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John Martin: Expert Observer

Dancing Fraternity, City of Bangor, 1868

John Martin: "Terpsichorian of the Old School"

John Martin, Bangor, ca. 1868
John Martin, Bangor, ca. 1868

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

In March 1889, when he was 66 years old, John Martin of Bangor led a "grand march" at an inauguration day dance in Dexter. A newspaper account noted, "All the intricate evolutions were carried out in their minutest details under his supervision, with all the precision of military drill, when by some dextrous movement order would be at once brought out of apparent confusion, he was greeted with applause."

The article called Martin a "Terpsichorean of the old school," and commented that "no society event" in Bangor "was regarded as a 'success' without his guiding genius to direct. … Though probably in his sixties his step is as elastic and his movements as easy and responsive to music as those of a youth of today."

Martin (1823-1904) pasted the article about his accomplishment in his "Dancing Fraternity, City of Bangor 1868."

The book contains details of an organization he and another man began in 1855. Within its 180 pages, Martin espouses his philosophy of dancing, of "proper" society, of health, of appropriate manners, instructions for dances, and details about the various members of the fraternity, called the Model Assembly.

For Martin, dancing was sport, exercise – and a means to demonstrate proper behavior and social status. Although lame, he learned to dance as a youth and devoted himself to perfecting both the movements and the attendant social graces.

Susie Stockwell, Bangor, ca. 1865
Susie Stockwell, Bangor, ca. 1865

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

By the early years of the 19th century, the faster-paced, more intimate waltz surpassed older dances like contra or group dances in popularity. One historian called the period from 1812 to 1912 the "Waltz Century."

The speed, rhythm, and form of the waltz as well as its place in the social life of many American communities, reflect the changes in society over the century that saw a shift from a new nation beginning to define itself, to one seasoned by war and experiencing spectacular economic, population, and geographic growth. As the society grew and changed, so did social dancing.

The waltz and polka were more intimate dances – couples dancing as partners, the man's hand on the woman's waist, the two facing one another – and often were criticized as vulgar or sinful and therefore required knowledge of appropriate etiquette. Despite changes in society, the need for knowledge of etiquette and propriety continued as ways to assure a good reputation as well as entry into "high" or "higher" society.

Aspiring "ladies" and "gentlemen" could refer to the many manuals and magazines available in the nineteenth century that detailed behavioral rules such as the protocol for inviting and accepting invitations, acceptable topics and manners of conversation – and more.

Oliver A. Lunt, Bangor, ca. 1860
Oliver A. Lunt, Bangor, ca. 1860

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

The "Dancing Fraternity" or Model Assembly allowed Martin to show off and continue to practice his passion for dance -- and to insure that propriety was adhered to. The group was to have up to 44 male members, who each could have two women who might accompany them to the weekly dances and weekly dance lessons. Martin was a participant, an instruction, and a "manager," who helped facilitate the dances and matched dance partners when necessary.

At the beginning and end of the book, Martin includes the bylaws of the group, which lasted from about 1855 for about 10 years. The dates vary in Martin's writing.

The bylaws at the end further expand Martin's sense of the propriety and social status of dancing, as he calls the assembly the "Scientific School." The group would learn to dance scientifically and to "practice and conform ourselves to the rules of etiquette which will make our manners polite and easy."

One of the bylaws is especially revealing. Number 9, as written at the beginning of the book, states, " Each member shall use their influence to make the association agreeable and social without any regard to outside associations with a view to kill the cheap aristocracy which makes personal disgusts year after year." The bylaw is worded differently at the end, but the sentiment is the same.

Dancing could prove one's acceptance in social circles – if not one's membership in them – but also had to be combined with traits like diligence and worldly success.

Martin's "Dancing Fraternity" is a detailed and fascinating look into those issues in mid 19th century Bangor with details about many residents – prominent and not well known – and about the role of dancing in that society.

Martin's 181-page book is broken into four PDF files for easier downloading and viewing. The links are below and at left, where more detail is given on the contents of each section.

Start-page 46  
Start-page 46Constitution, names and details about members, Acadian Hall, profiles of members.
Pages 47-90  
Pages 47-90Profiles of members, John Martin's Dancing School, reports of several dance events.
Pages 91-132  
Pages 91-132Acadian Hall, continued; profiles of members; instructions for dance steps; comments on dances
Pages 133-end  
Pages 133-endInstructions on dance steps, profiles of members, and comments on etiquette and health, and on particular dance events