Baroque Dance — 17th and 18th centuries

Baroque dance is the conventional name given to the style of dancing that had its origins during the seventeenth century and dominated the eighteenth century until the French Revolution. Louis XIV was a major influence in its development and promotion. Even at the age of fourteen, Louis was an accomplished dancer: playing the sun god Apollo in the ‘Ballet de la Nuit’ (1653), he acquired the epithet Le Roi Soleil that he was to cultivate throughout his life.

In 1661, Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse. This academy was responsible for devising a system of notation (first published by Raoul Auger Feuillet in his book Chorégraphie in 1700) to enable dancing masters more readily to assimilate the new style of dancing and to learn new dances. It became customary to publish each season’s new dances in this notation, in readiness for performance at court balls and other grand occasions.

While the French style of dancing had prominence throughout most of Europe (including Britain, Germany and Russia), contemporary Italy saw the parallel development of a distinct Italian style. Dancing masters in Italy were described as either ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ in accordance with the style they specialised in.

The French Style

The French Style was developed and regulated at the Académie Royale de Danse, where professional dancers, both male and female, were trained. Distinctive features of the new style were the turnout of legs and feet, the oppositional use of arms and the preliminary plié, or sinking of the body over a bent leg before making a step. The subsequent rise then served to emphasise the beginning of the step. There was a basic vocabulary of approximately twenty steps, though these were performed with many subtle variations.

A baroque solo by Barbara Segal - Early Dance Circle at Charlton House

A baroque solo by Barbara Segal – Early Dance Circle at Charlton House

The same step vocabulary served for both social and theatrical dance, but it was in the theatre that the more complicated steps were seen. Professional male dancers could execute aerial beaten steps such as entrechats six and cabrioles. La Camargue or Camargo shortened her skirt to show off her footwork. Such dancing was the immediate precursor of classical ballet, which inherited the range of step-names while developing the actual steps, sometimes beyond recognition. Social dancing was perhaps less demanding, but the most complex dances were adaptations from the stage.

The standard notation was a shorthand that traced the floor pattern while defining what steps to use in its execution. To learn how to do the actual steps, we have to consult the dancing manuals of the period (see below). The placing of the arms was not generally notated, but certain rules applied which were described in the manuals, and the dancers could choose the most appropriate ones to follow for each dance or devise their own system. A wealth of information enables researchers and dancers to reconstruct dances with a fair amount of accuracy.

 The Dances

There are over 350 extant dances published in notation. There are many different types of dance, their names familiar from the dance suites of baroque composers. They can be categorised in accordance with their basic rhythm:

duple rhythm: bourée, gavotte, rigaudon, etc.

triple rhythm: chaconne, courante, minuet, sarabande

compound duple rhythm: canarie, forlana, gigue, etc.

Primary Sources

P. F. Beauchamps, Recherches sur les théâtres de France (Paris, 1735).

J. de Esquivel Navarro L. M. Brooks, The Art of Dancing in Seventeenth-Century Spain (Lewisburg, 2003) [ed. and trans., Discursos sobre el arte del danzando]

F. de Lauze, Apologie de la Danse (1623; facsimile, Genève, 1977; translation, J. Wildebloode, London, 1952).

R. A. Feuillet, Chorégraphie (Paris, 1700; facsimile, New York, 1968).

G. Lambranzi, New and Curious School of Theatrical Dancing, facsimile, trans. D. De Moroda, ed. C. W. Beaumont (Nuremberg, 1716; Mineoloa, NY: Dover, 2002.

B. de Montagut, Louange de la danse (ed. and trans., B. Ravelhofer, Cambridge & Tempe, 2000).

J. G. Noverre, Letters on Dancing and Ballets (Lyon, 1760; Trans. C. Beaumont, New York, 1966).

J. G. Pasch, Anleitung sich bei grossen Heeren Höfen und andern beliebt zu machen (ed., U. Schlottermüller et al., Freiburg, 2000)

L. G. Pécour, Recueil de dances (Paris, 1700; facsimile, Farnborough, 1970).

J. Weaver, Orchesography (English version of Feuillet, London, 1706; facsimile, Farnborough, 1971).

J. Weaver, A Small treatise of time and cadence in dancing (London, 1706; facsimile, Farnborough, 1971).

P. Rameau, Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725; facsimile, New York, 1967).

J. Essex, The Dancing Master (English version of Rameau, London, 1728).

K. Tomlinson, The art of dancing (London, 1735).

Other primary sources for French Baroque dance are listed by W. Hilton, cit. below.

Secondary Sources

J. Appleby & P. Waite, Beauchamp-Feuillet Notation: a basic guide (Cardiff, 1998).

Edmund Fairfax, The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Baroque Dance (Scarecrow Press, 2003).

W. Hilton, Dance of Court and Theater: The French Noble Style 1690-1725 (Princeton & London, 1981; 2nd ed., Dance and Music of Court & Theater, Stuyvesant, NY, 1997).

L. Matluck Brooks, The Art of Dancing in Seventeenth-Century Spain: Juan De Esquivel Navarro and His World (Bucknell, 2003)

M. McGowan, L’Art de ballet du cour en France, 1581-1643 (Paris, 1963)

R. Ralph, The Life and Works of John Weaver (London, 1985).

J. Rock, Terpsichore at Louis-le-Grand, Baroque Dance on the Jesuit Stage in Paris (Saint Louis, 1996)

For general books on historical dance and instruction-books and practice tapes see Additional Resources. The video Baroque Dance (Music, Mind & Movement, 1998) features ten representative dances.

See  Learning the Dances for details of instruction-books and recorded music produced by the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society (now HDS Historical Dance Society), by Nonsuch Productions and others.  These give interpretations of how to dance many of these dances,  along with their music.

General Books on Historical or Early Dance

B. Quirey, May I have the Pleasure? The story of popular dancing (London, 1976; reprinted, 1987)
B. Quirey & M. Holmes, Apology for History (London, 1993)
C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (English version, New York, 1937; reprinted, 1963)
J. Wildeblood, The Polite World (London, 1965; revised ed., 1973)
M. Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (London, 1952; reprinted, 1982)
M. Wood, More Historical Dances (London, 1956)
M. Wood, Advanced Historical Dances (London, 1960)