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11 Aug 2021

Dancing in Georgian Edinburgh

Written by Dr Alena Shmakova, volunteer guide and historical dance expert
A woman in a white 18th-century dress with a green ribbon under the bust holds her skirts and points her foot forward and to the floor, as if about to dance.
Dr Alena Shmakova putting her best foot forward in the Drawing Room of the Georgian House
Dancing and music are important parts of Scottish modern culture. Many readers will have attended a ceilidh at least once, perhaps learnt a country dance or two at school, or watched a Highland dance display.

Dance and music were very important in the Georgian era. Both were considered an essential part of ‘polite education’, to the same degree as computer literacy is considered essential to general education today. Here I would like to raise the curtain of time and talk about the people who developed the art of dancing in Edinburgh during the late Enlightenment period. It’s a topic which is incredibly relevant to the Georgian House story in particular (1767–1820s) because its wealthy occupants, the Lamont family, would certainly have attended dances and balls.

A view of a grand drawing room, dressed in the Georgian style. The carpet is a blue pattern. A long sofa stands against the wall, as do individual chairs. A fireplace is at the far end, with a large framed portrait of a woman above. A chandelier hangs in the centre of the room.
The grand Drawing Room at the Georgian House

Professional dancing masters in the 18th century were among the highest paid group of teachers and they occupied a special place on the social ladder. Although they came from relatively humble backgrounds, they had the most distinguished families among their clientele. The 18th century was also the time when dancing styles and techniques made their way from courts and palaces to the genteel assemblies of the growing towns and cities. As wealth increased, the rising middle class created a demand for dancing masters, purpose-built assembly halls, dance manuals and music prints.

The most notable figure among Edinburgh dancing masters in the second half of the 18th century was Mr David (or Davie) Strange. Official records indicate that he died on 25 October 1803 in Glasgow, aged 71. He practised the art and taught until 1802.

Mr Strange: career and training

David Strange moved to Edinburgh in 1764 to establish the dancing school in Todrick’s Wynd, Old Town. No further adverts could be found after his initial ones, until the 1780s, indicating that he was successful without the need for further advertising. Certainly, later adverts, press releases about Strange’s balls, and diary records – by, for example, Mary Somerville (scientist, writer, and polymath) and Henry Mackenzie (lawyer, novelist and writer) – all paint a picture of a successful career.

When the George Street Assembly Rooms were opened in 1787 Strange moved his school there. His Pupils’ Balls (analogous to the contemporary dance schools’ end-of-the-year shows) and practising sessions attracted large crowds of spectators to watch around 500 pupils showing their dancing skills. There were often women from Edinburgh private schools, where seemingly he was teaching.

As there was no formal dance education in the UK at the time, we often know very little about dancing masters’ training. However, Strange’s advert sheds some light on his development as a dancer. He states he had studied dancing in London with Sir John Gallini, an Italian-born dancer, choreographer and impresario working at Covent Garden and King’s Theatre (now Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket). In addition, Strange took lessons from prominent French dancers Maltere – a teacher to the French royal family – and Vestres – principal dancer at the Royal Académie of Dancing in Paris. Importantly, Strange held some ‘certificates of approbation’ by these prominent dancers. The name ‘Mr Strange’ was also spotted on a few theatre adverts in 1760s in London and Manchester. However, it does not seem he made a successful career as a performer.

Dance lessons and music

Mary Somerville in her memoirs said that Strange taught her the minuet de la cour, reels and country dances – the typical dance repertoire of the ballrooms at the time. Descriptions of his Pupils’ Balls indicated a wider repertoire, from the ‘minuet with all its variations to high opera dances’. John Clarkson’s publication A Complete Collection of much admired Tunes as danced at Balls and Public’s of the late Mr Strange [...] (1804) perhaps offers a more detailed look. This collection included more than 100 tunes for dances from minuets, gavottes (including a gavotte by Mr Vestres), cotillions, opera dances and solos, as well as more traditional forms such as jigs, hornpipes, reels and strathspeys including Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling.

A lady models a 1800s-style gown in the drawing room of the Georgian House.
Emma, one of our wonderful costumed volunteers, modelling an 1800s-style gown

David Strange had several assistants through his career, the best-known being Mr Martin and Charles Stewart. Mr Martin taught in Todryck’s Wynd, the original location of Strange’s school, before moving to Bath where he taught Scottish dances.

Charles Stewart (1784–1818) was practising in Edinburgh between 1800 and 1811. He married Matilda Johnston in 1803 in Edinburgh (sister to Henry Erskine Johnston, a famous Shakespearean theatrical performer). Stewart taught classes, gave an annual ball, and by 1805 advertised A Collection of Minuets, Cottilions, Allemands, High Dances, Hornpipes&c. for the Piano-Forte and Violin, by Charles Stewart, musician to Mr Strange, mostly of his own composition. In addition, he was a leader and a répétiteur (rehearsal accompanist and coach) of the Edinburgh Theatre Royal Orchestra. Charles Stewart was one of the first dancing masters in Scotland who started to publish music from his annual balls – the party playlist of the 19th century! – later followed by Nathaniel Gow for his fashionable balls. One such publication from 1803 can be found in the music book above the square piano in the Georgian House.

As a grand townhouse in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, occupied by a wealthy family at the turn of the century and into the Regency period, the guests who would have been entertained here would certainly have had the required ‘polite education’ for the dancing and music that their social sphere required.

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