Category Archives: The Minuet

Le Menuet de la Cour

More than three years ago, I posted a piece on Le Menuet d’Espagne, a duet published in 1715 that I had recently performed. I meant to follow it with a series of posts on various aspects of the minuet, but I went on to other topics instead. A few months ago, I performed Le Menuet de la Cour, a choreography published in notation around 1780. This minuet is, arguably, one of the most famous ballroom dances ever created. It inspired many later versions (from duets to quadrilles and beyond) and, in essence, survived for over 150 years.

Le Menuet de la Cour began life as a piece of music in Grétry’s opera Céphale et Procris, first given at Versailles in 1773. The tune was then used by the choreographer Maximilien Gardel for a minuet danced in act 2 of his ballet-pantomime Ninette à la Cour, first performed before the French court in 1777. In that production, and when the ballet arrived on the London stage in 1781, it was danced by two of the Paris Opéra’s stars Gaëtan Vestris and Anne Heinel. Was the dance published in notation by Malpied the same as the stage duet? We don’t know.

This minuet is short, with 78 bars in all, including the opening 8-bar révérence. It has an ABAABA structure. The notated Menuet de la Cour is not an orthodox ballroom minuet, despite containing figures that are quickly recognisable as the taking of right hands, the taking of left hands and the taking of both hands to draw the dance to a close. The Z-figure is there too, but it is hinted at through choreographic elaborations in each of the two B sections. The A section has 8 bars of music, but the B section is unusual with its 19 bars, if you remember that all minuet steps take two bars of music in 3/4 time. There are minuet steps, but these occur only in the two B-sections. However, much use is made of the minuet ‘grace’ steps (included since at least the early 18th century).

I have danced Le Menuet de la Cour on three separate occasions, with three different partners, and it is only this third time that I have felt I was beginning to understand and properly perform the choreography. The music, at least in the version I danced to, is dynamic. To my mind, it lends itself to heightened style and technique which is grand and almost combative. The playfulness that lies within the choreography is less obvious, and perhaps should not be emphasized.

I won’t try to analyse the dance in detail, but here are two plates from the notation. The first shows the end of the first B-section, at the finish of the Z-figure. The sequence is a series of jettés battus (unusual in the context of a minuet) followed by the pas de Marcel.

Menuet de la Cour 4

Maximilien Gardel, Le Menuet de la Cour, notated Malpied [1780?], plate 4

The other follows the second Z-figure and has a series of jettés and assemblés, followed by chassés and then a full turn on both feet ending with an ouverture de jambe. None are steps to be expected in a minuet.

Menuet de la Cour 8

Maximilien Gardel, Le Menuet de la Cour, notated Malpied [1780?], plate 8

Both sequences are followed by the anomalous single bar, used for a rond-de-jambe by the left leg, transferring the weight to leave the right foot free to begin the next step.

Is the notated Menuet de la Cour a ballroom dance? Well, yes, it is. But it is an exhibition ballroom dance meant to display before a discerning audience the technical skills, refined style and sophistication of the couple performing it. The choreography is demanding, in keeping with its stage origin.

The Pas de Menuet and Its Timing

Between 1688 and 1787 more than twenty different sources provide information about how to dance the minuet. They give a variety of details and I am not going to work through all of them. My interest here is the pas de menuet, the step that defines the dance, and its musical timing. The pas de menuet has four steps to be performed over six musical beats, two bars of music in triple time. As the dance manuals make clear there were a number of different versions of the step and various solutions to the issue of timing.

For some reason, Feuillet did not include minuet steps in his first edition of Choregraphie in 1700. He added them to the second edition of 1701 in a ‘Supplément des Pas’, notating four different versions of the pas de menuet.

Pas de Menuet Feuillet (2)

Feuillet, Choregraphie, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1701), Supplément de Pas (detail)

Feuillet provides no information about the timing of the step. He did address musical timing in his ‘Traité de la Cadance’ at the beginning of his 1704 collection of ‘Entrées de Ballet’ by Guillaume-Louis Pecour. He didn’t include the pas de menuet among his examples.

In his Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister (1717), Gottfried Taubert describes the same four versions of the pas de menuet as Feuillet – the pas de menuet en un seul mouvement, the pas de menuet à la boëmienne, the pas de menuet en fleuret and the pas de menuet à trois mouvements. He discusses timing in some detail, preferring the pas de menuet à la boëmienne because it accords best with his notions of the relationship between the steps and the musical bars.

