Skip to main content

Collection An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920

Baroque Dance

Chorégraphie. Raoul-Auger Feuillet. Published 1713.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

Among the important facets in the development of French Baroque dance was the invention of a dance notation system, which was originally conceived as a method whereby courtiers could learn the fashionable dances. With the adoption of this system for recording various dances, the French court dance and manners spread far beyond the borders of France. Feuillet's 1700 publication, Chorégraphie (this online collection contains the 1713 edition), was the first to set forth charts and notations for a full range of steps and their variations, including ballonné, jeté, pas de bourrée, pas de courante, pas de gaillarde, pas de menuet, pas de passacaille, and pas de rigaudon. Multiple pirouettes and entrechats trois, quatre, cinq, six, and huit were also fully described in the literature. This step vocabulary was utilized by both ballroom and professional dancers, although the more complex steps were reserved for the stage. (See Video Clip 25 for sample steps as notated in Chorégraphie.),

Important in determining the rhythmic components of the dance, bends (pliés) were made on the upbeat of the music and risings (éléves) were performed on the downbeat. For springing steps, such as jetés, the bend and rise were performed on the upbeat; the landing falls on the downbeat.The legs were rotated out approximately forty degrees and the performance of Baroque steps was characterized by controlled, well-defined, and often rapid footwork, all to be performed effortlessly.

The dancing-master: or, The art of dancing explained. Pierre Rameau. Published 1728.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

The use of arms was very precise in Baroque dance. One arm was held sideways at hip level while the other arm circled upward and inward from the elbow. In doing so, the circling arm moved in opposition to the forward foot. In shifting weight and to use the opposite arm, the circling arm returned downward to hip level, while the other arm circled upward. Occasionally, the circling arm rotated outward. The shoulders were shaded, slightly, and the head and focus might turn toward the raised arm. Other arm gestures included a quick turn of the wrists, used in making hops or jumps. When performing steps such as balancés, where the feet were side by side, both arms remained slightly raised at hip level.

Baroque social dances were most often in the form of the couple dance, danses à deux, performed by one couple at a time. Unlike Renaissance duets that could be viewed from many angles, Baroque couple dances were designed to be viewed from the top of the hall, where the highest ranking person or persons (called presence) would sit. Opening and concluding révérences (bows and curtsies) (See Video Clip 54), were always directed toward the presence.

Per. receüil [sic] de danses de bal. Raoul-Auger Feuillet. Published 1702.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

Raoul-Auger Feuillet. Although King Louis XIV's court dancing master, Pierre Beauchamps, was given the commission to create a dance notation, it was Raoul-Auger Feuillet who first published a system in 1700. Feuillet's publication, Chorégraphie, ou l'art de décrire la dance par caractères, went through three reprints, the last of which was in 1713. In Chorégraphie, Feuillet notated the five positions of the feet, the changes of body direction, and hundreds of dance steps, as well as numerous leg ornamentations and arm positions. The Feuillet system of notation was based on tract drawings that traced the pattern of the dance. Steps were indicated by symbols written on the right- or left-hand side of the tract. Bar lines in the dance score corresponded to bar lines in the music score, and they are printed across the top of the page.

Two collections of dances were also bound into Chorégraphie. The first, Recueil de dances, composées par M. Feuillet was a collection of entrées de ballet, choreographed by Feuillet, including such dances as the virtuosic "Entrée d'Apolon." (See Video Clip 28); The second collection, Recueil de dances, composées par M. Pecour, comprised nine ballroom dances choreographed by Guillaume-Louis Pecour.

Feuillet's Chorégraphie was either translated, in whole or in part, or its notation utilized by numerous dancing masters for descriptions of Baroque dance. In 1706, John Weaver translated the work into English (Orchesography, reissued in 1715) and in 1717, it was translated by Gottfried Taubert into German (Rechtschaffener Tanz-Meister ). The Italian writer, Giovanni Battista Dufort used Feuillet's notation tables to describe steps in the first part of his own manual, Trattato del ballo nobile..., 1728. Spanish writer Pablo Minguet é Irol's 1758 treatise Arte de danzar a la francesa contained sections of Feuillet's work, as well as that of Pierre Rameau. (The Spanish manual also contained dances choreographed by Guillaume-Louis Pecour and a section, dated 1764, which gave descriptions for steps used in Spanish dancing.) In 1767, Portuguese dancing master Natal Jacome Bonem published Tratado dos principaes fundamentos, also based heavily on the works of Feuillet and Rameau.

Guillaume-Louis Pecour and Pierre Rameau. With the general acceptance of Feuillet notation, the works of other well-known dancing masters and choreographers were published. Among them was the French dancer and choreographer, Guillaume-Louis Pecour (born c.1653, died 1729). Included in his works were dances composed for the annual winter balls and two duets that were notated by Feuillet and published in Per. recüeil de danses de bal, 1702. More than thirty of Pecour's works are published in Recüeil de dances contenant, 1704. Feuillet noted that some of the dances in the collection were performed by many of the most famous theatrical dancers of the era, including Marie-Thérèse Subligny, Claude Ballon, and Michel Blondy.

