City of Grace: Power, Performance, and Bodies in Colonial South Carolina
Nathans, Heather S.
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Colonial Charles Town, South Carolina, was widely reputed to be one of the most refined and genteel cities in the early British Empire. As its planters and merchants grew rich from the overseas rice trade, they sought to embody their new elite status by learning the courtly styles of European social dancing, using dances such as the minuet to cultivate a sense of physical "grace." This sense of grace allowed them to construct cosmopolitan identities and differentiate a social order that consolidated their power over the colony. Meanwhile, other social factions, such as the colony's large slave majority and the emerging class of middling tradesmen, sought their own share in controlling the vocabulary through which bodies might mean. "City of Grace: Power, Performance, and Bodies in Colonial South Carolina" puts colonial Charles Town's "bodies" into conversation in order to highlight how bodily behaviors such as dancing, posture, and comportment could organize power relations in an eighteenth-century British colony. This dissertation considers in turn the part that four groups played in the conflict over the values assigned to Charles Town's bodies: the wealthy elites who sought to use "grace" as a means to proclaim and ensure their status, the dancing masters who sought to capitalize on the elites' need for training, the African slaves whose syncretized performances of their own ethnically-specific dances troubled elite ideals of a graceful "white" body, and the emerging cohort of middling tradespeople and evangelical believers who critiqued the pretensions of elite manners. By using sources such as dancing manuals, paintings, and private letters, I put the colonial body back "on its feet," in order to understand the kinesthetic qualities of movement itself as a site for creating and transmitting meaning. Within this framework, I suggest that genteel grace was a strategy by which eighteenth-century elites sought to perform class status without betraying the artificiality of the performance.