But how do you know how they danced so long ago?

By David Wilson


2nd Part

(click photograph to enlarge)


Innovations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

I have lingered in the 15th century because there is so much material, and it is so various, and most items are in some way the first known examples of their kind.  Now that we are more familiar with the range of source-material, we can proceed with greater expedition, concentrating single-mindedly on those sources that present the evidence for dancing in new (and usually better) ways.

First to attract our attention is a group of Italian dance-manuals of the later 16th and the opening years of the 17th centuries.  These are alike in containing a substantial introductory section devoted to detailed descriptions of the types of step currently in use and in making use of illustrations .  On the other hand, they are also alike in following the contemporary precepts of good literary style, which made it unthinkable, when a passage was exactly repeated in a dance, to describe it a second time in the same words as previously used.  This leaves the diligent reader uncertain if the repeated passage really is the same as before, or not.

The first in this series of manuals was Il Ballarino (The Dancer) by Fabritio Caroso (1581).  Nineteen years later he issued a drastically revised edition under the name Nobiltà di dame (1600), in which he altered the names of many of the steps to agree more closely with musical terminology and revised some dances to achieve greater formal symmetry. Caroso endears himself to us by telling not only how to do the steps, but also in some cases how not to do them.  For example, when making the step known as trabuchetto, the dancer should not copy those who end with their feet apart, looking for all the world as if they were getting ready to urinate, which is not at all nice to see.   But it was Cesare Negri in Le Gratie d’Amore (1602) who made the greatest use of illustration:  not only did he show the starting formation of each dance (often with pictures as ambiguous as his own words—the example shown in this figure shows the formation ‘in quadrangolo’), but he also demonstrated how to learn to do certain steps.  Thus, in order to practise the various forms of the caper , the dancer should support himself by pushing down onto two substantial pieces of furniture.  There is no second picture with the arms straight and the legs in motion, but this is easily supplied in imagination.

Meanwhile, in France Thoinot Arbeau had also learnt the value of illustration.  His woodcuts show steps actually being made.  Arbeau was the nom de plume of a French clergyman of mature years, and his book, called Orchésographie was published in 1589. His other special contribution was to find a way of correlating the steps with the corresponding music.  It is awkward to read the names of the steps unless they are set out horizontally, so he (or his printer) turned the music through 90°, to run down (instead of across) the page .

Not everybody was convinced of the value of illustration.  The very first words of Apologie de la danse by François de Lauze (1623) may be translated as follows:

Those who believe that to teach dancing properly from a book necessitates numerous illustrations, in order to describe more plainly the movements that should be observed in dancing, are in virtual agreement with that Orator of old, who, having to harangue in open Senate on an atrocious deed, committed this clumsy fault of setting up a picture before the eyes of the Judges, trusting more in the dumb strokes of a dead painting than to the energy of living eloquence.

The reason for mentioning de Lauze is that he chose to divide his book into two parts:  the Method for Gentlemen and the Method for Ladies.  As he remarked,

there is a difference between the steps and actions of a Gentleman and those that a Lady must make, and also there would be some confusion by instructing both together.

This is quite an innovation, as it had previously been the custom in French treatises to address the man alone, leaving it uncertain if the woman exactly copied him or not.  De Lauze’s method introduces a new kind of uncertainty, however.  He describes, for example, a basic Courante step for the man that always begins on the right foot.  For the woman he describes a basic Courante step that begins on right and left feet alternately.  Are these steps in some sense alternatives, or does he really mean the couple to traverse the room together making steps each in their own manner?  To the modern eye, the latter procedure does not look like elegant variation so much as apparent female incompetence!  It is mainly de Lauze’s arrangement of his material that leaves the reader in such uncertainty, though I suspect that he could have managed that in a variety of different ways, had he chosen to do so.

The earliest known dance treatise from Spain wasn’t published till 1642.  This was Discursos sobre el arte del dançado… by Juan de Esquivel Navarro.  It contained just one illustration, to show the difference between two kinds of reverencia .  The treatise was directed at dancing-masters rather than students and this explains the cross at the top, which indicates the position of the master, whereas the footprints are those of his pupil.  The upper prints show the natural stance.  The right foot remains in place, but there are alternative tracks for the left foot :  reverencia galana moves the foot in a straight line, whereas reverencia cierta takes it in a curve.  This is the earliest use of footprints for dance illustration that I know of and is presumably borrowed from fencing manuals, where it appeared first in France in 1573.23  You will note that we are not only given the positions of the feet by means of footprints, but also their track by means of a continuous line capable of showing changes of direction.  This is something we shall see again before the end of the century, but first we should look at a dance manual that is more widely known than most and was indeed honoured by a two-day conference two years ago.24

