The social dancing of early Americans was shaped largely by English practices, but also by the strong French presence in British North America. The “assembly” was an English inheritance, a strictly regulated, formal gathering, the most elite of which at the time were at Bath and London. At such assemblies, masters or mistresses of ceremonies tightly controlled admission, order of dances, placement on the floor, behavior between the sexes, non-dancing activities (cards, conversation, libations), and start and stop times. Dancing masters served the elite, and those wishing to become so, to ensure that all present at an assembly could properly partake of genteel social intercourse. Some assemblies were by invitation only; but public balls were also held.
The moral-religious principles held by several founding groups in America cast such social refinement, and consequent class distinction, among the sins of decadent European society. There was so much difficult work demanded in founding a new nation and establishing its industry, security, and government that there was no room for idle diversions—theatre, balls, assemblies, and dancing schools.
Yet class distinctions and social aspiration remained evident in this new nation; French emigré Moreau de St. Méry, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, remarked on the “snobbery in Philadelphia, where classes are sharply divided. This is particularly noticeable at balls.”
Despite Quaker objections, Philadelphia followed close on the heels of Boston and New York in forming a subscription dancing assembly, established in the City of Brotherly Love in 1748. These gatherings were consciously and clearly exclusive, although one observer noted that the barring of “Mechanics wives and daughters” from such gatherings “gave great offense to the democratic spirits of that time.” To attend, one had to purchase a costly subscription; non-members attended only by invitation of subscribers. Assemblies were initially held at Philadelphia’s City Tavern, and later at O’Eller’s Hotel, high-class establishments frequented by business and political leaders.
Rules were posted and enforced to maintain the desired decorum and to divide those educated to meet the standards from all others. To refute suggestions that attendees at elite assemblies were British sympathizers or imitators, the managers of Philadelphia’s assembly in 1781 announced that “It is expected that no man who has not taken a decisive part in favor of American independence will, in future, intrude on the Dancing Assembly of this city…. The company of those who were so insensible of the rights of mankind and of personal honor, as to join the enemies of their country in the most gloomy moment of the revolution, cannot be admitted.” Patriotic dances, such as “Successful Campaign,” “Burgoyne’s Defeat,” or “Clinton’s Retreat” were much in evidence.
Washington’s birthday was not only celebrated with patriotic fare at the nation’s theatres, but also with “birth night” balls, modeled on those held in England for the King. Since George Washington was a fine and eager dancer, this was an appropriate tribute to the great man and many dances were named in his honor.
Washington’s birthday balls were sponsored by Philadelphia’s City Dancing Assembly and other organizations or dancing masters. At such gatherings and many others, polished behavior was essential; to achieve it, one could study with a dancing master.