‘It begins with the bend on the upbeat or last quarter-note of the previous measure; the rise comes on the downbeat of the new measure, and, while the legs remain extended, the right foot steps forward; on the second beat the body holds steady in the raised position; on the third beat the first stiff step is taken with the left foot. On the first beat of the next measure, another stiff step is taken with the right foot, adding a very quick bend of the knees at the end; rise again on the second beat, and in doing so step forward with the left leg. On the upbeat there is another bend right away, with the right so placed as to connect this compound step with the next.’ [Translated by Tilden Russell, The Compleat Dancing Master. 2 vols. (New York, 2012), vol. 2, p. 526]

Taubert does not like the popular pas de menuet en fleuret, because it does not accord with his aesthetic-musical preferences. He grudgingly accepts a timing which gives the first demi-coupé to the first bar and the fleuret to the second.

In Le Maître a danser (1725), Pierre Rameau describes the pas de menuet à trois mouvements and the pas de menuet en fleuret (which he calls the pas de menuet à deux mouvements). He gives the timing for the latter.

‘… which is performed within the Compass of two Barrs of triple Time, one called the Cadence, and the other the Contre-Cadence. But for the better Apprehension, it may be divided into three equal Parts; the First for the first half Coupee, the Second for the Second, and the Third for the two Walks, which ought to take up no longer Time than a half Coupee: But in the last Walk it is to be observed, that the Heel be set down to be able to make a Sink to begin another Step. [Translated by John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728), p. 44]

Kellom Tomlinson wrote his treatise The Art of Dancing in the mid-1720s, although it was not published until 1735. He describes three pas de menuet: Feuillet’s pas de menuet à la boëmienne, with its demi-coupés at the beginning and the end, which he calls the ‘English Minuet Step’; the pas de menuet en fleuret, which he calls both the ‘French Minuet Step’ and the ‘New Minuet Step’; and the pas de menuet en trois mouvements. His timing for the pas de menuet en fleuret gives the first bar to the opening demi-coupé, with the rise on the first beat, lowering the heel but keeping the knees straight on the second beat and sinking on the third beat. The second bar is given to the fleuret, with the rise of the demi-coupé on the first beat, the second step on the second beat and the third step on the third beat. Tomlinson does not specify the timing of the sink preparatory to the first demi-coupé.

When he writes of the pas de menuet sideways to the right, Tomlinson prescribes the pas de menuet en fleuret, using the same timing as that travelling forwards. When he comes to the ‘Minuet Step of three Movements’ (which, confusingly, he also calls the ‘New Step’), Tomlinson sets out a different timing.

‘The Rising or Receiving the Weight upon the Toe or Instep marks the Time to the first Note of the three belonging to the first Measure; the second is in the Fall of the Heel and Sink which prepares for the second Step of the four belonging to the Minuet Step, which is made by stepping of the left Foot forwards, in the same Manner as the first; and the Rising or Receiving of the Body upon the Instep is to the third and last note of the first Measure. The third Step of the said four is made with the right Foot stepping a plain straight Step forwards upon the Toe to the first Note of the three in the second Measure; the second is in the coming down of the Heel of the said right Foot and Sink that prepares for the fourth and last Step which is with the left Foot, in stepping forwards from the Sink aforesaid; and the Rising or Receiving of the Weight upon the Toe is to the third Note of the second Measure of the Tune, concluding in the same Position from whence it begun …’ [Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), p. 110]

In his own notated version of the ballroom minuet (plate U in the treatise), Tomlinson uses the pas de menuet à trois mouvements whenever the dancers are travelling to the left.

I promised not to look at every treatise on the minuet, but I will include just one more, Malpied’s Traité sur l’art de la danse, which gives a late 18th-century version of this long-lived duet. Towards the end of his text he turns to the minuet and provides not only his own notation of the ballroom minuet but also examples of the timing of the pas de menuet en fleuret (the only step he uses).

Pas de Menuet Malpied (2)

Malpied, Traité sur l’art de la danse (Paris, 1770?), p. 100

His timings for the pas de menuet are closely related to those of Rameau, although Malpied was writing some fifty years later.

I ought to mention that modern practitioners of the art of baroque dance interpret these various instructions in different ways. One area of divergence is the timing of the plié at the beginning of the first demi-coupé – is it on beat 6 of the preceding bar, or on the ‘and’ which precedes the first beat of the bar in which the pas de menuet begins?

