The Alsdorf Dancing Academy’s Role In American Music and Dance
Posted in Historical Newburgh | Last Updated April 6, 2020
93 Liberty Street, Alsdorf Hall, was built in 1915, as the home of the Alsdorf School of Music and Dancing, a historic music education and dance school begun in 1849 by Professor Dubois Alsdorf.
A former slave comes to Newburgh
In 1827, when slavery in New York had finally come to a mandated end, freed slaves in the Hudson Valley, most of whom had been farmhands, headed to cities like Newburgh, N.Y. in search of work and housing.
At that time, the Hudson Valley had New York State’s largest concentration of slaves.
One such freed slave was George Alsdorf and he and his wife Caroline headed to Newburgh eventually purchasing a home there (within 20 years of his manumission) at 260-262 Washington Street.
This enterprising couple owned businesses that “included a men’s clothing store on Water Street, a catering business, a bakery, a tailoring shop, a ladies hair salon” per the Newburgh Historical Society.
George Alsdorf’s had a gift for music that was passed on to his eldest son, Dubois.
Dubois, by design or happenstance, was sent to an apprenticeship in New York City with one of the most significant African American musicians of the 19th’ century, William Appo.
Appo, was Francis Johnson’s bandmate (more on him later) and an original member of Johnson’s highly regarded Philadelphia band which featured a consortium of multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist black musicians, including Johnson, William and Joseph Appo (Johnson would marry the Appo’s sister), Isaac Hazzard, and Aaron JR Connor, Edward D. Roland, William Brady, Edward Johnson, Robert Kennedy and Joseph Gordon.
These men were multi-instrumentalists fluent in a variety of musical styles, and innovators in their own right. Many were composers.
A music and dance school in Newburgh
Dubois Alsdorf, upon returning from his apprenticeship, worked for ten years playing the violin for city dance masters and touring and performing at concerts and balls with a band of his own likely modeled William Appo and Frank Johnson’s band: featuring polkas, gallops, waltzes, cotillions, popular songs, country dances, reels, sacred music, jigs, marches and quadrilles.
Professor Dubois traveled to Saratoga, Lake George, Long Branch, and West Point before opening his own dance school.
He prepared for the by taking dance lessons from the dance masters for whom he was playing violin in Newburgh.
He opened his first studio in the ballroom of the old United States Hotel.
The school instructed students in dance, and eventually music, tracking the rise in popularity of the social dances of the 19th century, such as the quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas popular with the newly wealthy upper classes.
In Newburgh, just as was the case elsewhere in the northeast, and throughout the country, really, as the rise of industrialization created new wealth, the emerging, moneyed class sought the same leisure activities enjoyed by the new money aristocracy in Saratoga and New York, as well as the aristocracy of Europe.
Professor Alsdorf being an astute businessman as well as a wildly talented one, met that demand.
By teaching popular dances, and networking with trendsetters, such as Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor and friend to Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dubois Alsdorf’s school unquestionably spread the popularity of what would become ballroom dancing, thereby influencing a developing dance and musical form simply by popularizing it amongst the well to do, who in turn spread the word in the form of steps, and created demand for a new and changing ballroom music.
Music and dance continued to make a decided shift by the end of the 19th century from purely European styles to a uniquely American style which successfully blended African American and European styles of dance and music.
By the early teens of the 20th century, jazz music and dances influenced by Ragtime music, such as the Foxtrot, were popular at the Academy, which by then was being managed and run by Dubois’ sons: Charles, Ulysses, and Simon.
The school continued into nearly the middle of the 2oth century, but first a look at its beginnings.
The early 19th Century: First Influences on Professor Dubois Alsdorf and the Alsdorf School
Dubois Alsdorf attended a Newburgh district school with the children of many of Newburgh’s prominent white families, such as James Graham, future judge.
As an adult Professor Dubois Alsdorf would start one of Newburgh’s first brass bands with white librarian, Charles Estabrook–likely a schoolmate of Alsdorf’s– and father of noted Newburgh architect, Frank Estabrook.
But as a young black man aspiring to make his way in wealthy Newburgh, Dubois no doubt found many avenues to upward mobility closed to him.
In fact, this was a problem with manumission. True, the slaves were freed, but as slaves, black men and women often had highly skilled trade talents and worked side by side and competed with white workers.
As freedmen and women, owing to bigotry, doors were often closed to them.
