Country Dancing Improved

A little while ago, I attended a ball where one of the country dances was The Busie Body. When I was told that it was by John Essex, I thought I ought to explore further.

In 1710, Essex translated Feuillet’s 1706 Recueil de contredances as For the Further Improvement of Dancing. What he translated was Feuillet’s introductory treatise on the simplified notation system used to record country dances. Instead of merely reproducing Feuillet’s collection of 32 country dances, Essex selected 10 from various sources. Three come from Feuillet’s 1706 Recueil: Pantomime; Gasconne; and The Female Saylor (La Matelotte in Feuillet). Two more dances are also French: Micareme and The Diligent, both from Feuillet’s VIme. Recüeil de danses et de contredanses pour l’Année 1708. The other five dances were, as Essex tells us in his Preface, ‘my own composing’. These are the dances titled Trip to the Jubilee, The Great Turk, The Busie Body, The Tatler and The Tost.

If the French were acknowledged as the masters of ballroom and stage dancing, la belle danse, the English claimed primacy in country dancing. Essex was happy to wave the flag in his Preface to For the Further Improvement of Dancing.

John Essex, Preface, For the Further Improvement of Dancing (1710), first page

John Essex, Preface, For the Further Improvement of Dancing (1710), first page

In this post, my interest lies in the titles of Essex’s own country dances and their links with stage and society in London.

Trip to the Jubilee must refer to Farquhar’s play The Constant Couple; or, The Trip to the Jubilee, first performed (so far as we know) at the Drury Lane Theatre on 28 November 1699. Farquhar’s play was one of the most popular of the early 18th century and was performed regularly until the 1790s. The ‘Jubilee’ was the Pope’s Jubilee year to be celebrated in Rome in 1700 – a trip to this event was a running joke throughout The Constant Couple. The dance and its music were first published in 1701 in the 11th edition of The Dancing-Master, described ‘as ‘tis Danced at the Play-House’. So it seems that Essex actually created this country dance for Farquhar’s play. He is certainly recorded as a professional dancer at Drury Lane in the first years of the 18th century.

The Great Turk uses music from the Turkish Entrée in Campra’s 1697 opéra-ballet L’Europe galante. Anthony L’Abbé made use of the same piece for his Türkish Dance in the early 1720s. Essex’s use of the music suggests that it was already familiar in London some years earlier. It is worth noting the danced entr’acte ‘Entertainment after the Turkish Manner’ given at Drury Lane on 2 February 1710. Did this perhaps also use Campra’s music?

The title of The Busie Body is taken from Mrs Centlivre’s play of the same name, first given at Drury Lane on 12 May 1709. This was another successful comedy played regularly in London’s theatres until the end of the century.  The published play has ‘A Dance’ towards the end, in accordance with the convention of a country dance performed by a play’s characters as the plot concludes. Could Essex’s dance have been performed in the original production of The Busie Body, even though he makes no mention of this?

The Tatler, obviously, refers to the famous periodical launched by Sir Richard Steele in 1709 and published three times a week until 1711. It dealt in news, gossip and the manners of the day and was frequently reprinted in collected editions throughout the 1700s.

The title The Tost was corrected to The Toast when Essex reissued For the Further Improvement of Dancing around 1715. (I will talk about this reissue in a later post). Essex may well have had in mind the ‘Toast’ as explained by Steele in the Tatler for 4 June 1709. She is:

‘… the Lady we mention in our Liquors, … call’d a Toast. … The Manner of her Inauguration is much like that of the Choice of a Doge in Venice: it is perform’d by Balloting; and when she is so chosen, she reigns indisputably for that Year; but must be elected anew to prolong her Empire a Moment beyond it.’

Was this dance implicitly dedicated to a well-known ‘Toast’ of the Kit-Cat Club (of which Steele was a member and to which he was referring)? Or was it meant as a compliment to the Duchess of Bolton, to whom Essex dedicated his collection? She was Henrietta née Crofts (c1682-1730), the illegitimate daughter of James, Duke of Monmouth. She married the second Duke of Bolton in 1697.

With his dances in For the Further Improvement of Dancing Essex is surely trying to appeal to a fashionable, London-based élite – the beau monde – members of which he hoped to attract as pupils.

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