Politeness was an 18th-century invention by the English, so for this post I won’t need to bother about the earlier periods. 15th-century Italian ideas like ‘sprezzatura’ and ‘cortesia’ can be safely ignored. We owe the idea of politeness to two aristocrats, Lord Shaftesbury (for the theory) and Lord Chesterfield (for the practice). Politeness should not be confused with good manners. The UK early dance world has this distinction by heart – bad manners are the rule where politeness is concerned.
So, what is politeness as currently practised in the best of the UK early dance circles? It rests on the repeated use of the word ‘never’.
- Never show any enjoyment of dancing;
- Never walk with energy or grace;
- Never do steps properly;
- Never pay any attention to those you happen to be dancing with;
Ignorance of these rules puts a dancer at risk of vulgarity. Rameau warned repeatedly against affectation (implying that it lacked politeness and was therefore vulgar). Although he was handicapped by a) being French and b) writing well before the publication of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters (which showed how true politeness should be practised), we should do what Rameau says. He was surely counselling the sort of dour restraint seen at too many early dance balls in the UK.
There are other precepts for politeness that must be followed.
- Never put yourself forward for anything to do with dancing;
- Never agree to do any dancing without being asked repeatedly (and then decline);
- Never fail to point out when others can’t dance properly;
There is, of course, one ‘always’.
- Always point out when other dancers fail the test of true authenticity.
I will explore the role of authenticity in early dance next.