Ulysses S. Grant's "dancing shoes"

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Jan 24, 2017
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I never knew there was such a thing, but apparently Ulysses S. Grant once ordered a pair as a young cadet at West Point. The knowledge comes from his Personal Account Book and was on a list of items purchased in his first year at West Point. Grant did not have a reputation for being able to dance and was called "clumsy General Grant" just to make matters worse. No one ever remembered seeing him at a dance, yet the young cadet had the desire to meet girls at the "cotillions" with entries showing "cotillian ball" and "dancing master". I'm assuming a dancing master is someone who would teach him to dance. The entries appear only once in his Account Book during his first year at West Point. As suggested in this blog post "he must have given up and yielded the dance floor to his more gallant Southern comrades". In his first four months at West Point, Grant confesses to his cousin in a letter that he hadn't spoken to a single lady and wished "some pretty girls of Bethel were here just so I might look at them". As the blog author notes, the young Ulysses "yearned wistfully for romance". Little did he know his real life romance with wife Julia would become a romance for the ages.

 
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Jan 24, 2017
Yes, there were dancing shoes. For the ladies they often matched the ball gown and didn’t last long. Thin soles and sometimes just made of fabric. I do know that there were heeled slippers. I would imagine they lasted longer.
Thank you @Mrs. V . I honestly never thought of a specific pair of shoes just for dancing! I guess I tend to think in terms of "good shoes" (for men suit shoes or for ladies high heels) for going out, and "casual shoes" for more mundane activities. It did make me wonder was there something specific to the shoe themselves for dancing, or was it just along the lines of what we might call 'suit shoes' today. So interesting to learn about the ladies shoes back in the day as well.
 
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Dancing was considered a skill all men should have and that Grant would feel he needed to master it isn't too surprising.
Those were the days! Seems Grant didn't master it, but one has to wonder about his Congenital Amusia and the effect that might have had. Imagining that you must be able to move in time to the music and have an appreciation for the sounds, I would say Grant suffered immensely from the sense of dissonance that might have created.
 
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I’ve often wondered who were the “good” dancers at West Point or for that matter among any of the generals. I read that Abraham Lincoln, perhaps not an “accomplished” dancer was certainly an “energetic” dancer and I seem to remember the same said of General Sheridan. But who was the “Fred Astaire” of the Civil War?
Good question @DBF and I'd love to know the answer to that one, too! It seems it was expected that men could dance and we know a few of the General's were ladies men, but did the two go together? I don't think I've read about that aspect of the CW here yet. LOL to Lincoln being an "energetic" dancer. At least he tried and probably even enjoyed himself by the sounds of things! Grant probably couldn't stand the music and I don't know about Sheridan, but what about Sherman? Of course we're leaving the Southern boys out, so hopefully someone knows something and can add it here. Were there any Fred Astaire's among the previous West Point cadets?
 

Rhea Cole

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I have read accounts of European military schools where the daily schedule included more dancing classes than anything else. Friends who attended all boy military high schools & the dances they attended at all girl academies endured endless hours of practice that preceded those highly chaperoned events... it was the 1960’s, they felt like they were stuck on a time machine.
 
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I have read accounts of European military schools where the daily schedule included more dancing classes than anything else. Friends who attended all boy military high schools & the dances they attended at all girl academies. Endless hours of practice preceded those highly chaperoned events... it was the 1960’s, they felt like they were stuck on a time machine.
Haha @Rhea Cole . It's amazing to think dance was still such a highly considered skill to possess in the 60's when a lot of young people were letting their hair down to the Beatles as well as Rock 'n Roll. No wonder they felt they were stuck in a time machine! Still, if you wanted to impress the girls I guess you'd do whatever it took, and the chaperoning is also very old school. Fascinating facts which probably relate to a highly structured environment and tied to the expectations of the institutions themselves. Very much built on tradition.
 

Rhea Cole

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My wife was a university dance instructor. She tells me that without a doubt, there were dance classes for West Point Cadets in the 19th Century. Anyone calling himself a gentleman had to be able to dance. She showed me an ad for six week ballroom dance classes for incoming 2020 cadets. Being able to dance is still the mark of an accomplished gentleman or lady officer even today.
 

