Gentlemen—Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies in Alexandria this winter, and thank you for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our dancing days are no more. We wish, however, all those who have a relish for so agreeable and innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them; and I am, gentlemen, Your most obedient and obliged humble servant, Geo. Washington.
George Washington, MOUNT VERNON, 12TH NOVEMBER, 1799.
But what dancing days they had been! Assemblies, balls with friends, parties with fellow officers and their ladies, dances with the French allies and a merry frisk in 1779 when he and General Greene’s wife, Catharine, danced “upwards of three hours without once sitting down” (Showman 3:354). On July 4, 1778, Washington attended a more stately affair, one which was calculated to reinforce the prominent status of the attendees. Elijah Fisher reported in his journal that they had
selebrated the Independence of Amarica the howl army parraded and at the Right of Every Brigade there was a field peace placed, then was the signal given for the howl army to fire and they fired one round and the Artillery Discharged Thirteen Cannon we gave three Chears &c. At Night his exelency and the gentlemen and Ladys had a Bawl at Head Quarters with grate Pompe. (Fisher 9)
The occasion was obviously staged in such a way that the common soldiers and others noticed.
The private assembly, the public ball, and the afternoon dancing party served the same role for Washington and his generation that government receptions, embassy cocktail parties, and officers’ clubs serve today—venues to bring the political leaders, diplomats, financiers, and military people together under favorable and visible conditions. For most of his career, George Washington depended entirely on the interrelations between these groups of people, socially, economically, and politically. In many cases, dancing was simply an excuse for a party and one of several activities at the event. In 1774, Philip Fithian described a ball to which he escorted the wife and children of his employer, Virginia plantation owner Colonel Robert Carter. From about two in the afternoon until eleven that evening Fithian was fully occupied in conversation, dining, and observing the beautiful surroundings and the activities of the other attendees at cards, singing, drinking, and dancing.
About Seven the Ladies & Gentlemen begun to dance in the Ball-Room—first Minuets one Round; Second Giggs [jigs]; third Reels; And last of All Country-Dances; . . . The Music was a French-Horn and two violins—The Ladies were Dressed Gay, and splendid, & when dancing, their Silks & Brocades rustled and trailed behind them! —But all did not join in the Dance for there were parties in Rooms made up, some at Cards; some drinking for Pleasure; some toasting the Sons of america; some singing “Liberty Songs” as they call’d them, in which six, eight, ten or more would put their Heads near together and roar, & for the most part as unharmonious as an affronted — (Fithian 56–57).
At most parties, the dancing was of paramount importance. First came the ceremony of the opening minuets that established the ranks of those present and impressed those who needed to be impressed. Regulations for some Assemblies specified that card playing would not commence until after the minuets, probably to ensure that these performances would have a maximum audience. Next, composed pieces for one or two skilled dancers might be performed such as Louis-Guillaume Pécour’s timeless dance “La Bretagne,” composed in 1704 and still taught in Philadelphia in 1773 (Pennsylvania Journal, Dec. 1, 1773). Perhaps a rigadoon or an allemande created by the local dancing master would be danced. Sometimes a solo jig or hornpipe would be performed by one of the gentlemen’s sons and daughters who were coming of age and fresh from dancing classes.
During the evening, a small group might dance a French cotillion or a fancy dance that they had practiced for the occasion. Here the dancers could show off elaborate footwork and dexterity. In Richmond in 1790, the assembly rules limited dancing of fancy dances to half an hour and the opening minuets to four. Throughout the evening English country dances would be danced, offering a chance for old and young to dance together, each at his or her own pace. And in corners and hallways, young people would be seen dancing informal reels.
George Washington’s family background did not provide the usual training for the social stature he achieved. Until he was eleven, most of his education took place at home; he had few books and little exposure to the art of being a gentleman, or, for that matter, of managing an estate or fighting a war. He seems to have been an early do-it-yourself American, an ambitious, self-constructed person. Throughout his life, he was deliberate, careful, and concerned with his reputation. When he needed a skill, he learned by observation, trial, and error. With his natural talent and charismatic personality, he was very good at learning.
As Washington entered his teens, several people who influenced him considerably moved into his life. His two half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, were educated in England, married Virginia brides of stature and wealth, and established households into which Washington was welcomed like a son. Lawrence’s wife was a Fairfax and their home at Little Hunting Creek, renamed Mount Vernon, was adjacent to Belvoir, the Fairfax establishment. In the library at Mount Vernon, Washington may have found a small book of maxims and regulations of conduct, many of the rules to teach the practice of self-control. He might have been guided by a tutor; he may have been self-directed. Nonetheless, he copied most of the book, entitle “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” He might have taken the rules entirely to heart. It is possible to match some of the 110 precepts to moments in his later life when he displayed them to perfection.
