Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dancing Assemblies & Dances

A series of subscription balls given throughout the social season, dancing assemblies first appeared in England and migrated to America during the colonial period. They were very popular on both sides of the Atlantic because they made large dances possible for participants at a fraction of the cost of having a ball at home. (Few people in Philadelphia had enough space for a large dance anyway.) To organize a dancing assembly a group of well-to-do men each paid the prescribed subscription fee. From their number, they chose several managers who would set the dates for the dances and choose the venue, catering and music for the season. Each subscriber received season tickets for himself and for the women (18 or older) in his family. All other men had to pay to get in, and the price was high enough to discourage the working class.

The first dancing assembly in Philadelphia was in 1748. It is a marker of the city's ease with diversity that among the subscribers were David Franks and Nathan Levy, prominent Jewish merchants. Philadelphia tolerance is usually traced to its first Quaker settlers, but since Quakers did not dance, the openness of the assemblies indicates that members of other sects had adopted Pennsylvania's welcoming policies.

The Assemblies were not the only dances. The Gratz's had room enough to hold a small dance at their house, and Rebecca reported on dances at the homes of friends. There were also Bachelors' Balls, for which a group of unmarried men clubbed together to organize a dance for their friends in a rented venue.

Like the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth Bennett met Mr. Darcy at the local dancing assembly), the Gratz sisters longed for a dance. Or as Rebecca put it, dances were "anticipated with delight for a week -- and then enjoyed with a zest of true pleasure."

In later years Rebecca wistfully remembered her youthful enjoyment. When she was forty and trying to persuade her young sister-in-law Maria, Ben's wife, to come to Philadelphia for the season, she wrote, "If you were here I should buckle on my old finery again for the pleasure of accompanying you [to the Dancing Assembly]...[although to me] a ball room seems more like a memorial of lost pleasures than an incitement to new ones."

Even in her 60's Rebecca was still attending balls, albeit out of duty rather than for pleasure. In 1844 she wrote of a ball to benefit the Hebrew charitable societies with which she was associated. The managers had insisted on her going because "so many of the genteel Jewesses decline," a hint at the social friction between the old Philadelphia Jewish families and the newer immigrants. More likely, however, is that the organizers wanted Rebecca because she was considered the most genteel Jewess in the city, as the reputed inspiration for the character of the immaculate Rebecca of York in Scott's immensely popular novel Ivanhoe. Always responsible, she concluded that she would go "to prove that I recognize the obligation conferred on the societies to be benefited by it."

(The information about dancing assemblies is drawn from a number of histories of Philadelphia, but the most detailed source is Thomas Willing Balch's The Philadelphia Assemblies, published in 1916. Rebecca's youthful joy in dances is from an 1807 letter in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Her wistful memories are published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, and the letter about her dutiful attendance later in life, dated January 21, 1844, is from the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina.)

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