Eighteenth-Century Dance Shoes

Eighteenth-Century Dance Shoes


Dance history seems to love its myths. Take dance shoes, for example. A deeply entrenched view has long been that proper dance footwear was unknown until around the beginning of the nineteenth century. In her history of the Pre-Romantic ballet, Winter (1974: 3), for example, claims that “a decisive change in dance technique and style came toward 1790, literally on the heels of the Ancien Régime, as the dancer’s heeled shoes were exchanged for supple cothurns or soft, gloving-fitting slippers.”

Figure 1. Lancret’s portrait of the dancer Camargo c1732.

Such writers are quick to point to an image such as Lancret’s portrait of the famed dancer Camargo from c1732, which shows a heavy stiff high-heeled shoe (fig. 1). This is, however, a portrait, not a photographic record of what was actually worn by professional dancers. And there is good evidence that such a shoe – essentially a street shoe – would not have been typically worn by eighteenth-century dancers in performances on or off the stage.



Shoes designed for – or at least well suited to – dancing were in existence already by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Such shoes were apt to be call pumps in the English of the period, or escarpins in French (e.g., Noverre 1760: 417). And there are a number of references to these. The Connoisseur (17 Jul. 1755), for example, mentions in passing “dancing pumps,” while the Satyr Against Dancing (1702: 2) speaks of thin-soled shoes for dancing:

The Feet, which vilely to the Earth declin’d,
Are the remotest Members to the Mind:
Yet these manur’d with Cotton Pantaloons,
Soft tender Heels, gay Hose, compleat Buffoons,
The Shoes must be precise, the Soles as thin,
As theirs, who Puppet-like shall dance therein.

Jenyns (1729: 7) in like manner speaks of thin-soled low-heeled shoes to be used in ballroom dancing:

Thus each Man’s Habit with his Bus’ness suits;
Nor must we ride in Pumps, or dance in Boots.
But you, that oft in circling Dances wheel,
Thin be your yielding Sole, and low your Heel.

Walcke’s handbook (1783) also prescribes that one “always change shoes before entering the dancing hall,” which again implies the regular use of dance shoes in the ballroom.

The equation of dance shoes with insubstantial pumps is also evident from an anecdote told by Henry Angelo about Grimaldi Iron Legs’s duping of the theater manager John Rich in 1742:

Rich . . . listened with rapture to Grimaldi; who proposed an extraordinary new dance; such a singular dance that would astonish and fill the house every night, but it could not be got up without some previous expense, as it was an invention entirely of his own contrivance. There must be no rehearsal, all must be secret before the grand display in, and the exhibition on, the first night. Rich directly advanced a sum to Grimaldi and waited the result with impatience. The maître de ballet took care to keep up his expectations, so far letting him into the secret that it was to be a dance on horse shoes, that it would surpass anything seen before, and as much superior to all the dancing that was ever seen in pumps. The newspaper were all puffed for a wonderful performance that was to take place on a certain evening. The house was crowded, all noise and impatience – no Grimaldi – no excuse; at last an apology was made. The grand promoter of this wonderful, unprecedented dance had been absent over six hours, having danced away on four horsehoes to Dover and taken French leave. (Cited in BDA 1978: 6/401)

Pumps were not strictly confined to dance but could also be worn as a kind of sports shoe (fig. 2). The Tatler (7 Jul. 1709) satirically alludes to the nicety of a couple of duelists who momentarily set aside their slighted dignity in order to take the time to don their pumps first. At the appointed place, “the Principals put on their Pumps, and strip’d to their Shirts, to show they had nothing but what Men of Honour carry about ‘em, and then engag’d.” In like manner, the London Magazine (1735) refers to a beau skating with “his pumps bespatter’d all with mud” (cited in Cunnington 1971: 80).

Figure 2. A plate from Angelo Domenico’s L’école des armes: avec l’explication générale des principals attitudes et positions concernant l’escrime. . . . London: R & J Dodsley, 1763.

Pumps could be worn even as everyday wear, especially by fops until the latter part of the century, when they became widely fashionable. In his novel Jonathan Wild (1743), for example, Fielding has an attorney’s dandified clerk wear “a pair of white stockings on his legs and pumps on his feet.” The London Magazine (1734) also refers to a fop dressed in “Spanish-leather pumps without heels and the burnished peaked [i.e., pointed] toes” (cited in Cunnington 1971: 80). Retrospectively, the vicomte de Châteaubriand (1768–1848) was to typify the genteel garb of the late ancien régime in France thus: “A man in a French coat with powdered hair, a sword, a hat carried under his arm, pumps and silk stockings” (1902: 1/173).


The construction of dance pumps is described by Taubert (1717: 407-08):

A light dance shoe with a pointed toe, single sole, and low heel and tongue is both elegant and comfortable for dancing, especially since it can be easily flexed and controlled like a sock [figs. 3-5], which best allows one to dance with grace, while a large, thick, and broad shoe, on the other hand, is heavy on the foot like a lead weight. With a neat shoe, one can dance on the toes of the foot and execute all movements with style and almost without effort, while with a clumsy shoe, one must use the greatest of force and cannot even get up onto the toes because of the length and the thick soles. The latter sort then suits peasants and grenadiers much better indeed than galant dancers. If one wishes to make use of a pair of such muck-plungers for drudgery and daily wear, then one can at least keep a pair of neat dance shoes aside, which will stand one in good stead on the [dance] floor and at assemblies.

Figure 3. Details from figure 4.

Figure 4. Left: the dancer Eva Maria Veigl c1740s; right: the dancer Auguste Vestris in the role of Colas from the London production of Ninette à la cour c.1781.

Something similar, again in the context of ballroom dance, is also suggested by Bonin (1712: 113-14):

And finally, much also hinges upon the shoes, and it is a requirement that they be made neat and delicate. Wide shoes are mostly worn now, which are very serviceable for everyday use and which some wear in the winter instead of boots. I have no bones to pick with such use or ménage, but I think that it is not very good if they are huge, with thick heavy soles, such that they end up looking more peasant-like than galant.
I would advise those in particular who are to make an appearance on the dance floor – or if they are already advanced in this exercise and are to join in at balls or assemblies – that they wear a pointed shoe, which is no little ornament to the foot. It is more agreeable by far than a shoe made merely for traipsing about.
If it has a neat buckle, so much the better, since that contributes much to a person’s pleasing appearance, especially if it lies not on the stocking, but rather the tongue goes somewhat beyond it.
But whether it is to have a red or black heel, with a large tongue and other features, that is up to the individual.

Figure 5. Auguste Vestris c1781, Nathaniel Dance-Holland.

Completely heelless shoes were also known. The London Magazine (1734) cited above, for example, mentions “pumps without heels.” These were worn by fops, acrobats and dancers (fig. 6).

Figure 6. “Le petit sabotier,” i.e., the child dancer Jacques Boudet c1730s.



Taubert’s description refers specifically to “light” shoes, which implies the use of lightweight materials. Cunnington (1971: 230) notes that with eighteenth-century pumps generally, satin, for example, could be used for the uppers, leather for the thin soles, and either leather or cork for the slight heels. Such materials would, of course, wear out fairly easily with heavy use, especially on the feet of a professional dancer and on the fairly rough surfaces of an eighteenth-century stage and presumably also the rough floors of class and rehearsal studios. Indeed, the Satyr Against Dancing (1702: 2) also mentions that “the Shoes must be precise, the Soles as thin, / As theirs, who Puppet-like shall dance therein.” And Jenyns (1729: 7) writes that “you, that oft in circling Dances wheel, / Thin be your yielding Sole, and low your Heel.”

That such shoes did not last long is also apparent from shoe allowances granted to professional dancers. When Jean Dauberval signed a contract in the fall of 1762 making him first dancer in Noverre’s ballet company at Stuttgart, he was to receive “2,500 florins yearly and 130 florins shoe money to Easter 1764.” Noverre himself was also granted a shoe allowance of 130fl. in 1760; Charles Le Picq a shoe allowance of 100fl. in 1761; and Baletti 130fl. in 1761. (The quotation and the figures come from entries in the Wurtemberg Landschreiberrechnungen und Rentkammerprotokollen (K.44.F.18) and Oberhofmarschallamt (43.18.590), trans. in Lynham (1972: 182-83).)

130fl. was a considerable amount of money. When Antonia Guidi was engaged by Noverre to come to Stuttgart, from Copenhagen apparently (a distance of nearly a thousand kilometers), she was allowed 200 florins as travel money (BDA 1978: 6/446). If we follow Paritius’s exchange rate (1709) to get a very rough British equivalent of Dauberval’s shoe allowance, then 130fl. would seem to have been worth about 20£. A pair of pumps advertized in Britain in 1747 cost 1/10 (Cunnington 1971: 80); in 1761, serviceable shoes for the poor could cost 2/-, while between 1768-1790 shoes suitable for servants on average might cost 3/11 a pair (Styles 2007: 25). And so if, on the basis on these figures, we allow a generous 10 shillings per pair suitable for a first dancer (with 20 shillings equal to a pound), Dauberval’s shoe money may have allowed him to procure for himself roughly forty pairs of pumps or more, and this was apparently thought sufficient for two years of employment as first dancer. (A professional ballerina today might go through 100-120 pointe-shoes in one season.)

