Date Awarded

Fall 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




James P Whittenburg

Committee Member

Paul Mapp

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Christopher E Hendricks


Dance has long been known to play a significant role in the social lives of men and women in colonial British America. What historians have largely failed to note is the integral nature of dance, in particular the longways English country form, to the realm of politics and the formation of national identity. From the earliest days of its dissemination in print, English country dance served a political purpose. In 1651, under Oliver Cromwell’s dour Protectorate government, Royalists like publisher John Playford used dance as a subtle form of resistance. Urging the public to remember the monarchy fondly and to join together in a quintessentially English pastime, Playford’s English Dancing Master created an imagined community of political dissenters. The Playford manuals set the standard for the politicization of dance in Anglo culture, both in the politically-charged dance titles they contained and in the intended function of dance performance itself. This awareness of dance’s potential and the tendency to employ it for political ends were carried across the Atlantic to England’s North American colonies. In the years preceding the American Revolution, as well as during the war itself, the ballroom became a political space to a heightened degree. While minuets established a clear social hierarchy, country dances broke it down into more democratic forms. Codes of conduct at assemblies allowed attendees (especially women) to publicize their political allegiances through their dress, behavior, and dance selection. Both the British and the Americans, up and down the eastern seaboard, sought to turn the politicization of the ballroom to their advantage; spectacular fetes such as Howe's Mischianza won local populations to the British cause, while the Philadelphia Assembly prohibited Loyalists from subscribing to its events. Partially in response to British extravagance, the Continental Army characterized its festivities as orderly, economical, and virtuous. In the Federal era, political rivals again used dance as a form of propaganda, warring over the legacy of independence. International tensions ran high as France found itself embroiled in a bloody revolution that sent a new wave of emigres fleeing abroad. Many settled in the United States and often made a living teaching dance. Pro- and anti-French feeling spilled over into the ballroom. as the rise of the middle class rendered dance an understandable language across a wide swath of the voting population, two major themes arose: that of dance as a wholesome rustic activity in keeping with lauded classical virtues, and that of the social-leveling, chaotic frolic, imbibed with vice and dangerous Jacobin principles. An analysis of dance metaphors reveals growing discomfort with race relations and with the political aspirations of the lower classes, suggesting the gradual closure of the window of opportunity that independence had proffered. English country dance persisted into Jacksonian America, despite the rise of French cotillions and quadrilles. Though it was a tool of reconciliation after the War of 1812, the longways set’s association with egalitarianism made it a target for anti-Jackson feeling by the 1820s. Changing styles in dance and politics also undercut the role of the ballroom. Women assumed a more public role in rallies and social movements, and small-set and partner dances allowed dancers to self-segregate, hindering large-scale communication on the dance floor.



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