Strathy’s Elements

Alexander Strathy’s Elements of the Art of Dancing was published in Edinburgh in 1822. In his introduction, Strathy observes ‘Dancing may be said to be to the body, what reading is to the mind … It embellishes and perfects the work of nature, and enables us to present ourselves in society with an amiable and becoming ease’. He ends by explaining ‘Although the elementary steps described in this essay apply to dancing in general, I have more especially in view that style of dancing denominated La Danse de la Ville, or the Quadrille’. Despite his emphasis on social dancing, Strathy’s treatise makes considerable demands on amateur dancers.

A first clue to these demands appears in the second plate, showing a young lady ready to dance. The positions of the feet at the bottom of the page are recognisably derived from ballet, and require a full ninety-degree turnout.

Strathy Plate Lady

Strathy. Elements of the Art of Dancing (1822), plate II.

Strathy does indeed describe these positions (which had been established in the mid-17th century) and emphasises the importance of proper turnout of the legs. He goes on to describe several training exercises, from bends and rises to various grand battements and petit battements while holding on to a support for balance. Many of these still form part of the barre work in a ballet class today.

Strathy’s steps include assemblés, jetés, glissades, sissonnes, temps levés, chassés and changements. Some of these relate closely to their modern ballet equivalents while others differ in certain respects. One important difference is the omission of the jump from assemblés and jetés. These are performed with a sink and rise, which provides a similar effect but makes them more elegant and provides a contrast with the other jumped steps. Some steps seem to have been taken from the stage, for example the pas de Zéphyre (which I will explore further in a later post).

Strathy’s little treatise is a good place to start for dancers willing, and with the skill, to add more demanding steps to their quadrilles. It is also a great introduction to early 19th-century dance for those with some background in ballet.

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