Category Archives: Thinking about Dancing

Reasons to be Bored by Early Dance.  VI: Cultural Snobbery

Dancers in the UK early dance world are, it goes without saying, very cultured people. There are, in fact, two sources of true culture in historical dancing. One is the definitively high culture of classical music. The other is the indisputably low culture of folk music and dancing. Isn’t there a chasm between the two? Aren’t they mutually opposed cultural worlds? I’ll explore a bit further.

There are those in UK early dance, a sizeable minority I would say, who are devoted to proper music. They avoid any horrible modern styles of dancing because of the awful music. ‘Pop’ or ‘Rock’ – who needs those? Never mind all the latest styles (which I’ll leave others younger and more enlightened than I am to enumerate). I confess myself puzzled by the ‘high culture’ group. I am trying to think of any major classical composers whose music is actually used in early dance. In the world of baroque dance, we are talking about music by the likes of Lully, Campra, or other equally obscure and third-rate composers. Bach never wrote actual dance music. Although Handel was foolish enough to compose ballet music from time to time, who ever listens to it?

Much of the music for early dance was written by the dancing masters themselves, so does it qualify as folk music? The fons et origo of folk dance music is, of course, John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651. These tunes are well known to derive from classical antiquity, when folk really were folk and totally traditional in their tastes. With such a pedigree, who would want to be listening to modern, vulgar popular music? This is the well-founded opinion of the folk music and dancing people who form the majority in UK early dance.

So far as I can tell, with music for folk dancing (or as the early dance world has it, country dancing), the instruments are really important. Now here we reach a small problem. Nowadays, music for folk dancing demands an accordion – but this instrument cannot be claimed as truly historical even so recently as the mid-19th century.  What to do? The answer is to play all the tunes on a scratchy fiddle, as slowly as possible. Cultural authenticity at a stroke!

It is the fiddle (or violin, if we wish to appeal to the other wing of UK early dance) that unites the ‘high’ classical and ‘low’ folk cultural aficionados. This could return us our very first reason to be bored by early dance – the music – but in my next post I will not go backwards, I will move on.

Reasons to be Bored by Early Dance. V: Those Who Can’t Dance Versus Those Who Can

How can you tell the dancers from the non-dancers in UK early dance? This is a difficult question to answer. Politeness and authenticity demand a very particular approach to dancing, whatever period you are doing. They affect everything.

  • How you should walk;
  • How you should do the steps;
  • How you should relate to your partner;
  • How you should relate to the others in a group or country dance;
  • How your movements should relate to whatever music is going on at the time.

Those who have had the misfortune to be trained in some modern dance form or other (ballet, ballroom & Latin, contemporary dance come immediately to mind) may mistakenly believe that what they see before them in a UK early dance workshop is bad dancing. This is completely wrong. What they fail to realise is the truly polite and authentic dancing that is being graciously proffered for their delectation. (NOTE: delectation has NOTHING to do with pleasure)

If you are being continually told off for dancing with too much energy, for trying to do the steps properly, for wanting to learn the dances quickly, for being eager to do more difficult steps and figures and for wanting to practice, you are obviously trying too hard. It is suspiciously likely that you are a ‘dancer’ of one of these abhorrent modern techniques. If you are, then you will never be polite and authentic and you can never reach the distinction of truly belonging within the UK early dance world.

Reasons to be Bored by Early Dance. IV: It’s Seriously Miserable

We are actually talking about two distinct but inseparable states of mind here – seriousness and misery. Both are indispensable within UK early dance and if the two can be combined, so much the better.

So, what makes early dance so serious in the UK? We have already explored authenticity and politeness, neither of which can tolerate any sign of levity. There is also the weight of history on the dancer’s back. One false step and you are misrepresenting the whole art of dancing as practised in times of yore. Of course, the music is enough to make the lightest-hearted person weep with serious misery.

Misery is occasioned by continual worry over authenticity. Am I being authentic enough? Am I sure that the other people in this dance class are being less authentic than I am? If the answer to either of those questions is ‘No’, the only way is down. Then there are those wretched teachers who not only teach complicated steps and sequences (while insisting on a totally spurious adherence to the sources) but can also dance them in front of you. These are the self-same teachers who take the liberty of changing the steps in the interest of fidelity to the very same sources they claim to be using. The only response is to wallow in misery at the inauthenticity of it all.

Some of these teachers actually add insult to injury by wanting you to ENJOY dancing historical dances. The very idea undermines the whole edifice of politeness. It seriously threatens the seriousness of the whole of the UK early dance world. It makes one miserable simply to contemplate the merest thought of pleasure while dancing.

Serious misery – that is the purpose of the UK early dance world. Nobody can call themselves an historical dancer without both!

Reasons to be Bored by Early Dance. III: Authenticity

The watchword for UK early dance is ‘AUTHENTICITY’. This is the Holy Grail of the true historical dancer. Here are ten things you should know if your historical dance style is to be authentic.

