George Washington Smith
A dancer of mixed race and considered the first male American ballet star
Considered one of the first male American ballet stars, George Washington Smith maintained a relationship with dance and teaching that spanned a lifetime. Before him, there is no mention of a male ballet dancer in 19th century America.
Little is known about Smith’s early years, but historians do know he was of mixed race and was born in Philadelphia in 1820. Philadelphia in the early 19th century was a hub for dance and theater and Smith found himself right in the middle of it. Audiences weren’t typically going to the theater to see ballet at this time, so that style in particular was slightly out of reach for American audiences, but it was on its way.
Smith studied ballet with visiting European ballet masters and when he couldn’t gain access to one of their classes, he would find a space to rigorously teach himself dance steps and work through exercises. By the age of 12, Smith was already taking part in the arts and culture scene. In 1932, he performed a sort of clog dance, a style of dance that precedes modern day tap dancing. Smith was a versatile dancer and his performances earned him the reputation for being a great technician, pantomimist, and partner even though it was a rare to see a man dancing in any style outside of ballroom dancing at the time.
In 1840, while on tour in America, renowned European ballerina Fanny Elssler and her dancing partner and ballet master James Sylvain saw Smith perform at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and invited him to join her company. It is worth noting that Elssler was not dismayed by Smith being of mixed race and sources do not mention whether or not Smith experienced any racial trials even though slavery was not abolished until 25 years after they first met. Once in the company his evident dance IQ earned him an opportunity to be Elssler’s partner for a widely acclaimed American tour. On tour one of his most notable roles was that of Harlequin. The tour spanned two years.
On January 1st, 1846, Smith made American dance history along with his partner Mary Ann Lee (who was also hired and trained by Elssler in 1840) when they premiered the first ever production of the Romantic Era ballet Giselle at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston, MA. After the success of their premier in Giselle, Lee and Smith founded their own touring company. After that tenure was over, Smith would continue dancing with partner Lola Montez and even crossed paths with a young Enrico Cecchetti (the Italian ballet dancer who founded his own method of ballet technique, still used to this day) at the Ronzani Ballet. By the age of 40, Smith’s technical prowess was seemingly unchallenged as he was the only male dancer who performed roles of fellow contemporary Jules Perrot (an incredibly famous ballet dancer and choreographer at the time). Smith danced well into his 40s.
Dancing was just the start of something quite marvelous for Smith’s career. He was integral in America’s effort to break the artistic umbilical cord from Europe. He became a ballet master at the Bowery Theatre in New York City, which catered to immigrant groups including Germans, Chinese, and Irish in the 1840s and 50s. He staged circus ballets for famous American showman P.T Barnum (co-founder of the Barnum & Bailey circus) at Barnum’s Grand Roman Hippodrome. Smith choreographed scores of ballets presented in Philadelphia that received critical acclaim.
He wore his pride on his sleeve, so when Smith saw adaptations of The Black Crook (a piece created by William Wheatley that changed hands so many times, its original flare disintegrated into what we’d observe today as burlesque), he was so frustrated that he wrote “There is no dancing anymore, only antics. Like myself it has died out and is no more.” He decided to make his own version of the production and upon its premiere was regarded as having some of the best dancing of its time on display. In 1881 Smith opened the first ever classical ballet school in Philadelphia. He ran the school up until his death on February 18, 1899.