Tag Archives: Kellom Tomlinson

When is a Changement not a Changement?

Among the many steps notated by Feuillet in Choregraphie one looks in vain for one named ‘changement’ or indeed for notation of a step that is recognisable as one. This basic step is described thus in a modern dictionary of classical ballet:

‘Changements are springing steps in the fifth position, the dancer changing feet in the air and alighting in the fifth position with the opposite foot in front.’

When I wrote my PhD thesis back in the 1990s, I compiled a ‘Glossary of Terms for Early Eighteenth-Century Dance’ which, in shortened form, became Appendix II. I combed through all of the principal sources for the dance vocabulary and technique of the period, but I did not find any sign of the changement.

I obviously did not do my research thoroughly enough, for in his The Art of Dancing of 1735 Kellom Tomlinson wrote of the changement in the context of two different pas composés, although he did not use that term. In chapter XXIX, he calls it a ‘Spring with both feet at the same Time’ and describes a pas tombé ending with:

‘half the Weight [on the left foot] in the fourth Position behind the right Foot, with the Knees bent … from whence the Spring is immediately made with both Feet, … changing the right Foot backwards and the left forwards’ (p. 87)

I have omitted the references to the timing of the step. Tomlinson provides notation of the pas composé ‘Fall, Spring with both Feet at the same Time, and Coupee to a Measure’ which actually shows the ‘Spring with both Feet’ starting and finishing in the 3rd position.

Tomlinson Plate I (2)

Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), plate I (detail)

In chapter XXX, Tomlinson calls it an ‘upright Spring’, referring to it as part of ‘the Close beating before and falling behind in the third Position, upright Spring changing to the same before, and Coupee to a Measure’. He again provides notation of the pas composé.

Tomlinson Plate I (3)

Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), plate I (detail)

A fresh look at Feuillet’s step tables reveals another piece of information I overlooked. In his ‘Table des Cabrioles’, Feuillet notates a ‘cabriole droitte le pied devant retombe derriere’.

Cabrioles Feuillet 2 (2)

Feuillet, Choregraphie (Paris, 1701), pl. 85

This is, of course, a changement with the addition of a beat of the legs in the air.

My interest is not so much in the changement as in its use in notated dances in relation to jumps incorporating pas battus – in particular entrechats. Did female professional dancers of the early 1700s really only ever do changements while their male counterparts did entrechats-quatre and entrechats-six? Do the notated dances perhaps suggest otherwise?

The Pas de Menuet and Its Timing

Between 1688 and 1787 more than twenty different sources provide information about how to dance the minuet. They give a variety of details and I am not going to work through all of them. My interest here is the pas de menuet, the step that defines the dance, and its musical timing. The pas de menuet has four steps to be performed over six musical beats, two bars of music in triple time. As the dance manuals make clear there were a number of different versions of the step and various solutions to the issue of timing.

For some reason, Feuillet did not include minuet steps in his first edition of Choregraphie in 1700. He added them to the second edition of 1701 in a ‘Supplément des Pas’, notating four different versions of the pas de menuet.

Pas de Menuet Feuillet (2)

Feuillet, Choregraphie, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1701), Supplément de Pas (detail)

Feuillet provides no information about the timing of the step. He did address musical timing in his ‘Traité de la Cadance’ at the beginning of his 1704 collection of ‘Entrées de Ballet’ by Guillaume-Louis Pecour. He didn’t include the pas de menuet among his examples.

In his Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister (1717), Gottfried Taubert describes the same four versions of the pas de menuet as Feuillet – the pas de menuet en un seul mouvement, the pas de menuet à la boëmienne, the pas de menuet en fleuret and the pas de menuet à trois mouvements. He discusses timing in some detail, preferring the pas de menuet à la boëmienne because it accords best with his notions of the relationship between the steps and the musical bars.