While such a large number of shoes perhaps reflects in part the need to have a variety of shoes in varying styles or colors on hand to harmonize with different costumes, clearly the expectation was that a professional dancer would quickly go through not a few shoes, which, in turn, implies that such shoes were flimsy in construction and would wear out very quickly. Indeed, the insubstantiality of these shoes was indirectly the cause of the dancer Maximilien Gardel’s death. In alighting from his carriage in 1787, apparently wearing his dance shoes, he stepped on a bone fragment lying in the street, and this pierced both his shoe and foot, and he ultimately died of gangrene caused by the wound (Guest 1996: 253-54). In fact, eighteenth-century footwear generally does not appear to have lasted long. An English laborer would typically wear out two pairs of shoes each year, while a stout nailed shoe might last one year, even with mending (Styles 2007: 26, 72-73).


Shoes depicted in the pictorial record regularly show buckles rather than lacing (figs. 3-4), typical of the footwear from this period generally. Lacing was not unknown, however. Weaver (1712: 167) saw French dancers in London, for example, who “perform’d in Shoes lac’d, and ribbanded.” And Noverre (1760: 417) notes that the shoes for the fauns in his ballet La toilette de Vénus sported “lacing.” (The use of shoe-strings rather than (especially ornamented) buckles became politicized in France during the early 1790s, as a sign of republican sympathies (Ribeiro 1988: 54).)

Red Heels

When they bore a heel, eighteenth-century dance shoes appear to have been commonly black with red heels, in or outside of France, although not invariably so. The author of “Observations sur l’Opéra” (1777: 24) complains about the popularity of this color combination at the Paris Opéra, irrespective of its fittingness for the character represented, and notes that he would not “have it that heroes, gods, the Pleasures, or shepherds always wear black shoes with red heels and large buckles. Footwear should be made for them that represents buskins as needed.” The Guardian (1 Sept. 1713) similarly alludes to the popularity of red heels, and red stockings, among dancing masters generally: “a Dancing Master of the lowest Rank seldom fails of the Scarlet Stocking and the Red Heel; and shows a particular respect to the Leg and Foot, to which he owes his Substance.” Weaver (1712: 167) also mentions “Red-silk Stockings” as typical among the French dancers that he saw perform in London in the early eighteenth century. (Noverre (1760: 417) seems to imply that white stockings were also very common on stage.) The option of red heels is also mentioned by Bonin (1712: 114). Such heels – and red stockings – were doubtless intended to draw attention to the movement of the feet and would have been particularly effective in highlighting the brilliance of beaten jumps such as the entrechat. (Red heels with cream or white uppers seem to have been an option as well, at least with classy street shoes (figs. 1, 7).)

Figure 7. Detail from Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV of France, 1701.

Red heels had been introduced in the seventeenth century at the court of Louis XIV (fig. 7). Within the kingdom of France, they were initially the preserve of the nobility (Frisch 2013) and never lost their association with the royal milieu. The anti-royalist pamphlet Portefeuille d’un talon rouge, contenant des anecdotes galantes et secrètes de la cour de France of circa 1783 (‘Portfolio of a Red Heel, Containing Fashionable and Secret Anecdotes About the French Court’), for example, clearly equates red heels with the denizen of a corrupt royal court. This association must have made them increasingly unfashionable – and even politically risky – in France during the years leading up to the Revolution, and then during the 1790s, they appear to have disappeared for good, presumably out of political expediency.

Even outside of France, red heels were not entirely free of any association with the high class outside of the theater. According to Cunnington (1971: 228), red heels were proper for court wear or full dress in Britain until circa 1760, when they briefly went out of fashion, but were revived again by Charles James Fox in the 1770s.



The material presented above is an abridged excerpt from my ongoing scholarly study to be entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, the second volume in a three-part study of early ballet. The first volume was published as The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (Scarecrow Press 2003).


BDA = Highfill, Philip H., Jr. et al. 1973-93. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vols. Carbondale, Illinois: South Illinois University Press.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
Châteaubriand, vicomte de. 1902. Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Paris.
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. 1971. Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century. London: Faber & Faber.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Frisch, S. 2013. “Talons rouges – absolutismens røde hæle.” Dragtjournalen 7/9: 41-44.
Guest, Ivor. 1996. The Ballet of the Enlightenment: the Establishment of the Ballet d’Action in France, 1770-1793. London: Dance Books Ltd.
Jenyns, Soame. 1729. The Art of Dancing, a Poem, in Three Canto’s. London: J. Roberts.
Lynham, Deryck. 1972. The Chevalier Noverre: Father of Modern Ballet. London: Dance Books.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Observations sur l’Opéra, par un amateur abonné à l’amphithéâtre.” 1777. Journal des théâtres (1 Dec.), 19-28.
Paritius, Georg Heinrich. 1709. Cambio mercatorio, oder neu erfundene Reductiones derer vornehmsten europaeischen Müntzen. Regensburg.
Ribeiro, Aileen. 1988. Fashion in the French Revolution. London: Batsford.
A Satyr Against Dancing. 1702. London: Printed for A. Baldwin.
Styles, John. 2007. The Dress of the People, Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven / London: Yale University Press.
Taubert, Gottfried. 1717. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. Leipzig: bey Friedrich Lanckischens Erben.
Walcke, Svend Henrik. 1783. Grunderne uti Dans-Kånsten, til Begynnares Tjenst. Gothenburg: L. Wahlström.
Weaver, John. 1712. An Essay Towards an History of Dancing. London: printed for Jacob Tonson.
Winter, Marian Hannah. 1974. The Pre-Romantic Ballet. London: Pitman Publishing.

The Eighteenth-Century Dance Mask

The Eighteenth-Century Dance Mask


In our day, dance costume has become almost something of a contradiction in terms: Especially in more contemporary pieces, costume is often seen as a necessary evil, to be kept as simple and minimal as possible, so as not to hinder the dancer in any way. In fact, performances with partial or even full nudity are not unheard of, especially in contemporary dance (fig. 1). Even in more traditional works, such as the Tchaikovsky ballets, costume still tends to be rather basic: Men’s garb amounts to little more than tights and tunic, and women’s garb typically consists of tights, tutu, and bodice. Variety here is largely created through embellishment rather than through novelty of cut. For better or for worse, costume played a more conspicuous role in ballet’s early history. And one sartorial practice apt to strike the modern spectator as rather strange was the wearing of masks by dancers in the eighteenth century.

Figure 1. Tableau from the Sydney Dance Company’s Nude Live (2017).


Practice at the Paris Opéra

According to Despréaux (1806: 2/273), who had been a danseur at the Paris Opéra from 1763-1781, dancers at that theater regularly wore masks in performance, a longstanding practice that was established already in the seventeenth century (fig. 2):

All of the ballets at the court of Louis XIV were performed with masks. There were masks according to the kinds of dance: serious or noble ones, galant [i.e., half-serious] ones, comic ones, and so forth. This practice was maintained at the Opéra for more than a century.

Despréaux clearly indicates that this was the norm in all three of the stylistic divisions of dance cultivated at the Paris Opéra. (By convention, the technique of eighteenth-century ballet was divided into four separate styles: the serious, half-serious, the comic, and the grotesque, the latter two often lumped together as one, even though distinct (Fairfax 2003: 81-188).)

Figure 2. Late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century masked dancer in a small pose.

There are a number of further references to the wearing of a mask by dancers in the serious style in particular (a slow terre-à-terre style). Casanova, in his description of a performance by Louis Dupré at the Opéra in 1750, for example, mentions that the famed serious dancer appeared “with his face covered with a mask (that goes without saying)” (1961: 2/140-41). And in regard to serious dancers at the Opéra generally, Laus de Boissy (1771?: 18) writes that “as these persons have nothing to express, their countenances being useless, great care has been taken to cover the face with a mask of illuminated plaster.”

Such a convention reflects the taste of the French, and especially that of the more highbrow audience at the Paris Opéra, which preferred a more abstract form of dance throughout much of the period. It mattered little then what expression the face might have (Fairfax 2003: 204-9).



Photographs of a few surviving masks and their wooden moulds (kept at the Musée de l’Opéra, Paris) are reproduced in Beaumont’s translation of Noverre’s Lettres (1966: 78b, 82b, 86b), shown in figure 3. Beaumont’s captions indicate that these examples are made of leather, evidently cuir bouilli. Other materials, however, were apparently used as well. Laus de Boissy (1771?: 18) speaks of a “mask of illuminated plaster,” and Noverre (1760: 199) also mentions “plaster ill designed and illuminated in the most disagreeable manner.” Noverre (1760: 196) also describes the dance mask as “a piece of cardboard,” while Castil-Blaze (1832: 171) refers to it as a “canvas or cardboard face.” By “cardboard” is presumably meant papier mâché, and by (illuminated) “plaster” stiffened canvas coated with gesso, or the like, and painted.

Figure 3. Examples of eighteenth-century leather masks with their moulds beside.


Reasons for Wearing a Mask

There appear to have been more than one reason for this practice of wearing masks. A mask can help define a character – especially a fanciful one like the Fury, for example – more easily than a living youthful face, say, especially if its owner lacks acting ability. A desire to imitate the practice in theaters of antiquity may have also played a part. A further more practical reason is alluded to in Noverre (1760: 217, 221): “Several people assume that masks have two purposes: first, to create uniformity: and second, to hide the twitches and grimaces produced in the efforts expended in a painful exercise,” for “the twitches, contortions, and grimaces are less the result of habit than of the violent efforts made in order to jump.” And finally, the mask prevented the spectator’s eye from being distracted by the dancer’s face, allowing the viewer to focus on the movement and line of the whole body. Indeed, the mask may have helped less handsome dancers fare better in vying for the public’s favor. (See the quotation below in connection with the 1750 revival of Campra’s Les fêtes vénitiennes.)