  1. You are never the guardian of authenticity – others will always fulfil that role.
  2. Reading (and trying to understand) the dance sources is no guarantee of authenticity – someone else always knows better.
  3. Doubts about the possibility of authenticity lead inexorably to exile from the UK early dance world.
  4. However authentic you think you are, there will always be someone to tell you that you aren’t.
  5. True authenticity starts (and ends) with the costume.
  6. The cry of the truly authentic dancer is ‘They would NEVER have danced like THAT!’.
  7. The sources can only be interpreted in one way (and certainly not your way), however obscure or contradictory they may be.
  8. Authenticity is guaranteed if you choose your sources carefully, i.e. the ones that agree with your ideas.
  9. Authenticity and Politeness are inseparable (and probably the same thing really).
  10. Virtuosity, or even simple competence in dancing, is the sworn enemy of authenticity.

Happy authentically historical dancing!

Reasons to be Bored by Early Dance. II: Politeness

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.

Reasons to be Bored by Early Dance. I: The Music

If the music isn’t stiff and dull, it’s twee. Nowadays, dancing happens to modern popular music. Old dancing is to old music and some of it happens to be classical music – that’s the problem, or is it?

There are several distinct periods of early dance, dictated by the surviving sources (if you want to be serious about it).

  • 15th-century (early Renaissance) dancing generally has tuneless and rhythmically incomprehensible music;
  • 16th-century (late Renaissance) dancing is to music that veers between raucous and swooningly dull. Either you are a lawyer enjoying a knees-up or an aristocrat with clothes too heavy to allow you to do anything other than walk very slowly;
  • Early 18th-century (baroque) dancing is a bit of an exception, because some of the music is fantastic (I love a great chaconne or passacaille). It has energy and emotion – except when it is played too slow or on a scratchy fiddle by a folkie trying to be an early music virtuoso;
  • 17th– 19th century (country) dancing could have very tuneful lively music were it not bedevilled by its ‘folk’ roots which makes it either glacially slow or eternally twee.

Actually, I think that (15th-century apart) the problem isn’t the music it’s the musicians (and perhaps some of the dancers, who think they are musicians as well).

What’s So Boring about Early Dance?

Quite some time ago, I got into a conversation about dancing. We chatted through a variety of dance topics before we reached early dance, at which point the person I was talking to said (in a tone which brooked no argument) ‘early dance is boring’. Now, this person is not only a good dancer and a good dancer teacher who works in a variety of styles, but has also done quite a bit of early dance. I thought I should pursue the topic, not least because here in the UK early dance of almost all periods continues to wither away for want of fresh interest.

What is so boring about early dance? Here are ten sources of boredom mentioned during our chat, in no particular order.

  1. The music is stiff and dull (if it isn’t twee).
  2. The dancing is stifled by politeness (despite the bad manners of too many participants).
  3. The dancing is strangled by ‘authenticity’ (whatever that means).
  4. Everyone is so serious (if not decidedly miserable).
  5. Too many people can’t dance (and tell you off if you can).
  6. There is a great deal of cultural snobbery (who is this ‘pop’ star?).
  7. The dancing feels like walking to music (and not necessarily in time).
  8. Nobody in early dance tries any other forms of dancing (because it is too vulgar).
  9. People are unfriendly, if not downright anti-social (we don’t want any outsiders here!).
  10. If people aren’t overdressed (at balls) they are dowdy (at all other events).

We talked about several more, but I’ll stop here. None are entirely or always true, of course, but I’m sad to say that I’ve experienced all of them. If it is to survive, the UK early dance world needs to be far more welcoming and a lot more open-minded. And the dancing needs to be a whole lot livelier!

As I believe in living dangerously, I will pursue the ten sources of boredom in more detail in subsequent posts.

Returning to Dance in History

I realise, to my surprise and dismay, that it is eight weeks since my last post on Dance in History. September was a busy month, with two performances (and corresponding rehearsals) and then in October I seized the opportunity of a (modern) dance holiday. All this was good fun and gave me opportunities to sample dancing outside my usual areas – an early 19th-century waltz, incorporating a short ‘petit ballet’, in September and some classical sequence dancing in October.

The waltz highlighted the links between the social dancing of the early 1800s and what we now define, too simply and narrowly, as ‘ballet’. Over the years, I’ve been much criticised in UK historical dance circles for my ballet background, but it has been invaluable to the baroque dance I have done and, now, for the social dancing of the following century. I can’t help thinking that more attention to the basics of what we call ballet would improve the technique and the enjoyment of historical dancers today as they learn the social dances of the past.

