Category Archives: Thinking about Dancing

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.

The Perils of Terminology

I usually write about ‘French Dancing’, the style and technique developed at the court of Louis XIV during the mid-17th century which was adopted at courts and on stages throughout Europe. The term ‘French Dancing’ was quite often used in London during the 18th century, both on stage and in society. Nowadays, the preferred term is ‘la belle danse’ (which dates to the mid-1600s), which has the merit of focussing on the dancing without explicit reference to its original national or social context.

I occasionally write about ‘Country Dancing’ over a period from the 1650s to the 1820s. This term seems straightforward to me. Country dances are social dances, performed in the ballroom by a number of couples together, usually ranged in a line to form what is called a longways set. There are other formations, and the number of couples may vary, but such choreographies are still recognisable as country dances. The form endures from John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651 through to Thomas Wilson’s treatises of the early 19th century, and beyond. Country dances were also included in stage plays or, apparently, as entr’acte dances in London’s theatres. The term ‘contredanse’ refers to French country dances, most of which are in square formation. In both cases, ‘country dance’ or ‘contredanse’ refers to the dancing and the dances first and foremost.

My problems start when I turn to dancing that falls into neither of these categories. Among the most popular entr’acte dances on the London stage were Scotch and Irish Jigs, most of which were assuredly not French-style gigues. There were ‘Peasant’ dances, very few of which are likely to have resembled the belle danse notated ‘paysan’ choreographies. ‘Clown’ dances featured an unsophisticated rustic, who was unlikely to emulate even the easy-going refinement of English country dancing. Such dances are usually defined as ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’. Both terms are loaded with ideas about ‘national identity’, ‘social status’ and ‘community’ which derive from the preoccupations of researchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am reluctant to use them because they implicitly impose theories about dance history for which there is little or no evidence. They are more concerned with the social and even the political context than with the dancing they purport to define.

What the Jigs, Peasant, Clown and other such dances have in common is that they are part of a purely oral transmission process. Unlike belle danse choreographies and even country dances, they were never written down and their step vocabulary was not recorded or codified to be taught by dancing masters. They were simply learned by one dancer from another. It is possible to glimpse this process through the calendar of performances on the London stage between 1660 and 1800. There are a number of dances, usually solos, which are danced season after season by the same performer. When the performer changes the new dancer will frequently have close links with the old one. Such dances are also quite often associated with a particular country or region. Perhaps I should use the terms ‘speciality’ or ‘regional’ for such dances? Either would serve to differentiate them from the international style of la belle danse.

I guess that I’ll have to develop my terminological thinking along with my research.


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.

Does Authenticity Matter?

Two performances I’ve seen recently brought the topic of authenticity back into my mind. Both were minuets that reminded me of ‘baroque dance’ I’d seen a good few years ago which owed very little to the surviving 18th-century dance manuals and notations.

In an earlier post, I voiced my uncertainty, and my scepticism, about ‘authenticity’ in historic dance. Yet, these performances reminded me that authenticity does sometimes matter. One took place in a gallery with a wonderful collection of 18th-century fine and decorative arts. The other was in a historic house dating originally from the mid-1700s. Both called for performances that were true to their surroundings in terms of style and technique.  Expert knowledge of the treasures on show, as well as accessibility, is important to galleries and historic houses open to the public. Why should the occasional dance performances in such venues be exempt from the same values?

One reason is, of course, the status of dancing – seen as merely a frivolous pastime rather than a socially and culturally significant art form.  Another is the widespread ignorance of the dancing of the 18th century. It is all too often seen as simple yet full of affectation – very far from the classically inspired beauties of the surviving choreographies. Yet another is the fixation on costume, at the expense of the dancing – even though deportment, so important to the correct wearing of period costume, was of fundamental importance in the 18th century. I should say here, that I believe that costuming does matter. After all, whatever the period, the dancing of the past was crafted around the prevailing style of dress – as indeed are modern dance genres.

The steps described in 18th-century manuals, as well as the choreographies preserved in notation bear witness to a refined and sophisticated style and technique in the ballroom as well as in the theatre. None of the modern attempts at ‘baroque dance’ routines I have seen come close to the originals for variety, energy or elegance. The dances of the 1700s reflect the complexities of the other arts of the period – from music to garden design. All share the same aesthetic space.

Unfortunately, baroque dance is difficult. It takes a great deal of time and much hard work to master. An effortless performance of the minuet is the result of years of practice of the steps and figures described in the original sources. I am uncertain whether any of the dancers in the performances I saw really understood that such work either could or should be done. I don’t want to enter into a critique of either of the ‘minuets’ on show, but I can’t help feeling sad that such a beautiful dance and such a wonderful dance form should still be so little known and so often poorly represented. The visitors to those and other wonderful places that preserve the material evidence of 18th-century life surely deserve better.