Cooney’s Dancing Instructor, a rare pamphlet on display in our exhibition Steppin’ Out…Under the Stars until the end of the year, captures the world of social dancing in Wilmington not long before the fox trot changed everything in the early 1900s.
Martin H. Cooney, born in Delaware in 1861 to Irish immigrant parents, held industrial jobs in his early years. Dancing, however, was always his first love. By 1894, when he is first listed in the Wilmington city directory as a dancing instructor, and when he probably published his book, he said that he had been teaching for fourteen years and dancing for many more. If you do the math—and if you believe what he says—he started at a very young age!
Although the dances presented in the book appear old fashioned to us today, Cooney recognized that times were changing. “Nearly all Quadrilles now in use have been danced with very slight change for more than fifty years.” That would put their introduction in the 1840s. “Many of them have a ridiculous appearance if the proper steps are not used. . . .I do not wish to be understood as ridiculing the people for casting off the old school of dancing. This is a fast age, and the people will not…be compelled to study and practice for years a system of dancing, that in the end will not profit them much, if anything.” Cooney’s purpose is to present a variety of simple dances that everyone can learn and enjoy.
Cooney proceeds to give instructions for round dances, quadrilles, and schottisches. Without illustrations or demonstrations the dances seem very complicated to the modern reader with no interest in Dancing with the Stars. Cooney also gives detailed instructions on ballroom etiquette. One rule is that people should “Dance quietly, from the hips downward. Do not jump, caper, or sway your body.”
Just as interesting are the many ads for Wilmington businesses that fill about half of the pages of the book. Many are for saloons, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that catered to steppin’ out.
Martin Cooney taught social dancing for many years, almost until his death in 1935. By then dancing and social behavior had changed dramatically. We wish Cooney had updated his book so that we could see how he adapted to the changes in his profession. If you have any memories of Martin Cooney and his dance classes, we would love to hear from you.