Category Archives: Thinking about Dancing

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.



Various Authenticities

When I first began to study baroque dance, I tried very hard to be authentic – not least because I was so often criticised for my ‘balletic’ approach. It took me some time to realise that such authenticity is impossible. We know a great deal about dancing in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (far more than most people realise), but there is just as much that we don’t and indeed cannot know. My own reconstructions of dances, particularly the solos danced by Mrs Santlow and Mlles Subligny and Guiot, owe as much (if not more) to my personal style and technique as a ballet-trained dancer as they do to the notations and dance manuals of the early 1700s.

The subject of authenticity came into my mind again a week or so ago, when I went to a talk at the Wallace Collection. The speaker was the choreographer and Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet David Bintley. His new ballet The King Dances is based on Le Ballet de la Nuit, the 1653 ballet de cour in which the fourteen-year-old Louis XIV appeared as the rising sun and became known ever after as the ‘Sun King’. Bintley talked about his forays into history and the world of baroque dance as he developed his choreography. He had gone so far as to have a baroque dance expert give instruction to his dancers – only to find that the unfamiliar style and technique was too difficult to learn in a short period. Although it marked the beginning of ballet, baroque dance was far from the strength and extension now characteristic of its descendant.

At the time of writing, I have not seen Bintley’s The King Dances so I cannot comment on the ballet. However, the photographs of the production are stunning. The young male dancers look as fabulously glamorous as their youthful antecedents at the French court must have done. When they are caught in mid-step the effect is strangely evocative of the ballet de cour, as we glimpse it through the few surviving designs for costumes and scenes. Could Bintley’s work possibly be ‘authentic’ in ways that a production consciously attempting complete ‘authenticity’ could not?

I thought about authenticity again this weekend, while I was taking part in a dance display for a heritage open day which also gave me time to watch. The dances – several cotillons by Dezais and a couple of ballroom duets – were all faithfully reconstructed from 18th-century sources. The costumes were handsome and in good period style, right down to the corsets. However, these were not the essential factors that made the display authentic. There was a range of skills and experience among the dancers and the dances were practised but not perfect. The dances were lively and all the dancers very evidently enjoyed performing them. They took pleasure in dancing with each other and for their audience. I couldn’t help thinking that it must have been very similar at many real balls in the 18th century – except that we may well have danced better than our forebears did.

Authenticity surely resides as much, if not more, in the spirit of the reconstruction as in the letter.


Going to the Ball

I occasionally get all dressed up and go to an historical dance ball. Most such events are Regency period, but some acknowledge the earlier Georgians in costumes as well as country dances. All, understandably, emphasise enjoyment rather than authenticity so far as the dancing goes (although, sometimes, the reverse seems to be true for the costumes). 18th-century balls were formal and elaborate affairs. I can’t help wondering whether it would be possible to get closer to them than our modern historical balls generally do.

What was an 18th-century ball like? The most detailed and often-quoted description comes from Pierre Rameau’s treatise Le Maître a danser, published in Paris in 1725 and translated into English by John Essex just a few years later. Rameau describes a ball at the court of Louis XIV ‘to which … all private Balls ought to be conformable’. At the French court, everything was ordered by rank. The ball began with branles and gavottes, line dances, led by the King and highest ranking lady. These were followed by minuets, performed one couple at a time in order of precedence. Rameau says nothing about the other danses à deux, specially choreographed duets that use the steps explained in his treatise, or about contredanses. He seems to be writing about the most important and formal court balls, where most of those present were spectators.

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

A ball at the court of Louis XIV. Pierre Rameau. Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725).

Masquerade balls, with their elaborately disguised participants, were extremely popular. These followed the same basic programme as the formal balls, with the addition of danses à deux and contredanses. The most lavish masked balls also included danced divertissements, often involving professional dancers. Today, that would be a great way to show off some of the surviving choreographies – if there were enough enterprising and talented people to perform them.

John Essex translated Pierre Rameau’s account of royal and ‘regulated’ balls without significant change, suggesting that the form and order of dancing was much the same in England. Balls were held to celebrate royal birthdays, as well as on Twelfth Night and many other occasions. What evidence there is about the dancing at court comes mainly from newspaper reports. According to the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer for 4 June 1720, the formal ball held to celebrate George I’s birthday that year ‘began about Eight, and the Musick and Dancing (by order) ceas’d at Twelve’, when the King and other members of the royal family departed.