 

The Menuet à Quatre: Figures

In my last post about the four French notated menuets à quatre, I promised to look at the figures. How do these differ between the choreographies? Where are they the same? How do they relate to the ballroom menuet à deux? These are just some of the questions to be asked.

An obvious first question is – how do each of these minuets for four begin? Presumably they all open with a révérence, although none of the notations show this. Perhaps the révérence took the same form as in the minuet for a couple, who honour the presence and then each other. In the case of the menuet à quatre, the first honour would therefore be to the facing couple. Or were the honours reversed, as they are in the later quadrille, so the first révérence is to your own partner and the second to your opposite? In any case, all four dances begin with the two couples facing each other.

Only two of the dances begin in the same way. The very first plates of the 1706 Menuet à Quatre and the 1751 Menuet aquatre figuret show the dancers performing two pas de menuet forwards and two backwards. In his Menuet à Quatre of c1713, Pecour has his couples moving sideways to the left, moving forwards to cross (right shoulders) on a diagonal and curling round to face one another again. His figure is an obvious allusion to the ‘Z’ figure of the ballroom minuet. Although the ‘Z’ figure is also referenced in the other choreographies, Pecour’s version in this dance is the most straightforward. Dezais begins La Carignan with a contredanse figure, in which each dancer casts out and then changes places with their partner.

How do these dances end? In both his Menuet à Quatre of c1713 and his Menuet aquatre figuret, Pecour has his dancers moving forwards and then backwards to end in a final révérence. In the earlier dance, they balancé forwards and back, do two pas de menuet backwards and their final coupé soutenue (which is on opposite feet) brings them together. His later choreography is simpler. The dancers do two pas de menuet forwards, one backwards and also move towards one another on the final coupé soutenue. The 1706 Menuet à Quatre has the dancers, in couples, taking inside hands and crossing (left shoulders) on a diagonal before sweeping around to return to place for the final révérence. The figure alludes to the minuet’s ‘Z’ figure but seems closer to a contredanse figure. Dezais draws on the final figure of the ballroom minuet, with his couples each taking both hands to end La Carignan, although they do so for only one pas de menuet before letting go with their outside hands for one pas de menuet forwards and one backwards before the final step into the révérence.

Taking right hands, taking left hands and taking both hands all feature in these dances for four, but transmuted into their contredanse counterparts. The 1706 Menuet à Quatre has a right hand and a left hand moulinet as well as a rond with all the dancers holding hands. Pecour’s c1713 Menuet à Quatre adds variations when taking right and left hands, for the ladies have to wait for the opposite man to cross the set to take right hands  and the men then have to wait for their partners to do the same before taking left hands. The plate for the rond shows the dancers only taking inside hands with their opposite, although each couple ends in their original place. Apart from briefly taking both hands in the final figure, Dezais’s dancers do only a right hand moulinet. He dispenses entirely with any equivalent of taking left hands.

In his Menuet aquatre figuret, Pecour runs through all the various permutations on taking hands, but this dance is a cotillon so perhaps they should be seen as changes and not as minuet figures at all. Working in couples, his dancers take right hands then left hands. After a repeat of the figure, they take both hands to move first clockwise and then anti-clockwise. The notation then has another circling figure, with a notation for taking hands that I have not seen before and cannot readily interpret.

Pecour Minuet aquatre figuret 34 detail

Pecour, Menuet aquatre figuret (notated 1751), plate 34 (detail).

Are the couples holding hands behind their backs or could this be an allemande hold? The notation for the latter is quite different in Pecour’s L’Allemande of 1702, the dance in which the hold was first recorded.

Pecour Allemande 2

Pecour, L’Allemande (1702), plate 2

Pecour then brings the four dancers together for a right hand and left hand moulinet. They all hold hands in a circle to dance clockwise and then anti-clockwise. As a final flourish, he makes them all face outwards for a rond clockwise and then anti-clockwise. This last change must have needed a bit of practice.

None of the choreographers of these minuets for four entirely loses sight of the ballroom minuet for a couple, but all have more than half an eye on contredanse figures. On the evidence of these notations, the menuet à quatre retained the challenge of the pas de menuet, but put it in a context that relinquished the ordeal of scrutiny by the assembled company in favour of the relaxed pleasure of dancing with them.

The Menuet à Quatre: Steps

What can we learn from a more detailed scrutiny of the four menuets à quatre surviving in notation? The first question to ask is do they bear any relation to the ballroom minuet? I’ll begin my answer with the steps.

