Last week I described how Martha Washington, or rather young Patsy Dandridge, may have been courted by Daniel Custis. I also shared how I chose to set the scene in Becoming Lady Washington by introducing Daniel at the ball where Patsy was presented to society. Today I want to talk about dancing in the 18th century.
Dancing was vital to the middle and upper classes of Virginia society. Dance instructors traveled from one plantation to another to instruct the young people on the traditional and popular dance steps and also of the proper form and frame. Not only was dancing an excellent type of exercise, it also provided a means for socializing in acceptable ways. Families would gather at the plantation where the itinerant dance instructor would visit for several days at a time. I can imagine the youth flirting while they learned the steps, and in between!
George Washington loved to dance! It’s unclear to me whether Martha did as well, but she must have known how in order to meet the societal expectations of the time. You can watch a video produced for Mount Vernon showing the dancing and the music they danced to. That site contains a lot more about dancing in the 18th century, so if you’re curious, hop on over there to learn even more.
On my research trip to Williamsburg in 2015, one of the activities my husband and I enjoyed was taking a group dancing lesson. We learned to do circle dances, how to greet your partner, and how to move in unison around the circle. The music was provided by a flute player in period costume. Our instructor was a woman, also in period costume.
It was during the lesson that the instructor talked about why a man would greet his partner by extending one leg forward and bowing over it. In Becoming Lady Washington, I portrayed this small factoid from Martha’s point of view after Daniel has asked her to dance at the ball:
“I’d enjoy dancing with you.”
He held out a gloved hand with a smile on his lips. “Miss Dandridge.”
I accepted his arm and followed him onto the floor as the musicians started a new tune. I intended to thoroughly enjoy myself. The weight of the elder Custis’ glare threatened to make me stumble, but I ignored him, keeping my attention instead on his charming son. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my parents exchange a look before turning to witness the dance. Daniel extended one leg to bow—a movement designed to demonstrate the strength of his legs—as I curtsied and lowered my eyes. Daniel’s leg proved nice, indeed. Returning to a standing position, we regarded each other for a beat as the music wrapped around us. The dance soon drew my entire attention and had my feet flying. My heart raced with the touch of his hand guiding me to perform a turn in first one direction and then the other before parting for several steps.
See how I wove in my own experience learning how to dance into Martha’s point of view? It’s those kinds of details that I believe enliven the history. By experiencing the movement and sound, I was able to hopefully bring the history to life in my story.
Until next time, thanks for reading!
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.
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