Quaker View of Dancing

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]

Section 1.

Dancing forbidden—Greeks and Romans differed on this subject—motive on which the Greeks encouraged dancing—motive on which the moderns encouraged it—way in which the Quakers view it—the arguments which they use against it.

As the Quakers have thought it right to prohibit music, and stage-entertainments, to the society, so they have thought it proper to prohibit dancing, none of their children being allowed any instruction in the latter art.

It is remarkable that two of the most civilized nations, as well as two of the wisest men of antiquity, should have differed in their opinions with respect to dancing. The Greeks considered it as a wise and an honorable employment; and most of the nations therefore under that appellation inserted it into their system of education. The name of dancer was so honorable, as to be given to some of their gods. Statues are recorded to have been erected to good dancers. Socrates is said to have admired dancing so much, as to have learnt it in his old age.

Dancing, on the other hand, was but little regarded at Rome. It was not admitted even within the pale of accomplishments. It was considered at best as a sorry and trivial employment. Cicero says, “Nemo, fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit, neque in solitudine, neque in convivio honesto.” That is, “No man dances, in private, or at any respectable entertainment, except he be drunk or mad.”

We collect at least from the above statement, that people of old, who were celebrated for their wisdom, came to very different conclusions with respect to the propriety of the encouragement of this art.

Those nations among the ancients, which encouraged dancing, did it upon the principle, that it led to an agility of body, and a quickness of motion, that would be useful in military evolutions and exploits. Hence swiftness of foot was considered to be an epithet, as honorable as any that could be given to a warrior.

The moderns, on the other hand, encourage dancing, or at least defend it upon different principles. They consider it as producing a handsome carriage of the body; as leading to a graceful and harmonious use of the limbs; and as begetting an erectness of position, not more favorable to the look of a person than to his health.

That dancing produces dispositions of this sort cannot be denied, though certainly not to the extent which many have imagined. Painters, who study nature the most, and are the best judges of the appearance of the human frame, are of opinion, that modern dancing does not produce natural figures or at least such as they would choose for their respective compositions. The military exercise has quite as great a share as dancing in the production of these dispositions. And there are certainly men, who were never taught either the military exercise or dancing, whose deportment is harmonious and graceful.

The Quakers think it unnecessary to teach their children dancing, as an accomplishment, because they can walk, and carry their persons with sufficient ease and propriety without it.

They think it unnecessary also, because, however the practice of it may be consistent with the sprightliness of youth, they could never sanction it in maturer age. They expect of the members of their society, that they should abandon amusements, and substitute useful and dignified pursuits, when they become men. But they cannot consider dancing but as an employment that is useless, and below the dignity of the Christian-character in persons, who have come to years of discretion. To initiate therefore a youth of twelve or thirteen years of age into dancing, when he must relinquish it at twenty, would, in their opinion, be a culpable waste of his time.

The Quakers, again, cannot view dancing abstractedly, for no person teaches or practices it abstractedly; but they are obliged to view it, in connection with other things. If they view it with its usual accompaniment of music, it would be inconsistent, they think, to encourage it, when they have banished music from their republic. If they view it as connected with an assemblage of persons, they must, they conceive, equally condemn it. And here it is in fact, that they principally level their arguments against it. They prohibit all members of their society from being present at balls, and assemblies; and they think, if their youth are brought up in ignorance of the art of dancing, that this ignorance will operate as one preventative at least against attendances at amusements of this nature.

The Quakers are as strict in their inquiry with respect to the attendances of any of their members at balls, as at theatrical amusements. They consider balls and assemblies among the vain amusements of the world. They use arguments against these nearly similar to those which have been enumerated on the preceding subjects.

They consider them in the first place, as productive of a kind of frivolous levity, and of thoughtlessness with respect to the important duties of life. They consider them, in the second place, as giving birth to vanity and pride. They consider them, again, as powerful in the excitement of some of the malevolent passions. Hence they believe them to be injurious to the religious interests of man; for, by depriving him of complacency of mind, and by increasing the growth of his bad feelings, they become impediments in the way of his improvement as a moral being.