The anonymous Menuet à Quatre of 1706 uses pas de menuet à deux mouvements throughout most of the dance. These travel forwards in all but one of the figures, in which the step moves sideways to the left. Although, in three figures, the final pas de menuet ends with two steps backwards. The dance concludes with coupé soutenue en arrière into a révérence. after the music ends.

Pecour’s Menuet à Quatre of around 1713 uses both the pas de menuet à deux mouvements and the pas de menuet à trois mouvements. The latter are used only when travelling sideways to the left. Pecour occasionally adds ornaments – a battu after the first step of the pas de menuet in one case and a three-quarter turn on the third step in another. His final figure begins with pas balancé forwards and backwards and ends with a pas de bourrée and coupé soutenue into the final révérence.

In La Carignan in 1725, Dezais uses both pas de menuet à deux mouvements and pas de menuet à trois mouvements. The latter are used only when travelling sideways to the left. He adds pas balancés to several figures, forward and back (ornamented with a battu) and side to side. His final step uses a coupé plus coupé soutenue for the man and coupé plus pas de bourrée for the woman, taking both dancers into a révérence.

The Menuet aquatre figuret, attributed to Pecour when it was written down in 1751, uses pas de menuet à deux mouvements throughout (even when travelling to the left – as does the 1706 Menuet à Quatre). It ends with coupé and coupé soutenue for the man and pas de bourrée with coupé soutenue for the woman, into the closing révérence.

All these dances follow the conventions of the ballroom minuet, at least so far as the steps are concerned. They do, of course, use a narrower range of steps than the latter. Perhaps this should be expected in dances where the figures, or at least the ever-changing spatial relationships between the dancers, are more complex than in the danse à deux. What about the figures in these dances for four? I’ll make that the subject of my next post.

Enjoying the Minuet ‘à Quatre’

About three years ago, I wrote some posts about dances for four. With the earlier ones, I speculated that they were more enjoyable than the danses à deux because they were less technically demanding. This very obviously applied to the minuets ‘à quatre’ of which five survive in notation.

Le Menuet à Quatre. Anonymous, 1706.

Minuet & Jigg. Mr Holt, 1711

Menuet à Quatre. Pecour, c1713

Minuet aquatre figuret. Pecour, [1700-1725? Manuscript collection compiled 1751]

La Carignan, Menuet à Quatre. Dezais, 1725

I discussed Mr Holt’s Minuet & Jigg back in 2015, so this time round I will look just at the four French choreographies.

Unlike the English dance, the French ones are all simply minuets using the pas de menuet pretty well throughout. Before I analyse each of them in more detail, here are some facts and figures for comparison.

The anonymous Menuet à Quatre appears in Feuillet’s Vme Recueil de danses de bal pour l’année 1707 published in 1706. It is the last of the three dances in that collection, the other two being danses à deux. The source of the music has not been identified, although it does appear in a set of ‘Suites de danses … qui se joüent ordinairement à tous les bals chez le Roy’ dated to the first decade of the 18th century. In his Avertissement for the collection, Feuillet says that the minuet is ‘si en vogue qu’il ne se fait aucune assemblée où il ne soit dansé’, adding that he has ‘pris le 1er air qui m’a tombé sous la main car tous les menuets y sont également bons’. The choreography has the musical structure AABBAAB (A=B=4) and is short, with only 28 bars in 6/4.

Pecour’s Menuet à Quatre appears in the Nouveau recüeil de dance de bal et celle de ballet published by Gaudrau around 1713. This collection brings together 9 ballroom dances and 30 theatre choreographies, with the Menuet à Quatre as the last but one of the ballroom dances. The musical source has not been identified. The choreography has the musical structure ABACABACA (A=B=C=8) giving a rondeau form and 36 bars in 6/4 (the music is written in 3). Again, this dance is short. In his Preface to the collection, Gaudrau tells us that Pecour’s choreography was danced at the last ball at Marly (Louis XIV’s country retreat, where the King could relax away from the rigorous etiquette of Versailles).

Dezais includes La Carignan, Menuet à Quatre in his Premier livre de contredances published in 1725. Little or no research has been done on this collection (which does not feature either in the Little & March 1992 catalogue La Danse Noble or Lancelot’s La Belle Dance of 1996) so I cannot tell whether there is a concordance for the music. This choreography uses a musical structure 3 x AABB (A=B=4). At 48 bars of 6/4 music it is a little longer than its predecessors.

