Pennsylvania Dutch

Music and Dance

Robert Wood


Why are there so few references to folk-dancing and music in local history? The record of folk-dance and dance tunes is sparse at best. Didn’t our ancestors bring any folk-dances from Germany and Switzerland in the early eighteenth century?

The first explanation that comes to mind is that German immigrants, mainly Lutherans, Reformed, and Mennonites, were too religious to dance. But, contrary to popular belief, organized religion had but a weak hold on much of the population during the eighteenth century. Although it is true that the ministers almost universally railed against dancing and other “worldly pleasures,” their voice was regarded by only a part of the population.  And, indeed, the frequent complaints of the ministers about dancing may illustrate just how popular it was.

Pastor Muhlenberg, who organized the Lutheran Church in America and was the first ordained minister at New Hanover, writes in his 1747 Journal : “In Providence [Trappe] a Reformed neighbor married his daughter to a member of our congregation [Lutheran]. I had to perform the marriage ceremony and hence was invited to be present at the wedding festivities. As it is the custom in this country for a number of friends to be present, be they of the same religion or none at all, so on this occasion, too, there were some present who scoff at churches and preachers. … The bride’s parents placed me together with a number of our Lutheran and Reformed people, in a room by ourselves and left the young people and others in an adjoining room. We sought edification among ourselves and also sang some hymns. The scoffers in the next room began to act like mad, disturbing me and giving no little offense to some of our young people.  …after admonishing them several times, in vain, I went home, and others with me. After I had gone the unruly people did not rest until they had seduced the young people into dancing. Some of the young people whom I had prepared for the Lord’s supper withdrew and would have nothing to do with the frivolity. Several, however, did join in and take part in it and others told me about it.”

The pastor goes on to describe his confronting the young people who had danced at the wedding. One eighteen year old lad, “confessed that they had finally prevailed upon him after much persuasion to go and get a musician. But after he had brought the musician and stood there for a while looking at the vain spectacle, he became so frightened and alarmed that he ran away and went home.”

Rev. Muhlenberg concludes, “So when, added to this, there is the influence of the frivolous people who, in Pennsylvania fashion, have no religion at all, one can easily see how young minds are led astray,… ”

However, dancing was apparently not anathema to all preachers. Rev. Muhlenberg goes on to lament, “My neighbor, the old Reformed pastor Mr. Boehm [John Phillip Boehm founded the Falckner Swamp German Reformed Church in 1720.] tells his people that one cannot keep young people tied up in a sack; they must have their fun, and dancing has its place, too.”

Phoebe Earle Gibbons  in her 1874 book “Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays” provides a clear account of what she observed. She quotes an English schoolmaster who sojourned in Schuylkill County in the 1850’s. One evening he went with a sleighing party to an old stone tavern where “the fiddlers sat in the window seats formed by the thick stone walls; and the dance was lively until the small hours. The dancers made a business of it and went to work with a will. The dances were called ‘straight eights’ forward and back, and mostly shuffles. Although at a tavern none got drunk. Coming home, the driver increased the fun by upsetting in the snow.”

In the same book, Ms. Gibbons quotes a Berks County source, “The dancing they indulge in  Berks, is not the fashionable kind, but is more exhausting than mauling rails in August or threshing rye with a flail. The figures are called out by some skillful person; the dancers being arranged in four rows, in a sort of double column on each side. After the inside couples have danced and all have changed places, the former are allowed to rest while the outside couples dance.”

Additionally we know that the various frolics and bees that often filled the evenings frequently ended with dancing late into the night.


Return to Pennsylvania Germans of the Goschenhoppen Region

The Goschenhoppen Historians