Abandonment of the Mask at the Paris Opéra

The practice of wearing masks was eventually abandoned, and the abandonment seems to have had a few fitful starts before setting in in earnest. One early instance of unmasked dancing, apparently an isolated case, occurred in the 1750 revival of Campra’s Les fêtes vénitiennes, wherein, according to Grimm (1877: 1/439 = 22 June 1750), “our two best dancers after Dupré, Lyonnois and [Gaétan] Vestris, each danced for a moment with the face uncovered. The former inspired pity, but the latter aroused admiration, particularly among our ladies, in too marked a manner.”

Figure 4. Maximilien Gardel (1741-1787).

Maximilien Gardel (fig. 4), however, is credited with ultimately bringing about the permanent abandonment of the mask at the Paris Opéra through his precedent. Despréaux (1806: 2/273) writes that

it was Gardel the elder who was the first to dance with his face uncovered, in 1766. This novelty displeased the greater part of the audience, but people became used to it, such that two years later, when Gaétan Vestris was prevailed upon by the leading seigneurs de la cour to take up the mask again, the public found it as ridiculous to see someone dance masked as they had found it odd two years before to see someone dance with the face uncovered.

In light of the remarks cited above from Laus de Boissy and Bachaumont from 1770-71, which suggest that wearing a mask was still the norm at their time of writing, Despréaux seems to have misremembered and given the wrong date. (Dates elsewhere in his work also tend to be incorrect.) He perhaps confused here the 1765 revival of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux with that of 1772. Castil-Blaze (1832: 207-8), who received some of the information for his book from the aged Pierre Gardel, Maximilien’s much younger brother, dates the trendsetting precedent in fact to 1772, which harmonizes better with Laus de Boissy and Bachaumont:

On the 21st of January 1772, Castor et Pollux was to be performed, one of Rameau’s operas, beloved by connoisseurs, who had been deprived of it for some time. Gaétan Vestris was to dance the entrée of Apollo in the fifth act; he was to represent the blonde Phoebus with an enormous black wig, a mask, and on his chest, a large beaming sun of gilded copper [wire, i.e., gold embroidery]. I do not know what prevented G. Vestris from performing his role that day, but M. Gardel was called upon to replace him. He agreed to do so, on the condition that he be allowed to appear with his own long naturally blonde hair, without a mask, and without the encumbrance of the ridiculous attributes wherein Apollo would be decked out. This fortunate innovation was welcomed by the public, and after that, the principal dancers gave up the mask.

Despréaux may have in fact confused two different instances of unmasked dancing in connection with the same opera. In the Opéra’s 1765 production of Castor et Pollux, Marie Allard clearly danced without a mask in her role as a Fury. According to a review in the Mercure de France (Apr. 1765: 1/183), she “became a veritable Fury through the fieriness of her steps, the amazing fluidity of her attitudes and the energy of her pantomimic acting, right down to the features of her face.” This was apparently another isolated instance, like that of 1750, for as will be seen below, the mask was retained for the Furies for some time after 1773.

In agreement with Despréaux, Castil-Blaze (1832: 172) writes that the mask made a brief comeback but then was dropped again among soloists generally. The two sources differ only in the time frame: Castil-Blaze gives one year later (1773), while Despréaux, likely mistaken, gives two years later (1768). (The latter source also attributes this reintroduction to Gaétan Vestris.)

The women understood their interests too well to submit to a ridiculous masquerade; they danced with uncovered faces and appeared alongside masked men. This was no less an absurdity. The numerous partisans of the old costume got the upper hand; the mask reappeared and once again came to cover the features of the dancers at the Opéra, especially the figurants [i.e., the male dancers]. But this restoration did not last long: In 1773, one year later, masks were dropped, never to reappear.

But even this second abandonment was apparently not complete. According to Castil-Blaze again (1832: 208-9), the mask

was kept, however, for some years thereafter for the choristes dansants [i.e., the corps]; for the Shades, as their completely white mask seemed perfectly suited to the characters represented; for the Winds; and for the Furies. In 1785 [i.e., 1787], the Winds still figured in the prologue of [the opera] Tartare with their puffed-out masks, but they no longer bore bellows in hand as formerly.

Figure 5. Detail of a portrait of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau.

Noverre (fig. 5), who was strongly opposed to the use of masks, was appointed maître et compositeur des ballets at the Opéra in 1776 and must have also played an important part in ensuring that the mask experienced no comeback. Indeed, in a memorandum to La Ferté dated 1781 (Arch. Nat., O¹ 622 (329)), Noverre puts himself forward as the one at the Opéra who was instrumental in effecting “the permanent abolition of those ridiculous wigs and those even more ridiculous masks” (trans. in Guest 1996: 157).


Practices Outside the Paris Opéra

The foregoing remarks touch upon the practices specifically at the Paris Opéra. It appears that theaters in France broadly followed suit as well, but in Italy, masks were generally not worn by dancers, according to the Italian Giovanni Gallini (1762: 110):

The looks of the dancer are far from insignificant to the character he is representing. Their expression should be strictly conformable to his subject. The eye especially should speak. Thence it is that the Italian custom of dancing with uncovered faces, cannot but be more advantageous than that of dancing masked, as is commonly done in France; when the passions can never be so well represented as by the changes of expression, which the dancer should throw into his countenance.

Reviews of dance performances confirm Gallini’s generalization. In their comic pantomimic dance at Drury Lane in 1741, for example, the Italian dancers signor and signora Fausan (i.e., Fossano or Antonio Rinaldi together with his wife) showed “Variations of the Countenances,” which clearly point to unmasked faces (Gentleman’s Magazine Jan. 1741: 29). The Italian practice was doubtless owing in large measure to the fact that Italian audiences on the whole much preferred the comic and grotesque, styles wherein pantomime was an essential element (Fairfax 2003: 204-9). And so Italian performers would have needed to use their face as much as any other body part to express the passions in their comedy.

The practices followed in other countries are more difficult to discern and may have been more variable. Suffice it to mention merely the following here. Angiolini (1773: 9, 13, 12) writes that in bringing the serious style to Vienna in the 1730s, the Austrian dancer and choreographer Franz Hilverding (1710-1768) did in fact faithfully imitate French practice at first: “With a mask on his face, a great black wig and helmet on his head, and a tonnelet [i.e., a kind of male tutu], he danced the genre of ballet . . . called – “I know not why,” as Addison says – serious dance.” But after 1742, as part of his ballet reform, “the aforesaid cold serious style also took on a new appearance under him.” And more generally “at this same time, he reformed the silly masks and the quirky costumes that meant nothing. But without abandoning them altogether, he made use of them with intelligence for fantastical characters, in order to come ever closer to the simple and true.”


Masks in Commedia dell’Arte Roles

A number of commedia dell’arte roles, such as Harlequin (fig. 6) and Pulcinella, for example, absolutely required that a suitable mask be worn as part of the correct costume (Pasch 1707: 60-1), and so a mask would have been the norm everywhere with these roles, even in Italy. Indeed, failure to wear a mask in this context was apt to elicit comment. In 1726, for example, a performance of Les dieux Pierrots at the Haymarket was announced, “in which Monsieur [Philippe?] Lalause the Arlequin will perform without a Mask,” according to an extant playbill (cited in Highfill 1984: 9/122).


Maskless Dancing in Pantomime Ballet

Figure 6. Detail of a masked dancer as Harlequin in a small pose (Lambranzi 1716: 2/30).

Masks do not seem to have been generally worn in pantomime ballets throughout the period, unless there appeared in them a character normally requiring a mask, such as certain commedia dell’arte roles. John Weaver (1717: 23), one of the early proponents of this genre, gives some examples of the kind of pantomimic gesture he used in his ballet The Loves of Mars and Venus:Contempt is express’d by scornful Smiles; forbidding Looks,” among other gestures. Clearly such facial expressions would have been pointless if covered by a mask. Hilverding’s pantomime ballet Psyché et l’Amour also clearly included a dancer performing maskless. At one point,

the stage grows dark, and Psyche alights from her chariot, which leaves at once. Her face, her attitudes, her steps, everything, show her surprise, wonder and successively her impatience to find Cupid. He comes, she cannot see him, but her heart tells her that he is near. She searches for him. This pas de deux is most expressive. Every time that Psyche thinks she touches him, one can see that joy in feeling, that sweet voluptuousness in her face. When Cupid eludes her, sadness and despondency make her fine eyes grow dull. The movements of her heart are painted there. Weary, Cupid throws himself down on a bed of grass and falls asleep (Journal encyclopédique 1 Jan. 1756: 76-77)

One of the most influential creators of pantomime ballet in the second half of the century, namely Noverre, damned the use of the mask altogether. In his Lettres (1760: 260), he exhorts, “let us destroy the masks and uncover the soul.” Indeed, Angiolini (1765) writes that

in regard to the high dance of the likes of Dupré, [Gaétan] Vestris, and their precursors [i.e., dance in the serious style], such as it was before Monsieur Noverre appeared (who has turned this latter style in the direction of expression) . . . all expression, however, had been banished from it in the past by covering up with a mask the face of the dancer.

When in 1770 Gaétan Vestris mounted his own version of Noverre’s pantomime ballet Médée et Jason at the Paris Opéra, after having worked with Noverre in Stuttgart in the 1760s, Vestris himself appeared “without a mask, and astonished the public by the energy of his performance, not merely as a dancer, but as an actor as well” (Bachaumont 1783: 19/289 = 12 Dec. 1770).

