Learning to dance: Pierre Rameau

Pierre Rameau’s Le Maître a danser, published in Paris in 1725, is today the best-known and most widely consulted of the 18th-century dance manuals. The same may well have been true in its own time.  Rameau’s treatise was translated into English by John Essex as The Dancing-Master and published in London in 1728. Both versions went through a number of editions. There was a second edition of Le Maître a danser in 1734 and a third in 1748. The Dancing-Master appeared in a second edition in 1731, which was reissued around 1733 with new engraved illustrations, and there was another ‘second edition’ in 1744. Rameau’s influence elsewhere can be traced in a number of treatises. Among these are the translation into Portuguese by Joseph Thomas Cabreira, Arte de dançar à franceza (Lisbon, 1760), and Pablo Minguet e Yrol’s Arte de danzar à la francesa (Madrid, 1758) for which it was the principal source.

Rameau was well aware of the pre-eminence of French dancing (the quotation is from Essex’s translation, which I will use in these and other posts).

‘We may say to the Glory of our Nation that it has a true Taste of fine Dancing. Almost all Foreigners far from disallowing it, have very near an age admired our Dancing, and formed themselves in our Academies and Schools: Nay there’s not a Court in Europe but what has a Dancing-Master of our Nation.’

Rameau wrote ‘près d’un siécle’, translated by Essex as ‘near an age’, dating French dominance of the world of dance to the early 17th century and the reign of Louis XIII, father of the Sun King.

Like Taubert, who was following French practice, Rameau deals with standing, walking and bowing before turning to dancing itself. In his first chapter ‘Of the Manner of disposing the Body’, Rameau declares:

‘I have laid down a Plan, or Method of Teaching, for the Master to lead his Scholar from one Step to another, and at the same Time instruct him in the different Motions of the Arms, to make them agreeable to the different Steps in Dancing: …’

He goes on ‘And as it is essential to dispose the Body in a graceful Posture, that shall be explained in this first Chapter’, referring the reader to an illustration showing a man ready to begin walking. In his preface, Rameau had said ‘I have caused many Copper Plates to be engraved, which represents the Dancer in the several Positions: For Precepts communicated by the Eye have always a better Effect’. Undoubtedly, demonstration was a key element in Rameau’s teaching methods. It is interesting that Taubert did not try to illustrate his Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. The illustration of 18th-century dance manuals, and indeed of dancing itself during that period, is a topic worth pursuing in its own right.

Rameau begins his second chapter, on walking, by referring back to his illustration of ‘The Disposition of the Body’ making clear that  ‘the Manner of Walking well is very useful, because on it depends the first Principle of Dancing a good Air’. In his third chapter, Rameau turns to ‘the Positions’. Taubert had paid little, if any, attention to the five positions of the feet, whereas Rameau devotes six chapters to them, explaining:

‘What is called a Position, is no more than a just Proportion, found out to divide, or bring the Feet nearer together, in a limited Distance, whether the Body be in an easy Balance, or perpendicularly upright; or whether it be in Walking, Dancing, or Standing.’

These positions have survived into the 21st century, although they are now mainly associated with classical ballet.

After the positions, Rameau turns to ‘Honours in General’. He begins with those for Gentlemen, for whom the management of the hat was an important skill – ‘It is very necessary for every one, in what Station of Life so ever he be, to know how to take off his Hat as he ought, and to make a handsome Bow’. There are four chapters on the various bows to be made by gentlemen, after which Rameau turns to the ladies and instructions for how they should walk and make their curtsies. Like Taubert, Rameau directs his treatise first and foremost to gentlemen.

Only after fourteen chapters – dealing with standing, walking, the positions of the feet and bowing – does Rameau feel his pupils are ready to begin dancing. Of course, he turns immediately to the minuet. Whether this was actually the approach he followed in his lessons is impossible to tell. Were pupils routinely taught alone, in couples (to learn the danses à deux) or groups? We have little real evidence, although one illustration to Le Maître a danser (copied by The Dancing-Master) shows a couple under the tuition of their dancing master, who is playing his pochette.

Pierre Rameau, translated by John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728). Plate facing opening page of chapter 1.

Pierre Rameau, translated by John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728). Plate facing opening page of chapter 1.

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