The Minuet aquatre figuret by Pecour is recorded in the manuscript compiled by the dancing master Felix Kinski in Oporto in 1751. It appears among other French ballroom choreographies, presumably brought together (and taught) by Kinski. This minuet for four is very different from the others. The choreography’s music, for which no source has been identified, has the structure 7 x AABB + AA (A=8 B=16) with 120 bars in 6/4 (the music is written in 3). The dance has a ‘Change’ and ‘Figure’ structure very much like a cotillon. As I mentioned in posts back in 2014, the form of the cotillon goes back at least as far as 1705 and Feuillet’s ballroom dance for four entitled Le Cotillon. Such dances seem to have been popular around 1715-1725, so perhaps Pecour’s choreography belongs to that period.

What do these facts and figures tell us? The evidence confirms a couple of things. One is that menuets à quatre were danced at French royal balls and were popular lower down the social scale. Another is that, like the menuet à deux, they could be danced to any minuet music (though, perhaps, the A, B and, sometimes, C strains needed to be the right length).

I will address other questions in later posts, for example how the menuets à quatre relate to the menuet à deux as recorded by Pierre Rameau in his 1725 treatise Le Maître a danser and how they relate to each other.

Anon Menuet a Quatre 1

Anonymous. Le Menuet à Quatre (Paris, 1706), First plate.

Prince Frederick

Prince Frederick, ‘A New Dance’ by Anthony L’Abbé, was notated and published in 1725 by Edmund Pemberton.

Prince Frederick Title Page

L’Abbé, Prince Frederick (1725), Title Page

The title indicates that the dance was dedicated to the eldest son of the Prince and Princess of Wales (who would soon become King George II and Queen Caroline). The publication of the dance was advertised in the Evening Post for 9-11 March 1725. The date links it to Caroline’s birthday on 1 March, although the bare description of it as ‘A New Dance’ suggests that it was not performed at court. I have not been able to find any record of a court ball in honour of the Princess’s birthday that year.

Prince Frederick was still in Hanover, where he had remained as the representative of the electoral family when his parents travelled to England in 1714 following the accession of his grandfather (Elector of Hanover) to the British throne as George I. In 1725, Frederick turned 18 and thus officially came of age. This event was celebrated in Hanover, where the festivities included a ball at which Frederick opened the dancing with the Countess Amalie von Platen (who may have been the daughter of George I). Perhaps L’Abbé intended his ballroom dance to honour Frederick’s majority and be a compliment to the prince’s mother. If so, it was unlikely to have found favour in London – both of the prince’s parents disliked him.

L’Abbé’s Prince Frederick is described on the notation as a ‘Slow Minuet’. The music has been identified as a song The Beauteous Cloe. The single-sheet version is undated (although ascribed a date of 1715 or 1720 in some sources). It also appears in A Choice Collection of English Songs Set to Musick by Mr Handel, published by John Walsh around 1730. It has been further identified as a reworking of Teofane’s aria ‘S’io dir potessi’ in act 2 of Handel’s 1723 opera Ottone. If, as has been suggested, Handel himself transformed the aria into the song, he must have been happy to do so soon after the first performances of Ottone on the London stage. Did he perhaps revise the music for the ball dance first? Handel was employed by George I at the same period as L’Abbé was dancing master to the King’s grand-daughters. The two must have known one another, and Handel – like L’Abbé – may have wished to honour Prince Frederick, who would in due course become Prince of Wales and might one day be king.

The description ‘Slow Minuet’ on the notation cannot be taken too literally, but it accords more with the slow sad aria of Ottone than the lively light-hearted song The Beauteous Cloe. I am currently working on L’Abbé’s Prince Frederick so I will return to the choreography and its interpretation in a later post.

The minuet versus the waltz

An early dance friend recently suggested to me that the 19th-century waltz is more difficult than the 18th-century minuet and invited me to discuss the idea. So, here goes.

I have danced many minuets over the years and I am well acquainted with the challenges of the ballroom minuet, as described by Pierre Rameau in Le Maître a danser (1725) and Kellom Tomlinson in The Art of Dancing (1735). I am nowhere near as practised in the early waltz. My friend did not specify any particular version, so I will look at Thomas Wilson’s A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816).

The minuet was the duet that opened 18th-century formal balls. It was danced one couple at a time before the scrutiny of all the other guests. It was, in effect, an exhibition ballroom dance. This did not mean that it was slow and stately, 18th-century minuets were lively and quite fast dances. It had specific steps and figures (floor patterns) that had to be performed in a set order. It also allowed for some improvisation, mainly through the use of ‘grace steps’ in place of the conventional vocabulary. Controlled and elegant deportment was essential, not least to enable the partners to manage and display their elaborate attire, including the gentleman’s hat.

