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Eighteenth-Century Music and Dance

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Music in eighteenth-century Williamsburg was the accompaniment to daily living. The citizens of the colonial capital aspired to the prevailing London fashion and their music, dance and musical instruments were a reflection of this aspiration.

The Reverend Hugh Jones, historian, wrote in 1724, "They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London." It is not surprising to search the inventories of these early citizens and find listed among their effects spinets, flutes, guitars, violins, violin-cellos, fifes, French horns, drums, harpsichords, organs, harmonicas and pianofortes (pianos) in addition to numerous "parcels of musick."

Though wealthy colonists were inspired to enjoy everything that London afforded, the means to this enjoyment were limited by local conditions in a city too small to support a professional class of concert performers. An occasional music teacher of above average ability, a group of talented amateurs, and some of the indentured servants or the slaves were the musicians–and the music and instruments the best and newest that could be got from England.

The latest dances were also practiced in Williamsburg, at formal affairs thrown by the wealthy gentry, subscription balls held in the taverns, and in the parlor of many a household. Dance masters taught the children of the well-to-do. A young person could exhibit proper breeding based on the gentility of his steps and a young lady increase her chances for a successful marriage through demonstration of her social graces. Phillip Fithian, tutor to the Carter children, once noted the Virginian fondness for dance in his journal, saying, "Virginians are of genuine blood, they will dance or die!"

Time Required Two to three 50-minute sessions



As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Describe the role of music and dance in eighteenth-century Virginia
  • Explain how music and dance were part of a young person's educational process
  • Take part in the performance of an eighteenth-century dance
  • Compare dance as a part of the culture in colonial times and as a part of today's culture

Setting the Stage

Have students show off dance steps they know. After, lead a discussion: Where did they learn to dance? Is there a special order to the dances? Why do they like to dance? Is there value to it other than entertainment? What is the social etiquette surrounding a dance--are there different settings in which different "rules" apply?


Have students read the quotations from Speaking of Dancing (aloud or silently). Have them discuss with a partner and generate three observations on the role of dance in eighteenth-century colonial society based on the quotes. Have each pair of students share these observations with the class, keeping a list for reference. Summarize, as a class, the significance of dance in the eighteenth century.

Extension Activity

Using the instructions for La Royale and the sheet music for "La Royale", act as dancing master and teach the students the dance. Have them stand in an order of hierarchy (lead couple at the top of the set and so on). Be sure they extend a courtesy (bow or curtsy) to their partner at the beginning and end of each dance.

Alternate Plan

Create a graphic organizer with which the student can compare the culture of dance throughout the centuries–1776, 1876 and 1976. Have them speculate what the role of dance will be in the year 2076! Categories might include types of dance for the time period (consider all cultures), reasons for dancing, clothing worn, props used, and where dances took place. Look for patterns and significant differences.


Students or student groups use various materials to create a collage of the culture of dance throughout the centuries. Have them interpret their collages for the class.


This lesson plan was developed by and the staff of School & Group Services. If you have a lesson plan you would like to share, please send to Tab Broyles, Department of Education Outreach, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187.