It appears that any gathering during the colonial period, whether to raise a barn, make cheese, quilt, spin, gather wood or haul stone was enlivened with a "frolick". Benjamin Scudder in his Jottingsof 1780 to 1820 mentions scores of them. Holidays and special occasions were particularly apt to be celebrated with the music and dancing of a frolic. We know that in spite of the fact that half of the population of the Elizabethtown area was of Puritan New England background, they thoroughly enjoyed these festive occasions. The Puritans it seems did not object to dancing. History notes that in 1694 the Reverend Timothy Edwards, father of the famous Puritan minister, Jonathan Edwards, indulged himself in an "Ordination Ball". By the late 1600's there were many dancing masters in New England.
The first American dance book, A Collection of the Newest and Most Fashionable Country Dances and Cotillions, was published in 1788 by John Griffith, an iterant dancing master. It had been preceded by the English dance book, John Playford's English Dancing Master, which contained instructions for a few dances in which a limited number of couples, usually four, began a dance in a square formation. Also mentioned were reels, in which any number of couples stand in lines facing each other, and rounds in which dancers take partners with the person on their right and proceed in a circle-These were called country dances. In the early eighteenth century these English dances jumped the Channel to France, where they were prettied up, gilded with courtly elegance, set to formally composed music and were given the name "contra-dances".
In his book, As We Were, The Story of Old Elizabethtown, Theodore Thayer says that by 1790 the large numbers of French emigrees in Elizabethtown had made an "indelible impression on American culture". In 1791 the French dancing master, St Aivre, gave a ball to exhibit the latest dances. Sixteen young ladies performed the "Bow Dance", the "Minuet de la Cour", "la Gayette" and "Allemande". The French were not the only dance instructors. James Mitchell, a native of Scotland, taught dancing in Elizabethtown fornearly thirty years.
By 1800 American dancing was a mixture of French and English styles. Griffith's book has figures familiar to today's square dancers - cast off, right and left, four hands round; but also includes French terms - promenade, balance and chasse, which has been Americanized to "sashay". However, colonial American dancers had neither the time nor the patience to memorize structured continental patterns. Therefore, they used a caller to direct their movements so that dancers need learn only a group of figures and then heed the caller's commands. In the early days, calling was often an accomplishment passed from father to son. They needed a clear voice, an innate sense of rhythm and the ability to weave figures into patterns.
According to Alice Morse Earle in her book, Customs and Fashions in Old New England, "By Revolutionary times old and young danced with zest at balls, at 'turtle-frolicks' and at weddings." The Reverend John Bennett in 1791 in his "Letters to a Young Lady" recommended dancing as a “proper and healthful exercise". In their book Early sports and Pastimes of New Jersey, Harry and Grace Weiss tell us that even during one of the hardest winters of The Revolutionary War, George Washington took time out to enjoy an evening of "contra-dancing" at a ball and fete held at Pluckemin, New Jersey on February 18, 1779, Mrs.Earle reports that Washington "danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down".
Written by the Miller-Cory Education Committee - all rights reserved