What was difficult about the minuet? Apart from the pressure of performance, both the steps and the figures were exacting. Minuet music is in  3 / 4 but the basic pas de menuet takes two bars of music, so four steps have to be fitted into six musical beats. There are two main timings, and both could be used within a ballroom minuet. The contretemps du menuet, the other basic step, had another different timing over six beats. All the steps of the minuet require a great deal of practice if they are to be performed with ease and elegance. There are five figures: the opening figure; the Z-figure; taking right hands; taking left hands; taking both hands, which is the closing figure of the dance. The Z-figure is the principal figure of the minuet. It can repeated at will and is often, but not always, reprised just before the final figure. Some idea of the steps and figures of the minuet is given by Kellom Tomlinson’s notation of the dance.

Kellom Tomlinson. The Art of Dancing (1735), Plate U

Kellom Tomlinson. The Art of Dancing (1735), Plate U

At balls, the minuet was addressed to the two highest ranking members of the audience, referred to as ‘the presence’. The dancers had to begin and end facing them and the figures had to be oriented in relation to them. The accurate performance of the figures, as well as their placing and orientation within the dancing space, needs a great deal of practice.

Musically the minuet was challenging. The couple could begin their dance at any point in the music (taking care to start on an odd-numbered bar), so their dance figures would inevitably cross the musical structure and phrasing at several points. Tomlinson tries to suggest such musical challenges in his notation of the minuet. This, too, needs much practice to master.

What about the waltz? How difficult was it? The waltz was always danced with a number of couples on the floor at any one time. It was a social dance and not meant as a display piece. Wilson distinguished between the French waltz and the German waltz. The French waltz began with the ‘Slow Waltz’, changed to the ‘Sauteuse Waltz’ and ended with the ‘Jetté, or Quick Sauteuse Waltz’. As the titles suggest, the dance got progressively faster. Each of these little waltzes had its own steps. In the slow waltz, these were a half-turn pirouette and a pas de bourée, over two bars of 3 / 4 music. The rhythmic pattern is reminiscent of the simplest timing of the basic pas de menuet. I can’t help feeling there was a link between them. The sauteuse waltz replaces the pirouette with a jetté-step combination and makes the first step of the pas de bourée a jetté. The jetté or quick sauteuse waltz had just one step,  a jetté-hop combination, performed first on one foot and then on the other. Wilson’s explanations are not entirely clear and I am radically condensing them. It is obvious, though, that these steps need practice if they are to be well performed.

The German waltz was Wilson’s undoubted favourite.

‘The Construction of the Movements is truly elegant; and, when they are well performed, afford subject of much pleasing Amusement and Delight.’

This version of the waltz had two quite different, and slightly more complicated, steps than those in the French waltz. In all Wilson’s versions of the waltz, the dancers needed good deportment but – just as their dress was freer than in the 18th century – a degree of informality was acceptable.

There are no figures in the waltz, which simply follows a circular track around the dancing space with the partners turning as they go. The dance is not directed at those who may be watching. It simply tries to make best use of the available dancing space.

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), plate

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), plate

One of the most complicated aspects of the early 19th-century waltz is the varieties of what would today be called ‘hold’. Wilson’s pretty frontispiece shows several of these.

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), frontispiece

Thomas Wilson. A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing (1816), frontispiece

The partners had to change hold as they dance. I suggest that this would have taken quite a bit of practice, certainly rather more than the basic steps. This is one area where the waltz is definitely more difficult than the minuet, in which the partners merely take hands from time to time.

Musically the waltz does not pose challenges. The dancers could start anywhere (although, like the minuet, on an odd bar) and they didn’t need to worry about musical structure or phrasing since the waltz is repetitious. However, they did need to worry about being in time with each other and fitting their steps and turns around each other. Again, this would have taken practice, just as it does with the modern waltz. There was also the speed of the dance, at least with the sauteuse and jetté or quick sauteuse waltzes, which made neat footwork a challenge. Giddiness with all the turning was perhaps seen as a pleasure rather than a difficulty.

So, which dance do I think was the most difficult? It has to be the minuet, for its status as an exhibition dance, the complexity of its steps and figures and the challenges of its musicality. The waltz has its fair share of challenges, but a simple early 19th-century waltz can be learned and enjoyed quite quickly. There is no such thing as a simple ballroom minuet.