Merchant's House · Music

Shall We Dance?

In 1927, when Gertrude Tredwell was eighty-seven years old, she recalled the romantic era before the Civil War when the Tredwell girls and their guests had danced in their own double parlors.

These parlors were separated by folding or sliding doors. With the doors opened and the furniture moved to the edges of the room or the hall, there was enough room for a square of four couples in each parlor to dance a quadrille—a dance organized like a square dance but unlike the later square dance performed with sedate restrained steps.

Music for the dance might be played on the pianoforte, a violin, or a flute. If no accompanist were available, a music box might be pressed into service.

The quadrille was a very decorous dance, but around 1840, dances that some people called “the work of the devil” were introduced and became very popular. These “round dances”—the waltz, the polka, the mazurka, for example—actually countenanced the approximation of a face to face embrace!

One such dance was the Varsovienne. If you want to see what shocked some 19th century observers this brief video will show you.

(Our shock threshold has obviously undergone a serious collapse in the past 175 years.)

For more on 19th century dance, see Chapter 11, “Parlor Choreography” in An Old Merchant’s House.

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8 thoughts on “Shall We Dance?

    1. There were a great many dances that young people learned to do in dance classes. I’ve often wondered why there aren’t groups that get together to do these dances. Maybe there are and I just don’t know about them. Sounds like fun to me. But maybe that’s just me.


    1. No–the dancers (boys and girls together) went to the dance instructor’s studio. Classes began as early as age three (baby classes) and continued through young adulthood.Of course, we’re talking about a privileged strata of society here.


    1. You’re right! I hadn’t noticed that. When you think about it, it must have been pretty exciting when they first started dancing as “closed couples,” around 1840. (Best not to look) However, these dances caught on very quickly and New Yorkers were soon waltzing and twirling with abandon wherever and whenever they could.


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