‘It begins with the bend on the upbeat or last quarter-note of the previous measure; the rise comes on the downbeat of the new measure, and, while the legs remain extended, the right foot steps forward; on the second beat the body holds steady in the raised position; on the third beat the first stiff step is taken with the left foot. On the first beat of the next measure, another stiff step is taken with the right foot, adding a very quick bend of the knees at the end; rise again on the second beat, and in doing so step forward with the left leg. On the upbeat there is another bend right away, with the right so placed as to connect this compound step with the next.’ [Translated by Tilden Russell, The Compleat Dancing Master. 2 vols. (New York, 2012), vol. 2, p. 526]

Taubert does not like the popular pas de menuet en fleuret, because it does not accord with his aesthetic-musical preferences. He grudgingly accepts a timing which gives the first demi-coupé to the first bar and the fleuret to the second.

In Le Maître a danser (1725), Pierre Rameau describes the pas de menuet à trois mouvements and the pas de menuet en fleuret (which he calls the pas de menuet à deux mouvements). He gives the timing for the latter.

‘… which is performed within the Compass of two Barrs of triple Time, one called the Cadence, and the other the Contre-Cadence. But for the better Apprehension, it may be divided into three equal Parts; the First for the first half Coupee, the Second for the Second, and the Third for the two Walks, which ought to take up no longer Time than a half Coupee: But in the last Walk it is to be observed, that the Heel be set down to be able to make a Sink to begin another Step. [Translated by John Essex, The Dancing-Master (London, 1728), p. 44]

Kellom Tomlinson wrote his treatise The Art of Dancing in the mid-1720s, although it was not published until 1735. He describes three pas de menuet: Feuillet’s pas de menuet à la boëmienne, with its demi-coupés at the beginning and the end, which he calls the ‘English Minuet Step’; the pas de menuet en fleuret, which he calls both the ‘French Minuet Step’ and the ‘New Minuet Step’; and the pas de menuet en trois mouvements. His timing for the pas de menuet en fleuret gives the first bar to the opening demi-coupé, with the rise on the first beat, lowering the heel but keeping the knees straight on the second beat and sinking on the third beat. The second bar is given to the fleuret, with the rise of the demi-coupé on the first beat, the second step on the second beat and the third step on the third beat. Tomlinson does not specify the timing of the sink preparatory to the first demi-coupé.

When he writes of the pas de menuet sideways to the right, Tomlinson prescribes the pas de menuet en fleuret, using the same timing as that travelling forwards. When he comes to the ‘Minuet Step of three Movements’ (which, confusingly, he also calls the ‘New Step’), Tomlinson sets out a different timing.

‘The Rising or Receiving the Weight upon the Toe or Instep marks the Time to the first Note of the three belonging to the first Measure; the second is in the Fall of the Heel and Sink which prepares for the second Step of the four belonging to the Minuet Step, which is made by stepping of the left Foot forwards, in the same Manner as the first; and the Rising or Receiving of the Body upon the Instep is to the third and last note of the first Measure. The third Step of the said four is made with the right Foot stepping a plain straight Step forwards upon the Toe to the first Note of the three in the second Measure; the second is in the coming down of the Heel of the said right Foot and Sink that prepares for the fourth and last Step which is with the left Foot, in stepping forwards from the Sink aforesaid; and the Rising or Receiving of the Weight upon the Toe is to the third Note of the second Measure of the Tune, concluding in the same Position from whence it begun …’ [Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735), p. 110]

In his own notated version of the ballroom minuet (plate U in the treatise), Tomlinson uses the pas de menuet à trois mouvements whenever the dancers are travelling to the left.

I promised not to look at every treatise on the minuet, but I will include just one more, Malpied’s Traité sur l’art de la danse, which gives a late 18th-century version of this long-lived duet. Towards the end of his text he turns to the minuet and provides not only his own notation of the ballroom minuet but also examples of the timing of the pas de menuet en fleuret (the only step he uses).

Pas de Menuet Malpied (2)

Malpied, Traité sur l’art de la danse (Paris, 1770?), p. 100

His timings for the pas de menuet are closely related to those of Rameau, although Malpied was writing some fifty years later.

I ought to mention that modern practitioners of the art of baroque dance interpret these various instructions in different ways. One area of divergence is the timing of the plié at the beginning of the first demi-coupé – is it on beat 6 of the preceding bar, or on the ‘and’ which precedes the first beat of the bar in which the pas de menuet begins?

