Describing a Saraband

Quite some time ago, I wrote a piece on the saraband which included the following description from Pomey’s Le Dictionnaire royal augmentée (1671) in a translation by Patricia Ranum.

‘At first he danced with a totally charming grace, with a serious and circumspect air, with an equal and slow rhythm, and with such a noble, beautiful, free and easy carriage that he had all the majesty of a king, and inspired as much respect as he gave pleasure.

Then, standing taller and more assertively, and raising his arms to half-height and keeping them partly extended, he performed the most beautiful steps ever invented for the dance.

Sometimes he would glide imperceptibly, with no apparent movement of his feet and legs, and seemed to slide rather than step. Sometimes, with the most beautiful timing in the world, he would remain suspended, immobile, and half leaning to the side with one foot in the air; and then, compensating for the rhythmic unit that had just gone by, with another more precipitous unit he would almost fly, so rapid was his motion.

Sometimes he would advance with little skips, sometimes he would drop back with long steps that, although carefully planned, seemed to be done spontaneously, so well had he cloaked his art in skilful nonchalance.

Sometimes, for the pleasure of everyone present, he would turn to the right, and sometimes he would turn to the left; and when he reached the very middle of the empty floor, he would pirouette so quickly that the eye could not follow.

Now and then he would let a whole rhythmic unit go by, moving no more than a statue and then, setting off like an arrow, he would be at the other end of the room before anyone had time to realise that he had departed.

But all this was nothing compared to what was observed when this gallant began to express the emotions of his soul through the motions of his body, and reveal them in his face, his eyes, his steps and all his actions.’

This passage is well-known among dance historians and has been cited by many of us.

Recently, I was looking at an essay in the volume The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World, edited by Fiona Macintosh and published in 2010, and I came across the following quotation (p. 30):

‘What would someone admire more? The continuity of their many pirouettes or, after this, their suddenly crystallised posture, or the figure held fixed in this position? For they whirl round, as if borne on wings, but conclude their movement in a static pose, as if glued to the spot; and with the stillness of the pose, the image presents itself.’

This passage comes from one of the Orations of the Greek rhetorician Libanius, describing a dancer in the classical period. I was immediately struck by the link between Libanius’s description and that of Pomey more than a thousand years later and, of course, many writers of Pomey’s era (and later) were steeped in classical literature.

I haven’t followed this up, and I don’t really intend to, but I do have a couple of questions. Is there a direct link between the two passages? If there is, what might that tell us about dancing, and particularly the saraband, in the late 17th century?

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