We don’t usually think of Puritans as having much fun in life. The stereotype of them is serious to the point of depressing: grim, sexually repressed, and pious, spending what little free time they had praying and reading the Bible. But, as is usually true with stereotypes, that image doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the Puritans were not ascetics, but embraced joy, recreation and leisure. They wore colorful clothing, not the black-and-white garb that we so often see in modern depictions. They enjoyed good food and drink and celebrated sexual gratification within the confines of marriage. They liked music and played instruments and sang on social occasions. And—sometimes—they danced.
Dancing was a bit of a challenge for the Puritans. The Bible didn’t prohibit it, and Biblical characters, such as David, are described as dancing before the Lord. Since the Puritans looked to the Bible for their behavioral cues, they weren’t about to prohibit dancing. But they were wary of it, because they believed that dancing could lead to “sin and sloth.”
So they put restrictions on it, especially on “lascivious dancing,” which they defined as any dancing in which men and women touched each other. They also forbid any mixing of dancing and alcohol consumption. So dancing wasn’t organized in the early days of the New England colonies. Instead it was done spontaneously at home or outdoors at celebrations. But dancing didn’t go away, and after 1700 the restrictions were relaxed to accommodate mixed dances. Country [contra] dancing became acceptable and popular.
As time passed, wedding receptions became important social occasions, often including dancing. The well-to-do gave dinner parties for visiting merchants. They were careful not to let things get out of hand, but they were flavored with gaiety and relaxation.
After all, the Puritans were people. And people like to party.