Rhea Cole

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Haha @Rhea Cole . It's amazing to think dance was still such a highly considered skill to possess in the 60's when a lot of young people were letting their hair down to the Beatles as well as Rock 'n Roll. No wonder they felt they were stuck in a time machine! Still, if you wanted to impress the girls I guess you'd do whatever it took, and the chaperoning is also very old school. Fascinating facts which probably relate to a highly structured environment and tied to the expectations of the institutions themselves. Very much built on tradition.
I still have a vivid memory of reading about The Summer of Love in Life Magazine. It was quite a jolt to my hormone drenched 16 year old self. On the other extreme, in college, my impression was that the military high schoolers came out one of two ways. They were either absolute lick skittles to authority figures of any kind or profound hypocrites who were marvelously adept at pretending to respect teachers, etc. Strangely enough, a roommate who had been a cadet commander told me that the hypocrites got all the rewards because they knew how to manipulate the faculty. His descriptions of military school life made quite an impression. We went to HS on separate planets.
 

Rhea Cole

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Has anyone else seen the Nashville Public TV program about the Southern Belle boot camp at the Athenian in Columbia TN? The ball that concludes the camp is quite an insight into what the prep & all of a period dance would have been like. If memory serves, the males are supplied by a military HS.
 

lupaglupa

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It did make me wonder was there something specific to the shoe themselves for dancing, or was it just along the lines of what we might call 'suit shoes' today.
The shoes were specific to dancing. @Mrs. V can probably be more accurate than I can, but I think they are more flexible than regular shoes and have different soles.
 
Fellow West Point classmate and future Confederate General Daniel M. Frost recalled cadet Grant quite well.

"He was a small fellow, active and muscular. His hair was a reddish brown, and his eyes gray-blue. We all liked him, and he took rank soon as a good mathematician and engineer, and as a capital horseman. He had no bad habits whatever, and was a great favorite, though not a brilliant fellow.

He couldn't or wouldn't dance. He had no facility in conversation with the ladies, a total absence of elegance, and naturally showed off badly in contrast with the young Southern men, who prided themselves on being finished in the ways of the world.

He belonged decidedly to the plebeian side of the class, which was sharply divided on the line of elegance and savoir-faire, notwithstanding the democracy of the military regulations. Socially the Southern men led. At the parties which were given occasionally in the dining-hall Grant had small part. I never knew Grant to attend a party. I don t suppose in all his first year he entered a private house."
 

DBF

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Were there any Fred Astaire's among the previous West Point cadets?
Although not a West Point graduate - he was a Brigadier General:
Edward Ferrero (1831–1899) and according to Wikipedia: was one of the leading dance instructors, choreographers, and ballroom operators in the United States. He also served as a Union Army general in the American Civil War, most remembered for his dishonourable conduct in the Battle of the Crater (July 1864), reported drinking with another general behind the lines, while both their units were virtually destroyed.
His obituary here:
https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=LAH18991214.2.61&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN--------1
 
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The shoes were specific to dancing. @Mrs. V can probably be more accurate than I can, but I think they are more flexible than regular shoes and have different soles.
Ah, thank you @lupaglupa . I thought that might have been a silly question to ask at first, but because it's so specific in referring to them as "dancing shoes" I wondered if there might also be more to it. With any luck @Mrs. V does know some more and can enlighten us.
 
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Fellow West Point classmate and future Confederate General Daniel M. Frost recalled cadet Grant quite well.

"He was a small fellow, active and muscular. His hair was a reddish brown, and his eyes gray-blue. We all liked him, and he took rank soon as a good mathematician and engineer, and as a capital horseman. He had no bad habits whatever, and was a great favorite, though not a brilliant fellow.

He couldn't or wouldn't dance. He had no facility in conversation with the ladies, a total absence of elegance, and naturally showed off badly in contrast with the young Southern men, who prided themselves on being finished in the ways of the world.

He belonged decidedly to the plebeian side of the class, which was sharply divided on the line of elegance and savoir-faire, notwithstanding the democracy of the military regulations. Socially the Southern men led. At the parties which were given occasionally in the dining-hall Grant had small part. I never knew Grant to attend a party. I don t suppose in all his first year he entered a private house."
How wonderful @Copperhead-mi ! What a lot of great information and a real shout out to the Southern men who obviously had it all over the Northerners when it came to their social skills in comparison. At least according to this author, and it sounds like he came from the South - Confederate General Daniel M. Frost. I'm not surprised at him describing Ulysses as awkward and reticent, which is an impression I've had all along, and which Grant would likely admit to himself. I thought the comment on belonging to the "plebeian" side of the class was interesting. It appears to be referring to him more as a 'commoner', and perhaps not having the skills and graces of some of the others who considered themselves of a different (i.e. better) class. Still, Grant was well thought of for the most part even though his social skills were lacking, and it's confirmation that in spite of his purchase he either "couldn't or wouldn't dance."
 
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