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Reviewed by:
  • Dance and Its Music in America, 1528–1789
  • John E. Druesedow
Dance and Its Music in America, 1528–1789. By Kate Van Winkle Keller. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2007. [xviii, 697 p. ISBN-10 1576471276; ISBN-13 9781576471212. $84.] Illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.

This is an encyclopedic "narrative" (the author's term, see pp. 1 and 652) about dance and dance music during the American colonial period, covering the 261 years from the landing of a Spanish expedition in the area of the present Tampa Bay, Florida, to the "birth of the United States of America" (p. 652), symbolized by the very first session of the newly formed United States Congress in New York followed by the inauguration of George Washington in the spring of 1789. Dance, as defined by the author, encompasses "any choreographic activity performed to musical accompaniment" (p. 1). Thus, the dance activities of both native and immigrant populations are pertinent to this account. Following the first two chapters on Spanish and French settlements, respectively, the author focuses on the activities of those dwelling mostly along the Atlantic seaboard, grouping them in the next four chapters into four geographic areas ("The English Plantation Colonies in the South," "The Tobacco Colonies," "New England [parts 1 and 2]," and "The Middle Atlantic Colonies [parts 1 and 2]"), each area encompassing state subdivisions, thereby affording a convenient comparison of cultural, religious, economic, and geographic factors affecting dance within and among areas and states. At the conclusion of each state section, the author provides a descriptive list of "Men and Women Identified in Advertisements as Dancers or possible Dance Musicians," organized chronologically and identified by community location. Most of those individuals listed played the violin (fiddle); many were slaves or possibly indentured servants.

Given the copious illustrations and extended quotations drawn from primary sources (e.g., personal letters and diaries, legal documents, the activity records of dance instructors, and the advertisements of musical entrepreneurs), the reader can hardly escape the conclusion that a substantial number of people in the American colonies, if not a majority, loved to dance. Organized social dances, called assemblies or balls, were fairly frequent; tickets and invitations were issued; rules involving attendance and protocol on the dance floor were worked out in detail, and leaders were assigned to assure order and observance of those rules; floor space was allocated or constructed; and classes for instruction, advertised frequently in the newspapers of the time, were well attended. The reasons for learning to dance and attending balls were various: to establish or improve social status, to enhance physical grace and bearing, to promote physical health, to enjoy innocent recreation, to meet members of the opposite sex, or simply to be (or appear to be) fashionable—all a part of "genteel living" (p. 368). Dancers were strongly encouraged, or required in some cases, to attend classes in order to master the more intricate steps, as in the cotillion, for example. They sometimes began to learn at an early age, usually in classes led by an itinerant dance instructor, in public or private circumstances. For those who had the inclination, leisure time, and resources—balls would typically go on well past midnight and were often costly—dancing was apparently a most enjoyable activity.

Some in the colonies, however, held the opinion that dancing was a waste of valuable time, a vain and unworthy activity, or at worst a temptation toward sinful behavior. The Quakers as a group strongly objected to dancing (as well as a number of other recreational activities). With regard to the Puritans of Massachusetts, "almost every endorsement of pleasure and fun was hedged with restrictions of its actual exercise" (p. 297). In general, public dancing was eschewed or even harshly denounced by those with religious scruples. Nonetheless, many, it seems, overcame or ignored their objections. It was fashion, in a word, that carried the day. As Benjamin Franklin mentioned to George Whitefield, known as the spiritual leader of the Great Awakening of the mid-18th century, "The mode has a wonderful influence on mankind; and [End Page 755] there are numbers that perhaps fear less the being in Hell, than out of the fashion!" (see...