Section 2.

Arguments of the Quakers examined—three cases made out for the determination of a moral philosopher—case the first—case the second—case the third. 

I purpose to look into these arguments of the Quakers, and to see how far they can be supported. I will suppose therefore a few cases to be made out, and to be handed, one by one, to some moral philosopher for his decision. I will suppose this philosopher (that all prejudice of education may be excluded) to have been ignorant of the nature of dancing, but that he had been made acquainted with it, in order that he might be enabled to decide the point in question.

Suppose then it was reported to this philosopher that, on a certain day, a number of young persons of both sexes, who had casually met at a friends house, instead of confining themselves to the room on a summers afternoon, had walked out upon the green; that a person present had invited them suddenly to dance; that they had danced to the sound of musical vibrations for an hour, and that after this they had returned to the room, or that they had returned home. Would the philosopher be able to say in this case, that there was any thing in it, that incurred any of the culpable imputations, fixed upon dancing by the Quakers?

He could hardly; I think, make it out, that there could have been, in any part of the business, any opening for the charges in question.  There appears to have been no previous preparations of extravagant dressing; no premeditated design of setting off the person; no previous methods of procuring admiration; no circumstance, in short, by which he could reasonably suppose, that either pride or vanity could have been called into existence. The time also would appear to him to have been too short, and the circumstances too limited, to have given birth to improper feelings. He would certainly see that a sort of levity would have unavoidably arisen on the occasion, but his impartiality and justice would oblige him to make a distraction between the levity, that only exhilarates, and the levity that corrupts, the heart. Nor could he conceive that the dancing for an hour only, and this totally unlooked for, could stand much in the way of serious reflection for the future.  If he were desired to class this sudden dancing for an hour upon the green with any of the known pleasures of life, he would probably class it with an hours exercise in the fields, or with an hours game at play, or with an hours employment in some innocent recreation.

But suppose now, that a new case were opened to the philosopher. Suppose it were told him, that the same party had been so delighted with their dance upon the green, that they had resolved to meet once a month for the purpose of dancing, and that they might not be prevented by bad weather, to meet in a public room; that they had met according to their resolution; that they had danced at their first meeting but for a short time; but that at their meetings after, wards, they had got into the habit of dancing from eight or nine at night till twelve or one in the morning; that many of them now began to be unduly heated in the course of this long exercise; that some of them in consequence of the heat in this crowded room, were now occasionally ready to faint; that it was now usual for some of them to complain the next morning of colds, others of head-aches, others of relaxed nerves, and almost all of them of a general lassitude or weariness—what could the philosopher say in the present case?

The philosopher would now probably think, that they acted unreasonably as human beings; that they turned night into day; and that, as if the evils of life were not sufficient in number, they converted hours, which might have been spent calmly and comfortably at home, into hours of indisposition and of unpleasant feelings to themselves. But this is not to the point. Would he or would he not say, that the arguments of the Quakers applied in the present case? It certainly does not appear, from any thing that has yet transpired on this subject, that he could, with any shadow of reason, accuse the persons, meeting on this occasion, of vanity or pride, or that he could see from any of the occurrences, that have been mentioned, how these evils could be produced. Neither has any thing yet come out, from which he could even imagine the sources of any improper passions. He might think perhaps, that they might be vexed for having brought fatigue and lassitude upon themselves, but he could see no opening for serious anger to others, or for any of the feelings of malevolence. Neither could he tell what occurrence to fix upon for the production of a frivolous levity. He would almost question, judging only from what has appeared in the last case, whether there might not be upon the whole more pain than pleasure from these meetings, and whether those, who on the day subsequent to these meetings felt themselves indisposed, and their whole nervous system unbraced, were not so near the door of repentance, that serious thoughts would be more natural to them than those of a lighter kind.

