Dancing was a vital social skill in colonial times. Children were taught at an early age.
Martha and George Washington: Dancers
George Washington was considered an excellent dancer by all who knew him, and he enjoyed it even into his older years. As President, both in New York and in Philadelphia, there are many references to the aging President cutting a mean rug!
Not quite so for Lady Washington. In her youth, she danced as well as any of her peers, and was acknowledged to be petite and graceful. Like most women however, the aches and pains of the years took their toll, and she was content to let her husband choose another partner for the dance floor. Besides, it was considered unbecoming for aging women to dance. The “infirmity” card must have taken hold. More than forty years would pass before a First Lady would dance in public – and that one would be very young!
Dancing Classes: A Community Event
When George and Martha were raising Jacky and Patsy (her children by her first marriage), dancing lessons were as mandatory as teaching reading and writing. It was a skill all children were expected to learn when they were as young as five years old. Since centralized dancing schools were not available near Mount Vernon, a dancing master (usually male) would be privately engaged. Dancing lessons in colonial times was an occasion for everyone to party and relax.
A typical scenario would be to contact a few neighbors with children of reasonable age-proximity, and the families participated and shared the cost of the dancing master.
Along with the dancing master would come the neighbors: fathers, mothers, children of all ages (as many as they had), servants and horses – all to be hosted by the first in the “round-robin”.
Dormitories for the boys and girls would be created in an upstairs attic. Rooms on a lower floor would be set aside for their parents (and any babies or toddlers too young to participate). Guests’ servants would be accommodated by host servants. Horses would be stabled accordingly.
Then there would be a week-long party.
The Dancing Class
Dancing masters were not to be toyed with. They could be as strict and demanding as pedagogues, and complete obedience and attention was required as their children were learning their steps. Besides, parents were not far away, if discipline was required.
Every day, little children were taught to stand gracefully and learn to bow and curtsey properly, and to walk with pointed toes. Older children began to learn some of the basic steps of the minuet, considered as important to gentry as riding a horse. By the time children were nine or ten, the steps had become more intricate. A full-scale formal minuet could take nearly a half-hour to perform. Then they would learn the reels and gavottes that were lively and less formal.
Meanwhile, since the little “Fred and Gingers” were occupied, the host would take his planter-neighbors for an inspection tour of his plantation, where they could converse about their crops and trade and farm-talk – or politics. The ladies would retire to the parlor or the veranda with their handiwork, and share the latest fashions or recipes or gossip.
Around 4 PM, after a bountiful dinner, the dining room table would be dismantled, chairs moved to the edge of the room, and the fiddlers (or whatever musicians were available) would come to play. The children would demonstrate what they had learned. Then came a few hours of country dancing by adults and children alike. This would be repeated each day for several days.
Since no small child could be expected to remember everything without sufficient practice (something their parents were expected to encourage), a complete review of their lessons – plus new ones – would occur the following month when everyone, including the Dancing Master, would descend upon the next in the round-robin for a repeat of the week-long party. This might be repeated year after year, as the children grew and became more adept.
Dancing Classes for the Next Generation
By the time the Washingtons raised Martha’s grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis, both George and Martha were well into their middle age. The children were ten and eight respectively; the new President and First Lady were in their late fifties.
But New York and later Philadelphia serving as temporary capitals, were the two largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the new country. Here dancing schools were available. The Washingtons did not need to engage a private master. Nelly and “Wash” could be taken to a central location for instruction – but learn they must and learn they would. It was an imperative to social upbringing. Dances and balls were given regularly not only by the new President, but by all the leading families.
It was a mandatory social skill.
Chadwick, Bruce – The General and Mrs. Washington – Sourcebooks, 2005
Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington: A Life – Galahad Books, 2006