Social Dance in the Baroque

views updated

Social Dance in the Baroque

Renaissance Inheritance.

No immediate change in styles of dance or in attitudes to the art are perceptible between the late Renaissance and the early Baroque periods. The seventeenth century inherited from the Renaissance a widespread perception of dance as a necessary social grace, a sign of distinction that accomplished men and women needed to master to participate in society. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europe's first works of dance theory had appeared. While these treatises outlined the necessary steps and skills that a good dancer had to master, they also reached back to Antiquity in search of theories that might support dance's general popularity in courtly society. In Aristotle, Europe's dance theorists had located part of the rationality for dance's aesthetic appeal, arguing that the art displayed the mind's ability to subject the body to its disciplines. The popularity of Platonic thought during the later Renaissance also left its marks on artistic theory, as dance came to be treated in many literary works, conduct manuals, and aesthetic treatises as an expression of the concept of Platonic ideals. The philosophy of Plato taught that a higher, heavenly realm of universal concepts or ideals governed life on earth, and thus dance represented in the works of its most vigorous advocates, an expression of the harmony that prevailed in a higher realm. In his poem, "Orchestra," first published in 1594, the English author Sir John Davies celebrated dance for its ability to express the well-ordered relationships that prevailed in the heavens, and Davies saw in the highly choreographed revolutions of the planets the origins of human dance. His extravagant praise of dance as "love's proper exercise" found many echoes in the world of the late Renaissance and the Baroque. Dance was a motif found in the plays of Shakespeare and other writers and was often used to express the ideals of sociability, civility, and love. Similarly, dance figured prominently in the many conduct manuals of the age. These recommended the art as a necessary accompaniment to courtship, seeing in the ideal movements of the dance floor skills that might teach the art of love.


introduction: Louis de Rouvroy, the Duke of Saint Simon (1675–1755), wrote one of the most voluminous memoirs of life at the court of Versailles, totaling sixteen large volumes in its modern edition. In the following excerpt he describes the embarrassment that occurred when a young nobleman was not up to the challenge of dancing at a court ball.

On Shrove Tuesday, there was a grand toilette of the Duchesse de Chartres, to which the King and all the Court came; and in the evening a grand ball, similar to that which had just taken place, except that the new Duchesse de Chartres was led out by the Duc de Bourgogne. Everyone wore the same dress, and had the same partner as before.

I cannot pass over in silence a very ridiculous adventure which occurred at both of these balls. A son of Montbron, no more made to dance at Court than his father was to be chevalier of the order (to which, however, he was promoted in 1688), was among the company. He had been asked if he danced well; and he had replied with a confidence which made every one hope that the contrary was the case. Every one was satisfied. From the very first bow, he became confused, and he lost step at once. He tried to divert attention from his mistake by affected attitudes, and carrying his arms high; but this made him only more ridiculous, and excited bursts of laughter, which, in despite of the respect due to the person of the King (who likewise had great difficulty to hinder himself from laughing), degenerated at length into regular hooting. On the morrow, instead of flying the Court or holding his tongue, he excused himself by saying that the presence of the King had disconcerted him; and promised marvels for the ball which was to follow. He was one of my friends, and I felt for him, I should even have warned him against a second attempt, if the very indifferent success I had met with had not made me fear that my advice would be taken in ill part. As soon as he began to dance at the second ball, those who were near stood up, those who were far off climbed wherever they could get a sight; and the shouts of laughter were mingled with clapping of hands. Every one, even the King himself, laughed heartily, and most of us quite loud, so that I do not think any one was ever treated so before. Montbron disappeared immediately afterwards, and did not show himself again for a long time. It was a pity he exposed himself to this defeat, for he was an honourable and brave man.

source: Louis de Rouvroy, The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint Simon on the Reign of Louis XIV and the Regency. Vol 1. Trans. Bayle St. John (Philadelphia: Gebbie and Co., 1890): 19–20.

Important Social Skill.

For nobles and the wealthy in Europe's cities, dancing was thus an essential social skill and the mastery of the most popular social dances of the day was necessary for participation in elite society. In his voluminous memoirs of life in the court of Versailles, for example, the Duc de Saint Simon related the story of a provincial noble who was so unfamiliar with the dances of court that he was jeered off the dance floor. Dance was so important in noble circles that the great aristocratic households of Europe frequently employed dance masters to teach the young members of the household these skills. These masters also coached adults in new dances, even as they choreographed dances for special occasions. Dance masters often fulfilled a variety of other roles in royal and noble households, too. They planned spectacles, designed stage sets and interiors, and they sometimes taught horseback riding, gymnastics, and deportment. Europe's most successful dance masters wrote texts on their art, and the second half of the sixteenth century saw a number of these appear that continued to dominate dancing styles during the decades of the early Baroque. In the mid-seventeenth century new patterns of dancing helped to produce another spate of new dance manuals published in Italy, France, Spain, and England. In this way knowledge of new steps and dances popular in one part of Europe was able to spread rather quickly throughout the continent. Travelers, too, carried knowledge of the latest dance fashions, so that despite regional variations, the patterns of social dancing practiced in Europe's courts and "high societies" was relatively homogenous by the seventeenth century. In the continent's cities, dance schools were another avenue that disseminated knowledge of the art, and these trained the sons and daughters of successful merchants, men of commerce, and bankers in the latest steps. In Catholic Europe, the Jesuit schools also provided instruction in dancing to their male students, since dance was thought to be an essential skill for courtship. In England and other places in which the rigorous Christian doctrines of Calvinism held sway, moralists and preachers attacked dancing, and in some places dancing was officially prohibited. Yet even during the years of the Puritan Commonwealth in England (1649–1660), dancing instruction continued in the country's elite public schools.

