The Minuet: Sources

The topic of Georgian balls brings me to that most terrifying of dances with which they all began – the minuet. This was the one duet that everyone had to learn, if not to master, if they hoped to gain a place within polite society.

The minuet disappeared from the ballroom, and from dancing lessons, some 200 years ago. There is no recognisable descendant among our modern ballroom dances. We must, therefore, turn to written sources if we wish to reconstruct the dance. None of the surviving dance manuals and notations is entirely clear and, between them, they pose many problems of interpretation.

The earliest surviving notated minuet is a dance for four (two men and two women) from the mascarade Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos, created by Jean Favier the elder for performance at Versailles in 1688. Favier recorded the whole entertainment in his own system of dance notation. The steps of the ballroom minuet were published in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation in 1701. Feuillet inexplicably omitted them from the first edition of Choregraphie in 1700 and had to add a ‘Supplément de pas’ to the second edition.

The earliest dance manual to describe and explain the ballroom minuet in detail is Gottfried Taubert’s Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister, published in Leipzig in 1717. Better known, at least to baroque dance aficionados, is Pierre Rameau’s Le Maître a danser (Paris, 1725) with its translation by John Essex The Dancing-Master (London, 1728). Kellom Tomlinson, whose The Art of Dancing appeared in London in 1735, followed them by devoting several chapters to the steps and figures of the ballroom minuet. Like Taubert, he provided a notated version of the duet. It is reasonable to assume that all three treatises reflect the teaching practice of the dancing masters themselves.

During the 18th century dance treatises were published throughout Europe. Many drew on Rameau’s work and included the minuet as part of a course of instruction in ‘French Dancing’. Alongside these were the minuets published in notation. Many are duets for a man and a woman. There are also minuets for four (two men and two women), as well as dances for five or more and a number of solos. In addition, there are several dances that include the minuet as one of the sections in a small-scale ‘suite’ of differing dance types.

I will look more closely at these and other sources for the minuet in future posts, as I explore the various facets of this familiar but little-known and much-misunderstood dance.

The Illustration is from George Bickham the younger’s An Easy Introduction to Dancing: or the Movements in the Minuet Fully Explained published in London in 1738. This little work draws heavily on The Dancing-Master, for which Bickham had provided new illustrations when it was reissued in the early 1730s.

Bickham Minuet

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