Friday, March 14, 2014

Footloose in Motown: Monsieur Louis Sansay's dance school

Who knew that six degrees of Kevin Bacon would bring us to Morristown? We certainly weren't thinking in that direction when we stopped to read the historic marker posted in front of the house at 17 Dehart Street.

According to the sign, the story is simple enough:

Monsieur Louis Sansay, 
French dancing school here. 
House was site of ball honoring
Lafayette in 1825. Later home
of General Joseph Revere.

It's not until you do a little research that you come to see some parallels to the story of a young man who brings dance to a town where it was forbidden. Well, parallels through a mirror, because the whole thing happens in reverse.

There's little to be found about the life of Monsieur Louis Sansay before his arrival in Morristown in the early 1800s. Some digging revealed a Louis Sansay who was married to Leonora Sansay, author and confidante of Aaron Burr, but all evidence points to that Louis being another person altogether. (A shame, because that story is a classic Burr entanglement.) The dancing Sansay might have been a French nobleman who escaped his home country during its revolution, or perhaps he'd come to the New World to aid the Americans against the British. Others opine that he may have arrived here from Saint-Domingue, seeking refuge from the Haitian revolution. Or maybe he was, like so many before him and since, looking for new adventure in a new land. We don't know.

What we do know is that his dancing school was very popular among the well-to-do locals, who were more than happy to send their children to him to learn the graceful steps of the time. In time, he became the best known dance master in New Jersey, with a loyal following and monthly recitals performed by the young ladies and gentlemen under his instruction.

Sansay's renown seems to have made his home the logical choice to host the dance ball to honor the Marquis de Lafayette during his July 1825 visit to Morristown. Touring the United States as the "nation's guest" at the invitation of President James Madison, Lafayette was revered for his contributions to the fight for American independence, and the opportunity to entertain the hero said much about Sansay's standing in the community.

The Lafayette fete, however, seems to have been the apex of Sansay's career in Morristown. A growing temperance movement, fueled by the fiery sermons of Presbyterian minister Rev. Albert Barnes, led to dwindling enrollment in dance classes. Gentle minuets and waltzes were characterized as earthly pleasures luring young students away from faith and worship; God-fearing parents would not allow their children be led astray. Deprived of his livelihood, Sansay closed the school and departed town, leaving Morristown less than footloose.

What became of Sansay is as much a mystery as his life before Morristown. Some say he moved to Elizabeth, but I've found no evidence of that. One does wonder, however, about the survival of his legacy among his students. Did they continue to dance together despite the minister's admonitions? Perhaps they found a barn outside of town where they could share their love of movement away from disapproving eyes.

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