Patterns of Social Dancing.

While many dances were common throughout Europe, there was still great variety in the kinds of dances that were performed. Dances, in other words, existed to express all kinds of emotional states and for all tastes and occasions. A ball opened with a number of dignified processional dances, including pavans and branles. A series of couples dances usually followed in which only one couple at a time danced. Rank governed the progression of these dances, with the highest-ranking members present dancing before those of lesser status. For most of the seventeenth century the most popular of these couples dances was the courante, but toward the end of the century, the minuet began to supplant its popularity. Other dances popular at the time included the bourrée, gavotte, and passepied. In all these dances the emphasis was on sprightly, yet contained and disciplined footwork and on the repetition of rigorously defined steps with subtle modulations. Generally, seventeenth-century dances kept the upper body rigid and erect and the arms and hands remained contained, their movements stylized. Besides the dignified character of dances like the minuet and courante, a number of more theatrical and dramatic dances were performed. These included the sarabande, chaconne, and gigue (in English known as the jig), dances that had an air of exoticism about them. The sarabande, for instance, was believed to have been a dance alternately of South American or Saracen Turkish origins, and was originally wildly energetic. While it grew more staid and dignified as it entered aristocratic society, the rhythmic schemes of its music still featured lively syncopated motifs that were frequently repeated. In addition to these standard dances performed in elite societies throughout most of Europe, balls often featured special dances that were choreographed for the occasion. These specially created dances were often intended to display the skill of a single couple and they were consequently highly complex, calling for sophisticated amateurs to memorize a number of steps and their progression in the days and weeks that preceded a ball.

Dance Music.

The dances of aristocratic society in seventeenth-century Europe were largely international in flavor, although subject to regional variations. Greater variety characterized the music played to accompany dances throughout Europe. In France, violins and violin variants were most often used at balls, the most famous French ensemble being the "24 Violins of the King," an ensemble of strings employed at court to entertain at royal balls. In Italy, collections of dance music published for the lute were particularly popular, while in Spain the guitar often predominated. Dancing masters often doubled as violinists, lutists, and guitar players, and if a great deal of music has survived from the period, it must also be remembered that much of the dance music intended to accompany balls was heavily improvised and has consequently not survived. Of that which survives, numerous printed collections of dance music exist for solo instruments, and vocal pieces, too, sometimes accompanied dancing, although far less frequently than instrumental music. Dance suites—that is, instrumental music composed for small ensembles that recreated the rhythms familiar to social dancers—became enormously popular throughout the seventeenth century, and survive from every European region. The music recorded in this way, however, was intended primarily to be heard and did not accompany balls.

Rise of French Style.

As in other areas of cultural life, the example of French aristocratic and court society came to dominate the dancing practices of much of Europe during the course of the seventeenth century. This taste for French dancing was particularly strong in the second half of the century, as Versailles became a model for courtly practices almost everywhere in Europe. One consequence of this dominance was the rise and spread of "country dances," forms of figure dancing that were originally English in origin but which were transformed by French taste into the contredanses that became popular in Europe around 1700. In the 1650s, the English dancing master John Playford began to publish a series of short books entitled The English Dancing Master that informed their readers about how to perform "country dances." In style, these dances were amazingly simple, their repertory consisting of no more than a few steps. Their appeal rather consisted in the intricate figures that four or more couples made on the dance floor as they progressed through the country dance's figures. As knowledge of these dances spread to France, they had an enthusiastic reception in elite societies, but were soon transformed by French taste for more intricate and refined footwork. From the foothold that country dancing gained in France, however, the style soon spread throughout Europe, producing regional variations of "country dancing" almost everywhere on the continent. In one of the ironies of cultural history, Marie-Antoinette, for instance, brought to the French court of Versailles an Austrian version of "country dancing" that flourished in her native Vienna in the second half of the eighteenth century. This style, though, owed its origins to the taste for country dancing that French culture had helped to plant throughout Europe at the end of the seventeenth century.


introduction: In 1683, King Louis XIV's wife died, and in the period of mourning after her death the king fell under the spell of Madame de Montespan, originally a governess to members of the royal household. Over time, her strict, uncompromising moral influence resulted in a decline in dancing at court. While great balls continued to occur on state occasions, the incessant round of dances and masquerades that had been common at court in previous decades was curtailed. By the 1690s the young duchess Charlotte Elizabeth, wife of Louis's nephew, had captivated the king, and he allowed a greater degree of frivolity for her amusement. In one of her letters she happily described a recent masked ball that occurred at Marly, a small royal retreat not far from Versailles.