In this new environment, Washington also learned the physical movements of a proper eighteenth-century gentleman, termed “complaisance” by deportment instructors. This art Washington also mastered completely. With the ease gained from long-continued custom, refined society in his day practiced highly formalized social exchanges with the self-assured nonchalance that was both elegant and cool. The rules were explicit and detailed: the simple act of handing someone a book called for eleven procedures for a man, nineteen for a woman! Postures and gestures of constraint distinguished the elite, and their patterns of withheld energy had moral overtones. Forbearance was desirable; heroic self-control and disdain for revealing inner feelings were noble and virtuous. Washington trained himself and became the epitome of this ethic that pervaded his era in clothing, architecture, literature, conversation, and, at its most visible, in dance.
Washington’s large frame was molded by his outdoor life, and all who saw him said that they never saw a more graceful and dignified person. An excellent horseman, he would have natural balance, rhythm, and grace of movement after hours of moving with his horse. Mrs. Washington’s grandson wrote in the 1840s that Washington’s performance of a minuet once drew what must be the ultimate compliment: French officers present admitted that his dancing could not have been improved by a Parisian education! (Custis 144) While this praise may have been calculated for its effect, and its reflection on the speaker, it may well have been true. The muscular coordination required to bear his tall, athletic frame easily in the saddle probably served him equally well in the dance. We have no record that he was ever in the hands of an instructor of the dance. That “Parisian education” may have come from his visits to his brother’s homes and to the neighboring home of the Fairfax family, where dancing and fencing masters were undoubtedly regular visitors.
During the French and Indian War, he served with several men who taught fencing, a physical skill often closely allied to that of dancing. Among these was Jacob Van Braum who was his brother’s fencing master, and Guillaume, le Chevalier de Peyrouney who had announced that he would teach dancing and fencing in Williamsburg in 1752 (Jane Carson 30–33). Washington’s account book shows payment to James Wood for fencing lessons on August 7, 1756. His dancing might have been improved by the dancing masters who came to Mount Vernon in the 1770s to teach his stepchildren (Benson 57–64). By 1779, as he danced a minuet with Lucy Knox, the wife of General Knox, he inspired the following tribute.
The ball was opened by his Excellency the General. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher, who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn trifles into instruction. (Pennsylvania Packet, March 6, 1779)
The minuet was definitely not a trifle to be watched once and copied. Washington must have had some instruction, no matter how natural his talent. Though he loved to listen to music, he professed to having no ear for its intricacies. Matching the complex step to the right musical phrase and guiding his partner through the dance would be even more difficult for him. He cannot have learned this dance from a book.
Country dances required less practice and preparation. In his lengthy instruction manual, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), Kellom Tomlinson summed up the learning process for these progressive dances, which were performed by partners standing facing one another, in two lines, the men on one side, the women on the other.
Indeed good Breeding, in Regard to those with whom we dance, requires our not being careless; . . . with due Circumspection and Care it is impossible not to follow almost any Country Dance, . . . If we place ourselves at the Bottom, and, instead of Talking, take a Survey of the Dance, . . . to observe and distinguish one from another . . . Casting off or up, Figuring in, Hands across or round, Right Hand and Left, Flying, Pursuing, Clapping of Hands, Heys, Leading up or down, Back to Back, Changing of Places, Falling back, Meeting again, or whatever it be, . . . with a little Practice you will soon be able not only to follow Country Dances but also lead them up, tho’ you never danced them before. (Tomlinson 158)
In 1772, a Philadelphia dancing master offered specific help to his students in this regard:
He intends teaching in the newest and most approved [manner], now practiced in all the polite Assemblies of Europe. Exclusive of the Minuet, Country Dance, and Scotch Reel, he teaches (such of his pupils as he finds has a capacity) the Allemande, Cotillon and Louvre, and takes particular care, with respect to their dancing a proper Country Dance step without any extra charge. (Pennsylvania Journal, August 26, 1772)
Washington was dancing with the leaders of Philadelphia society shortly afterward. Observation of Francis Christian’s recent classes with his stepdaughter and her friends must have equipped him with the “proper country dance step.”
During the war, Washington moved with the most elite citizens of America, socializing and dancing with them. In her anecdotal history of eighteenth-century Philadelphia, Anne Wharton names several of his partners. She tells that he danced “repeatedly” with Miss Catharine Van Zandt, and a decade later he danced a minuet with her at his inaugural ball in New York. He had opened the ball with Mrs. James Duane and danced a cotillion with Mrs. Peter Van Brugh Livingston. All three ladies had shared the dance floor with him during the war in winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey (Wharton 81-84).
Although Lady Washington was not at the inauguration ball, she was often with her husband in winter quarters and, once the war was over, in New York and Philadelphia. It is curious that no mention can be found of her dancing in public, with him or with other partners. Surely, had she taken the floor, it would have been noticed and remarked on. It is certainly unusual for the ranking lady of society not to be seen on the dance floor, with no mention made of it.
The arrival of the French allies in 1778 increased the number of parties and balls as the Americans sought to prove to the urbane foreigners that they were not rustic Yankees with no culture. Ostentatious dancing assemblies and elegant entertainments were held, and the cotillion, a figure/chorus dance that was brought from England and Paris to America in about 1770, became a tour-de-force in the ballroom. A non-progressive dance for four couples, it is the direct ancestor of the American square dance.
