The Perils of Terminology

I usually write about ‘French Dancing’, the style and technique developed at the court of Louis XIV during the mid-17th century which was adopted at courts and on stages throughout Europe. The term ‘French Dancing’ was quite often used in London during the 18th century, both on stage and in society. Nowadays, the preferred term is ‘la belle danse’ (which dates to the mid-1600s), which has the merit of focussing on the dancing without explicit reference to its original national or social context.

I occasionally write about ‘Country Dancing’ over a period from the 1650s to the 1820s. This term seems straightforward to me. Country dances are social dances, performed in the ballroom by a number of couples together, usually ranged in a line to form what is called a longways set. There are other formations, and the number of couples may vary, but such choreographies are still recognisable as country dances. The form endures from John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651 through to Thomas Wilson’s treatises of the early 19th century, and beyond. Country dances were also included in stage plays or, apparently, as entr’acte dances in London’s theatres. The term ‘contredanse’ refers to French country dances, most of which are in square formation. In both cases, ‘country dance’ or ‘contredanse’ refers to the dancing and the dances first and foremost.

My problems start when I turn to dancing that falls into neither of these categories. Among the most popular entr’acte dances on the London stage were Scotch and Irish Jigs, most of which were assuredly not French-style gigues. There were ‘Peasant’ dances, very few of which are likely to have resembled the belle danse notated ‘paysan’ choreographies. ‘Clown’ dances featured an unsophisticated rustic, who was unlikely to emulate even the easy-going refinement of English country dancing. Such dances are usually defined as ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’. Both terms are loaded with ideas about ‘national identity’, ‘social status’ and ‘community’ which derive from the preoccupations of researchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am reluctant to use them because they implicitly impose theories about dance history for which there is little or no evidence. They are more concerned with the social and even the political context than with the dancing they purport to define.

What the Jigs, Peasant, Clown and other such dances have in common is that they are part of a purely oral transmission process. Unlike belle danse choreographies and even country dances, they were never written down and their step vocabulary was not recorded or codified to be taught by dancing masters. They were simply learned by one dancer from another. It is possible to glimpse this process through the calendar of performances on the London stage between 1660 and 1800. There are a number of dances, usually solos, which are danced season after season by the same performer. When the performer changes the new dancer will frequently have close links with the old one. Such dances are also quite often associated with a particular country or region. Perhaps I should use the terms ‘speciality’ or ‘regional’ for such dances? Either would serve to differentiate them from the international style of la belle danse.

I guess that I’ll have to develop my terminological thinking along with my research.


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