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[Detail] Cover of "How to Dance," 1878

It Takes Two Cultures to Tango: The European Influence on American Dance

In teaching the steps and etiquette of ballroom dancing, several instructors emphasized its European origins. The 1848 manual, "Powell's Art of Dancing," claims that American dancing only improved in large cities in the first half of the eighteenth century while Europeans dramatically developed their art: "Who that has ever visited many of the European countries but must remember with delight the perfect ease, beauty and grace which the people of that country have arrived at, while we become disgusted with the awkward attempts of persons in this country who try to dance" (page 7).

This sense of European superiority also influenced American dance innovations. Professor Brooks' "The Ball-Room Monitor" (1866) speculates that dances originating in the United States were often endowed with European names and histories to give them a sense of authenticity (page 5):

According to such representations, there is nothing can be stamped with the imprint of Christian civilization on its frontispiece, but that which is imported from Paris or London. I, for one, will stand up in defence of our native inventive genius against the world. Our people are equally as able, and in many things far surpassing those foreign gems of aristocracy, in producing almost everything that is grand, useful, or beautiful, in the arts and sciences.

page 6

Frank Clendenen's "Treatise on Elementary and Classical Dancing" (1903) echoes Professor Brooks' defense of American originality and argues that it is impossible to compare Americans and Europeans because of fundamental cultural differences. He does point out, however, that American dance instructors often suffer from a lack of patience: "Europeans are never in a hurry, Americans always are . . . it is indisputable that we have teachers of this country equal in every respect to foreign teachers" (page 9.

Even with competent American instructors and original American dances, however, Europeans were still recognized as being at the forefront of high culture. For example, the "Handbook of Ball-Room Dancing" (1920) describes the way in which the tango swept across the world: "The dance craze came on the world very suddenly, but became so powerful, that even the tragic years 1914-18 failed to kill it. Beginning with the Paris restaurants and salons in 1911-19, it immediately migrated to London and New York" (page 9).

  • If Powell is correct, why do you think that dance in the United States only improved in large cities?
  • Why do you think that dances migrated from France to England and, finally, to the United States?
  • What does the name and origin of a dance have to do with its performance or popularity? Why do you think that many Americans sought "foreign gems of aristocracy" in ballroom dancing?
  • Do you agree with Frank Clendenen that Americans tend to be in a hurry? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think that so many Americans felt that Europeans were more culturally advanced?
  • Do you think that it is possible for one country to be culturally superior to another?
  • How does this sense of American inferiority relate to the statement in Mrs. Sherwood's etiquette book, "Manners and Social Usages," that "[t]here is no aristocracy here which has the right and title to set the fashions"? Who does "set the fashions" in the United States?