In my post exploring who may have performed the Cyclops in John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus, I promised to take a closer look at the Miller’s Dance occasionally given among the entr’acte entertainments in London’s theatres. Apart from trying to shed more light on the performances within Weaver’s dance drama, I’ll investigate whether it is possible to get some idea of the dancing within those pieces for which we know little other than the title and names of the performers.
Dances with the word ‘Miller’ in the title were given on the London stage from at least the first decade of the 18th century into the 1760s. For reasons as yet unclear (but probably to do with individual performers), they seem to have disappeared from the repertoire between the mid-1710s and early 1720s and for most of the 1730s. In this post, I will concentrate on the earliest period – from around 1703-1704 to 1715-1716. These are the dances in which some of the ‘Comedians’ who may have danced the Cyclops appeared.
The earliest Miller’s Dance recorded in advertisements is a solo given by William Pinkethman at Drury Lane on 5 June 1704, which he repeated on 10 August. There is nothing to indicate the music or the nature of the dance. A few seasons later, on 26 December 1707 also at Drury Lane, the advertisement specified that the dancing would include ‘an old English Dance call’d, Miller’s Dance’. This might suggest the use of a familiar tune and could, perhaps, link the dance to Miller’s Jig first published in the 7th edition of John Playford’s The Dancing Master in 1686. This tune appeared in every subsequent edition up to the 18th around 1728, so it must have been well known. Only three dancers were billed in the entr’actes that evening, so it seems the Miller’s Dance couldn’t have been a country dance. It is possible that Pinkethman reprised his solo, since he gave an ‘Equi-vocal Epilogue after the old English manner’ for the main play that same evening.
During the 1709-1710 season there were, ostensibly, three different versions of the Miller’s Dance at Drury Lane. On 25 March 1710, Leigh and Prince performed a Miller’s Dance which they repeated at least once, on 23 May. On 12 April, Leigh and Birkhead danced Miller and his Wife. Was the Miller’s Dance given on 25 April by unnamed performers performed by Leigh and Prince or Leigh and Birkhead? The Miller and his Wife was given at the Greenwich theatre in 1710-1711 and 1711-1712, when the company included Leigh. This dance may well have been the same as the one he performed with Birkhead.
The third dance was the Whimsical Dance between a Miller, his Wife, and a Town Miss, first given at Pinkethman’s Greenwich theatre on 5 August 1710 and repeated at five more performances before the end of the summer season there. The only performer billed for this trio was Leigh as the Miller’s Wife. In 1714-1715 and again in 1715-1716 a Miller’s Dance was given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by James Spiller, his wife Elizabeth and Leigh. Could this have been the Whimsical Dance of a few years earlier? Elizabeth Spiller performed with the Greenwich company in 1709-1710 and her husband may well have done so too. The title Whimsical Dance between a Miller, his Wife, and a Town Miss suggests some characterisation and comic action, including the low comedy associated with a cross-dressed Miller’s Wife. Spiller was adept at playing old men (in 1710 he was, apparently, only 18) and he presumably danced the Miller. Hogarth’s benefit ticket shows him some 10 years later.Despite these clues, there is no way of knowing what any of these Miller’s Dances were like. No music survives for any of them. The dancing would surely have been the antithesis of la belle danse, although it is unlikely to have had its own vocabulary of steps.
How did audiences recognise that it was a ‘Miller’s Dance’? Was the advertisement of the title in the evening’s bill enough? Was the dance familiar from earlier (but unrecorded) performances? Were there very obvious mimed actions? Did the music provide a strong clue? The dance is likely to have been performed against whatever scenery was in place for that evening’s play, which might even have conflicted with the piece on offer. There are many things we simply don’t know about entr’acte dancing on the London stage in the 18th century.