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Dance as Polite Learning

Hamilton 1840 – 1860

polkaIn Hamilton where gentle living and refined manners were an important part of polite society’s lifestyle, ballroom dancing lessons played an important role as a vehicle for polite learning. This learning, of a refined and elegant kind, was acquired through the study of music, literature, painting, and, in particular, dance. Under the dancing master, who was knowledgeable in matters of social decorum, one’s education in manners and morals was completed. Through these studies the elite attained cultural refinement, which was a necessary requisite to membership in polite society.

Dance Manual  Courtesy of Library of Congress

Dance Manual
Courtesy of Library of Congress

A cultured person was a polite person who knew and practised the rules of etiquette, which were the formal requirements governing behaviour in upper class society. Dance was emphasized in the pursuit of social graces because it was in the ballroom that the upper class was on its best behaviour.

Hamilton circa 1860

Hamilton circa 1860

To know the etiquette of the ballroom (which carried over into everyday life), and to execute with grace and skill the steps of the various ballroom dances was an indication of good taste and cultural refinement. Without this type of finishing school education, no amount of wealth, education, or family connections would make a person suitable for polite society. Refined manners were a shield against those persons who, having neither talent nor delicacy, would thrust themselves into the company of people to whom their presence might be offensive, and even insupportable. In such a society the expertise of the dancing master as a teacher of social decorum was vital. Under his influence young ladies and gentlemen from Hamilton’s upper class were trained to take a place among the elite. A steady stream of dancing masters was attracted to Hamilton because of its reputation as a prominent mercantile centre with a prosperous upper class. Among the masters who came to the city in this period, Thomas Macindoe was the most respected.

Learn more about dancing masters


Reading Guide

ballroomtohellElizabeth Aldrich. From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance. (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991).

Freda Crisp, “Dance in Polite Society: Hamilton, Canada West (1840-1860).” MA thesis, York University, 1991.

Allen Dodworth, Dancing and Its Relations to Education and Social Life With a New Method of Instruction Including a Complete Guide to the Cotillion (German) with 200 Figures (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1888).