Instead of one of the traditional career paths forward many of his white classmates would take, such as lawyer or architect, Dubois apprenticed, indirectly, with groundbreaking black musician Francis B. (Frank) Johnson.
Frank Johnson, virtuoso musician, bandmaster, composer
Johnson was a historic pioneering musical figure born in Philadelphia at the turn of the 18th century, and Johnson was a man of firsts:
- First black bandmaster to lead a band for an integrated audience
- First American bandmaster with his own band to travel to Europe to perform
- The first black person to have his many (over 200) compositions published as sheet music
Image of Francis B. (Frank) Johnson, groundbreaking composer, bandleader, and impresario from the 19th century whose work influenced later forms of music such as ragtime.
Johnson, born a free man, was a wildly accomplished black musician whose marching band played for regiments and Fourth of July celebrations in the Philadelphia area including the Washington Guard’s Company Three (later the Washington grays).
Johnson was also bandmaster of a cotillion band performing for white patrons at many a ball.
Johnson was a trained fiddler and a virtuoso on the keyed bugle “He may have learned how to play the keyed bugle, an instrument…from an Irish immigrant named Richard Willis who went on to become the leader of the band at the West Point Military Academy,” it is recorded in an account on Johnson given by Professor Eileen Southern.
Southern, a musicologist, and the first black woman to be appointed a tenured full professor at Harvard University , she discovered and became an expert on Johnson. It did escape her understanding that an authoritative chronicle of African American musical and cultural influences was lacking, and she would set that record straight with the publication of her authoritative Black Perspective in Music, which she published for decades.
On Johnson from Vol. 5, No.1 (Spring 1977) “Aside from the fact that this was Philadelphia’s first promenade concert, the event was notable in other respects. In the first place, it was a kind of debut for the muscial organization that was presenting the concert. Although this band was celebrated for its dance music up and down the Eastern Seaboard and was the favorite band of the Philadelphia aristocracy, it had never before given a concert in Philadelphia. Second, the band director had recently returned from Europe, where he had his firsthand contact with the public. Third, the bandmaster brought back not only knowledge about these concerts but also the repertory items and the new instruments associated with the concerts. And, finally, and most remarkable of all for 1838, the band was composed of black Americans, led by the most celebrated dance musician of the period, Francis Johnson (1792-1844)-known also as Frank.
The society circuit
Johnson and his highly proficient band all of whom excelled at both string and brass instruments toured the East Coast, performing at resorts from Saratoga to Cape May.
He began publishing music, performing at society dances in Boston and New York and establishing a national name for himself.
The first American band to tour Europe and perform for the Queen
Eventually (as Professor Southern noted) Johnson and his group of musicians decided to travel abroad to England and while there they performed for the aristocracy (as they did stateside) and it was reported they performed for Queen Victoria.
As a result of his successful trip to England, Johnson while there witnessed Musard’s-style of Promenade concerts, and this enabled him to introduce the Promenade concert style of music popular in Europe, and this style influenced a change in his musical direction and future productions.
Promenade concerts consisted of overtures, waltzes, instrumental solos and quadrilles, and Johnson brought this style of music back to the United States with him.
Francis Johnson’s La Sonnambula Quadrille No. 2
Johnson also became adept at improvising while he played, adding vocal as well as novel flute lines to his performances.
His signature style blended traditional, classical music with improvisational styling and can be seen as a forerunner to the improvisational style which is a hallmark of jazz.
One of Johnson’s musicians who accompanied him to England was the aforementioned William “Mons” Appo and it was Appo to whom Dubois Alsdorf was directly apprenticed. Appo, though part of Johnson’s Philadelphia contingent, eventually moved to New York, settling there and teaching.
Dubois Alsdorf by apprenticing with Appo learned not only to play what was popular and how to play, he benefitted from instruction from a musical genius who himself learned from a musical genius and incredible, paradigm shifting innovator. He studied and he played with the best.
At the height of his career, Johnson was attracting literally thousands to his Philadelphia Museum concerts.
The latter part of the 19th Century: Alsdorf and sons build their school
After completing his apprenticeship with Appo, Professor Alsdorf returned to Newburgh and after ten years of touring with his own band to places like Saratoga, as well as playing locally for dance classes, learned dance instruction and opened the Alsdorf Dance Academy at its first location which would be the United States Hotel.
The Alsdorf Dance Academy would began to train generations of Newburghers and the well to do of Orange County, including Nathanial Parker Willis, whose magazine Town and Country is still in publication.