But let us suppose one other case to be opened to the philosopher. Let us now suppose it to be stated to him, that those who frequented these monthly meetings, but particularly the females, had become habituated to talk, for a day or two beforehand, of nothing but of how they should dress themselves, or of what they should wear on the occasion: that some time had been spent in examining and canvassing the fashions; that the milliner had been called in for this purpose; that the imagination had been racked in the study of the decoration of the person; that both on the morning and the afternoon of the evening, on which they had publicly met to dance, they had been solely employed in preparations for decking themselves out; that they had been nearly two hours under one dresser only, namely the hair-dresser; that frequently at intervals they had looked at their own persons in the glass; that they had walked up and down parading before it in admiration of their own appearance, and the critical detection of any little fold in their dress, which might appear to be out of place, and in the adjustment of the same—what would the philosopher say in this new case?

He certainly could not view the case with the same complacent countenance as before. He would feel some symptoms of alarm. He would begin to think that the truth of the Quaker-arguments was unfolding itself, and that what appeared to him to have been an innocent amusement, at the first, might possibly be capable of being carried out of the bounds of innocence by such and similar accompaniments. He could not conceive, if he had any accurate knowledge of the human heart, that such an extraordinary attention to dress and the decoration of the person, or such a critical examination of these with a view of procuring admiration, could produce any other fruits than conceit and affectation, or vanity and pride. Nor could he conceive that all these preparations, all this previous talk, all this previous consultation, about the fashions, added to the employment itself of the decoration of the person, could tend to any thing else than to degrade the mind, and to render it light and frivolous. He would be obliged to acknowledge also, that minds, accustomed to take so deep an interest in the fashions and vanities of the world, would not only loath, but be disqualified for serious reflection. But if he were to acknowledge, that these preparations and accompaniments had on any one occasion a natural tendency to produce these effects, he could not but consider these preparations, if made once a month, as likely to become in time systematic nurseries for frivolous and affected characters.

Having traced the subject up to a point, where it appears, that some of the Quaker-arguments begin to bear, let us take leave of our philosopher, and as we have advanced nearly to the ball-room door, let us enter into the room itself, and see if any circumstances occur there, which shall enable us to form a better judgment upon it.


Section 3.

Arguments of the Quakers still further examined—interior of the ball-room displayed—view of the rise of many of the malevolent passions—these rise higher and are more painful, than they are generally imagined—hence it is probable that the spectators are better pleased than those interested in these dances— conclusion of the arguments of the Quakers on this subject.

I am afraid I shall be thought more cynical than just, more prejudiced than impartial, more given to censure than to praise, if in temples, apparently dedicated to good humor, cheerfulness and mirth, I should say that sources were to be found, from whence we could trace the rise of immoral passions. But human nature is alike in all places, and, if circumstances should arise in the ball-room, which touch as it were the strings of the passions, they will as naturally throw out their tone there as in other places. Why should envy, jealousy, pride, malice, anger, or revenge, shut themselves out exclusively from these resorts, as if these were more than ordinarily sacred, or more than ordinary repositories of human worth.

In examining the interior of a ball-room it must be confessed, that we shall certainly find circumstances occasionally arising, that give birth to feelings neither of a pleasant nor of a moral nature. It is not unusual, for instance, to discover among the females one that excels in the beauty of her person, and another that excels in the elegance of her dress. The eyes of all are more than proportionally turned upon these for the whole night. This little circumstance soon generates a variety of improper passions. It calls up vanity and conceit in the breasts of these objects of admiration. It raises up envy and jealousy, and even anger in some of the rest. These become envious of the beauty of the former, envious of their taste, envious of their clothing, and, above all, jealous of the admiration bestowed upon them. In this evil state of mind one passion begets another; and instances have occurred, where some of these have felt displeased at the apparent coldness and indifference of their own partners, because they have appeared to turn their eyes more upon the favorites of the night, than upon themselves.