 

A Year of Dance: 1717

1717 was a busy year on the London stage, at least so far as dancing was concerned. With hindsight, the most significant event was the performance at the Drury Lane Theatre on 2 March 1717 of John Weaver’s ‘New Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing after the Manner of the Antient Pantomimes’ The Loves of Mars and Venus – now widely recognised as the first modern ballet. Weaver followed it up on 2 April with a ‘New Dramatick Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’, The Shipwreck; or, Perseus and Andromeda. Together, the two afterpieces were surely intended to show the full range of the expressive dancing that Weaver was eager to promote. On 5 December 1717, Weaver’s Harlequin Turn’d Judge was given at Drury Lane. It was later advertised as an ‘Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ but was, to all intents and purposes, a pantomime (a genre new to London’s theatres). Both The Loves of Mars and Venus and Harlequin Turn’d Judge were successful enough to survive into the 1720s.

The popularity of Weaver’s danced afterpieces attracted several responses from John Rich at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Rich began with The Cheats; or, The Tavern Bilkers on 22 April 1717. The alternative title apparently refers to a much earlier piece by Weaver, which the dancing master claimed was performed at Drury Lane in 1702. Although, as Weaver’s The Tavern Bilkers was never revived, how did Rich know about it? A few months later, Rich turned his attention to Weaver’s new ballet with Mars and Venus; or, The Mouse Trap, given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 22 November 1717. He then produced Colombine; or, Harlequin Turn’d Judge on 11 December. Neither of Rich’s ripostes were anything like as successful as the originals. However, The Jealous Doctor; or, The Intriguing Dame, a pantomime given at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 29 April 1717 continued to be popular until the mid-1720s.

All these afterpieces had casts of dancers, and Rich did not neglect entr’acte dancing. His star dancers in 1717 were the ‘two Children, Scholars of M Ballon, lately arriv’d from the Opera at Paris’. Francis and Marie Sallé had made their London debut at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 18 October 1716. Rich billed them frequently, in a varied repertoire of serious and comic dances, between then and their last performance on 20 June 1717. Was their ‘New Comic Scene’ entitled The Loves of Harlequin and Colombine, given on 23 April 1717, intended as another hit at The Loves of Mars and Venus? They also performed ‘The Submission, a new Dance, compos’d by Kellom’ on 21 February 1717 demonstrating their versatility.

Kellom Tomlinson’s The Submission was one of the only two notated dances to be published in London this year. The other was L’Abbé’s The Royal George, according to newspaper advertisements published ‘for the Princess’s Birth Day’ in March 1717 although the title page says only a ‘A New Dance … for the Year 1717’. The title must thus honour the Prince of Wales her husband. Fortunately, the dance appeared several months before the serious quarrel between the King and his son the following November, which would divide the royal family for the next few years. The other noteworthy cultural event of 1717 was the first performance on 17 July of Handel’s Water Music for George I as he travelled by barge along the River Thames.

In Paris, the annual dance publication was the XV Recüeil de danses pour l’année 1717 published by Dezais. It contained three short ballroom duets, La Clermont and La de Bergue by Claude Ballon and La Ribeyra by Dezais himself. The last of them was dedicated ‘A Madame l’Ambassatrice de Portugal’, providing an insight into the naming of such choreographies. At the Paris Opéra, besides the usual revivals of works by Lully, André Campra was represented not only by revivals of his Fragments de M. Lully and Tancrède but also by a new opera Camille, Reine des Volsques given on 9 November 1717 (N.S.).

The most important dance publication of the year, at least for many 21st-century dance historians, was Gottfried Taubert’s monumental treatise Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister which appeared in Leipzig and provided a German view of French dancing. It shows not only how influential la belle danse was around Europe but also how this French style and technique could be moulded to suit other national tastes and ideas.

 

Reconstructing Isaac’s Rigadoon

After several sessions, I have finally learnt the whole of Isaac’s Rigadoon and I am beginning to feel comfortable enough with the choreography to work on shaping it as if for performance.

