Dancing class in the late nineteenth century threw young men and women into a tizzy. Like all her peers, Daisy Gordon worried about being in unaccustomed contact with the opposite sex, getting an undesirable partner, and looking clumsy. Luckily, her teacher was the famous Allen T. Dodworth, known for ingenious teaching methods that included butterflies, frogs, dice, veils, and more.
Dodworth was an amiable man of later years when Daisy took dancing lessons from him. She was a student in New York in the 1870s and 80s, and his was the most prominent dancing studio in the City. The sons and daughters of elite families like the Roosevelts, the Vanderbilts, and the Astors all learned the german and the court quadrille, the minuet and the Virginia reel under his affable but serious tutelage.
Born in 1822, Dodworth began his musical career a decade later by joining his older brother and their father in the New York Independent Band as a piccolo player. According to his obituary, Dodworth was a child prodigy. He arranged band music before he hit his teens. At fifteen, he was conducting his own group, the National Brass Band. He took easily to other instruments, from the exotic flageolet to the violin. In his twenties, he turned to dancing instruction full-time. He achieved an unwanted notoriety when he built Dodworth Hall next door to Grace Episcopal Church. The good clergy disapproved, but dance triumphed. Dodworth Hall kept its doors open until it became too small and he had to move his studio uptown—not once, but twice, because of Mr. Dodworth’s continuing popularity with parents and students alike.
Bad teaching bothered Allen Dodworth. In his opinion, most dancing instruction was completely lacking in creativity. He believed passionately that dancing was “superior to all other exercises in its beneficial effect upon carriage and manner.” He had worked out a system, as a proper dancing-master, to teach what “constitutes true gracefulness” as well as “an appreciation of the highest expressions of intelligence and culture that can be given by means of motion.” Such training would bring about the desirable “refinement in their own motions and manner.”
But how? What were Daisy’s dance classes like?
Dodworth wrote a textbook, complete with diagrams, to explain the ideal teaching of dance. What surely must have been the most fun were his 250 “figures” which were part of the long and elaborate german. The figures had names like “The Sphinx,” “Wolf,” “Hungarian Chain,” and “Inconstants.” Describing them is impossible, so here are two, directly from Dodworth’s text, Dancing and Its Relations to Education and Social Life.
“The Umbrellas. Eight little umbrellas of different colors are distributed to eight ladies; the conductor is provided with a very large umbrella, to which are attached eight bows with long ends corresponding with the colors of the umbrellas; he turns this rapidly over his head so that the ends float out; gentlemen are then called, each of whom endeavors to catch one of the ends; if successful, he dances with the lady holding an umbrella of the corresponding color.”
“The Two Magicians: Two dolls dressed as magicians, with long pointed caps, are placed upon the floor, a lady seated behind them; the conductor designates two gentlemen, who, while standing each on one foot, in front of a doll, bend over and endeavor to seize the dolls with their teeth; if either should put the other foot down, or support himself with his hands, he must retire, giving place to another; the successful one dances with the lady.”
Daisy loved Dodworth’s dancing lessons. She knew most of the other students in the class and thought it was all extremely enjoyable. Dance was an important part of wooing. Before there were movie theatres or malls, and at a time when well-bred young women were seldom without a chaperone, knowing how to dance well mattered. And there was no better place to learn the terpsichorean art than at Dodworth’s, among the “swells.”