Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The First Waltz

If you have seen any of the movie versions of Jane Austen novels, you are familiar with the type of dancing done in ballrooms in the early nineteenth-century, and although I cannot distinguish a quadrille from a cotillion, I can describe two characteristics that most of these dances had in common.

The first is the lack of physical contact between the male and female dancers. Holding hands, maybe even linking elbows, some titillating brushing against each other's arms -- and that's about it. The second is that there is a great deal of changing of partners so that dancing was a great opportunity for brief flirtation and conversation with several members of the opposite sex.

It was in the context of these dances that Rebecca saw her first waltz in 1802: hers is among the earliest reports of the dance in America. At a private ball, the musicians struck up a waltz which was already popular in France. At this time Philadelphia had a large community of French and French colonial emigres, and those at the ball eagerly took to the dance floor.

Rebecca's reaction was not positive: "The French ladies & gentlemen danced the volts [sic]. It is not a delicate or I fancy an agreeable dance." This sounds a bit priggish, but consider this: while a man might take a woman's hand or give her his arm in the course of a stroll, taking her in his arms was not a part of accepted social interactions between the sexes and reserved for the private moments of those in love. With the waltz, a young woman had to submit to a lengthy invasion of her personal space by a man whom she may never had met before. It is not surprising that Rebecca's first response would have been negative, and she was by no means alone in this. Fifteen or twenty years would have to elapse before the waltz was accepted in at least some American ballrooms. To date I have found no evidence that Rebecca ever changed her mind about the dance.

(Rebecca's remarks are from a letter to her friend Maria Fenno in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress.)

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