancing masters also taught such useful subjects as needlework, music, arithmetic, reading, or French. Eager for self-improvement, such opportunities for education were seized by many aspiring Americans.
As competition increased, dancing masters flaunted their credentials and advantages, as did John Ormsby in 1753: “as he has had the honour to tutor several gentlemen and ladies of the first rank in different parts of Europe (as appears by his recommendations) he humbly conceives that he is a person properly qualified to instruct youth in several branches of education, particularly Fencing and Dancing, with their necessary embellishments, which are, a discreet and courteous behavior, a genteel easy carriage, without constraint, and how to appear in the politest company with a becoming grace and modest assurance.”
Mr. Tioli assured potential clients of his Philadelphia dancing school in 1763 that he “had the Honour of performing one Year at the King’s Opera House, in the Hay Market, two Years at the Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane, as many by his Contract with the celebrated Mr. Garrick three years at the Theatre in Dublin, and at several of the Courts in Germany, France, Portugal, Italy, &c.”
Some masters, like Mr. Turner of Boston (whose classes John Durang attended during his youthful employment in that city), set up long-term in one city, while others traveled a circuit of towns. Other masters were primarily stage performers—ballet masters and dancers with theatrical troupes—who supplemented their income with teaching, as Durang did in Hartford in 1795 when playing with a troupe from the Old American Company. Other examples were M. Francisquy and M. Quesnet, with whom Durang worked at times in his career.
Peripatetic dancing masters traveled the hinterlands, , setting up for periods in one small town after another to bring the refinements of their art to Americans far from metropolises like Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
In Lancaster, for example, an Assembly was formed by at least 1778, despite the privations of the Revolutionary period and protests of religious leaders. There may well have been dancing masters before him, but we know of Mr. Baconais, who began teaching in Lancaster in 1797, later teaching in Baltimore. In 1800, Felix de St. Hilaire offered to teach York’s citizens “all the fashionable Dances now in vogue amongst the most polished circles of Europe.”
Alexis Blondel held a fencing and dancing academy in Lancaster in July 1801 and in York and Harrisburg in 1802. Harrisburg, soon to become state capital, was served by French dancing masters, like M. Colome (or Colonne) “of the Academy at Paris and Madrid” in 1810, who had also taught in Baltimore and York. Carlisle residents established a Dancing Assembly in 1782 that continued into the early nineteenth century, and dancing masters like Mr. Curley appeared to prepare them.
Citizens of Reading, Pennsylvania, could study dancing with Professor Hervey, and later with the Frenchman M. Bonafon, who also taught in Philadelphia. James Robardet, who also taught in Baltimore and Philadelphia, traveled as far as Chambersburg in 1814. Note that, in some of these newspaper notices for the services of dancing masters, the typeface used is close to cursive, or in some other way suggests the elegance and refinement that the masters promised their students.
Wherever Americans lived, traveled, or settled, dancing masters appeared to educate and refine them.