The following post originally appeared on an English Country Dance blog that I used to write for. Please enjoy this “different” view of George Washington as you celebrate President’s Day .
Barely a month before his death, George Washington penned the following letter.
12th November, 1799.
Gentlemen—Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite invitation to the assemblies in 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; and I am, gentlemen,
Your most obedient and obliged humble servant,
Geo. Washington (Custis, p. 366)
Our first President, known today mostly for his military and political accomplishments, was known throughout his lifetime for his accomplishments on the dance floor. The private assembly, the public ball, and the afternoon dancing party served the same role for Washington and his generation that cocktail parties, golf outings and country clubs serve today—venues to bring the political leaders, financiers, military leaders and power brokers together under favorable and visible conditions. For most of his career, George Washington depended entirely on the inter-relations between these groups of people, socially, economically, and politically. In many cases, dancing was simply an excuse for a party and one of several activities at the event.
We have no evidence about how or when George Washington learned to dance, but it probably wasn’t from a book. His formal education, provided to him as one of ten children of an aristocratic Virginia family, ended in his early teens. He must have had instruction somewhere, especially to execute the complicated rhythms, patterns, and steps of the minuet, which he had certainly mastered by the time of the American Revolution as shown by the following accounts:
From the winter of 1777-78.
Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, the former Catherine Littlefield of Block Island, turned out to be the life of any party she attended, Kitty, as she was called, was apparently one of George Washington’s favored dancing partners. “At a Valley Forge soiree, according to historian Theodore Thayer in George Washington’s Generals, she danced with General Washington for three hours without stopping, which set a Continental Army record. General Green himself said that Kitty danced with the Commander-in-Chief for three hours without stopping, at Morristown…….Dancing, as Washington said of his gambling, was “an agreeable and innocent amusement,” a welcome relief from the time he spent in the saddle commanding the troops.” (Marvin Kitman, p. 169)
George Washington Dancing with Nellie Custis at his Mt. Vernon Home Feb 1777 by E. P Morran
Apparently, Kitty Green was a favorite dancing partner of the Commander-in-Chief as we see once again in 1778.
When the camp spent a day rejoicing over the French alliance, “the celebration,” according to Thacher, “was concluded by a splendid ball opened by his Excellency General Washington, having for his partner the lady of General Knox.” Greene describes how “we had a little dance at my quarters a few evenings past. His Excellency and Mrs. Greene danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” (James Tilton in a letter to Gunning Bedford)
In 1779, as he danced a minuet with Lucy Knox, the wife of General Knox, he inspired the following tribute:
The ball was opened by his Excellency the General. When this man unbends from his station, and its weighty functions, he is even then like a philosopher, who mixes with the amusements of the world, that he may teach it what is right, or turn trifles into instruction. (Pennsylvania Packet, March, 6, 1779)
In 1781, at a victory ball in Fredericksburg, held less than a month after the Yorktown victory.
It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis. . . The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manners. The gallant Frenchmen who were present, of which fine people it may be said that dancing forms one of the elements of their existence, so much admired the American performance as to admit that a Parisian education could not have improved it. As the evening advanced, the commander-in-chief yielding to the general gayety of the scene, went down some dozen couple in the contre dance with great spirit and satisfaction (Custis, pp. 143-144)
The Victory Ball, 1781 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
And finally in 1783 when he went to Annapolis to resign his commission in the Army.
That night the General Assembly gave a ball at the State House, which was “beautifully illuminated” by eight pounds of candles. “A very numerous and brilliant appearance of ladies were present.” George Mann supplied supper, wine, a potent punch, and twelve packs of cards for entertainment at the ball. Congressman James Tilton of Delaware reported that the general “danced every set, that the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him. (McWilliams, p. 107)
While a great many stories about George Washington may well be legend, (chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a coin across the Potomac, etc.) it is obvious that General Washington’s legendary performance in the ballroom should certainly qualify him for the title of “Master of the Dance”.
Custis, G. W. (1860). Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis. New York: Derby & Jackson.
Marvin Kitman, G. W. (1970). George Washington’s Expense Account. New York: Simon & Schuster.
McWilliams, J. W. (2011). Annapolis, City on the Severn: A History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Pennsylvania Packet. (1779, March 6).
©2013 Chuck Hudson