The genre of pantomime ballet grew in popularity as the century progressed, and it seems most likely that the practice of dancing maskless in this kind of work exerted a powerful influence on dance practices generally and may well have greatly contributed to the demise of the dance mask.



The foregoing material is drawn from a chapter on dance costume to appear in my study The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (in progress).



Angiolini, Gasparo. 1765. Dissertation sur les ballets pantomimes des anciens. Vienna: Trattern.
Angiolini, Gasparo. 1773. Lettere di Gasparo Angiolini a Monsieur Noverre sopra i balli pantomimi.
[Bachaumont, et al.]. 1777-1789. Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu’à nos jours, ou Journal d’un observateur. 36 vols. London: chez John Adamson.
Casanova de Seingalt, Jacques. 1961. Histoire de ma vie. 6 vols. Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus.
Castil-Blaze. 1832. La danse et les ballets depuis Bacchus jusqu’à Mademoiselle Taglioni. Paris.
Despréaux, Jean-Étienne. 1806. Mes passe-temps: chansons suivies de l’art de la danse. 2 vols. Paris: the author, Defrelle and Petit.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Laneham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Grimm, Melchior Baron de, et al. 1877-82. Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique par Grimm, Diderot, Raynal, Meister, etc. 16 vols. Paris: Garnier Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs.
Guest, Ivor. 1996. The Ballet of the Enlightenment: the Establishment of the Ballet d’Action in France, 1770-1793. London: Dance Books Ltd.
Highfill, Philip H., Jr. et al. 1973-93. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vols. Carbondale, Illinois: South Illinois University Press.
[Laus de Boissy, M. A. de]. 1771?. Lettre critique sur notre dance théâtrale. Paris: De l’Imprimerie du Magasin de la rue Saint-Nicaise.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Pasch, Johann. 1707. Beschreibung wahrer Tanz-Kunst. Frankfurt: Wolffgang Michahelles and Johann Adolph.
Weaver, John. 1717. The Loves of Mars and Venus. London: Printed for W. Mears . . . and J. Browne.

Dancing to One’s Own Beat in Early Ballet

Dancing to One’s Own Beat in Early Ballet


The technique of contemporary classical ballet is extremely uniform. That is to say, the positions and movements used today differ little from one place in the world to another, and from one role to another. This is in marked contrast to the practice of early ballet, by which I mean that of the eighteenth century. Formerly, not only were there four codified styles differing in technique – the serious, half-serious, the comic, and the grotesque – but even in following the conventions of these four, performers had considerable freedom to interpret these conventions – caprice it was called – in order to suit their fancy, or to avoid being seen to disadvantage in movements or positions deemed ill-suited to their conformation or ability. To exemplify the lack of uniformity which existed formerly, so at odds with contemporary practice, I present below a few details about the arm positions of eighteenth-century ballet. (In the case of the positions belonging to the serious and half-serious styles, I discuss their manifestation at only one height, for brevity’s sake, namely, at the height of the shoulder, but it is clear that these positions could be formed at different heights, to wit, low, mid, high, and overhigh (Hänsel 1755: 135; Magri 1779: 1/113), with the choice of height dependent on the height of the gesture leg, and in the half-serious style, partly on the height of the jump as well.)


The Serious Style

Figure 1. Fourth position of the arms at the height of the shoulders, view from the front and top. inset: “the left arm open and the right bent at the elbow” (Feuillet 1700: 97).

Dancers in the serious style (a slow terre-à-terre style typically used in lofty roles, with kings, gods, and the like) employed so-called fourth position of the arms to show opposition to the feet (fig. 1). According to Taubert (1717: 560), this position was formed as follows:

1) Whenever the first [i.e. right] foot takes a step (both arms being held almost at the same height from the shoulders to the elbows [i.e., more or less parallel to the floor]), at the same time the left arm, pleasingly bent at both the wrist and primarily the elbow, is taken up so that the fingers come to stand level with the ear, or at least with the shoulder, and the right arm is gently extended and lowered a little. 2) If the left foot does a pas or step, then the right arm must go along in the aforesaid manner, and the left arm is extended and lowered.

The inset in figure 1 shows the position in Beauchamps notation. It should be stressed that the notation is schematic and that the extreme bend shown at the elbow is not to be taken literally; indeed, Taubert prescribes that the elbow be “pleasingly bent,” which suggests a gentle curve. The reconstruction shows the hand of the bent arm raised to the height of the shoulder, but as Taubert makes clear, it could also be raised to the height of the ear (fig. 2, left), not to mention the top of the head at the next higher level (fig. 2, middle and right).

Figure 2. Dancers in poses with the arms in fourth position at the height of the shoulder. Left: a detail from a portrait of the famed dancer Camargo by Lancret, circa 1730; middle: a costume design for a dancer in the role of a faun, circa 1760s; right: “arms in opposition, frontal view” (Blasis 1820: 105, pl. 4, fig. 12).

The Half-Serious Style

Figure 3. A reconstruction of fifth position of the arms at the height of the shoulder, view from front and top. Inset: “The right arm open and the left quite closed” (Feuillet 1700: 97).

All the evidence available (to be outlined in my study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet) suggests that, in their turn, dancers in the half-serious style (an elegant airborne style employed in a broad range of more lighthearted roles) used a different position of the arms to show opposition to the feet (and also a different position of the torso, namely, the absence of the small sidelong inclination used in the serious, as shown in figure 1, and clearly in figure 6). This position, still found in contemporary classical ballet, was in existence already by 1700: Feuillet gives the notational means to capture it, as shown in the inset of figure 3. (The notation shows in fact false opposition, which is likely an engraving error.) That the “closed” arm was to be quite in front of the body is made absolutely clear from his description of the left arm character (in the inset) found elsewhere in his handbook (1700: 97): “The arm quite in front of oneself at a height” (le Bras tout-à-fait devant soy en hauteur). Magri (1779: 1/110) also apparently alludes to this position, in the example from the section of his handbook dealing with how to form an attitude: “with the palm of the hand facing the chest.” An interpretation of this arm position used in the formation of an attitude with a “painterly” back-bent wrist is shown in figure 4. (As already mentioned above, this position could be formed at different heights; see figure 10 below for an example of the position serving as the basis for a pose, with the hand raised above the height of the head.)

Figure 4. A detail showing a dwarf dancer in a pose, with the arms based on fifth position (Lambranzi 1716: 3/47).


The Comic and Grotesque Styles

Figure 5. A reconstruction of first position of the arms, with the arms straight (left) or optionally rounded (right). The inset shows the arm position in Beauchamps notation (Malpied 1789: 130).

Performers in the comic and grotesque styles (used especially in the representation of low characters) made only limited use of ports de bras and for much of the time let their arms simply hang down at their sides, in so-called first position of the arms (fig. 5). (The relevant evidence for the shape of the arms in this position will be outlined in my study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.) The lack of ports de bras in these styles is explicitly mentioned by Taubert (1717: 558), for example:

We come then at last to the second main part of port de bras, to wit, the high and serious, which is called the high port de bras because it belongs in fact to la danse haute and to all high theatrical dances; and [specifically] to the serious because it is used only in le ballet sérieux [i.e., both the serious and half-serious treated as one here] and not in le ballet comique or grotesque, the latter having its own particular gesticulation, which centers mainly on explaining that which is to be expressed through actions and gestures.

So too Angiolini (1765) writes broadly that

it is here [in the half-serious style] that the arms (if I may be permitted this expression) make their first appearance in dance and are to be supple and graceful; in the previous two styles [of the comic and grotesque], they count for nothing.

Reviews of comic and grotesque performances at times fleetingly allude to straight immobile arms “glued to the dancer’s sides.” Of John Hamoir, whose specialty was comic dance (Highfill 1982: 7/67-68) and who performed at Covent Garden in November 1770, a critic in Journal de musique (Nov. 1770: 66) writes the following:

The man has no style, no variety in his pas, always the same capers. He would be good enough among the figurants at the [Paris] Opéra, in order to make the main character stand out, but he would not know how to please as a first dancer. His arms are always attached to his sides; he has no bearing or grace in his attitudes.

Borso ([1782-83] 1998: 214) also finds fault with jumping (Italian) dancers holding their “arms always straight and unmoving” – the comic and grotesque styles were extremely popular in eighteenth-century Italy (Fairfax 2003: 200-206).

For further information on the comic and grotesque styles of the eighteenth century, see the video below:


A Personal Style

Not only did the four traditional styles different from each other by convention, but even these conventions were subject to personal whim. A number of writers from the period explicitly state that a good dancer generally was to cultivate a unique personal style. Gallini (1762: 236), for example, writes that

besides the necessity of learning his art elementally, a dancer, like a writer, should have a stile of his own, an original stile: more or less valuable, according as he can exhibit, express, and paint with elegance a greater or lesser quantity of things admirable, agreeable, and useful.

According to Noverre (1760: 15), such freedom was to be extended even to corps dancers (the figurants and figurantes in the following quotation):

I cannot refrain, Monsieur, from expressing my disapproval of those ballet masters who are so ridiculously stubborn as to wish that the figurants and figurantes take them as an exact model and rigidly copy their movements, gestures, and attitudes. Can such a singular claim not prevent the development of the executants’ natural grace and stifle their own powers of expression?


