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18th-century dance is a complex subject. Dance technique throughout the period changed frequently as new fashions and fads swept across the land. Usually described as “the latest,” “with the newest methods,” or “the most fashionable,” dancing was an expression of social values. Among the upper classes, it functioned as the presentation and ritualization of their status through the grace of body and display of fine clothing and jewels. Among the lower, it could become competitive, enhancing one's reputation in the community. Personal ability, the sophistication of taste, and availability of new material as well as social standing, region, and environment all affected dance interpretation and performance.

The dances most frequently performed in 18th-century America were the country dance, the cotillion, the minuet, and the reel. The jig, gavotte, and allemandes were show-off solo or duo dances that were tailored to specific dancers.

I have learned to dance almost six Months, & as I have a great Inclination to be a good Dancer, am resolved to continue learning a few Months longer, I am to go pretty often this Summer to an assembly at Chelsea, in Order to compleat myself in that genteel Science. I have been three or four times this Winter, at an Assembly at Mileud: the first time I danced a Minuet in public, my Knees trembled in such a Manner, that I thought, I should not have been able to have gone through with it, however by taking all Opportunities of dancing in Public, I have got over that foolish Bashfulness. London, April 15, 1751

Mabel Webber, “Peter Manigault’s Letters” [to his mother in Charleston, SC] The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 31/3 (July 1930), 277.

How to Dance the

Country Dance

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