Giovanni Battista Gherardi’s Three Books of Cotillons, 1768-1770

Three collections of ‘Cotillons or French Dances’ were compiled by Giovanni Battista Gherardi and published in the late 1760s. Notices in the Public Advertiser for 9 March 1768 and 2 March 1769, together with the date 1770 on Gherardi’s dedication in the third volume, suggest that they appeared over two to three years. Gherardi himself dates the first volume to1767 and the second to 1768, a discrepancy which is worth further research although this is not the place for it. If he did not initially conceive them as a set, Gherardi obviously developed this idea as he went on, for each of the three volumes provides additional information about the cotillon.

Fourteen Cotillons or French Dances, of 1767 or 1768, lists nine changes and nine step sequences. The fourteen cotillons all have French titles, perhaps suggesting a Parisian origin for the choreographies. The book also has music for four allemandes, indicating the parallel growth in popularity of the allemande country dances (like cotillons, performed in a square formation by four couples) as well as the couple allemande.

The Second Book of Cotillons or French Dances, of 1768 or 1769, includes an additional explanation of twelve ‘Figures the most in Vogue’. It lists the same nine sequences of steps as the first volume, referring also to ‘the steps necessary for the Country Dance in Allemande’ although Gherardi does not list or explain these. This book has twelve cotillons, three of which are also titled ‘Allemande’. At the end of his introductory text, Gherardi proposes ‘to the Nobility and Gentry, admirers of these fashionable performances, a Subscription for a Cotillon Academy’. He intends to teach not only cotillons ‘of his own composing’ but also all other fashionable dances, including Allemandes. The beau monde would be protected from interlopers ‘as the Subscription shall be wholly confin’d to Ladies & Gentlemen of Rank, Fashion, & Fortune’.

In his A Third Book of French Country Dances or Cotillons, Gherardi explains ‘several Figures not much used’. There are nine of these. The nine step sequences are the same as before, but the nine changes differ from those in the first book. Does this suggest an evolution of the cotillon, or merely alternatives in use in London’s ballrooms? Gherardi provides twelve more cotillons, all with French names. He also advertises his ‘Academy … for the Winter’ to begin in the following January. He must have had to work hard to maintain his position as one of London’s leading dancing masters.

I will return to Gherardi’s explanations and descriptions later.

Henry Kingsbury. A Cotilion. [Detail, left hand side]. 1788. © Trustees of the British Museum

Henry Kingsbury. A Cotilion. [Detail, left hand side]. 1788. © Trustees of the British Museum

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