That such broad prescriptions were in fact followed is made amply clear in reviews or descriptions of celebrated dancers of the day. In regard to the famed dancer Marie Anne Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770), for example, a critic in the Journal des théâtres (15 July 1776: 487) writes that “her dancing, brought to the perfection of the art, was the result of the principles that she had learned from Mademoiselle Prévost and Messieurs Pécour, Blondy, and Dupré; from their different styles, she had created her own.” What a critic in the Mercure de France (June 1729: 1229) found so admirable about the Dumoulin brothers’ realization of the roles of Harlequin and Pulcinella was their “original and inimitable manner.” In fact, one ran the risk of a lukewarm reception if one’s dancing was too similar to another’s. This was the lot of Giovanna Baccelli when she débuted at the Paris Opéra in 1782, for she “excited less admiration” merely “because her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s (who made her appearance a few months ago and who already has many partisans)” (Bachaumont (1783: 21/1 (second paginated part) = 16 Nov. 1782).


Caprice in Port de Bras

The cultivation of a personal style manifested itself especially in the novel interpretation of arm positions and arm movements. Feuillet (1700: 97), for example, writes broadly that “the ports de bras depend more on the taste of the dancer than on any rules that could be given here.” So too Hänsel (1755: 135, 137) notes in connection with the so-called high port de bras of the serious style that “many theatrical dancers do this port de bras according to their own caprice” and that “there is no difference between the gentleman’s and lady’s theatrical port de bras except that the caprice of various dancing masters here and there has a great influence on this.” Likewise Angiolini (1773: 54) states that “the diversity in the builds of both men and women dancers requires a varied treatment in the arms.” And in regard to the so-called grands bras, wherein the hand or hands go above the height of the head, Magri (1779: 1/114) writes that “these arms cannot have a set measure or precise height but can be raised as much as you wish beyond the others [i.e., other heights] depending on the character, the expression, the spirit, and ability of the performer.”

Sources dealing with ballroom dance in particular open a window into the practice of whimsically altering established arm positions. In so-called danses d’exercice or ‘practice dances’ – i.e., more difficult performance pieces intended for amateurs to perform as a kind of entertainment at balls vel sim., or simply intended as pedagogical material (Fairfax 2003: 319-33) – a miniaturized version of the serious style was used, and thus a lower version of fourth position of the arms. As Bonin (1712: 148) explicitly states,

the high [port de bras] belongs only to ballet but can also be used even in a minuet or passepied, or other dances belonging to la belle danse [i.e., fine ballroom dancing]. It must not, however, be as high as in ballet but must, rather, be moderately so.

So too Taubert (1717: 545) writes that in the ballroom “the arms even here must not at all be as high as they are in the serious entrées and ballets, but rather they must be moved and carried only moderately high.” Contrast, for example, the lower carriage of the arms in figure 6 with those in figures 1-2.

Figure 6. Detail of the youthful Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in a dance pose based on fourth position of the arms, from a painting by Weigert commemorating an amateur performance in 1765.

The arrangement shown in figure 6, however, was not the only possibility. Different sources prescribe different arrangements of the hands, for example. In Rameau (1725: 211-12), the palms of both hands are described and shown as being turned upwards (fig. 7, left).

Figure 7. Depictions of the arms in opposition in ballroom dance: Left Rameau (1725: 212); middle Tomlinson (1735: pl. XIII); right a detail of ballroom dancers from a painting by Jan Joseph Horemans (1716).

This is in contrast to the version shown in Tomlinson (1735: pl. XIII), wherein the palms are turned neither upwards nor downwards (fig. 7, middle), in agreement with the arrangement shown in figure 2, which depicts theatrical dancers, and figure 6, which shows an aristocratic amateur. In contrast again, the author of the “Remarques” (1732: 811) has one palm turned up and one turned down: “the inside of the hand of the opened arm [i.e., the arm extended to the side] almost turned towards the ground and the inside of the hand of the closed arm almost towards the sky.” This version, more or less, is shown in a painting by Horemans (fig. 7, right).

A further variable was the placement of the elbows. Throughout the nineteenth century, there was some disagreement about whether the elbows were to droop or remain lifted when forming a position of the arms. Examples of a sagging flaccid elbow can easily be found in the pictorial record (fig. 8, left and middle). Both Blasis (1820: 62) and Adice (1868-71: 2/315), however, proscribe this practice. Blasis’s illustration of fourth position clearly shows well supported elbows (fig. 2, right), while the latter author writes that “the elbows must never hang,” i.e., droop.

Figure 8. Left: “arms extended” (Emmanuel 1895: 80). middle: “open fourth to the fore” (Charbonnel 1899: 411); right: arms in amplified sixth position (Tomlinson 1735: pl. XI).

The pictorial record suggests that these two options of a drooping elbow or alternatively a supported one were in fact inherited from the eighteenth century. Compare the supported elbows depicted in figures 2 and 6 (which agree completely with Blasis and Adice) to their sagging counterparts in figure 7 (left and right) and figure 8 right (which agree with Emmanuel and Charbonnel in figure 8). The choice here then was evidently merely a question of personal taste.

The discussion above has focused on just two features – the orientation of the hands and the placement of the elbows – but clearly other elements could be varied as well, namely, the arrangement of the fingers, the degree of bend in the arms, and the exact height of the arms. As the purpose of this blog-post is simply to give a few examples of variability, I will pass over these other aspects without comment.


Marie-Madeleine Guimard (1743-1816)

Figure 9. Marie-Madeleine Guimard, a detail from Jacques-Louis David’s 1773-74 portrait of her.

One star dancer who cultivated a very unique personal style was Marie-Madeleine Guimard, whose dance career spanned the years 1762-1789. A few fleeting glimpses of her style can be gained from the sources. According to Noverre (1804: 4/83-84),

La Demoiselle Guimard enjoyed the approbation of the public from her début to her retirement. The Graces had bestowed their gifts upon her; she possessed their pleasingness and charm. She never pursued difficulties; a noble simplicity held sway in her dancing, and she gave shape to her dancing with taste and put expression and feeling into her movements. After having danced for a long time in the serious style, she forsook it in order to devote herself to the mixed style that I created for her and for Monsieur Lepicq [circa 1776]. She was inimitable in all anacreontic ballets, and when she left the theater, she took this agreeable genre with her.

Noverre does not outline what this “mixed” style precisely looked like. But apparently, it was an idiosyncratic blend of the serious and half-serious genres, perhaps combining the graceful simpler terre-à-terre movement characteristic of the serious style (“noble simplicity” without “difficulties”) with positions proper to the half-serious (normally an animated light airborne style) – she was formally classed as a lead dancer in the demi-caractère (or half-serious style) at the Paris Opéra.

Figure 10. “The Celebrated Mademoiselle G-m-rd or Grimhard from Paris,” a caricature of Guimard (1789).

A few concrete features of her style, however, can be isolated. One peculiarity was her avoidance of raising her legs high. Her husband Despréaux, a former dancer as well, was to note in 1816, the year of her death, that “she disapproved of the present custom of raising the foot to the height of the hip” (trans. in Guest 1976: 77). If a caricature of her from 1789 (fig. 10) can be trusted, then she apparently never raised the foot of her gesture leg any higher than the knee.

One further feature was an avoidance of difficult movements, such that her dancing seemed to be a kind of “sketch,” according to her contemporary Vigée Lebrun (1984: 1/106-7):

Mademoiselle Guimard had quite a different kind of talent. Her dancing was but a sketch; she did only small steps [petits pas], but with movements so graceful that the public preferred her to every other woman dancer.

Vigée Lebrun’s comments are in line with Noverre’s assertion above that “she never pursued difficulties.” But at least on one occasion, she attempted to be more “mainstream,” opting to perform more contorted difficult movement, with disappointing results. In regard to the ballets for Mouret’s farce Le mariage de Radegonde mounted that Paris Opéra in 1769, Bachaumont (1780: 4/198 = 5 Feb. 1769) observes that

Mademoiselle Guimard wanted to go along with the folly of the day, but her ever mannered dance and her simpering countenance are too at odds with the openness of such gambols which demand contortions and dislocations and which do not include the fragility and the borrowed graces of this Terpsichore.

To conclude, it is worth noting here that Guimard was also musically precise in her dancing, although this was a feature generally cultivated during the period and not a peculiarity (Fairfax 2003: 251-52) – a feature that has lost ground in current practice. In Maximilien Gardel’s pantomime ballet Ninette à la cour, premiered in 1777 and performed with some regularity at the Paris Opéra between 1778-1785, Guimard starred in the comic role of Ninette the peasant girl, for example, who finds herself at a king’s court where she dances a minuet “ridiculously” (Gardel 1777: 12) but not unmusically:

To give some idea of the difficulty inherent in the role of Ninette and to do the greatest honour to Mlle Guimard, it can be said that she in vain took great pains to be off the music in the minuet which she dances before the king and his court, but her sensitive ear always kept her steps from losing touch with the music. (Journal de Paris 30 Aug. 1778: 967)

To hear an arrangement of this minuet, click the white arrowhead on the left in the bar below.

