We can’t know for sure what Thomas Jefferson would have thought of the arrests Saturday of five people who were dancing in his memorial. According to reports, they were grooving in silence to protest an earlier court ruling banning dance within the Jefferson Memorial.
The arrests sparked outrage galore, complete with viral videos on YouTube of the forceful police response. But overlooked is the utter irony of outlawing dance in the name of the third president. After all, this is the man who netted this nation a dance heritage with the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson had long been fond of dancing — he was a fiddler and used to play duets with that other Virginia-born Founding Father, Patrick Henry. He was known to play his violin for parties at the White House. At one Christmas bash there in 1805, the president — a leader through and through — became Dancemaster in Chief by fiddling for the dancing of his six young grandchildren and 100 of their friends.
And why not? Dancing, Jefferson wrote, “is a healthy exercise, elegant and very attractive for young people.”
But it was with the bargain land deal in 1803 that Jefferson ensured that dancing would be the rich and vibrant heritage of every American. Because found at the bottom tip of those roughly 800,000 square miles he gained from France were the swamps, muck, mosquitoes and hellraisers of New Orleans. The city was a cultural melting pot at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, and long before gumbo or Mardi Gras or the birth of jazz, it was an unrivaled dance capital.
Races, cultures and, yes, dances poured into town on the willing currents of the Mississippi River. From its founding in the 18th century, New Orleans was a multicultural mix of rich Europeans, Cuban plantation owners, African slaves, free Creoles of color, Caribbean visitors and Canadian Acadians. After Napoleon unloaded the land (New Orleans’s port being Jefferson’s main interest), American entrepreneurs also streamed into the shipping base. Each of these groups brought with them formal and social dances that were shared and stretched and reformulated into new styles. This was a time when anybody who was anybody had to know the latest reel.
And along with the sugar, cotton and cash that flowed into the port was another important commodity — dance steps. The European land holders brought over their own regional and court dances — quadrilles, minuets, waltzes, jigs, boleros. These traditions merged with those of the other immigrants.
There was money in New Orleans, and young men on the lookout for women. The impresarios of the day realized they were the perfect audience for touring ballerinas. European dancers making a circuit through the lucrative Caribbean market regularly made stops there.
It was there, in fact, that the French-born Suzanne Douvillier, whom historians call the first trained ballerina to dance in the United States, settled in 1799 and choreographed dozens of works. The ballets “Don Quixote” (by Jean Baptiste Francisqui, founder of the New Orleans opera ballet) and “Don Juan” (by Douvillier) were performed on the bayou in the early 1800s, and Jean Dauberval’s “La Fille Mal Gardee” — one of the oldest works in the current ballet repertoire — made its North American debut there in 1824.
New Orleans isn’t quite the dance town it used to be, but efforts have been made to recognize its dance heritage. In 2003, for the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the New Orleans International Ballet Conference held four days of lectures and performances on the vast dance history of the Crescent City. I covered the conference then, and much of the history in this article comes from the piece I wrote about it.
Jefferson, in fact, gave us much more than the Declaration of Independence — he gave us a national identity of independence, democracy and free expression. He brought these qualities into his own parties at the White House, and he brought them into the country when he made New Orleans our new gateway to the world.
So is there any better way to honor Jefferson, the father of American dance, than with a quiet boogie at his memorial? Next time, maybe the protesters could add a fiddler, too.
Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.