Isaac focusses on the changing rhythms and shifting dynamics of the Rigadoon’s steps. The footwork is not complicated, there are no quasi-theatrical steps but they are difficult to perform clearly and accurately, particularly at speed. The dance does need to be quite fast to make its proper effect. Isaac repeats steps and even short sequences, but he never exactly replicates sequences elsewhere in the choreography. I have found The Rigadoon quite hard to learn and I am still struggling to find the best way to perform the basic steps. How far should these travel? How much spring should there be in the jettés that come at the end of so many of them? I have performed many of the notated theatrical dances, which need amplitude and force even in basic steps. The Rigadoon requires neither, although it certainly demands swift and lively dancing.

The famous figure with glissades, that according to Kellom Tomlinson ‘forms a perfect Square’ (The Art of Dancing, p. 56), is very hard to get right.

Isaac Rigadoon 2

Isaac, The Rigadoon (1706), plate 2/15.

Each bar has two glissades and so has two mouvements and two steps with glissé. These need fast reactions in feet and ankles and downward pressure, without being heavy. The notation of the pas de bourées used to turn the corners is interesting. Each is different and three of them apparently require the first demi-coupé to move on an outward diagonal. I haven’t got this right yet, but it must surely serve to align the partners within the dancing space as well as with each other. The perfect square is formed by the paths of both dancers, who should end where they began but facing each other up and down the room instead of across it. I would love to work on this figure with a partner.

It is hard to get a proper sense of the figures in a duet when working on it alone. This is particularly true of the asymmetric figure in The Rigadoon, in which the man performs three quarter-turn sprung pirouettes as the woman dances around him with pas de bourées and he then moves around her with a coupé, a contretems with a bound and a pas de bourée as she does a coupé to first position, a half-turn pirouette and a coupé.

Isaac Rigadoon 4

Isaac, The Rigadoon (1706), plate 4/17

It is such a shame that I am unlikely to get to work on this dance with a partner. I would love to sort out exactly what happens in this section and how it should be performed.

I can’t really analyse the whole dance within a single blog post, so I will just look at those of Isaac’s choreographic effects that I really enjoy (from the point of view of the lady, as this is the side I have been working on). One is his use of the coupé to first position, in the second B section and the third A section. It brings the dancer to a dynamic stop after a lively sequence of pas de bourées. In both cases it is followed by a pirouette. The two B sections in the third AABB repeat reveal Isaac’s love of rhythm as well as his wit. The first B sequence comes at the top of the page, just below the music, in the plate illustrated above. There is a little game with the mouvement in demi-coupés, coupé and pas de bourée. Then in the second B (on the next plate of the dance, not shown here) there is a contrast between sliding steps and springs in two consecutive pas de bourée. I love the way Isaac has the couple bound towards one another before turning to face the back in order to travel away from the presence. Even though I can’t try this out with a partner, it always makes me smile.

The point is, of course, that Isaac’s Rigadoon isn’t simply a difficult dance exercise. It is a challenging choreography that is rewarding to learn and wonderful fun to perform. The same is true of the other dances by him that I have performed, including The Richmond, The Saltarella, The Pastorall and even The Union.

 

‘Of the Close beating before …’ Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (1735)

Kellom Tomlinson devotes chapter XXX of Book 1 of The Art of Dancing to one particular pas composé, ‘the Close beating before and falling behind in the third Position, upright Spring changing to the same before, and Coupee to a Measure’. The ‘Close beating before and falling behind’ appears in Feuillet’s Choregraphie in the ‘Table des Pas de Sissonne’ (p. 81) – in modern ballet terminology the step is an assemblé battu. The ‘upright Spring changing to the same before’ does not appear in Choregraphie – it is the equivalent of the modern changement. The coupé is, of course, one of the fundamental steps of la belle danse. As Tomlinson says, all three elements must be performed within a single bar of music. He provides notation for the pas composé in his Plate I.

Tomlinson Art of Dancing Plate I (detail)

Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (1735), Plate I (detail).