(Arrangement for violin (Mojca Gal) and harpsichord (Thys Grobelnik))



, G. Léopold. 1868-1871. Grammaire et théorie chorégraphique. Ms.
Angiolini, Gasparo. 1765. Dissertation sur les ballets pantomimes des anciens. Vienna: Trattern.
Angiolini, Gasparo. 1773. Lettere di Gasparo Angiolini a Monsieur Noverre sopra i balli pantomimi. Milan: G.B. Bianchi.
[Bachaumont, Mairobert, and Moufle d’Angerville]. 1777-1789. Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu’à nos jours, ou Journal d’un observateur. 36 vols. London: chez John Adamson.
Blasis, Carlo. 1820. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse. Milan: chez Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
Borsa, Matteo. [1782-83] 1998. Saggio filosofico sui balli pantomimi seri dell’opera. Pp. 209-234 in Il ballo pantomimo lettere, saggi e libelli sulla danza (1773-1785), edited by Carmela Lombardi. Reprint, Turin: Paravia.
Charbonnel, Raoul. [1899]. La danse, comment on dansait, comment on danse. Paris: Garnier Frères.
Emmanuel, Maurice. 1895. Essai sur l’orchestique grecque. Paris: Hachette.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Feuillet, Raoul. 1700. Chorégraphie ou l’art de décrire la dance. Paris: the author.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Gardel, Maximilien. 1777.  Ninette à la cour, ballet en action. Paris: Ballard.
Guest, Ivor. 1976. Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris: trois siècles d’histoire et de tradition. Translated by Paul Alexandre. Paris: Théâtre National de l’Opéra.
Hänsel, Christoph Gottlieb. 1755. Allerneueste Anweisung zur aeusserlichen Moral. Leipzig: auf Kosten des Authoris.
Highfill, Philip H., Jr. et al. 1973-93. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vols. Carbondale, Illinois: South Illinois University Press.
Lambranzi, Gregorio. 1716. Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul. Nuremberg: Joh. Jacob Wolrab.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Malpied. 1789?. Traité sur l’art de la danse. Second edition. Paris: chez M. Bouin.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1803-4. Lettres sur la danse, sur les ballets et les arts. 4 vols. St. Petersburg: J.C. Schnoor.
Rameau, Pierre. 1725. Le maître à danser. Paris: chez Jean Villette.
Remarques sur l’estampe de la demoiselle Camargo.” 1732. Mercure de France. April: 810-18.
Taubert, Gottfried. 1717. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. Leipzig: bey Friedrich Lanckischens Erben.
Tomlinson, Kellom. 1735. The Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Vigée Lebrun, Élisabeth. [1835-37] 1984. Souvenirs. 2 vols. Reprint, Paris: des femmes.

When Ballet Laughed: Comic-Grotesque Steps of Early Ballet

When Ballet Laughed:

Comic-Grotesque Steps of Early Ballet

Contrary to received opinion, the history of ballet has been one of loss, not one of enrichment. Positions, movements, steps, and even the cultivation of idiosyncratic manners of execution have fallen by the wayside, resulting in the current highly “streamlined” form of contemporary classical ballet. Of the nearly twenty different positions of the feet used in eighteenth-century ballet, for example, only five are now recognized, and of these only three are regularly used – third position lives on really only as a theoretical possibility, and first is seldom employed. Furthermore, this “streamlining” has manifested itself not only in the choice of body type – there really is only one type admissible now – but also even in the general character of ballets: Few choreographic works are created now in a low comic or farcical style, and when such are undertaken, the contemporary technique offers little that can be seen as distinctively comic. This is in marked contrast to early ballet, by which I mean that of the eighteenth century, wherein there was stylistic variety in the technique. To give some sense of this lost heritage, I present here a handful of “steps” that were employed in the early comic and/or grotesque styles (two of the four conventional genres – beside the serious and half-serious – cultivated before the nineteenth century).


Saut de Pendu

This jump is described by Magri (1779: 1/134-35), who had been a professional dancer in the grotesque style from the late 1750s until the early 1770s:

The saut de pendu, or the ‘hanged man’s jump,’ is used in the role of Pulcinella, or the Drunkard, or any other clumsy character; or sometimes it is done just to be queer, this being a difficult jump. It also begins with the feet parallel and with the knees together. Bend [fig. 1a], and in springing, straighten the body well, with the legs coupled. The arms, stretched, fall with the hands touching the thighs, with the head lost to one side [fig. 1b]. Then in landing, having reached the surface of the floor [i.e., as soon as the toe of the landing foot touches the floor], take one foot well out into the air as high as possible, landing obliquely on the other foot [fig. 1c]. The difficulty of this jump lies in the great height needed to catch the spectator’s eye; otherwise it will amount to nothing. He who lacks the ability to reach such height should on no account do this caper.

Figure 1. A reconstruction of Magri’s saut de pendu. It is to be understood that the dancer does not travel here.

This jump was still known in the middle of the nineteenth century. A somewhat different version is described by Roller (1843: 218-19):

Figure 2. A reconstruction of the attitude assumed at the height of the jump in Roller’s saut de pendu.

The Saut de Pendu. Take tempo [i.e., do a preparatory jump to gain momentum], and landing on the toes with the feet in first position, spring off and up. In doing so, stretch the right leg utterly stiff [i.e., straight] a little away to the right; stretch the right arm stiffly downwards with the hand towards the toe; take the right shoulder deep down likewise to the right; incline the head sideways to the right, following the right shoulder, with the right side of the body bending strongly inwards. Strongly bend the left knee and draw the sole to the height of the right knee; strongly bend the left arm so that the elbow forms a sharp angle, and the hand is drawn as high up the left side of the body as possible, with the left shoulder likewise thrust up high. Thus, on the right side everything is stretched and held downwards, while on the left side everything is bent to form rectangles and is drawn upwards, right up to the head, which must incline towards the limbs that are stretched downwards [fig. 2]. The land must give the tempo to spring up again, and then the contra is done on the left side. The body while in the air presents the figure of a hanged man, which is doubtless the reason why pendu figures in the name. When done well by a comic dancer, this spring always excites laughter.


Pirouette Basse

The pirouette basse (‘low pirouette‘) is a pirouette executed with the knee of the supporting leg well bent, and with the gesture leg held in one or other position. Lambranzi (1716: 3/37) illustrates one version of this turn (fig. 3), defined as a “zurlo basho” (evidently an engraver’s error for zurlo baßo, i.e., zurlo basso, Italian for ‘low turn’). The dancer’s arms are shown in a pose and his legs in disengaged Spanish second, i.e., held parallel. (The “pas piroles” in the following quotation is almost certainly a flawed attempt to give basses pirouettes, influenced by Italian pirola – cf. Magri’s pirola bassa – and showing the confusion of voiced and voiceless obstruents common in sources of German provenance during this period, thus “pas” for bas[ses].) “As this figure shows [fig. 3], pas piroles are done all the time; and one quickly springs up and then does these pas piroles again.”

Figure 3. The zurlo basso, or ‘low turn’ (Lambranzi 1716: 3/37).

Magri (1779: 1/89) sketches this kind of turn as well: “The low pirouette, which is also indeterminate and forced [i.e., done with as many revolutions as the dancer can execute], is done only by the grotesque ballerino, done by turning quickly on the toe of one foot with the knees bent.”  Presumably, the dancer in this version has the gesture foot sur le cou-de-pied, since “the knees [are] bent” (fig. 4).

Figure 4. A reconstruction of Magri’s pirouette basse (en dehors): the descent from the preparatory jump (left); the position wherein the dancer turns (right).

A low turn is also described by Roller (1843: 210-11):

Pirouette en bas sur la terre. The tempo [i.e., preparation] for this is taken as in number 140 [i.e., with a small jump]; at the moment of swinging around, however, squat down as much as possible on the left foot, on which the turn is done – accomplished dancers sit right on the heel [as shown by Lambranzi in fig. 3]. The right leg must hover stretched straight out to the side in a horizontal line, and the arms are likewise extended away to both sides. Strength and practice are needed to keep the body perpendicular here and to keep the extended leg sweeping around freely in a horizontal line over the ground so that it does not sink to the floor. Contra to go around to the right.


Figure 5. A reconstruction of Roller’s low pirouette.

Both Lambranzi and Roller imply that the usual preparation for low turns was a land from a jump, as shown in figures 4a and 5a. That is, the momentum to turn was partly created by the body’s descent (and, almost certainly, by an accompanying throw of the arm(s) and thrust of a shaded shoulder, which are described elsewhere in the sources and reconstructed in figures 4a and 5a).

Bent-kneed pirouettes, proper only to the comic and grotesque styles in the eighteenth century, became a not uncommon feature of the so-called Italian school of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (The comic and grotesque styles were extremely popular in eighteenth-century Italy, and many of the features of these old styles lived on in the single composite style of the nineteenth century, especially as cultivated in Italy (Fairfax 2003: 243-55).) Nicolaeva-Legat (1947: 119), for example, writes that “in the Italian school, pirouettes are often executed with bent knees to make more turns possible, thus commercialising much of the classical line for the sake of effect.” (These were apparently done with a more shallow bend of the knees, in contrast to the eighteenth-century versions.) This kind of turn has almost completely died out of the corpus of contemporary classical ballet; it is still, however, occasionally seen in dances belonging mainly to the Bournonville tradition.


Cabriole à l’Espagnole

This “caper in the Spanish manner” (fig. 6) is described by Ferriol (1745: 1/128), thus:

The Caper of Little Wings [Cabriola de Aletas]. This begins in [Spanish?] second position; doing a jump, and without crossing [the feet], shake the legs [past each other] in the air (with the toes of the feet a little downwards) as many times as possible, landing in the same position.
All of the aforesaid capers can be done tilting the body while in the air and landing straight, but one must first learn them without tilting.

Figure 6. A reconstruction of the cabriole à l’espagnole. The land on the floor is not shown. It is understood that the dancer does not travel here.

