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National Expansion and Reform
Reformers and Crusaders
Dancing as a Means of Physical Education

Education was one of the more popular reform topics in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. Among some of the causes embraced by the reformers were free and public education, statewide school systems, professional teachers, moral education, education for patriotism, and thrift education. In 1851 Mrs. Alfred Webster published a pamphlet titled Dancing as a Means of Physical Education; With Remarks on Deformities, and Their Prevention and Cure. In the pamphlet, Webster makes the case for reforming education for females to include physical education. Dance, she argues, is the ideal form of exercise. In her words, "dancing is the very best safeguard against the evils of over mental education." In the excerpt that follows, Webster presents some of her arguments and cites Sir Benjamin Brodie, an authority on exercise. What arguments do they make for reforming the education of women to include dance? Are you persuaded by their arguments? Why or why not?

View the entire document from which this excerpt came, from An American Ballroom Companion, ca.1490 - 1920. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


Every reflecting mother must have observed with pain, how many hours her daughters are compelled to sit at their studies, the greater portion of the period being occupied in writing. During the whole of this time the spine is bent on one side, and the chest contracted. If not engaged in writing, they are taken to practise the piano-forte: here again the back, having no support, becomes weary and sinks on one side, a position still further induced by the much greater exercise given to the right hand than to the left. When worn out with music, (which should be a recreation,) they, as a change, go to drawing; and here the same stooping, the same indolence of one hand and activity of the other, produce the same result; and so the education of young ladies is constantly carried on. What are the almost universal consequences? General debility, curvature of the spine, pallid faces, and spiritless forms. When it is remembered that this system is maintained for so large a portion of every day, and that during the period of growth, when the human form is so susceptible to good or evil habits, can we wonder at the constant complaint at so many of the rising female generation being crooked? But how might all this have been prevented? The answer is simple. By a due blending of bodily with mental education, by a proper use of exercise to stimulate the unused and flaccid muscles of the body, and by the use of Dancing as a cheerful relaxation to the overstrained mind. Here let me quote an extract from a lecture delivered by Sir Benjamin Brodie, as powerfully advocating my ideas on the subject. I should premise that he is speaking of the frequent occurrence of lateral curvature of the spine. He says:

"I have told you that this curvature is met with very frequently in private practice, and much more rarely in hospitals and dispensaries. It is one of the penalties of a high degree of civilization, a disease almost peculiar to those who have assumed to themselves the title of the better classes of society, though the more affluent classes seems to be the most appropriate appellation. It is not difficult to conceive that the advantages which young women of the affluent classes possess should be counterbalanced by certain physical disadvantages. They are in a great degree confined to close and heated rooms. In large towns, the habits of society prevent them from taking more than a very moderate quantity of exercise in the open air; and even in the country (with a few exceptions) they enjoy much less freedom in this respect than their poorer neighbours. Thus, while their bodily powers are too little exercised, their minds are often exercised too much. Even in private education under a governess, the hours which they spend in study of one kind or another for the most part exceed those during which their brothers are similarly occupied at school; and at some schools, especially at what are called finishing schools, the business of mental education is carried to such an extent that the girls have scarcely any leisure for recreation. If they go out of doors at all, it is in too formal and decorous a manner to answer any really useful purpose.

"Let us not blame the ladies who preside over these establishments as being the authors of this erroneous system. To them it is as irksome as it is to their pupils. The fault lies altogether with the parents who send their daughters to school, expecting that within a given period of time they should obtain a certain amount of accomplishments, such as cannot be crammed into them without sacrificing what is really more important to this one object. It might, indeed, be further urged that the injury thus inflicted on them is not merely physical; that the mind suffers as well as the body; that mere learning, without having leisure for reflection, tends not to strengthen the mind, but to weaken the intellect. But this is none of our business; it is only to the physical injury that I refer at present."

The use of Dancing is to prevent the evils above described. But to do so, its teaching must take a far wider range than is usual. It should comprise exercises by which the whole muscular system is invigorated; practice in movements calculated to give a firm yet graceful air in walking and a ladylike manner in entering and leaving a room; a constant inculcation of habits of urbanity; and, lastly, instruction in such dances as are becoming to a lady, either in the home circle or in the ball room.
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View the entire document from which this excerpt came, from An American Ballroom Companion, ca.1490 - 1920. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.