This 1698 edition of The Dancing Master (first published in England, 1651) would have been familiar to New England’s residents in the 1600s.

Text for the following article is excerpted and adapted from our current exhibition on Windsor’s vast musical history. This section is focused on dance, but there is much more music to explore! This exhibit opened on November 16, 2022.

When Windsor’s first English settlers arrived from Europe, they brought their musical traditions with them. Then as now, Windsor’s musical world included not only church music, but also military music and secular tunes, all of which reflected and shaped Windsor’s cultural life across time. In particular, dance has been a key way that Windsor residents have enjoyed music since the town’s earliest days, and Windsor is still dancing today.

At first, as with singing and instrumental accompaniment, there were restrictions imposed on dancing by the Puritan church. Although the Puritan leadership never outlawed dancing outright, Boston ministers seemed conflicted. Increase Mather wrote in 1684 that “dancing or leaping was a natural expression of joy,” but echoed his father-in-law John Cotton’s opposition to “lascivious dancing to wanton ditties.” Cotton and others worried about the lewdness that might result if men and women danced together or that dancers might disrespect the Sabbath. In 1686, seeking to limit “those sins of excesse and profanenesse”, which the magistrates felt had been increasing, Connecticut passed a law that prohibited singing, dancing, and gaming in taverns. Abiel Wilson was arrested for dancing on the Sabbath in Windsor’s Wintonbury Parish (today’s Bloomfield) as late as 1772. Nonetheless, by the 1690s, under Governor Phips, Boston’s elite enjoyed dancing and even celebratory balls. Interest in dance appears to have spread from there throughout New England and to all levels of society.

Over the next several generations, Windsor residents accepted dancing as a valid mode of expression and entertainment. Ads for dancing schools began to appear in the Connecticut Courant by 1793, and by 1795, Windsor had its own dancing school. Classes took place at Sill’s Tavern, which once stood where the parking lot for First Church is now. At this time, Windsor’s dance students would have been taught fashionable English country dances alongside the dances of the French royal court.

By the first few decades of the 1800s, local attitudes toward dancing had loosened enough that public balls were held regularly. The existence of the ball rooms and halls in which these dances were held suggests that large, public dances were much more common at this time. By the late 1800s, dancing was accepted enough that balls could be held in a civic building: town hall.

Since the 1800s, school dances have been a key feature of adolescent social life in Windsor. The Campbell School for Girls on Broad Street not only included dance in its curriculum, but also made a Victrola available to its students during their free time. Student Marjorie Nye remembered the fun of the 1917 term, writing in the local newspaper:

“Our living room is very large and we have a Victrola with a heap of records and we dance to our hearts’ content. Then we have a huge veranda and here we dance all year, even in the coldest weather.”

Dancing to the Victrola was one of Nye’s fondest memories of her school days.

During World War II, longtime Windsor resident and Historical Society volunteer Elizabeth Parker remembered dances being a big part of her social life as a teenager. Some dances were sponsored by the high school, and others by the churches. In an oral history interview, she said:

“One of the typical things was we had the Junior Prom at John Fitch [Windsor High School]. Then in our gowns and tuxes walked up to the (because nobody had any cars), walked up to the Cosy Corner […]And then the Methodist Church, which was then on the confluence of Poquonock and Bloomfield Avenues […] we had dances there every other Saturday night which some people are shocked at. But my mother played the music. Other parents were chaperones. And Bradley Field opened up and a lot of the fellows came down from Bradley Field. There were two or three marriages.”

Election Ball invitation for Laura Stiles, 1807

Election Ball invitation for Laura Stiles, 1807. | WHS collections 1933.7.2, gift of Edith Stiles Hale

Ad for dance instruction from Donald Pitblado

Ad for dance instruction from Donald Pitblado, teacher at the Campbell School for Girls in Windsor, from the Windsor Town Crier, October 1916. | WHS collections

Parker’s love for dance was something that stayed with her, and her husband Frank, throughout their lives.

Sock hop at LP Wilson Jr. High, 1960

Sock hop (or record hop) at LP Wilson Jr. High, 1960 (colorized). | WHS collections 2000.30.86, photo courtesy of Julius Rusavage

In the 1950s, Victoria Brown remembered sock hops at Leland P. Wilson Junior High.

“They would have a DJ come and […] they would spin records and we’d dance in our socks in the cafeteria. And then at the high school we had live bands so we went to dances all the time on the weekends […] There were a couple of guys that grew up here in town who went on to become recording artists. They graduated with me. Yeah, they had a song that was actually a number one hit for I think 6 weeks on the charts. Their names were The Wildweeds.”

In addition to dancing to music by The Wildweeds, Victoria sometimes performed with them as a singer.

Today’s high school students continue to dance at the prom and other school dances throughout the year. Shad Derby queen and king candidates recently participated in a live-streamed Shad Derby Ball, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent memory, Windsor residents —students and adults alike — have polkaed to the music of renowned Windsor resident Ray Henry and his orchestra, busted a move at the Shad Derby Ball and its associated festival, or swayed to the beat of performances by Connecticut State Troubadour and Windsor High School graduate Nekita Waller, plus many other bands, at the First Town Downtown Summer Concert Series on Broad Street Green.

Dance has been just one of a variety of important ways in which Windsor has experienced music since the town’s earliest days. Sometimes controversial, but always expressive, dance, like all the other forms of musical expression, has enriched Windsor’s past. What sounds will we dance to and what steps will we dance in the future?

By Kristen Wands, curator, 2022