There are few references to what was danced, although the Daily Advertiser for 3 March 1731 provides a glimpse of the ball held to celebrate Queen Caroline’s birthday.

‘On Monday Night His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and the Princess Royal, open’d the Ball at Court with a Minuet, and afterwards danced set Dances, with several of the Quality, till between 4 and 5 o’Clock next Morning.’

The ‘set Dances’ were presumably country dances. Dancing into the small hours became customary once the younger members of the royal family began to participate in court balls.

One place to attend ‘regulated’ balls was Bath. John Wood’s A Description of Bath (1765) summarises proceedings at the ‘Publick Balls’ held in the city on Tuesday and Friday evenings.

‘The Balls begin at six o’Clock, and end at Eleven; … the Ball is commonly Opened with a Minuet Danced by two Persons of the Highest Distinction …

The Minuet being over, the Lady returns to her Seat, and the Bathonian King brings the Gentleman a New Partner, with whom he Dances a second Minuet, and then both retire: A second Gentleman doing as the first had done, and so on; every Gentleman Dancing with two Ladies till the Minuets are all over, which commonly happens in about two Hours Time, and then the Country Dances begin …’

The country dances went on for about an hour, after which there was a break for refreshments (Wood refers to ‘Tea’) and then the country dances resumed until the ball closed with appropriate ceremony. The ‘Bathonian King’ was, for many years, Beau Nash.

So, an authentic Georgian ball should begin with about two hours of minuets, danced couple by couple, before it can turn to country dances. Such a programme is unlikely to prove popular with modern would-be historical dancers. Yet, it would surely be possible to begin with two or three couple minuets, together with some minuets for four (which became part of the opening sequence of minuets at the less exalted balls). The rest of the evening could then be given over to country dances – hopefully played at speeds that allow for steps of the period rather than simply walking through the figures. Of course, to be true to the 18th century, one would have to be able to heed Lord Chesterfield’s advice to ‘dance a minuet very well’.

Later in the 18th century, cotillon balls became the rage. I will take a look at them later.


Thinking About: Dances, Dancing and History

I recently began to learn the Viennese waltz. I am a newcomer to ballroom dance, but it seems very different to the modern ballroom waltz. I couldn’t help wondering about its history. I have been told it is earlier than its modern counterpart, but how far back does it go? How does it relate to the early 19th-century waltz I was dancing just a few weeks ago?

The early 19th-century waltz raised another question. How does it relate to the minuet? The waltz step we used seemed to share the rhythmic characteristics of the French minuet step (called ‘One and a Fleuret’ by the dancing master Kellom Tomlinson). The man steps onto his left foot and does a quarter-turn pirouette in the first bar, followed by three steps in the next bar (the waltz, like the minuet, is in 3 / 4). The woman does the opposite. Of course, the couple revolve in a clockwise direction, while travelling anti-clockwise around the ballroom, quite unlike the minuet with its serene floor patterns and its fixed front. This waltz was in a hold which was obviously moving towards the modern ballroom hold. The waltzes (French, sauteuse, jetté-sauteuse and German) described by Thomas Wilson in his 1816 treatise seem very different both in steps and hold. So what was going on? How was the waltz developing and changing during the 19th century? Where does the Viennese waltz fit in?

I’ve also been struggling with Argentine tango. At the workshop I went to recently, we were taught a small number of basic steps, and told that these were all we needed to dance tango – everything else was derived from them. My mind immediately flew both to baroque dance and to modern ballroom and Latin. Don’t they all rest on just a few basic steps, which can be joined together, varied and decorated in all sorts of ways to produce an extensive and rich vocabulary of movements? Modern ballroom and Latin dances, as well as Argentine tango, are social dance forms intended for the ballroom, and all are improvisational – like the 18th-century minuet. Modern dances for the stage, or for competitions, have fixed routines – just like the baroque ballroom and theatrical choreographies.

