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Philadelphia Story: Ballet's Cultural Influence in Early America

A bustling American city's emergence as a cultural center for an archetypal European art form has drawn the research interest of a dance professor and a Hackman Scholar at Franklin & Marshall College.

Philadelphia embraced ballet in the early 1800s, drawing famous European dancers and introducing America's best performers.

"We're examining just how much ballet was occurring, and the level of influence it had culturally in Philadelphia at that time," said junior Emily Hawk, a double major in dance and history. These decades, when dance was being forged in American culture, are a focus of research by Lynn Brooks, Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and Dance and the Brooks College House Don.

  • Ballet's Cultural Influence in Early America
  • Franklin & Marshall College junior Emily Hawk, a double major in dance and history, as a Hackman Scholar this summer, is working with Lynn Brooks, Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and Dance, whose research focuses on the role ballet played in forging American culture in the early 19th century. (Photo by Melissa Hess) 

If stardom is any indication of such cultural weight, one might consider that three of America's four ballet stars were based in the city in the period 1820 to 1860, including George Washington Smith, a Philadelphia native who danced, taught and choreographed ballet.

"America is still a young country at this time and Americans are determining their position vis-à-vis European culture and their own status as a country," Brooks said.

The professor's scholarship includes her 2011 biography on John Durang, who is remembered by a historical plaque near his Lancaster birthplace as the first notable American professional dancer and entertainer. He died, age 54, in 1822 in Philadelphia.

In their collaborative research, Hawk and Brooks travelled to the Library Company of Philadelphia, an independent research center that specializes in 17th through 19th century American history and culture, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

At each archive, they sifted through prints, account books, playbills, posters, and programs of performances, some of them nearly 200 years old, to get a sense of ballet's social and cultural influences.

"We were able to actually touch the documents of the period," Hawk said. "They were not all digitized. This is so much a hands-on-experience for me."

  • Ballet's Cultural Influence in Early America
  • Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler, who took American audiences by storm in the mid 1800s, was the most prominent of dance stars to appear on Philadelphia's stages. 

European culture strongly influenced American ballet as it developed in the city of brotherly love during the 19th century, Brooks said. "There were French teachers, but there also was a strong influence from English theatre," she said.

Most prominent was the famed Austrian ballerina, Fanny Elssler, who took American audiences by storm. Congress would adjourn when she performed in Washington, D.C., and George Washington Smith danced with her, said Brooks and Hawk.

"She set the standards for a lot of American ballet," Hawk said. "To be a big star you had to have that European connection."

Hawk is among 94 students in F&M’s Hackman Scholars Program this summer, collaborating with 50 F&M professors to support the faculty member's research projects. An endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman established the program in 1984 to increase the opportunities for students to do research in their fields of study.

In addition to the Hackman Scholars on campus this summer, 44 students are working through support from other grants with 23 F&M professors.