This is John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, first published in 1651 .  It is the earliest publication to give details of the English Country Dance.  Over 100 dances are described, each with its tune and a diagram of its basic formation.  The layout of the text reflects the generic structure of the dance .  Ordinarily, the same tune is repeated throughout the dance as many times as needed, while different figures are successively danced to it.  The various figures are presented as far as possible below the strain of music to which they are performed, internal repeats in the music being marked in the descriptions by hierarchical punctuation composed of one, two, three or four dots.  When the tune begins again, a horizontal line in the dance description marks off a new set of figures.  ‘Graies Inn Maske’ is unusual in having as many as six distinct sections in its music, but is saved from confusion by a choreography that is identical at each playing, apart from a standard variation of the introduction.   Most dances are more complex than this, and there are times when the layout has gone wrong at the printers, but in principle the design of the book is well matched to its content.

I should here add a comment about the dances, lest you suppose that rustic dancing has at last found a place here in the printed record.  The very name of ‘Country Dance’ expresses an urban viewpoint.  In Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Country Dances are only performed in an urban setting;  when dancing takes place in the country, it is always a Morris dance.  Wherever Country Dances originally came from, they had had a place in London society for at least 85 years before Playford published, and by 1651 would have been thoroughly gentrified by a succession of dancing masters.  Country Dances as we know them are as much a feature of the court and upper levels of society as any other that we know from written records.

Baroque dancing and Beauchamp-Feuillet notation

The latter part of the 17th century saw the flowering of the so-called Baroque style of dancing under the supervision of the Académie Royale de Danse (founded in 1661 by Louis XIV).  In the late 1670s Louis commissioned Pierre Beauchamp to devise a notational system to aid the publication and teaching of dances in this Baroque style.  This notation was not actually made public until the year 1700 when Raoul Feuillet devoted a book to it25 and began a programme of publishing notated dances. 

The principal features of this new notation are these .  The track of each dancer is shown as a continuous line, divided into musical bars in correspondence with the music at the top of the plate.  On either side of this track are the schematic individual tracks of individual steps.  A variety of subsidiary marks indicate sinking, rising, sliding, turning and other features of the step, carefully placed at the point in the step where they are supposed to take place.  As seen on the present plate26 this system appears simple and straightforward.  If we move to the next plate in the same dance , we see the first problem:  when a dancer advances and retreats along the same track, the signs for all his steps cannot do the same, if they are to remain legible.  The standard solution is to offset the second sequence of steps, while connecting them to what has gone before with a little dotted line.   In a relatively simple figure like this one, this is comprehensible, though it inevitably distorts the geometry of the floor-track to some extent.  In a more complex pattern, or with more than two dancers, especially when moving in circular figures , it becomes very difficult to comprehend the floor pattern intuitively and to perceive that here (for example) the two dancers take hands and go round in the same small circle approximately 1½ times before dropping hands and continuing together to the bottom of the plate.27

Although these examples are typical in showing only the movement of the feet, leaving the movement of the arms to convention and the discretion of the dancers themselves, it is nevertheless possible to show arm and head movements, as well as the use of castanets.  Some of these extra indications are obviously present in plates from ‘Chacoon for a Harlequin’ .28

At the same time, we can look at engravings of dancers portrayed as exhibiting good style, some of whom actually dance along a line of the standard notation .29

The Beauchamp-Feuillet notation is not a universal system;  it is designed specifically for the style of dancing current in France in the late 17th and early 18th century.  Within that style, and subject to its conventions, it does as much as any notation can be expected to do in recording and explaining how dances were to be performed.   Dozens and dozens of dances were published in this format.  That does not mean, of course, that there is no controversy or that we are necessarily perfectly informed.  Some dances were notated more than once, by different practitioners.  When the versions are compared and found to be different, what does that mean?  Has the dance been revised, either by the choreographer, or less explicitly by being modified in performance?  Is it more a difference of style in notational practice?  Or has the second notator himself made alterations to ‘improve’ the dance or make it conform to his own ideals?  It may or may not be possible to suggest answers to these questions.  My purpose is simply to point out that such questions are there.  As always, the more we know, the more we are aware of what we still don’t know, – but our focus is definitely narrowing.