The sequence dancing showed how dance always holds its own history within it, whether as steps, figures or other dance conventions. Closer attention to this in modern forms of popular dancing (other than the ubiquitous ‘folk’ dancing, which is all too dominant in the UK historical dance world) may well reveal some surprising relationships and lineages as well as unsuspected survivals. My foray into classical sequence (I hope to do more) underlined how important it is to explore a range of modern social dancing alongside the historical repertoire.

I should have a bit more time over the coming months to write for Dance in History. I’m even hoping to persuade a guest contributor to write a post for me. There are plenty of dance topics to explore and I have a long list of ideas to work through.



Reviving Dance in History

I have not written very much for Dance in History in recent months and it has been a while since my last post. My excuses? I have been busy, not just writing a short essay and some talks but also doing quite a lot of more modern dancing (I am a recent convert to ballroom and Latin dancing and I also make occasional forays into Victorian and even ragtime dance). I have various dance history projects lined up for next year, so I’m hoping I will be able to return to writing more regularly from January.

2017 is, of course, a notable year for the history of ballet. It marks the 300th anniversary of the first performance of the first modern ballet, John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus. This ‘Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing’ was given at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 2 March 1717. I am involved in an exciting project to celebrate that event, and I will report on it elsewhere as well as adding a variety of posts on Weaver’s ballet to these pages.

My longstanding interest has been dancing on the London stage, which I will try to pursue during 2017 with a variety of posts on dances, dancing and dancers in London’s theatres from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the eve of the Romantic ballet in 1830. I will probably be focussing on the 18th century for much of the next year, not only because of The Loves of Mars and Venus but also because 2017 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great actor David Garrick. He was born just a couple of weeks before the first performance of John Weaver’s dance drama. Garrick later became manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, and he married a dancer – the Viennese ballerina Eva Maria Veigel, known as Violette. I am exploring dancing at Drury Lane during the period of Garrick’s management for a paper I am giving in February, so there may be posts on that topic too.

It isn’t easy to keep up my baroque dance practice, but I hope to continue with my solo sessions and to write about some of the dances I’ll be revisiting or learning afresh. Maybe I’ll find time to write about some of the baroque solos I have danced, and loved so much, in the past. If I have the chance to take part in workshops on regency, Victorian or even ragtime dancing, one or two posts might look in those directions. There is always the possibility that a little modern ballroom and Latin might sneak in (sequence dancing has an interesting relationship to the social dancing of earlier periods).

So, I’ve got plenty of ideas – all I need to do is get on with the work!

A Year of Dance: 1660

For England, the most significant event by far of 1660 was the Restoration of Charles II. At the beginning of the year there was no indication that the monarchy might return, but following the arrival of General George Monck in London during February 1660 thinking began to change. On 25 April Parliament voted to restore the monarchy. On 8 May Charles was declared King. On 25 May he landed at Dover to be welcomed by Monck and on 29 May (his thirtieth birthday) he entered London to popular rejoicing. The King soon began to rebuild his household and to revive court life. The theatres had started to reopen, albeit quietly, in anticipation of the King’s arrival and only a few months after his return Charles II granted two courtiers – Sir Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant – permission to form theatre companies for public performances. In October 1660 a united company of players, under the direction of both men, played briefly at the Cockpit playhouse in Drury Lane (an indoor theatre dating back to the Jacobean period). By November the two companies were playing separately, establishing a duopoly that would survive well into the 18th century. Killigrew’s King’s Company was in the converted Gibbons’s Tennis Court in Vere Street, while Davenant’s Duke’s Company apparently began playing at the Salisbury Court playhouse, which also dated back before 1642.

Another noteworthy, but very private, development was the beginning of Samuel Pepys’s diary on 1 January 1660. Thanks to his testimony, far more is known about the plays and other entertainments given in London’s playhouses during the first decade after the Restoration than would otherwise have been the case. Pepys’s entries on his theatre-going quite often make references to the dancing he saw.

So far as theatrical dancing is concerned, the only indication we have for 1660 is an undated performance of Le Ballet de la Paix before the French ambassador. We do not know when, or even if, the performance actually took place, since the ambassador concerned was accredited to the Protectorate and left London in June 1660. If it did happen, who were the dancers? We don’t know. There must surely have been dancing in London’s playhouses too, but there is no known evidence to prove this.

In France, the year was marked by the marriage of Louis XIV to the Spanish Infanta Maria Theresa on 9 June 1660 (New Style). This event was celebrated with Lully’s Ballet de Xerxes, six entrées added to a performance of Cavalli’s opera Xerxes. The whole entertainment was given at the Louvre on 22 November 1660 (New Style). The dancers were all men and all professionals, including Lully himself and Pierre Beauchamps. Neither Louis XIV nor his new Queen took part. Another event of note at the French court was the death of the King’s uncle Gaston duc d’Orléans on 2 February 1660 (New Style). His title was assumed a few months later by Louis XIV’s brother Philippe, also known simply as Monsieur.