At least one wartime anecdote implies that some French officers were acquainted with English country dance tunes. As the leaders were meeting and planning the Yorktown campaign, many social events served to help the proceedings along. In 1854, Mason described a ball given by the citizens of Newport in honor of Washington and Rochambeau.
On this occasion Washington opened the ball. The dance selected by his partner was “A Successful Campaign,” then in high favor; and the French officers took the instruments from the musicians, and played while he danced the first figure with one of the most beautiful and fascinating of Newport’s many belles (Newport Illustrated 44).
It is a lovely story that might have some basis in truth, although no period sources confirm it. “A Successful Campaign” was first published in 1764 in London and became one of the most often played melodies in America, by military fifers and dance fiddlers alike.
The Yorktown campaign inspired another piece, this one an extended dance metaphor entitled “The Dance” to the redoubtable tune of “Yankee Doodle.” It was printed in several newspapers, and in the tenth verse, echoes the impression that Washington was self-taught.
And Washington, Columbia’s son, Whom easy nature taught, sir, That grace which can[’]t by pains be won, Or Plutus’ gold be bought, sir. (Pennsylvania Packet, Nov. 27, 1781)
Shortly after the Yorktown victory, Baron von Closen was traveling in Virginia and commented on the dancing.
The fair sex in this city [of Williamsburg] are very fond of minuets. It is true that some of them dance them rather well, and infinitely better than those up North; . . . All of them like our French quadrilles [cotillions], and, in general, they find also French manners to their taste. (Von Closen 169)
Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis described a victory ball in Fredericksburg, held less than a month after the Yorktown victory.
It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis. . . The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manners . . . As the evening advanced, the commander-in-chief yielding to the general gayety of the scene, went down some dozen couple in the contre dance with great spirit and satisfaction (Custis 143–144).
After 1775, Washington was expected to open the dancing at nearly every ball and assembly that he attended. While he was President, he traveled through the northern states twice and once through the southern states, all the way to Savannah and Augusta. At every stop, he was fêted and the festivities often included a ball at which the ladies of the community could be presented to and dance with their distinguished visitor.
Soon after the war, dances named for Washington began to appear as his name had popular appeal and commercial value. In 1788, John Griffiths published “Washington’s Resignation” in the earliest-known printed collection of dances in the United States. He published “Washington Forever” in his 1794 collection. “G: Washington’s Favorite” and similar dances appeared in manuscript and other printed sources of the 1790s and in musicians’ manuscript tune collections.
“Washington’s Reel” and “Lady Washington’s Reel” appeared in sources well into the nineteenth century. Pierre Landrin Duport wrote several minuets named for performances in the Washingtons’ presence. Undoubtedly, many local musicians and dance choreographers did the same, creating or renaming dances and melodies for presentation at events where Washington was honored in person or in absentia. It was a compliment to him, gave the creator a moment to shine, and made the content of the evening feel more special for everyone. Even in England such titles had market appeal as two books with titles commemorating events in America appeared in 1785, including “The Washington Country Dance.”
In 1798, Washington’s step-granddaughter, who had been trained by the best music and dancing masters in America, wrote to a friend about one of the last parties the Washingtons attended together.
My Grandparents & self went up to Alexandria to attend the celebration of the Birth night. The room was crowded, there were twenty five or thirty couples in the two first setts . . . [the next day] Mrs Potts gave me a charming dance, I danced twenty four dances, setts, cotillions, reels, &c, sung twelve songs” (Britt 58).
Her admiring grandfather must have watched with pride as Nelly Custis moved with the appropriate graces on the threshold of womanhood and a new century.
Benson, Norman Arthur. “The Itinerant Dancing and Music Masters of 18th-Century America.” Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Minnesota, 1963.
Britt, Judith. Nothing More Agreeable, Music in George Washington’s Family. Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1984.
Carson, Cary, et al. Of Consuming Interest: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginians at Play. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, 1965.
Custis, George Washington Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860.
Dukes, Nicholas. A Concise & Easy Method of Learning the Figuring Part of Country Dances, by way of Characters. To which is Prefixed The Figure of the Minuet. London: 1752.
Fisher, Elijah. Journal while in the War for Independence . . . ,1775-1784. Augusta, Maine: Badger and Manley, 1880.
Fithian, Philip. Journal and Letters. Ed. By Hunter Dickinson Farish. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974.
Newport Illustrated. [Ed. by George Champlin Mason.] New York: D. Appleton & Co., [ca. 1854].
Showman, Richard K. The Papers of General Nathanael Green. 5 vols. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1976-1989.
Von Closen, Ludwig. The Revolutionary War Journals. Trans. Evelyn McComb. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, Press, 1958.
Wharton, Anne Hollingsworth. Martha Washington. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897.
Taken with permission from: Kate Van Winkle Keller and Charles Cyril Hendrickson’s George Washington, A Biography in Social Dance (Sandy Hook, CT: The Hendrickson Group, 1998), 13–18.
Created and published September 18, 2001. Updated September 22, 2015.