There is a simpler version of this notation that was used for Contredanses (the French adaptation of the English longways Country Dance).  It was assumed that, unless otherwise specified, the dancers would move with fleurets or pas de bourrée.  This allowed the track of the dancers to be shown without any distracting features other than a little ‘v’ at end of each step .30  This ‘v’ represents the dancer’s turned-out feet, thereby showing not only the length of each step, but whether he is going forward, backwards or sideways.  Only when other types of step are used, is the full notation given ;  thus, in the fourth figure of ‘Micarême’ the partners in each couple make a pas de rigaudon to each other before moving to progressed positions.

A later method of showing the figures of a later type of Contredanse 31 is more compact because all reference to individual steps has been abandoned and the diagram is concerned solely with the tracks of the eight dancers.  The number of steps for each of the 15 figures is, however, given in the bottom right corner.  This square Contradanse is well on the way to becoming a set of Quadrilles.

The later-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

As we continue through the 18th and into the 19th century, there are few major developments in the presentation of dances on the printed page. 

The special Baroque notation died with the dances it was designed to record, and no comparable system was devised to replace it.

Illustration in one form or another is certainly more prevalent,

§        whether it is to show particular steps or convolutions , as in the twelve figures (or tableaux) of the Allemande in Simon Guillaume’s Almanach of 1770, or in Thomas Wilson’s plate showing nine dancing couples in different positions in his Description of German and French Waltzing (1816),

§        or more generally to show the form of the dance , as in a print of a quadrille from the 1820s.32 

The 19th century saw the appearance of a new type of publication, the Ball Room Guide.  This typically included sections on etiquette, descriptions of all types of dance then current, with some emphasis on the latest introductions, and a glossary of French terms.  There is no description of the actual steps, that being the province of the dancing class.  Some of these Guides are small enough to go in a lady’s evening bag or a gentleman’s waistcoat pocket, but there would hardly have been an opportunity for surreptitious consultation in the ballroom, even under cover of a fan, and the contents are clearly not designed with that in mind.  One example in my collection is from a major publisher, is described as ‘new and revised’ but has no date of publication;  it is one of Warne’s Bijou Books.  A second example is Madame Soutten’s Manual of the Ball Room (a New Edition with Corrections to the Present Time), issued in 1855.  It is respectfully dedicated to her pupils and should be seen as an adjunct to her Cours de Danse (held ‘on Tuesday and Friday afternoons from half-past Two to half-past Four’).  Systematic study of Ball Room Guides, even if hampered by a partial lack of dates, reveals much about changing fashions in the 19th-century ballroom.

New technology eventually brings us the photograph.  I am particularly fond of some of the plates in Edward Scott’s book of 1894 called simply Dancing (which was one of the ‘All-England Series’ of handbooks of athletic games).  These plates are quite obviously studio pictures, but like the illustrations in Figs. 37-9 they are there to guide and instruct the novice.  There are four in particular that make up a set devoted to questions of style: the first of them shows ‘Low Class Style’;  on the opposite page for contrast we see ‘High Class Style–Recommended’;  a few pages later we encounter a plate called ‘No Style’;  and finally, after another 60 pages, in the chapter on the Waltz we see ‘Very Bad Style’.  Like Fabritio Caroso, Edward Scott is not afraid to show us how not to do it.

At the end of the century there is a new technological advance:  the pictures begin to move, and it becomes possible to capture the actual movement of dancers on film.  At this point it is more than time for me to call a halt.  It must be obvious to all that the nearer I come to the present day, the less I actually know, thereby neatly reversing the perspective of my original hypothetical enquirer.  For the purposes of this talk it is the earlier centuries that are the most instructive, but I wish to assert that the lessons learnt there should not be forgotten even when dealing with the twenty-first century. 


23.   Henri de Sainct Didier, Traicté contenant les secrets … (Paris, 1573):  see Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven & London, 2000), figs. 47-8.

24    David Parsons, (ed.) John Playford and The English Dancing Master 1651 (Proceedings of the third DHDS Conference, 2001).

25       Chorégraphie ou l’art de décrire la dance … (Paris, 1700).

26    Louis Pécour, Recueil de dances (Paris, 1700), 1.

27    Ibid., 23.

28    F. le Roussau, A Chacoon for a Harlequin (London, n.d.).

29    Kellom Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735).

30    John Essex, An Essay for the Further Improvement of Dancing (London, 1715).

31       Mr. Jullien, Le Bon Ménage.  Contre-Dance Française (n.d.):  see Carol McD. Wallace et al., (eds.) Dance:  a very social history (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986), fig. 2-21.

32    Dance (see note 31), fig. 2-14.