Tag Archives: Alexander Strathy

Jumping or Rising? Regency Quadrille Steps

I have been trying to get my feet around the steps and sequences used in regency quadrilles and finding it a bit of a struggle. I think there are two main reasons for this. One is that the ‘grammar’ of the sequences, the way in which the steps are put together, contradicts what I am used to in modern ballet’s petit allegro. The other is that the individual steps, which seem very similar to those of petit allegro, in fact need a different style and technique which I am still trying to work out.

I started to learn this material (in which I claim no expertise) for a project devised by a young teacher of historical dance with whom I have been lucky enough to work over several years. The source texts we are using are Strathy’s treatise of 1822 and the 1817 American translation of Gourdoux-Daux’s manual.

These provide descriptions of the temps levé, chassé, jeté, assemblé, échappé, glissade, sissonne, changement and grand coupé, which feature in the various quadrille figures and balances we have been exploring.

Looking through the two treatises, I was surprised to see that both use the word ‘rise’ where I expected to see ‘spring’ or ‘jump’. Gourdoux-Daux’s translator does use the word ‘jump’ occasionally and Strathy says ‘spring’ once, but the descriptions suggest that neither word really represents what they intended their dancers to do. When describing the landing from a step which I would assume (from my experience with ballet) leaves the floor, Strathy uses the word ‘fall’ while ‘V.G.’ says ‘alight’. I won’t go through all of the steps I have listed, but here are their descriptions of the changement, which I think illustrate the point I am grappling with.

Strathy says:

‘Of the step named Changement de Jambe.

Place the body as directed for the deportment, the feet in the fifth position; balance the body equally on both legs, bend low by folding the knees outward, rise without jerking, and make the feet pass by the first position, the one to the place of the other, the knees extended, and the points or toes turned down, so as the feet may be in a line with the legs, the points near the floor, where they will fall by the weight of the body: place the heels gently, the feet in the fifth position; keep the knees straight.’

While Gourdoux-Daux says:

‘On the motion called Change of Foot, in the third position.

To perform this step, place yourself in the third position, firm on the hips and knees, with the toes properly turned out. Bend down equally upon both knees and insteps, (without raising the heels from the floor) rise up gradually, just high enough to enable you to bend the instep so as to cause the toes to be in a perpendicular line with the leg, as much as possible. Cross your feet as in the first position, viz. the heels close together, and alighting on the floor on the toes, bring the heels gradually down in the third position and straighten up your knees.’

Both descriptions suggest a jump that isn’t quite a jump, since the dancer rises only high enough to fully point the feet. The motive force for the step seems to come from the feet as much as the plié, making it closer to the modern rélevé than a jump. So, in regency dancing, are jumps closer to the demi-jeté or perhaps the ‘relever en sautant dessus’ of the contretemps in baroque dance?

Another word that turns up regularly in these treatises is ‘slide’, used in the description of the assemblé (for the initial movement of the working foot) as well as in the glissade (which is obviously linked to the baroque step with its pas glissés). A sliding step does not, of course, leave the floor.

For another project, I have been re-reading a study of balls and assemblies 1660-1840 where I came across a short discussion of changes to the dancing floors around the regency period. The evidence was somewhat contradictory. Apparently sprung floors were being introduced at much the same time as floors became highly polished – the one facilitating springing steps while the other encouraged sliding steps. Did they indeed affect the dancing style and technique of the time – perhaps further research is needed?

So, to return to my original problem, was regency dancing full of small jumps similar to those taught in a modern ballet class? Or was it based on jumps that weren’t quite jumps, making it lively and bouncy but with the emphasis on controlled vivacity rather than aerial feats?

 

 

Pas de Zephyr: the Step

I first came across the pas de Zephyr a few years ago at a workshop on early 19th-century quadrilles. The name, as well as the step itself, caught my attention. It was taught as part of a dance vocabulary, drawn from contemporary sources, that was very like ballet. I wanted to know more and recently I’ve finally found time to do some research into this step.

So far I have found the pas de Zephyr described in four manuals of social dancing:

  • Edward Payne, The Quadrille Dancer (London, 1818). I discovered this version transcribed on the Regency Dances website and I have yet to look at a copy of the original manual;
  • Alexander Strathy, Elements of the Art of Dancing (Edinburgh, 1822), this was the version I first encountered;
  • Charles Mason, A Short Essay on the French Danse de Société (London, 1827);
  • Giacomo Costa, Saggio analitico-practico intorno all’arte della danza (Turin, 1831).

There may well be other sources that also include it, although I have not found it in the manuals by Carlo Blasis or in Théleur’s 1831 Letters on Dancing. It doesn’t seem to appear in 18th-century dance manuals either.

