What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“DANCING IS Taught by the Subscriber, in a genteel and easy Method.”
John Trotter and other dancing masters regularly advertised their services in colonial America’s largest urban ports in the decade before the Revolution, hoping to catch the attention of the elite as well as middling folks aspiring to join the ranks of the better sorts. Their prospective pupils may have resided in distant outposts of the British Empire like New York and Philadelphia, but those colonists strived to achieve the same cosmopolitanism as metropolitan London. Learning to dance or to speak French or (for men) to fence were considered marks of gentility, evidence that the colonial elite understood and achieved sophistication in their own right despite the distance that separated them from the centers of fashion, culture, and commerce in the Europe.
Trotter’s advertisement was relatively spared compared to the details included in notices placed by other dancing masters. He did not explicitly play on the anxieties of his potential customers in the same manner as some of his competitors (warning, for instance, that if readers did not learn the newest and most fashionable steps that they would be publicly embarrassed at social gatherings), but he may not have considered it necessary to be quite so heavy-handed. He may have assumed from the discourses surrounding him, both in conversation and in print, that the customers he wished to attract already experienced the sort of anxiety about their social position and identity that would prompt them to engage the services of a dancing master.
Trotter did offer his services to both “Gentlemen and Ladies.” He did so at two locations, “his House in Chaple-Street, next Door to the Play-House, and at Mrs. Demot’s on Flatten-Barrack-Hill.” Being able to take lessons at Mrs. Demot’s may have been especially important for female pupils. Dancing involved close contact, a certain level of intimacy that could be misconstrued or the cause of gossip that could call into question someone’s character as well as damage reputations, especially if those lessons took place within the privacy of Trotter’s house. Male students might be willing to meet him there, but it’s likely that women preferred to have their lessons at Mrs. Demot’s where they would have a female chaperone. Given the necessity of a reputation for good character required to pursue his occupation, Trotter may also have preferred that female students had their lessons at “Mrs. Demot’s on Flatten-Barrack-Hill.”