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“All Good Boston Children Went to Papanti’s”: Lorenzo Papanti and his Boston Dancing Academy

Lorenzo Papanti Carte de visite

Lorenzo Papanti

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This carte de visite portrait of Lorenzo Papanti was produced by Icilio Calzolari of Milan. Samuel Foster McCleary (1822-1901), who served as Boston’s city clerk from 1852-1883, identified the photograph on the back as “Mr. Papanti my dancing master S.M.”

A school of "fashionable Dances"

For at least three generations, budding debutantes and their often unwilling partners from Boston’s Brahmin class learned to waltz and dance the polka and other “fashionable Dances” under the tutelage of a colorful Italian immigrant named Lorenzo Papanti. In 1827, recently arrived from Italy, he established a dancing school for Boston’s elite, a somewhat tough sell in puritanical Boston—his was only the second dancing school in New England and many in the upper echelons of Boston society felt that dancing was something that should only be done at home.

Fortunately for Papanti, he found an entrée into Boston’s upper class and a staunch supporter in Sally Foster Otis, the wealthy widow of Harrison Gray Otis. In The Proper Bostonians, Cleveland Amory characterized Mrs. Otis as “The Mrs. Jack Gardner [Isabella Stewart Gardner] of her times. It amused her to do things other Boston ladies didn’t do, and to do them first.” Together Otis and Papanti danced what was claimed to be the first waltz in America in 1834, a dance that was still considered somewhat risqué until 1872 when Johann Strauss II, the “Waltz King” himself, performed in Boston, igniting a craze. Through Mrs. Otis’s first-class family and social connections, Papanti was able to establish and grow his school. Lucius Beebe recounted that

All good Boston children went to Papanti’s, where his lean figure, glossy wig and elegant patent leather dancing pumps, and above all his pointed fiddle-bow, used both as an instrument of correction and harmony, struck terror to all juvenile hearts.

Papanti and his lessons are recounted in many reminiscences of nineteenth century Bostonians. Laura Richards, a daughter of Julia Ward Howe, recalled the rap from Papanti’s violin bow that would follow any small misstep. She remembered learning “not only the waltz and polka, quadrille—plain and Lancers—but also the Scottische, the Varsovienne, and the Spanish Dance, all graceful and charming. Even more so were the gavotte and the Shawl Dance, attained by specially proficient pupils.” Her sister Florence remembered only a “single couple—a brother and sister” who danced the Shawl Dance, thus reaching “the height of human ambition at Papanti’s.”

“The Most Magnificent Ballroom in the World”

In 1837, Lorenzo Papanti opened a magnificent new ballroom on Tremont Street, featuring a spring floor said to yield beneath one’s feet “like a living thing,” a $1200 chandelier, dressing rooms, and many other amenities. Maude Howe Elliot recalled that “clinging to my mother’s hand, I was led into the most magnificent ballroom in the world. It was surrounded on two sides with raised benches; the third was filled with long gilded mirrors, the fourth by a ‘Minstrel’s Gallery.’” For years to come, Papanti’s hall would host the Boston Assembly balls, held four times a year (and only for the crème de la crème of Boston society) and be a fixture in Boston’s social and cultural life.

Who was Lorenzo Papanti?

Lorenzo Papanti was born in Livorno (Leghorn) Italy, the second son of Francisco and Arianna Papanti (although his 1856 marriage record lists them as Gustavus and Anna). He was serving as an officer in the Royal Guard of the Duke of Tuscany when he reportedly killed a fellow officer in a duel, forcing him to flee Italy. Fortunately, the USS Constitution was in port and took Papanti (a skilled French horn player) aboard as a member of the ship’s band.

Arriving in Boston with few possessions other than hastily-arranged letters of introduction and, strangely, his “full court regalia,” Papanti for a time eked out a living playing French horn in the orchestra pit of the Boston Theatre. He married his first wife, Sarah Quinn of Boston, in 1842 at St. Patrick’s Church in Roxbury; the couple had two sons, Lorenzo in 1844 and Augustus in 1846 before Sarah’s death from consumption in 1848. In 1856, he married Harriet Morse of Newburyport, Mass.

Lorenzo Papanti died in 1872. Obituaries appeared in newspapers as far flung as Tennessee, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and an obituary published in Worcester’s National Aegis neatly summed up Papanti’s career and influence

The topic of conversation in the polite circles of Boston for three days at least will undoubtedly be the death of Signor Lorenzo Papanti, who taught the grandfathers and grandmothers of the rising generation how to point their toes and go through the pas of the period, and has kept on ever since with almost undiminished vigor in his profession, until death with still nimbler feet overtook him at the ripe age of seventy-three. Mr. Papanti was by no means an ordinary Turveydrop. He possessed a good deal of dignity, a clear head, and a decided knowledge of what he was about. His saloons have for many years been the scenes of the largest private parties given in Boston, while in the way of dancing classes he had no rival in the fashionable world … He had been established for nearly fifty years in Boston, and had accumulated a large fortune.

His funeral was held in the Church of the Advent in Boston and, according to the account in the Boston Journal, attended by “young and old, of men with silvery locks, who were followed by sons and daughters of mature years, and these by a third generation who have profited by the teachings of the kind old Professor.”

For further reading

Amory, Cleveland. The Proper Bostonians New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1947

Beebe, Lucius. Boston and the Boston Legend New York: Appleton-Century, 1935

Crawford, Mary Caroline. Romantic Days in Old Boston Boston: Little Brown, 1922

Elliott, Maud Howe. Three Generations Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1923

Hall, Florence Howe. Memories Grave and Gay New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918

Hunter, Jane H. How Young Ladies Became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002

Weber, Jody. The Evolution of Aeshetic and Expressive Dance in Boston Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria, 2009

Wexler, Dorothy B. Reared in a Greenhouse: The Stories—and Story—of Dorothy Winthrop Bradford New York: Garland, 1988