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The Dancing Master of Berks County

I had never given much thought to dancing or anticipated writing anything about it when I first started doing genealogical research. Honestly, it was one of the last topics on my mind.

However, that all changed as I got to know more about some of my relatives, especially the more colorful ones. This gentleman is certainly one of those. He would become one of the most famous dancing masters and probably the oldest; practicing his profession for over fifty-five year and well into his eighties. Articles about him would be published across the country, from New York to California and everywhere in between. The all recognized the fact that he had instructed over 24,000 pupils in "mystery and art of dancing"during his long career. One article even appeared in the 22 April 1890 edition of the Daily Boomerang, published in Laramie, Wyoming.

He is Franklin R. Stouch, the brother of my 3rd great grandmother, Harriet F. "Henrietta" Stouch. They were the children of Andrew Stouch and Lydia Foesig and the great grandchildren of Conrad Stouch (you may remember him from my prior post when he hosted President George Washington at his tavern).

Franklin ("Frank") was born in 1809 in Stouchsburg, Berks County, Pennsylvania, a town named after his father. When he turned eighteen, he went to Reading, PA where he was indentured in the cabinet making trade, working for his brother-in-law's cousin, John B. Schoener. He would become a first class cabinet maker, excelling at making bureaus and chairs. Desiring to acquire further knowledge in his trade, he would leave Reading at the age of twenty-one and head to Philadelphia where he immediately gained employment in a good shop.

Once in Philadelphia, Frank had ample opportunity to witness the dramatic performances and make the acquaintance of such great stars of the stage as Edwin Forrest and Junius Booth. He also visited the dancing schools. He had always been regarded as one of the leading square dancers in Berks County. However, this little matter he kept to himself and resolved to be a quiet onlooker to see whether the Philadelphians were any more proficient or expert. He was reluctant to perform before metropolitan audiences until he received training in the dancing schools of Philadelphia. When he saw that in many respects that he was equal to the best of them in ability, he decided to quit the hard work of a cabinet maker and become a dancing master. It is said that he possessed all the necessary grace, style, pleasant manners, agreeable presence and, the absolute necessity, a good character for that profession.

It was through his new contacts that that he had the advantage of appearing before the

Fanny Elssler

famous Austrian ballerina, Fanny Elssler, and the Parisian Marteen Dancers. They were pleased with his art and they took pleasure in giving him many tips that were extremely useful and valuable. Fanny had introduced theatricalized folk dance into ballet. She was celebrated for her spirited, spectacular dancing and for her technique, especially her point work. Between 1840 and 1842 Elssler toured the United States, winning extravagant adulation and earning enormous sums. She even performed at the White House for President Martin Van Buren.

The head of the Marten dancers at one time stated that if Stouch had been born in Paris, he would have achieved great fame. Stouch replied that he was glad he was born in Berks County and that he intended to achieve fame there first.

Now known as Professor Stouch, he left Philadelphia and started his first class in Lancaster, PA. It is said that one of his pupils was James Buchanan, the future 15th President, and his fiancee, Anne Caroline Coleman. This note has appeared in several newspaper articles.

James Buchanan, 1834 portrait by Jacob Eichholtz

While this is a great story and it might be probable that he instructed James Buchanan, it is highly doubtful that he knew Miss Coleman since she died suddenly on 9 December 1819. At that time, Frank Stouch would have been 10 years old. He did not start teaching in Lancaster until 1840, at which time Buchanan was a a United States Senator who may have spent time at his home, Wheatland, in Lancaster when not in Washington, D.C. If the two became acquainted, as is stated, then James might have confided to Frank about what had happened to Miss Coleman. Frank would maintain that he knew the story and prefer to say no more than that the lady died of suicide and Mr. Buchanan resolved never to marry. James Buchanan would be the only bachelor president to date.

Professor Stouch rapidly established dancing schools in the Pennsylvania towns of Reading, Allentown, Easton, Pottsville, Norristown, Phoenixville, Pottstown, Lebanon and Carlisle. His pupils were of the best families and no professional gentleman traveled from place to place with better recommendations than did this Berks County dancing master. He averaged about 400 pupils per year. Throughout his career, he would teach as many as three generations in a single family.

It is said that in 1893, when Stouch was 84, he filled an engagement at the Chicago World's Fair and received $1,000 a week for his act and performed the fisherman's horn dance. I reached out to an expert on this World's Fair to confirm that this is true, but he replied that he did not find any evidence with the information he had at hand.

Even in 1976, articles were still mentioning him. In the 6 Sep 1976 edition of The Daily News from Lebanon, PA, it hypothesized that if he were still alive, Professor Frank Stouch "would undoubtedly be listed among the top entertainers on TV."

He died on Saturday, 18 December 1897 at the age of 88.


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