Magri (1779: 1/120-21) also describes the step:

The cuts of the cabrioles à l’espagnole [capriole alla spagnola] are also marked in two movements. They begin with the feet parallel, that is, in a Spanish position. Place the right foot behind the left, for example, in Spanish second and count the first cut in taking the right to Spanish first, the second in taking the right to Spanish second in front, the third in taking it back to first for a second time, the fourth to second behind, that is, Spanish second, and carry on in this manner, counting all the cuts. . . .
The interweaving in these capers is done more closely together, unlike those in the French and Italian manners, wherein the wider the interweaving, the more brilliant they appear, but in these, too great a widening and disengaging lessens their worth.

While Ferriol seems to prescribe mainly a flexed foot (“with the toes of the feet a little downwards”), Magri, however, implies a pointed foot, as pointing the feet is the only way to keep the passes “closely together” without confounding Spanish fifth and Spanish second positions.

Magri also notes that the cabriole à l’espagnole could begin and end in a variety of ways. They “can begin with both feet on the floor and end likewise, or with one foot off the floor, beginning thus but ending with both on the floor or with the same foot off the floor as at the beginning, or changing on the floor the one off the floor and the one on the floor.” A variant wherein the dancer lands on only one foot at the end is shown in notation in figure 7. Here the executant beats in and out of Spanish third (rather than Magri’s Spanish second) and ends with one foot raised off the floor, and with the legs turned out again.

Figure 7. A “cabriole italienne” (‘Italian caper’) in notation (Lange 1763: tab. 24). The off-the-floor sign is missing from the penultimate left foot symbol (dd), and the bend sign is missing from the first right foot symbol (ee). The dancer beats in and out of Spanish third, rather than Magri’s Spanish second, and ends with the left foot raised off the floor, and with the legs turned out again.

The cabriole à l’espagnole was a direct continuation of an earlier caper, described thus by Caroso (1581: 12v) towards the end of the sixteenth century:

You can learn the triple capriola easily by resting your hands on a chair or on two trestles. With the left foot ahead of the right such that the heel of the left meets the toe of the right [with both feet held more or less parallel], raise yourself then by the strength of your arms, which are to be well stretched like the legs; first pass the right [in front] and then the left, and thus you pass the feet three times as fast as you can, with the left behind at the end, landing lightly on the toes of the feet.

Cabriole à la Turque

According to Magri (1779: 1/133), the cabriole à la turque (‘caper in the Turkish manner’) was done as follows:

It is evident from the name of these Turkish capers [capriole alla turca] that they are meant to be used in [comic] Turkish roles. They are done [with the legs] drawn up under the body, but instead of beating as usual or interweaving, the soles of the feet beat together, and this beat can be done two or at most three times. They are likewise done to the side, with the body oblique in the air, as usual; in these, you land on one foot.

This same jump is described by Roller (1843: 219-20) under the name of the ranicellione battuto:

The foregoing jump in 163 [the ranicellione (see below)] is fully done, but once the legs have been flung apart, as in the spaccata [i.e., the splits], the soles of the feet quickly beat together. The land here is done in second position, for first cannot then be reached on account of the rebound of the soles.

The ranicellione mentioned above is done thus:

Take tempo in first position [i.e., do a preparatory jump coming down into a plié to gain momentum]. Spring up strongly and in doing so draw the feet up towards the body as high as possible. But as soon as [their maximum] height is reached, they are quickly thrown apart to both sides as in the spaccata [i.e., the splits]. You must land again in first position.

This “Turkish” manner of beating was most likely inspired by a form of Ottoman corporal punishment or torture, to wit, the falaka, or bastinado, wherein the soles of the victim’s bare feet were whipped or caned. The dance convention then almost certainly derives from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century satiric topos of the “cruel Turk,” sadistically keen to beat soles, vel sim. Cf. the character of Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, for example, or the “dara bastonara” bit from the Turkish ceremony in Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme.


Pas de Polichinelle

Figure 9. The pas de polichinelle (Lambranzi 1716: 1/40).

The pas de Polichinelle (‘Pulcinella step’) is simply a version of the pas marché used in the grotesque role of Pulcinella, who was “droll by being the reverse of all elegance” (Hogarth 1753: 149). Here the dancer performs the walking step with his feet well turned in, and with his knees bent and just off the floor. An illustration of the step is found in Lambranzi (1716: 1/3; 2/40) with the following caption: “This figure [fig. 9] comes out, as shown above, and after he has danced around in a circle in his manner and done bent crippled steps [German caption: “peculiar crooked limping steps”], the dance ends to the satisfaction of all the spectators.” Magri (1779: 1/137) also apparently alludes to this step:

In the role of the French Pulcinella, who has two humps according to the way that nation dresses him, I have come down with the feet in Spanish fourth [sic, i.e., false second] with the knees together and bent, half a palm’s breadth off the floor, and in such a manner, I proceeded to walk about, ending the walk with a tour en l’air taken from this same position.

Saut Genou

The saut genou (‘knee jump’) is briefly sketched by Vieth (1794: 2/462), thus: “One grasps the left foot in the right hand and jumps over it with the right foot. Likewise contra [i.e., the same on the other side]. It is not as easy as one might think” (fig. 10).

Figure 10. A reconstruction of the saut genou. The land on the floor is not shown. It is to be understood that the dancer does not travel here.

The same jump is described in greater detail by Roller (1843: 222-23):

The Knee Jump. This jump is done on the spot with one foot [jumping] over the other and is quite different from the [other] saut genou (157). Starting position, on the right foot. The toe of the left foot is held in the right hand. The foot is held in such a way that the fingers lie across the toes; the thumb is set in the middle of the sole between the ball and the little toe. In this manner, the foot that is held raised athwart can be forced away to form a bow to one’s fore, thereby allowing more room to be made for the right foot, which is to jump over it now. Hop strongly on the right foot, quickly draw it up high, and jump thus over the right [sic, i.e., left] foot held in the right hand; at the same time, the right hand, however, does a quick movement backwards with the toe of the foot held in the hand in order to ease the jumping over, which otherwise could easily fail. The position is again on the right foot, but with the left (held in the right hand) behind it. The right foot now is to do the jump again back over the left, which is harder than springing over to the fore. A good hop on the right is needed now in order to draw up the foot high and quickly and take it back over the left, during which the right hand must move the left foot forwards. To stand on the left foot and spring over the right is the opposite.


The foregoing examples are but a very few of the distinctive elements of the old comic and grotesque styles, genres which died out in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, and which hint at ballet’s rich (but largely ignored, or grossly misunderstood) heritage.

The foregoing is based on material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.

For further information on the eighteenth-century comic and grotesque styles, see the video below:



Caroso, Fabritio. 1581. Il ballarino. Venice: Francesco Ziletti.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Ferriol y Boxeraus, Bartholomè. 1745. Reglas utiles para los aficionados a danzar. 2 parts. Copoa: a costa de Joseph Testore.
Glushkovsky, Adam. [1851] 1940. Vospominiya Baletmeystera. Leningrad: Iskusstvo.
Hogarth, William. 1753. The Analysis of Beauty. London: printed by J. Reeves for the Author.
Lambranzi, Gregorio. 1716. Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul. Nuremberg: Joh. Jacob Wolrab.
Lange, Carl Christoph. 1763. Choreographische Vorstellung der englischen und französischen Figuren in Kontretänzen nebst einem kurzen Auszug der französischen Kunst die Tänze aufzuzeichnen. Erlang and Leipzig: Johann Caspar Müller.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Nicolaeva-Legat, Nadine. 1947. Ballet Education. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Vieth, Gerhard Ulrich. 1793-94. Versuch einer Encyklopädie der Leibesübungen. 2 vols. Halle: Dreyssig.

The Arabesque of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The Arabesque of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


Figure 1. Interior detail from the Tsarkoye Selo, Russia, showing the use of rococo arabesques.

It is something of a misnomer that the straight-legged pose of contemporary ballet, namely the arabesque, should be so called. As an art term, an arabesque is, after all, “a species of mural or surface decoration in colour or low relief, composed in flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work fancifully intertwined,” to give the OED definition (fig. 1). Morphologically, the term consists of the root arab- ‘Arab’ + the suffix -esque (the same found in picturesque, for example). Such an etymology is understandable, since traditional Arabian and Moorish art made great use of arabesques.

The modern sense of the dance term was already well established in the Russian school by the 1930s. As Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 56) writes, “if in attitude the leg is bent or half-bent, in arabesque it must always be fully extended” (fig. 2). Current usage is almost certainly due to the pervasive influence of the Russian school in the twentieth century, for the modern definition does not appear to predate the twentieth century.

Figure 2. First and second arabesques (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 56).

And so, how did such a term, one denoting fanciful “intertwining” or “flowing” – i.e., curvilinear – lines of foliage, come to refer to a straight-legged pose? In order to understand this peculiar development, it will be helpful to work our way backwards through the historical sources.


The Nineteenth-Century Arabesque

Figure 2. Left: opposition; right: false opposition.

The term as defined in the nineteenth-century sources has a rather vague denotation, and varying, even conflicting, definitions are given, but the general sense for most of the century was a pose that was seen as being in some way “imbalanced.” That is to say, the pose showed a more fanciful arrangement of the arms or false opposition, or alternatively a lengthening of the upper body and the limbs, such that the dancer could even seem to be off his center. (By opposition is meant an arrangement of the arms wherein the arm opposite to the forward leg is bent, while the other is extended to the side; and so in false opposition, the bent arm and the forward leg are both on the same side of the body (fig. 2).)

