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

Late Eighteenth Century Social Dance

In the late eighteenth century there was a departure from the complicated and often technically difficult danses à deux and a movement toward larger group dances, specifically figure dances called contredanses (also spelled contredances). Usually, but not always, these dances were designed for four couples facing in a square. Feuillet notation, which so beautifully aided dancers in learning the early Baroque dance repertory, was not efficient for notating the larger group dances.

Execution of the contredanse (known throughout France as the contredanse francaise) involved dancing a specific sequence of figures. Additional figures, called changes, usually twelve in number, alternated with the main figure of the dance--and the dance concluded when all the changes had been performed. These figure dances, called cotillon in England and the United States, were often performed with two- or four-bar step combinations, as were contredanses.

When Marie Antoinette arrived in Paris as queen to Louis XIV in 1774, she brought Viennese dances, including the contredanse allemande. It was performed in much the same manner as the contredanse francaise, except that at least one figure required partners to turn while changing arm positions. Both forms of contredanse were performed in France until the Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century (1789-1799).

Late eighteenth-century French publishers continued the tradition begun earlier in the century of issuing annual collections of dances. Spanning the years 1760 to 1785, the Paris publisher, Landrin, contributed numerous collections including Potpourri françois des contre-danse ancienne, a series of twelve figured contredanses, and Receuil danglaise, a collection of nine English country dances. Likewise, the publisher La Cuisse issued large numbers of single dances, each described in four pages. The title page provided the name of the contredanse and its choreographer and the verso page contained the text that described each figure. The next recto page displayed the floor patterns of each figure of the dance and the final verso page was reserved for the music. This online collection contains La Cuisse's 1762 bound collection, Le répertoire des bals. More than eighty-five late eighteenth-century contredanses, as well as contredanse variants such as the contredanse allemande and contredanse anglaise, are contained in another important collection of late eighteenth-century dances, Contredanses; description des figures.

[Contredanses; description des figures, plan des figures]. Published [17--].
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A number of technical manuals were also published during the late eighteenth century. Although published c.1785, N. Malpied utilized Feuillet notation and much of Feuillet's earlier text in his Traité sur l'art de la danse. C. J. von Feldtenstein's 1772 Erweiterung der kunst has been important for its description of the late eighteenth-century minuet; in addition, von Feldtenstein included figures and music for country dances and quadrilles (See Video Clip 002). The main focus of Alexis Bacquoy-Guédon's 1785 Méthode pour exercer l'oreille was contredanses and minuets.

Perhaps the most important late eighteenth-century technical manual was Gennaro Magri's Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo, published in Naples in 1779. By the end of the eighteenth century, the differentiation between theatrical and social dance was nearly complete; professional dancers were performing increasingly complex steps while social dancers were concentrating on the growing genre of group dances. Magri's treatise has been a significant link between the technique of Baroque dance and that of early Romantic ballet. Although Magri's manual included descriptions of steps from earlier in the century, it also described many new steps, such as four types of battemens, nine types of pas de bourrée, balloté, fouette, and cabriole. The manual concluded with thirty-nine contradanze (Italian for contredanses), including one for thirty-two performers.

The century ends. This online collection contains three manuals that were issued at the very end of the eighteenth century. The 1798 anonymous English manual The gentleman & lady's companion forshadowed nineteenth-century concerns regarding decorum, the importance of bodily control, and spacial boundaries; admonished its readers to avoid "leaning on the shoulder, or chair or another person." The manual also presented cotillon and English country dance figures.

The scholars' companion, compiled by M. J. C. Fraisier and published in Boston in 1796, was a collection of fifty English country dances. Another collection of thirty-eight English country dances was compiled in 1793 by Asa Willcox and published in the United States. This online collection contains a 1918 edition that purports to preserve scrupulously the original spelling, capitalization, and punctuation of the original Asa Willcox's book of figures. Although neither of these collections included music, they provided opportunity to trace the popularity of specific dances through the nineteenth century.