The four sources I have been able to consult all describe the step slightly differently. Here is Payne’s description, as transcribed on the Regency Dances website:

‘Pas de Zephyr

To perform this step with the right foot behind, in the 4th position sink on your left foot, at the same time making an opening, or half circle with the right, to the 4th position behind, rising with a gentle spring on your left, at the same time making a half circle with the right, to the 4th position before, then bound forward on your right foot, with the knees perfectly extended, and make a battment [sic] with the left, finishing in the 4th position off the floor, repeat the same with the left foot before, to this add two Jettés on your right foot, two on the left, one on your right, one on the left, and finish with a Jetté et assemblé.

This step is applied when you advance, huit measures, tout seul, in la Pastoralle, and occupies eight bars, four advancing and four retiring.’

The pas de Zephyr is presumably not the entire enchainement, only the step Payne explains in detail.

Strathy’s version goes like this:

‘Pas de Zéphyre or Pas Battu

To perform this Step forward with the Right Leg.

Place the feet in the fifth position, the left foot before; balance the body entirely on the left leg; bend on it, and at the same time slide the right foot, on the point, back to the fourth position; rise on the point of the left foot, bring up the right foot to the third position behind, and, sustaining yourself still on the point of the left foot, pass the right foot by the first position into the fifth position before; then gently place the heels.’

By ‘rise on the point’ Strathy presumably means a rise onto the ball of the foot and not onto the tips of the toes. He offers several variations of the pas de Zephyr, beginning with those which have an extension of the free foot to second position rather than fourth. Strathy’s pas de Zephyr is notable for its use of a rise instead of a jump.

Mason writes as follows:

‘Jeté Ballonné et Tems de Zephyre

Make a jeté before with the right foot, disengaging the left to a fourth position behind; then ballonné or sissonne upon the right, pointing the left to a fourth before; reverse it; if, as you make the ballonné, a little battement forward and back be made with the other foot, it becomes a tems de zephyre.’

Although he gives it a different name, Mason’s version is similar to Payne’s.

I don’t have access to a good translation of Costa’s version (and my Italian is not up to a reliable translation of my own) but here is what he has to say in the original Italian:

‘Passo dello Zeffiro

Il piede destro che sta in quarta avanti per aria, gettasi a terra piegando, e distendendo il piede che sta addietro, s’incava alla quarta in aria avanti; gettando a terra il sinistro, piegando, s’incava nuovamente il destro alla quarta in aria avanti, e si avranno fatti due passi di seguito, sempre avanti.

Contiene esso due tempi soltanto, uno piegato, l’altro disteso. Il primo nel gettare a terra il piede che sta alla quarta in aria, piegando le ginocchia; il secondo, uscendo avanti il piede che trovasi addietro nell’atto che distendonsi le ginocchia, e che il piede che sta per terra fa il salticello, che discesi jeté.’

Costa’s explanation is notable for omitting the battement, which seems to me to be a fundamental element of the pas de Zephyr.

A very basic analysis of these four versions of the pas de Zephyr suggest that it is a pas composé which brings together a jeté, a sissonne and a battement (the last two performed either sequentially or simultaneously). Strathy omits the opening jeté called for by Payne and Mason, while Costa (apparently) substitutes a second jeté for the sissonne. Looking at modern technical dictionaries of classical ballet, I wonder if the pas de Zephyr relates to the brisé or the brisé vole. I suggest that all the versions in social dance manuals are modifications of a more demanding step for the stage. I will discuss a possible choreographic source for that stage step in a later post.

Strathy’s Elements

Alexander Strathy’s Elements of the Art of Dancing was published in Edinburgh in 1822. In his introduction, Strathy observes ‘Dancing may be said to be to the body, what reading is to the mind … It embellishes and perfects the work of nature, and enables us to present ourselves in society with an amiable and becoming ease’. He ends by explaining ‘Although the elementary steps described in this essay apply to dancing in general, I have more especially in view that style of dancing denominated La Danse de la Ville, or the Quadrille’. Despite his emphasis on social dancing, Strathy’s treatise makes considerable demands on amateur dancers.

A first clue to these demands appears in the second plate, showing a young lady ready to dance. The positions of the feet at the bottom of the page are recognisably derived from ballet, and require a full ninety-degree turnout.

Strathy Plate Lady

Strathy. Elements of the Art of Dancing (1822), plate II.

Strathy does indeed describe these positions (which had been established in the mid-17th century) and emphasises the importance of proper turnout of the legs. He goes on to describe several training exercises, from bends and rises to various grand battements and petit battements while holding on to a support for balance. Many of these still form part of the barre work in a ballet class today.

Strathy’s steps include assemblés, jetés, glissades, sissonnes, temps levés, chassés and changements. Some of these relate closely to their modern ballet equivalents while others differ in certain respects. One important difference is the omission of the jump from assemblés and jetés. These are performed with a sink and rise, which provides a similar effect but makes them more elegant and provides a contrast with the other jumped steps. Some steps seem to have been taken from the stage, for example the pas de Zéphyre (which I will explore further in a later post).

Strathy’s little treatise is a good place to start for dancers willing, and with the skill, to add more demanding steps to their quadrilles. It is also a great introduction to early 19th-century dance for those with some background in ballet.