Tomlinson also refers to two dances where this pas composé is used. Both can be identified as choreographies by Guillaume-Louis Pecour from the 1704 Recueil de dances, the first published collection of his entrées de ballet. One is the Entrée pour deux hommes ‘Dancée par Mr. Piffetau et Mr. Cherrier au Ballet de l’Europe galante’, for which the music is a loure – the ‘Air pour les espagnols’ from the Entrée ‘L’Espagne’. The other is the Entrée Espagnolle pour un homme et une femme ‘Dancée par Mr. Balon et Mlle. Subligny au Ballet de l’Europe galante’, for which the music is the ‘Air. Rondeau’ also from ‘L’Espagne’ – the music is in triple time but is not identifiable with a particular dance type. Is it simply coincidence that both are ‘Spanish’ dances?

Tomlinson adds that this pas composé is usually followed by a coupé avec ouverture de jambe, to allow it to be repeated on the other foot. In the Entrée pour deux hommes, it is followed by a coupé avec ouverture de jambe ornamented with an additional ‘tour de jambe’ (Feuillet’s term for a pas rond with no transfer of weight). In the Entrée Espagnolle pour un homme et une femme, the coupé avec ouverture de jambe incorporates a beat. In neither dance is Tomlinson’s pas composé then repeated.

Is this pas composé widely used? Does it appear in dances without ‘Spanish’ connotations? I looked through the three published collections of theatre dances, together with Feuillet’s 1700 Recueil of his own choreographies (which are not described as theatrical, but have close links to the genre of stage dances). The step does not appear at all in Feuillet’s 1700 collection, although some of the men’s dances include what is obviously a related sequence over two bars of music. Using modern terminology, this is an assemblé battu followed by a changement in the first bar and either a pas de bourée or a coupé in the second. This and other variants occur in a number of stage choreographies. Here I will look only at occurrences of the step as described by Tomlinson.

In Pecour’s Recueil de dances of 1704, apart from Tomlinson’s two examples, the step appears in the following dances.

Passacaille pour une femme, music from Gatti’s Scylla (1701). The onstage characters are Plaisirs. (plate 31)

Sarabande à deux, a male-female duet to music from Campra’s Tancrède (1702). The onstage characters are Plaisirs. (plate 131)

Loure pour deux hommes, music from Gatti’s Scylla (1701). The onstage characters are Candiots. In the loure, each bar contains two distinct pas composés – this occurs as the second. (plate 175)

Chaconne de Phaeton pour un homme, music from Lully’s Phaeton (1683, latest revival before this collection of dances 1702). This solo was not danced at the Paris Opéra, so we do not know which (if any) character was danced. (plate 186)

L’Aimable Vainqueur, a solo for a man to music from Campra’s Hésione (1700). This solo was not danced at the Paris Opéra and the character danced (if any) is unknown. (plate 209)

Sarabande pour un homme, music otherwise unknown and not danced at the Paris Opéra. (plate 215)

Folies d’Espagne pour un homme, to the well-known tune. (plate 224)

In all the dances, the pas composé is followed by a coupée avec ouverture de jambe, with a variety of ornaments. In six cases, it comes towards the end of the choreography although in three of these a variant version appears earlier in the dance.

In Pecour’s Nouveau Recueil de Dance de Bal (c1713), the step appears in one dance only – the Passacaille pour une femme to music from Lully’s Armide (1686, latest revival before this collection 1703. The 1713 revival must have come after the collection was prepared for publication). This solo is stated to have been ‘dancée par Mlle. Subligny en Angleterre’. In the opera the character is a demon disguised as an Amante Fortunée. The choreography apparently belongs to the period 1701-1702, when Mlle Subligny danced in London, where this dance may have been performed simply as a virtuosic belle danse solo. The pas composé appears twice (plates 84, 86). The second time the following bar has three jettés backwards (the first a jetté battu), since the pas composé itself initiates the dancer’s final retreat as she ends her solo.

Pecour Passacaille Armide 86

Pecour, Nouveau Recueil de Dance de Bal [c1713], ‘Passacaille pour une femme’, final plate.

Tomlinson’s version of this pas composé is not used in L’Abbé’s A New Collection of Dances (c1725), although it appears in variant versions in several of the choreographies.