In the same room, when the parties begin to take their places to dance; other little circumstances not infrequently occur, which give rise to other passions. Many aiming to be as near the top of the dance as possible, are disappointed of their places by others, who have just slept into them, dissatisfaction, and sometimes murmurs, follow. Each in his own mind, supposes his claims and pretensions to the higher place to be stronger on account of his money, his connections, his profession, or his rank. Thus his own dispositions to pride are only the more nursed and fostered. Malice too is often engendered on the occasion; and though the parties would not be allowed by the master of the ceremonies to disturb the tranquility of the room, animosities have sometimes sprung up between them, which have not been healed in a little time. I am aware that in some large towns of the kingdom regulations are made with a view to the prevention of these evils, but it is in some only; and even where they are made, though they prevent outward rude behavior, they do not prevent inward dissatisfaction. Moneyed influence still feels itself often debased by a lower place.

If we were to examine the ball-room further, we should find new circumstances arising to call out new and degrading passions. We should find disappointment and discontent often throwing irritable matter upon the mind. Men, fond of dancing, frequently find an over proportion of men, and but few females in the room, and women, wishing to dance, sometimes find an over proportion of women, and but few men; so that partners are not to be had for all, and a number of each class must make up their minds to sit quietly, and to loose their diversion for the night. Partners too are frequently dissatisfied with each other. One thinks his partner too old, another too ugly, another below him. Matched often in this unequal manner, they go down the dance in a sort of dudgeon, having no cordial disposition towards each other, and having persons before their eyes in the same room with whom they could have cordially danced. Nor are instances wanting where the pride of some has fixed upon the mediocrity of others, as a reason, why they should reluctantly lend them their hands, when falling in with them in the dance. The slight is soon perceived, and disgust arises in both parties.

Various other instances might be mentioned, where very improper passions are excited. I shall only observe, however, that these passions are generally stronger and give more uneasiness, and are called up to a greater height, than might generally be imagined from such apparently slight causes. In many instances indeed they have led to such serious misunderstandings, that they were only terminated by the duel.

From this statement I may remark here, though my observation be not immediately to the point, that there is not probably that portion of entertainment, or that substantial pleasure, which people expected to find at these monthly meetings. The little jealousies arising about precedence, or about the admiration of one more than of another; the falling in occasionally with disagreeable partners; the slights and omissions that are often thought to be purposely made; the head-aches, colds, sicknesses, and lassitude afterwards, must all of them operate as so many drawbacks from this pleasure: and it is not unusual to hear persons, fond of such amusements, complaining afterwards that they had not answered. There is therefore probably more pleasure in the preparations for such amusements, and in the previous talk about them, than in the amusements themselves.

It is also probable that the greatest pleasure felt in the ball-room, is felt by those, who get into it as spectators only. These receive pleasure from the music, from the beat of the steps in unison with it, but particularly from the idea that all, who join in the dance, are happy. These considerations produce in the spectator cheerfulness and mirth; and these are continued to him more pure and unalloyed than in the former case, because he can have no drawbacks from the admission into his own breast of any of those uneasy, immoral passions, above described.

But to return to the point in question. The reader has now had the different cases laid before him as determined by the moral philosopher.  He has been conducted also through the interior of the ball-room. He will have perceived therefore that the arguments of the Quakers have gradually unfolded themselves, and that they are more or less conspicuous, or more or less true, as dancing is viewed abstractedly, or in connection with the preparations and accompaniments, that may be interwoven with it. If it be viewed in connection with these preparations and accompaniments, and if these should be found to be so inseparably connected with it, that they must invariably go together, which is supposed to be the case where it is introduced into the ball-room, he will have no difficulty in pronouncing that, in this case, it is objectionable as a Christian recreation. For it cannot be doubted that it has an immediate tendency, in this case, to produce a frivolous levity, to generate vanity and pride, and to call up passions of the malevolent kind. Now in this point of view it is, that the Quakers generally consider dancing. They never view it, as I observed before, abstractedly, or solely by itself. They have therefore forbidden it to their society, believing it to be the duty of a Christian to be serious in his conversation and deportment; to afford an example of humility; and to be watchful and diligent in the subjugation of his evil passions.


Of Related Interest

The Quaker Colonies in America, on the Daniel McAdam website.


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