If he hadn't excelled at dance, George Washington might have been known merely as an accomplished dodger of musket balls. Like everything, though, he took his performance on the dance floor seriously, once referring warmly to dance as "the gentler conflict."
By Philip G. Smucker
Virginians of all ages brought their competitive spirits to the ballroom, and in scenes that would have amused the modem creators of "Dancing with the Stars," attendees and participants delighted themselves with the fine dancing as much as with the fun of watching others slip up, or otherwise entirely embarrass themselves on the floor.
As did their English cousins, Virginians preferred the playful steps of a French minuet set to Handel over - say - a battle in the woods with the natives. Many would have chuckled knowingly at Shakespeare's lines in King Henry VI, when Burgundy says, "I see our wars will tum unto peaceful comic sport when ladies crave to be encountered with." Most gentlemen of George Washington's era, while aspiring to glory on the battlefield, still preferred love over war - or at least a chance to dance with a lovely lady.
George Washington likely first acquired his dancing skills at his half-brother Lawrence's Mount Vernon estate, as well as with the Fairfax family at Belvoir Manor while in his teens.
By the age of 19, however, it appears that George was dancing regularly, notably on a trip to Barbados with his half-brother, Lawrence, who wrote to his father-in-law Colonel William Fairfax from the islands that "we have no kind of bodily diversions but dancing."
Washington's Journey to Barbados
Dexterity on the dance floor maintained social status, and also allowed for proper courtship. Dance represented an elaborate world of non-verbal signs, a system of gestures, starting with curtsy and bow, which derived from an ancient sometimes forgotten European court life. For George Washington and others, dance was refined flirtation -- a means for Virginia's men to express their adoration and interest in ornately attired women - the loveliest of Southern Belles.
"George Washington would have had most of his early experience dancing at Plantation Homes,"
insists Corky Palmer, a scholar and 18th Century dance instructor at Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, where George Washington often danced. "In Virginia, dance, unlike in parts of puritanical New England, was both accepted and encouraged. In Virginia the rule was, you danced the first dance with your partner, and returned to the 'one who brung' you, but usually only for the last dance."
In the two main parlors of Belvoir Manor, dances with the Fairfax family would have unfolded on long winter nights with a small ensemble, sometimes consisting of two violins, a French horn, or possibly a harp. As the musicians struck up a chord, couples on the dance floor would stand smiling and facing one another in anticipation of the next dance, often a Scottish reel, an up-tempo number.
During and after the French and Indian War, when there was a ball at the Governor's mansion in Williamsburg, George Washington was often in attendance, sometimes as an honored guest. By the light of many candles and under the gaze of full-length portraits of the British king and queen, men and women in their finest apparel assembled to display their skills.