Thinking about the different ballroom and Latin dances, with their various shared vocabularies of steps and their very different musical and stylistic qualities, my mind jumped again to baroque dance and its several dance types. These also share the same steps but are otherwise distinct, musically at least. I am wondering whether being able to grasp the differences between the modern waltz, the foxtrot and the quickstep, and between the rumba and the cha-cha, might help me as I try to differentiate the saraband, the loure, the bourée and rigaudon? The differences between all these dances might seem obvious (at least to the initiated), but they can be hard to interpret in performance unless one is an expert.

So, is all this dancing divisible into ancient and modern, where never the twain shall meet, or is it all actually variations on a shared theme?



Fraternising with the Enemy?

In Britain early dance has tended to keep itself to itself. There are some links with folk dancing, but relatively few with the wider dance world. Some forms of dancing have even occasionally been viewed with hostility. I have to admit that I’ve also been affected by these attitudes.

I’ve recently been working on baroque dance with dancers trained in different styles and it has been very rewarding. As a ballet and baroque dancer, who has spent many years focussing on just those two styles, I’ve also recently begun to branch out into other forms of dance. I really wish I’d done this much, much earlier!

I’ve wondered for quite a while how to attract ballet dancers into baroque dance. These two styles should be a marriage made in heaven, as baroque dance is really the earliest form of ballet and the foundation of its style and technique.  It isn’t as easy as that of course, not least because the relationship between early and modern ballet is complex.

I recently did a short course in Spanish classical dance (escuela bolera). I’ve wanted to try this for a long time, and I was really glad I’d seized the opportunity. For the uninitiated (of whom I am one) it seems like a cross between ballet and flamenco. As a ballet dancer, I found I could cope reasonably well and I enjoyed the challenge of unfamiliar steps and arm movements. Escuela bolera has lots to offer baroque dance, for Spanish dance forms (including the playing of castanets) were very influential in France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  As Spanish classical dance is also a historic style, some of the baroque steps would surely be of interest. I know that others have pursued this cross-over, but it has never filtered down widely into British early dance.

I’ve also been dipping my toes into modern ballroom and Latin American dance.  I’m finding these dances very difficult, as both the partnering and the steps are miles outside my dance experience and hence my comfort zone. I can’t readily see a connection between these and 18th-century dances (though there must surely be one between them and the couple dances of the 18th and early 19th century). However, good ballroom and Latin dancers can surely bring a sense of performance as well as technical skill to earlier dance forms. They can also challenge our perceptions and understanding and so help with the process of change and development. How can we attract them into early dance?



Bad Dancing

Dancing is hard. Even country dancing needs practice if it is to be enjoyed by dancers and onlookers. Baroque ballroom and stage dances require training, as well as a great deal of practice and rehearsal.

How can we recognise bad dancing?

Poor technique, unstylish and unmusical performances, dancers who ignore each other and are unmindful of their audience, dancers who simply don’t enjoy dancing – any one of these can make for bad dancing. More than one almost certainly does. Dancers of 18th and early 19th-century choreographies come from a variety of dance backgrounds. Some have no dance background at all. Just like dancers in other genres, they need to be aware of their level of skill and be prepared to work to improve it.

I am not going to draw attention to particular performances that I think are bad. I would much rather concentrate on those I think are good and try to analyse what makes them so. However, I do want to foster greater awareness of the different levels of skill and the constructive criticism that will raise standards among performers of these dances from history.

Dances from the 18th and early 19th centuries are worth the best performances we can give them. That is how we can share and enjoy them, among ourselves and with the wider world.

Good Dancing

What is good dancing? How can we recognise it?

Everyone will have their own opinion as to what is good, and what is bad, dancing.

As a trained dancer, I look for sound technique, musicality and a pleasing style. Technique and musicality should be easy to judge, as long as we know what to look for, whereas style is more difficult to define. In duets and group dances I also want to see rapport between the dancers. Even in social dances I like to feel that the dancers are aware of, and respect, their audience.

Stage dances, of course, need a strong sense of performance. Even apparently abstract choreographies need characterisation. The dancers must know who their characters are and what story they are telling (clues very often lie in the libretti of the operas from which the dance music is taken), even if this is hidden from the audience.

With baroque dance, I also look for a sense of period – though I do not want to see slavishly ‘authentic’ dancing. How can we know how they danced in the 17th and 18th centuries? I want dancing that is engaging, whether it is sustained and elegant or swift and lively.

Here is a performance of a baroque ballroom dance which I like for its speed, clarity and evident pleasure in dancing.