Over the years, the school was located at various addresses in Newburgh, teaching the youth as well as the adult populations of Newburgh, and running formal dance parties for prominent families as well as a yearly NFA graduation party.
The Professor had three sons who followed him into the business:
- Ulysses J. Alsdorf was a pianist and a nationally-known, published songwriter.
- Simon Alsdorf was a talented clarinetist and involved, civic-minded Newburgher
- Charles Alsdorf, the eldest, was the school’s dance instructor and a businessman teaching dance lessons at the Academy and running dance and musical galas. In addition, he served on the board of the “Inner Circle,” a professional organization of The New York Society Teachers of Dancing located in Manhattan. The society counted as members of its “Advisory Council” Ana Pavlova and Waslav Nijinsky not to mention Irene Castle and George M. Cohan
(photo courtesy Kevin Barrett: Images of Newburgh)
The second annual promenade of the senior classes of the Alsdorf School of Dancing held in Alsdorf’s Hall last night was a notable success. There was a large number of pupils and guests present. Music was by Alsdorf’s jazz band. From the January 1918 edition of the Terpsichorean Newsy, the newsletter of The American Association Masters of Dancing
In a pre-electronic media age, musical and dance styles and conventions were not spread by radio or television.
While Thomas Edison’s phonograph disseminated musical styles and impacted culture, in the late 1800’s and very early 1900’s it was dance halls and stage performances and minstrel shows that spread both music and dance trends.
The Alsdorf School in the early 20th Century
Just as Frank Johnson had introduced the Promenade style popular in Victorian England to Philadelphians, Bostonians and New Yorkers, Professor Dubois his band and his sons, as well as their peers throughout the country influenced and introduced styles in the dance classes and music halls where they taught.
It was a kind of tin pan alley classroom experience.
It isn’t even a stretch to imagine that professional ballroom dancers such as Irene and Verne Castle (also dance school owners) were influenced by dance academies such as Professor Alsdorf’s Academy (by the time they became prominent, the academy was in its seventh decade) as the Castles developed the dances they became known for, such as the Castle Walk.
These dances borrowed from ragtime dance influences that were modified to suit white audiences. What played well and was received well in local dance schools and dance hall naturally filtered back to the leading dancers of the day, and in the Castles case propelled them to stardom.
Their widespread popularity encouraged them to produce and promote even more variations of the types of dances that audiences demanded.
Eldest son Charles Alsdorf served on the board of the Dance Society to which Irene Castle was an advisor, and corresponded with the Society’s New York office, inviting notable ballroom dancers from the Society to Newburgh to perform for the public.
Many of his New York colleagues such as the Castles and Oscar Duryea (as well as the dancers Mr. and Mrs. G. Hepburn Wilson, whom Charles brought to Newburgh for a dancing exhibition) worked on Broadway, with Ziegfield, and with Hollywood studios.
Irene Castle dances (in a 1939 clip) the Castle Waltz the sort of dance style taught to hundreds in Newburgh during the heyday of the Alsdorf Academy
The highly accomplished Alsdorf sons educated hundreds of students in music and dance including a man who would ultimately go on to become the longtime Music Director at Newburgh Free Academy, Albert A. Nebling.
Nebling, a Columbia University graduate, credited Ulysses Alsdorf with shaping Nebling’s musical education during his formative years as Ulysses student.
Thus, the Academy’s reach bridged centuries and styles and was felt not only in the dance halls, and centers of culture, like New York City, but also in the classroom, influencing many generations following Ulysses Aldorf’s tenure as Professor through Nebling.
The Alsdorf family’s influence and impact on Newburgh ran deep in many other ways.
Alsdorf’s son, Simon, was the chair and principal organizer of the 1895 concert that successfully helped fundraise needed monies for St. Luke’s Hospital.
Simon was an impresario who brought a variety of shows to Newburgh, including minstrel shows. He also worked with internationally known classical musical performers, such as pianist Jesse M. Shay.
While it is difficult to research and write about such a stunning family knowing that their lives must have been horribly constrained in a culture permeated by institutional racism, which prevented them from both receiving the credit owed for major contributions to American culture and participating fully in that culture, it is important to get the historical lineage (especially regarding culture) correct.
When walking the Historic District in Newburgh, buildings like the Alsdorf on 93 Liberty Street, stand as silent reminders of the human lives, such as the Alsdorfs, that shaped Newburgh, and also the much larger American cultural legacy.