Le maître à danser. Pierre Rameau. Published 1748.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

Another significant contributor to the understanding of French Baroque dance was Pierre Rameau (born 1674, died 1748). Although he was a dancer, he is best known as the author of two important treatises. His first, Le maître à danser, originally published in 1725 and reissued in 1734 (this online collection contains a copy from 1748), is today considered one of the most eminent sources for the study and reconstruction of eighteenth-century dance technique. Part one of that treatise focused on the appropriate manner of walking, feet positions, and bows, and it described a large vocabulary of steps. In 1728, English dancing master and writer John Essex (born c.1680, died 1744) translated Rameau's work into English as The Dancing-Master: or, The Art of Dancing Explained. In Rameau's second book, Abbrégé de la nouvelle méthode (1725?), he declared that he improved upon Feuillet's method of notation. The second part of that treatise included twelve duets choreographed by Pecour. (See Video Clip 22, Video Clip 23, Video Clip 24 for examples of Pecour's choreography.).

Mister Isaac, Edmund Pemberton, and Kellom Tomlinson. Mister Isaac (born c.1640, died c.1720) was an important English choreographer and the dancing master to various members of the Stuart court. In 1706, John Weaver published a collection of dances by Isaac in A collection of ball-dances perform'd at court. In addition, many of Isaac's ballroom choreographies, to music by James Paisible and published between 1707 and 1715, were also available singly and included "The Princess," "The Royal Portuguez," "The Royall Gailliarde," "The Rigadoon Royal," "The Royal Ann," "The Royall," "The Northumberland," "The Pastorall," "The Godolphin," and "The Friendship." Mister Isaac's notated works also appeared in collections published by Playford (1703), and Jacques Dezais (1712).

An essay for the further improvement of dancing. Edmund Pemberton. Published 1711.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

Choreographies by Mister Isaac also appeared in English dancing master Edmund Pemberton's An essay for the further improvement of dancing, 1711. Designed for the pupils of a girls' boarding school where Pemberton was dancing master, his volume presented group dances, such as country dances and figured minuets, as well as several solos. Other choreographers in Pemberton's work included Thomas Caverley, Anthony l'Abbé, Pecour, and Josiah Priest.

English dancing master and choreographer Kellom Tomlinson (born c.1690, died after 1753) was the author of The art of dancing explained by reading and figures. Although completed in 1724, the cost of printing the thirty-five full-page plates precluded publication until 1735. Tomlinson's treatise is today considered an important tool in the understanding of eighteenth-century dance because of his combination of text and graphically depicted dance steps in the plates.

Three popular Baroque dances. The courante (See Video Clip 22), developed into a popular couple dance during the mid-seventeenth century and was described in de Lauze's 1623 manual. The dance was usually performed to music in 3/2 time. and the two characteristic steps are pas coupé and temps de courante. According to Rameau, king Louis XIV was "pleased to prefer it" and noted that the monarch "danced it better than any member of his Court and with a quite unusual grace." However, its popularity was soon displaced by the minuet (see below).

Evolving from Spanish folk traditions, the sarabande (See Video Clip 23), was also, in the mid-seventeenth century, a favorite ballroom duet and was also often danced as a choreographed theatrical entrée. The music was composed in triple meter, characterized by an accent on the second beat. Although composed in both slow and fast tempi, by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, a slow tempo was favored.

Recueil de Dances... Raoul-Auger Feüillet. Published 1709.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

The courante, sarabande, allemande, and gigue, were among the popular dances that made up the Baroque instrumental suite. Baroque composers and choreographers often combined several dances into suites; for example, Pecour's danse à deux, "La Bourgogne." (See Video Clip 22, and Video Clip 23).

Described in numerous eighteenth-century manuals, the minuet, a couple dance in triple time, was well described in two works by Rameau: Le maître à danser and Abbrégé de la nouvelle méthode. As it grew in popularity, it was also discussed in Tomlinson's The art of dancing, (although the description is of an earlier version, when the main figure was an S shape, not the Z figure described by Rameau). The most famous and long-lasting of all Baroque duets, the minuets were composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully for the French court and then by George Frideric Handel, J. S. Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, among others. The minuet has an introduction and four figures:

  1. the S or Z figure, which was repeated as often as the gentleman desired;
  2. the giving of right hands;
  3. the giving of left hands;
  4. the giving of both hands.
Le maître à danser. Pierre Rameau. Published 1748.
Page Image Viewer | Bibliographic Information

Each minuet step requires two measures of 3/4 time music, and both Rameau and Tomlinson provided descriptions of two popular steps: pas de menuet à deux mouvements (See Video Clip 26), and pas de menuet à trois mouvements (See Video Clip 27). Although considered one of the least technically complicated dances of the era, its importance lay in the quality, assurance, and bearing of the performers, who moved to the elegant music of the finest composers in Europe. The minuet remained a standard, albeit altered, into the mid-twentieth century in Europe and the Americas. (For further reading on Baroque court and social dance, see the bibliography.)

 Back to top