Dancing was a popular diversion in eighteenth century America, and Washington himself was particularly fond of it. In early manhood, during the Revolution, and in the years of his presidency he attended many “assemblies”. He enjoyed such affairs to his last days, and it was only in 1799 that he was compelled to write to the managers of the Alexandria Assembly:
“Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies of 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.”
The minuet and the gavotte were the formal dances of Washington’s time. European composers were of course using these forms for movements of their suites and their sonatas, notably Haydn and Mozart. Martini and Boccherini supplied many such dances, and the latter’s charming Minuet in A is still a favorite. (This was composed in 1771, and first published abroad in 1775).
Composers in America, too, wrote prolifically for dancing. In 1770 Gualdo, in Philadelphia, advertised his Six New Minuets, with Proper Cadences for Dancing. The Library of Congress has an autograph collection of dance tunes by Pierre Landrin Duport, a dancing master of the day who was also an excellent musician. Among these pieces are a Fancy Menuit, “danced before Genl. Washington, 1792”, and a Fancy Menuit with Figure Dance, performed “by two young ladies in the presence of Mrs. Washington in 1792. Philada.” Alexander Reinagle was among the composers who wrote minuets and gavottes.
There are frequent references also to the sarabande and
the allemande, although strictly these belong to an earlier period. The waltz was probably not current in America until the close of the century, for it did not make its appearance in Central Europe until 1780, and was not used in England and France much earlier than 1791 or 1792. One of the earliest American references to the waltz was the publication of a Dance for Waltzing, issued by George Willig of Philadelphia, somewhere between 1795 and 1797.
Reels and country dances were equally, if not more popular than the more formal minuet and gavotte. There are dozens of contemporary references to reels, jigs, country dances, and the contre-dance, or quadrille. One of Washington’s favorite dance tunes was Successful Campaign, which was also one of the popular marches of the period. The Hay-Makers, La Belle Catherine, and St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning were all popular marches by day and dances at night.