DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

DÉGRÈS, IRÈNE-MATHILDE, named Saint-Paul – Volume XV (1921-1930)

d. 27 Sept. 1921 in Limoilou ward, Quebec City


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

DAVIS, JOHN FREEMAN, dance and music teacher; b. 31 March 1835 in Oakville, Upper Canada, one of the six children of Charles Davis and Eliza Freeman; m. first 3 March 1860 Ruth A. Cunnyworth in Toronto, and they had four sons and one daughter; m. secondly 4 Oct. 1876 Sarah Keys in Toronto, and they had one son and one daughter; d. there 3 May 1916.

Charles Davis was one of the first shoemakers in the Oakville area, and by 1850 was prosperous enough to purchase the Halton House inn. John Freeman Davis, his eldest son, attended the Gore District Grammar School in Hamilton, and also studied the violin, piano, and organ. He is reported to have owned a Stradivarius violin. In 1855 he moved to Toronto to pursue a career in music. He taught music, but at first to earn his living he took on jobs as various as oyster-dealer, fruit-dealer, and tobacconist. From 1873 to 1875 he ran the Musical Hall, which published and sold sheet music. He also composed his first dances for publication in 1873, and by 1896 he had over 20 polkas, lancers, rockaways, waltzes, two-steps, and other dances to his credit. Among the most successful works were “Great Pacific lancers” and “Eureka quadrille,” both from 1873, and “The new premier gallop . . . ,” published in 1874 to honour Alexander Mackenzie*. One of the best known was “The call to arms polka” (1885), dedicated to the “Volunteers who so promptly responded when called upon to suppress the rebellion in the North West.”

Davis began giving dance lessons around 1860 to a few pupils who had admired his skills at parties. He claimed he was self-trained, but he probably studied in Toronto with James Douglas Andrews and Augustin Noverre. Advertisements for his lessons started appearing regularly in 1872 when he began teaching children and adults in the Toronto Grammar School building, and in 1880 his “academy” acquired a permanent address. His reputation had soared with the publication in 1878 of The modern dance tutor; or, society dancing (Toronto), which he dedicated to his “six thousand and odd pupils” of “the past eighteen years.” Like most American and British dancing manuals of the period, it provides information on correct deportment and the basic dance steps before turning to detailed instructions on popular dances. In addition to social dancing, Davis taught music and calisthenics, and he also arranged fancy dances for special occasions, such as the Toronto “kirmess” of 1891. Although his students included the children of Lieutenant Governor Donald Alexander Macdonald* (Sandfield), he believed that people from all social classes should learn to dance, and in 1907 he introduced a special instructional method, the “sivadonian” system, to teach nine dances in only three lessons. He followed it by other quick and simple systems. In 1914 he claimed that he had instructed over 30,000 pupils.

Davis was active in several organizations that began in the 1880s with the purpose of improving the standards in teaching dance. He became vice-president of the American National Dancing Association in 1888 and in 1894 of the National Association of Teachers of Dancing of the United States and Canada. He was the first president of the Western Association Normal School Masters of Dancing, founded in 1894. He choreographed numerous dances for presentation at dance conventions, and in 1900 won the grand prize for dancing at the universal exposition in Paris. Fie continued to teach until some months before his death. Several of his children had followed him in his profession. His youngest daughter, Elsie M., began teaching in his school in 1899, as did in 1909 his youngest son, Albert R., who continued it into the 1930s. Davis’s eldest son, Charles F., had opened his own dance academy in Toronto in 1889.

Mary Jane Warner

AO, RG 22-305, no.31851; RG 80-5-0-62, no.13403; RG 80-27-2, 66: 85. NA, RG 31, C1, 1901, Toronto, Ward 3, div.23: 12 (mfm. at AO). York Univ. (North York, Ont.), Dept. of Dance, Kathryn Noxon, “Professor John Freeman Davis: nineteenth-century Canadian dancing master and composer, a man of his time” (undergraduate paper, 1984). Globe, 4 June 1934. News (Toronto), 4 May 1916. G. M. Adam, Toronto, old and new: a memorial volume . . . (Toronto, 1891; repr. 1972). Complete list of Canadian copyright musical compositions, (entered from 1868 to January 19th, 1889,) compiled from the original register at Ottawa ([Toronto?, 1889?]). Encyclopedia of music in Canada (Kallmann et al.). H. C. Mathews, Oakville and the Sixteen: the history of an Ontario port (Toronto, 1954; repr. 1971).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Mary Jane Warner, “DAVIS, JOHN FREEMAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_john_freeman_14E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/davis_john_freeman_14E.html
Author of Article:   Mary Jane Warner
Title of Article:   DAVIS, JOHN FREEMAN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   September 27, 2023