Does all of this tell us anything about how baroque dance vocabulary was used? It seems that Tomlinson’s ‘Close beating before and falling behind in the third Position, upright Spring changing to the same before, and Coupee to a Measure’ is a step used in theatre dance, but it has few ‘Spanish’ connotations. In its basic form it seems to have been most popular in the early 1700s, according to the evidence provided by the musical sources as well as the notated dances. By the 1710s, it was more often used in variant forms. Perhaps it provides evidence of changing choreographic tastes, unless it simply indicates differences in style between individual dancing masters.

‘Spanish’ dancing and the dance treatises

Spanish dancing features very little in the early 18th-century dance treatises. Feuillet makes no reference to Spanish styles and techniques of dancing in Choregraphie, except for a section ‘De la batterie des Castagnettes’ towards the end of the manual. He provides notation for the arm movements as well as castanet beats to accompany steps danced to the Folie d’Espagne melody. His little 16-bar choreography does not correspond to any of the four Folie d’Espagne dances that survive in notation. In particular, it does not have the 8-bar repeat structure found in those but is through-composed. Feuillet says nothing about castanets being Spanish, but his choice of the Folie d’Espagne music for his example suggests the link. In his translation Orchesography, John Weaver omits Feuillet’s section on castanets altogether.

In his Neue und Curieuse Theatrialische Tantz-Schul of 1716, Lambranzi includes a plate showing a solo male dancer performing to the Folie d’Espagne tune. He says only:

‘In this dance pas de courante, pas graves, ballonnés, pas de sissonne and pas de chaconne must be employed, together with such other pas as the dancer may select.’

There is nothing inherently Spanish about the steps listed (except that the chaconne has a Spanish origin) and the dancer is not shown holding castanets. So is the dance ‘Spanish’ at all, apart from its music?

Lambranzi Folie 1-3

Lambranzi, Neue und Curieuse Theatrialische Tantz-Schul (1716), Part 1, plate 3

In his 1717 treatise Rechtschaffener Tantz-Meister, Taubert includes notation for five Folie d’Espagne variations for a solo woman. These were presumably taken directly from Feuillet’s choreography in his 1700 Recueil de dances. Taubert includes it as an example of ‘high theatrical’ dance. He says nothing about it being Spanish, but he probably assumed that the title of the music would speak for itself.

Pierre Rameau makes no mention of Spanish steps or dances in either of the treatises he published in 1725, Le Maître a danser and Abbrégé de la nouvelle méthode. This is possibly because his focus was solely on ballroom dancing. At that period, ‘Spanish’ dances were almost all intended for the stage.

By contrast, in The Art of Dancing Kellom Tomlinson refers several times to ‘Spanish’ dances, all of them stage choreographies. In his explanation of ‘the Close beating before and falling behind in the third Position, upright Spring changing to the same before, and Coupee to a Measure’ he cites Pecour’s ‘Spanish Entree for two Men’ and ‘Entree Espagnole for a Man and a Woman’ as dances within which this pas composé was used. Was there anything particularly ‘Spanish’ about this combination, or were the two dances merely ones with which Tomlinson was familiar as sources for a step sequence he liked? I will come back to this sequence in a later post.

In his 1762 A Treatise on the Art of Dancing, Giovanni-Andrea Gallini comments:

‘In Spain, they have a dance, called, Les Folies d’Espagne, which is performed either by one or by two, with castanets. There is a dress peculiarly adapted to it, which has a very pleasing effect, as well as the dance itself.’

His remarks are picturesque but, apart from the linking of castanets with ‘Spanish’ dancing and the tantalising reference to the dress ‘peculiarly adapted to it’, they are not particularly informative.

Far more helpful is Gennaro Magri in his Trattato Teorico-Prattico di Ballo published in Naples in 1779. Magri discusses ‘Spanish’ positions alongside the long-established true and false positions (which feature in Feuillet’s Choregraphie). They correspond to the five true positions, except that the feet are in parallel and not turned out. Magri also points out that both false and Spanish positions occur in pas tortillés, which are recorded in early 18th-century treatises and notations. This suggest another possible line of enquiry.

So, there are some pointers to the style and technique of ‘Spanish’ dancing in the 18th century. I should make it clear that my interest here is in ‘Spanish’ dancing as it might have been performed on the London stage in the early 1700s, where it was most likely filtered through ‘French’ dancing.

 

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.