The Fundamental Step of the Cotillon

In his Le Repertoire des Bals of 1762 de La Cuisse set down the steps to be used in cotillons, although he did not explain how to perform them. One of these steps is:

‘Le Pas de Gavote ou Demi-Contretems … un Pas naturel; C’es le Pas fondamental de la Contredanse; C’est enfin avec ce Pas que se font les Ronds, les Moulinets, les Courses, et prèsque toutes les figures des Contredanses. Chacun de ces Pas vaut une demie-mesure de Musique.’

So, the demi-contretems was much used in France when dancing cotillons. As the name, as well as de La Cuisse’s explanation, implies, there were two demi-contretems to each bar of music.

Gallini made no mention of the demi-contretems among the steps in his A New Collection of Forty-four Cotillons. Perhaps this was a deliberate omission, for he writes ‘it is intended here to explain only those [steps] which are used in the following cotillons’. Gherardi included ‘Demi contre-tems d’un Pied et de l’autre’ within his list of ‘The Names of the French Country Dance Steps’ in his Fourteen Cotillons or French Dances published around 1767, repeated in his subsequent collections. Contrary to what I said in my post Dancing the Cotillon: Gherardi’s Steps, the dancing master did list some individual steps among the sequences. However, he did not explain how this, or any other, step should be performed. Hurst says nothing about steps and Siret also remains silent. Villeneuve’s list of steps does not include the demi-contretems.

The demi-contretems is a step for travelling forwards in a variety of figures, as recommended by de La Cuisse. This is how it is recorded in the 1705 dance for four Le Cotillon. This is also how it has been used in those modern reconstructions of cotillons which I have danced. I don’t know why it was ignored by some of the dancing masters publishing in London – unless the cotillons in their collections hold the answer.

In the dance manuals of the early 18th century, the first mention by name of the demi-contretems seems to be in Pierre Rameau’s Abbrégé de la nouvelle méthode published around 1725. He includes notated versions of the step, with its name, in his table ‘Suitte des contretems’ (p.65) but he does not describe it. In Rameau’s Le Maître a danser it is not mentioned by name, but its manner of performance may be taken from the description of the contretems de gavotte (translation by John Essex, The Dancing-Master, p. 97):

‘To make one with the right Foot, the Body must be on the Left in the fourth Position, the Heel of the right behind up; then sink upon the Left, and rise upon it with a Spring; but at the same Time the right Leg, which was ready to go, moves forwards in the fourth Position and on the Toes, both Legs well extended; …’

Instead of making the second step, to perform a contretems de gavotte, the dancer should transfer his or her weight onto the right foot to repeat the demi-contretems on the left.

The instruction ‘rise upon it with a Spring’ (Rameau writes ‘se relever en sautant dessus’) has resulted in two different modes of execution by dancers today. One is simply a hop followed by a step (usually onto a flat foot). The other begins with a small spring onto the ball of the foot, much like a rélevé in classical ballet, followed by step onto the ball of the foot and a quick sink into plié. The latter is more difficult and travels less, but gives a pleasing vivacity and crispness to both the step and the figures in which it is used. The demi-contretems can also be performed with a pas rond, in which the working leg traces a small half circle in the air as it passes from back to front. This little embellishment suits the rococo elegance of the cotillon very well.

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