Dancing in the Gold Rush - June 2012
Story by Craig MacDonald
Artwork by Bill Anderson
“It would make our
Eastern people cave,
To see the great and small,
The old, with one foot in the grave,
All splurging at a Ball.”
—J.A. Stone, “California Ball”
Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? TV shows have nothing on the people who danced during the Gold Rush. Few had more fun hoofing it than the Forty-niners. How they loved to dance—anytime, anyplace, anywhere. They would spring into action promenading with glee for any reason: fun, exercise, warmth, companionship, relaxation, competition or escape. Miners danced outside their tents, in saloons, at social halls, in hotels, sometimes in streambeds, after finding gold nuggets.
Nothing could deter the enthusiastic prospectors—not floods, not ability, not even lacking members of the opposite sex, which was often the case in the early Gold Rush. “It was a strange sight to see a party of long-bearded men in heavy boots going through a great deal of grace and hearty enjoyment depicted on their dried-up, sunburned faces,” wrote observer J.D. Borthwick at a womanless dance. “The men danced, as they did everything else, with all their might.”
“No sleep till noon, when youth and pleasure meet to chase the glowing hours with flying feet,” read one 1851 ad in the Shasta Courier.
William Perkins wrote about a satisfying Sonora social in 1852, where, “We proved that our savage life had not made us forget the steps of a polka.” One participant said folks danced not only with their legs but all their hearts and souls.
A year later, there were so few women at a ball in Spanish Flat, they reportedly “were danced to exhaustion,” performing the polka, mazourka, hoe-down, freeze-out, straight fours, shuffles, gallop, cross-eyed snap and schottische. Talk about Dance Fever!
“The crowd was dancing away for dear life. One man really made the dust fly until he ripped his pants and left the hall running like a coyote,” wrote a spectator in Hangtown.
At a Weaverville get-together, Franklin Buck said one spry lass “danced a hole through her slipper.” All shapes and sizes participated in these fun events. The Auburn Herald reported it was “astonishing to observe the zest of strapping 6-foot-6 men balancing to partners of exceedingly diminutive proportions with unremitted vigilance necessary to avert a tragedy.”
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