I must tell you about the masked ball at Marly. On Thursday the King and all the rest of us had supper at nine o'clock, and afterwards we went to the ball, which began at ten o'clock. At eleven o'clock the masks arrived. We saw a lady as tall and broad as a tower enter the ballroom. It was the Duc de Valentinois, son of Monsieur de Monaco, who is very tall. This lady had a cloak which fell right to her feet. When she reached the middle of the room, she opened her mantle and out sprang figures from Italian comedies. Harlequin, Scaramouche, Polichinello, the Doctor, Brighella, and a peasant, who all began to dance very well. Monsieur de Brionne was Harlequin, the Comte d'Ayen, Scaramouche, my son, Polichinello, the Duc de Bourgogne was the Doctor, La Vallière was Brighella, and Prince Camille was the peasant …

The Dauphin arrived with another party, all very quaintly dressed, and they changed their costumes three or four times. This band consisted of the Princesse de Conti, Mademoiselle de Lislebonne, Madame de Chatillon, and the Duc de Villeroy. The Duc d'Anjou and the Duc de Berri and their households composed the third group of masks; the Duchesse de Bourgogne and her ladies the fourth; and Madame de Chartres, Madame la Duchesse, Mademoiselle d'Armagnac, the Duchesse de Villeroy, Mademoiselle de Tourbes, who is a daughter of the Marechal d'Estrées, and Mademoiselle de Melun, the fifth. The ball lasted until a quarter to two o'clock … On Friday all the ladies were elegantly attired in dressing-gowns. The Duchesse de Bourgogne wore a beautiful fancy costume, being gaily dressed up in Spanish fashion with a little cap … Madame de Mongon was dressed in ancient fashion, Madame d'Ayen in a costume such as goddesses wear in plays. The Comtesse d'Estrées was dressed in ancient French style and Madame Dangeau in ancient German style. At half-past seven or eight o'clock masks came and danced the opening scene of an opera with guitars. These were my son, the Comte d'Ayen, Prince Camille, and La Vallière in ridiculous men's clothes; the Dauphin, Monsieur d'Antin, and Monsieur de Brionne as ladies, with dressing gowns, head-dresses, shawls, and towers of yellow hair much higher than are usually worn. These three gentlemen are almost as tall as each other. They wore quite small black and red masks with patches, and they danced with high kicking steps. D'Antin exerted himself so violently that he bumped in Monsieur de Brionne, who fell on his behind at the Queen of England's feet. You can imagine what a shout of laughter there was. Shortly afterwards, my favourite, the Duc de Berri, went to disguise himself as "Baron de la Crasse" and came back and performed a very comical dance by himself.

source: Gertrude S. Stevenson, ed. and trans., Letters of Madame, in Dance and Music of Court and Theater. Selected Writings of Wendy Hilton by Wendy Hilton (Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1996): 17–18.

Folk Dance.

Although historians have long supposed that many of the courtly dances performed in European courts derived from folk dances, the popular origins of ballroom forms cannot be established given the surviving documents. It is, nevertheless, logical to conclude that many dances popular in seventeenth-century Europe had origins in the customs of village life and of urban societies. The precise nature and extent to which folk dancing served to invigorate the elite ballroom, though, may always be a matter of conjecture. Many of the best-documented dances of the seventeenth century had, even then, legendary associations, associations that cannot be documented and that may mask their true historical origins. The French dance known as the passepied, for instance, was believed to derive from the folk dances of Brittany; the bourrée, another dance popular in cultivated ballrooms, was thought to come from the peasant dances of the Auvergne, a region of southern France. The origins of some dances are better known. During the sixteenth century a dance known as the sarabande became controversial in Spanish cities. Notable for its overt sexuality, the sarabande had by the early seventeenth century found its way into ballrooms everywhere throughout Europe. Originally seen as wild and licentious, its performance grew far more staid, and it became one of the standards of masked balls in the first half of the seventeenth century. While Protestant and Catholic moralists sometimes turned a disapproving eye on dancing generally, they usually reserved their greatest criticisms for folk dances practiced in the countryside. Moralists condemned the tight embraces of these dances, as well as the occasions for dance themselves, as events that led to immorality and fornication. During the seventeenth century religious attempts to reform the morality of village life persisted in many parts of Europe. At this time Calvinist divines were usually among the most vigorous in condemning the dances of rural societies as well as those of the urban poor and middling classes. While Calvinists were widely recognized for their uncompromising attitudes toward dance, Catholic and Protestant divines could and did react vigorously to folk dancing in particular times and places.


Joan Cass, Dancing Through History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993).

Mark Franko, Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Rebecca Harris-Warrick and Carol G. Marsh, Musical Theatre at the Court of Louis XIV (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Skiles Howard, The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

Karl Heinz Taubert, Höfische Tänze: ihre Geschichte und Choreographie (Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1968).

see also Music: Origins and Elements of the Baroque Style ; Theater: The Commercial Theater in Early Seventeenth-Century England

About this article

Social Dance in the Baroque

Updated About content Print Article