It’s a dangerous thing to say something was the first. After all, there’s never a definitive way to determine if that’s precisely true. So, instead, let’s begin with the idea that a kooky and mysterious American in the latter half of the 1800s may have opened the first reported dance school in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Charles Henry Danielle
Charles Henry Danielle was a mystery, a question mark of a man who still leaves scholars and reporters scratching their heads. Little is known about his early life. Some encyclopedias and biographies claim he first performed on stage at age fourteen and opened a dancing school in Chicago at nineteen. His dancing students, so the legends go, named him “The Professor.”
The problem with these claims so boldly made in print? They aren’t cited or verified. There’s little evidence of this past—so what do we know about this mysterious man?
He arrived in St. John’s in the 1860s and quickly established himself as a dancing instructor and costume maker. Why did he come here? Nobody knows, but a few have speculated that the publicity surrounding the attempt to lay a transatlantic
cable near the Island in the 1850s may have made him curious and ambitious to see if his entrepreneurial aspirations would take root here.
The First Reported Dance School
What did he teach? It’s unclear, but probably some ballet, ballroom, and fad dances from New York.
At some point in the late 1870s, he leased the Victoria Skating Rink, a long-gone structure near Government House and the Legislature on Military Road. He taught dance classes, held ice carnivals, and hosted elaborate fancy dress balls here. His costume-making skills were legendary, and he rented out his creations to the upper class.
The professor was a unique creative spirit, a dancer, and an extraordinary craftsman; he was also excellent at making enemies. He wrote heated letters to the editor, penned aggressive opinion pieces, picked fights with his neighbours, and was quick to call Newfoundlanders boorish and uncouth. On the morning of July 16th 1878, someone with a grudge reportedly burnt down his rink–the site of this so-called first-ever dance school in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Then he disappears. Leaves the island entirely. For an entire decade, there’s no mention of the professor.
He arrived back at St. John’s on May 31st, 1888. Later that year, he held a “grand juvenile fancy dress ball” for the parents and friends of his dancing pupils. Here, his students put on short dance pieces that recreated historical moments and mythological scenes.
Next, he opened a restaurant that was celebrated and mocked for its lavish interior; Danielle lost this venture to the great fire of 1892. He tried another restaurant before launching a roadhouse and inn in the Quidi Vidi area, but he disassembled it brick by brick, plank by plank–claiming that a neighbor was harassing him. Finally, Danielle opened an inn that became his claim to fame–Octagon Castle.
The building was ornate and sumptuous, think flowing fabrics, rich colors, and bookshelves galore. Every visitor and overnight guest would be granted a grand tour. The final stop on this tour? A visit to a room that housed Charles Henry Danielle’s coffin, a glass and satin affair that Danielle would pose in for visitors. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of rumors that Danielle spent each night asleep in his coffin.
Danielle’s Coffin and Death
Charles Henry Danielle died in 1902. He’s said to have predicted the time of his death, and he left his fortune (which was much smaller than anticipated) to his sole heir. His funeral was an immense affair, a public procession at a railway station, where people climbed atop each other to get a last look at “the professor.”
All in all, it’s a glamorous, albeit macabre, start to dance schools and ballet classes in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Repository: Archives & Special Collections, Memorial University Libraries
Collection name and number: COLL-164 Charles Henry Danielle
File number: 2.03, 2.04, 2.08
Title/caption: Large gathering outside "Octagon Castle"
Date Retrieved: March 29th, 2023