Consider, for example, the rather vague definition given by Desrat (1895: 20-21):

In dance, this word suggests one or several poses of the body, poses which can be varied ad infinitum like attitudes. One hand or one leg when slightly displaced changes the meaning and the name of an arabesque. Choreographically speaking, the arabesque is done by supporting the body over one leg bent or straight and keeping the other horizontal. The placement of the legs depends upon what the arms express. Arabesques serve mainly to betray jealousy, anger, scorn, disdain, as well as joy and pride. Arabesques are executed in an upright, inclined, or diagonal manner.

Emmanuel (1895: 106-7) gives the following:

A derivative of the attitude, the arabesque is a combination of special positions of the legs, body, and arms, noticeably different from those given before [i.e., attitudes]. The arabesque is characterized by a lengthening of the torso and limbs, which are in keeping with the same very open arc, and by the shape of the balance. The body of the dancer is supported, as in the attitude, on only one leg, and it tips over; the leg off the floor is raised and is slightly rounded in order to continue the curve of the torso.

According to Emmanuel then, the gesture leg is not perfectly straight but “slightly rounded,” in order to “continue the curve of the torso,” as the latter “tips over” (fig. 3), although Desrat notes that the arabesque could also be done “in a upright” manner.

Figure 3. Grande Arabesque by Edgar Degas, c.1885-90, posthumous cast.

For Adice (1868?: 10), however, the arabesque was defined more by the disposition of the arms. He outlines five arabesque arm poses (fig. 4), which could be combined with different basic positions of the head, torso, and legs. (His first arabesque position is also shown in fig. 3.)

Figure 4. The five arabesque positions (Adice 1868: 10)

But in agreement with Emmanuel above, Adice also shows a slightly rounded gesture leg with reduced turnout:

Examples of arabesques in Adice.

Like Adice, writers from the earlier part of the nineteenth century seem to have defined the arabesque more in terms of the placement of the arms. Théleur (1831: 50), for example, writes that

there are likewise, attitudes made with the same arm and foot, and sometimes with both arms, but all partaking of the foregoing principles, *[Théleur’s footnote: “*In this class I include all attitudes that are made to prepare for the purpose of taking pirouettes, &c.; it does not follow that the arm should be high to form an attitude.”] these are called les attitudes arabesques and require judgment and taste in their execution.

Théleur waywardly imagined that arabesque attitudes were ultimately derived from Spanish dance. (It should be borne in mind here that in early ballet, the term attitude meant broadly and vaguely any kind of pose, not necessarily one wherein the knee of the gesture leg is bent, as in current usage.)

I have not succeeded in discovering the authentic origin of the arabesques attitudes, but am inclined to think that we borrow them from the Spaniards, who for the most part do their steps with the same arm and foot. They, I conjecture, copied them from the Moors, who, in the eleventh century infested their country: this leads me to suppose that they derive their origin from the Arabians, and are thence called arabesques.

And finally, Blasis (1820: 63) notes in particular that “in arabesques the position of the arms departs from the common rule [of opposition], and the dancer ought to know how to place them as gracefully as possible.” Those poses identified as arabesques in his treatise (fig. 5) clearly point to fanciful arm arrangements, wherein a sense of opposition is absent, but clearly, the shape of the gesture leg was immaterial to the concept. (Adice’s second and third arabesque positions (fig. 4) are also apparent in some of these.) But Blasis adds elsewhere (p. 56) that “in arabesques, the body departs from the perpendicular and is to incline with pleasing abandon,” and indeed, some of his illustrations of arabesques do show inclinations. But it is nonetheless clear that the term was more open-ended than this.

Figure 5. Various poses explicitly identified as arabesques in Blasis (1820). Top row: pl. VII/4; pl. X/1-4; pl. XI/1-2; bottom row: pl. XI/3-4; pl. XII/1-3.

Thus, the general trend throughout the nineteenth century was apparently for the term arabesque to refer less and less to mainly a fanciful disposition of the arms in a pose and more and more to a lengthened placement of the torso and limbs.

Figure 6. “Fig. 160 fourth arabesque open; fig. 161 fourth arabesque crossed; fig. 162 fifth arabesque open; fig. 163 fifth arabesque crossed” (Cecchetti 1995: 99).

Still in the first part of the twentieth century, the arabesque was associated in some quarters with a certain “lengthening” and seeming “imbalance.” According to Grazioso Cecchetti (1892-1965), the son of the famed teacher Enrico, arabesques “are outside all the rules and laws that control the movements and positions in dance and, above all, the basic principle of balance, for they move away from the perpendicular line of the center of gravity, finding their balance only in the virtuosity of the dancer” (1995: 96). And some of Grazioso’s sketches of his fourth and fifth arabesques show both legs bent (fig. 6). (The two top examples in figure 6 show Adice’s second and first arabesque positions (fig. 4).) But in the Russian school, the “lengthening” was taken to its logical extreme of a fully stretched leg at all times.

The equation of the term arabesque, however, with a pose made in someway “bizarre” or exaggerated or off-kilter was already present at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. Noverre (1804: 4/49-50) speaks of

indecently exaggerated attitudes stolen from them [i.e., from painters]. This new sort is called arabesque. Clearly it is lost on dancers that the arabesque genre is too fantastic and too bizarre to serve as a model for their art. Painters fancy that the arabesque owes its origin to a frenzied state. They look upon it as a foundling of the art.

But the context here suggests that Noverre may have been using the term vaguely to mean simply ‘grotesqueries.’

To give some context, below is a reconstruction of an arabesque from Giselle, based on Justamant’s rough sketch and minimal description from c1860s, in light of the foregoing:


An Early Semantic Change

But even the nineteenth-century meaning of the term arabesque, however imprecisely defined, does not appear to have been original. Blasis (1831: 74-75) writes that arabesques “we have derived from antique relievos, from a few fragments of Greek paintings, and from the paintings in fresco at the Vatican, executed after the beautiful designs of Raphael.” But a careful and systematic consideration of early-ballet iconography shows that dance poses generally were commonly taken or adapted from the visual arts, either from ancient or more contemporaneous works. And these were used not only by dancers but also by playhouse actors (Fairfax 2003: 172-81). And so, an origin in the visual arts cannot be a defining feature of the early arabesque. But Blasis also writes thus of the word:

Our dancing-masters have also introduced this term into their art, as expressive of the picturesque groups which they have formed of male and female dancers, interlaced in a thousand different manners, one with another, by means of garlands, crowns, hoops entwined with flowers, and sometimes ancient pastoral instruments, which they hold in their hands. These attitudes, so diversified and enchanting, remind us of the beautiful Bacchantes that we see on antique basso relievos, and by their aerial lightness, their variety, their liveliness, and the numberless contrasts they successively present, have, in a manner, rendered the word arabesque natural and proper to the art of dancing.

The descriptor “picturesque groups . . . interlaced . . . by means of garlands, crowns, hoops” seems to point to the origin of the term. In other words, the arabesque attitude appears to have been originally a pose – or poses making up a grouping – wherein arabesques in the commonly received sense of the word (i.e., intertwining or flowing curvilinear lines of foliage) were created through the use of flowery props held by one dancer or more (fig. 7). Compare also Hentschke’s description (1836: 189):

Arabesques are the plastic attitudes modeled on ancient bas-reliefs or the arabica ornamenta, i.e., ornaments composed of plants, flowers, and human forms on the frieze of an entablature, and the like, which are said to stem from the Arabs or Moors and bear a resemblance to the metamorphoses of the Greek myths. The imitation of such forms are called arabesques and are the most difficult attitudes because of the way in which one balances in them.


Figure 7. A caricature of a garland grouping by Gillray, 1790s.

Already by the 1790s, arabesque could be used to denote a kind of pose. In his printed scenario for the Bordeaux revival of the ballet Télémaque (1797), Dauberval notes that “you cannot pay too much attention to the elegance of the groupings, to ‘arabesques’ and voluptuous poses” (trans. in Guest 1996: 404). It is impossible to say what Dauberval precisely meant by the term, but the context suggests he understood thereby a kind of pose or grouping. And it is clear from Gardel’s scenario for his ballet La dansomanie of 1800 that the term at the time of his writing no longer referred specifically to the presence of flowery props. According to Gardel’s synopsis, the dancing master Flicflac, who has come to the home of Duléger to give him a lesson, demonstrates

the new double, triple and quadruple temps de cuisse, steps in which the legs are thrown forward one after the other, pirouettes on the cou de pied, waltzes, arabesques, and finally all those steps that make our social dances look ridiculous and all too often disfigure the dancing in our theatres. (Trans. in Guest 2002: 83)

It would be odd for a visiting dancing master to show up equipped with garlands, and so the arabesques here must refer simply to kinds of poses.

Given the dearth of material, it cannot be established when such a semantic change took place – i.e., a shift from a pose employing a garland to a pose seen vaguely as “imbalanced” or in some way whimsical – but the sources above suggest that the shift predates 1800. And while Adice’s arabesque positions (fig. 4) can be found in the eighteenth-century iconography – figure 8 shows versions of Adice’s first and second positions, for example – it is unlikely, in light of the foregoing, that even in very late eighteenth-century usage the term referred only to these five, as Adice would have it.

Figure 8. Left: Scaramouche in a pose, with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s first arabesque position (Lambranzi 1716: 2/27); middle: Scaramouche in a pose as a “fine statue,” with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s second arabesque position (Lambranzi 1716: 2/24); right: a late seventeenth-century or early eighteenth-century dancer in a pose, with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s second arabesque position.


The Eighteenth-Century Garland Pose

It is unknown when arabesque began to be used as a dance term, but certainly it was established already by the 1790s, as noted just above. It is clear, however, that arabesque attitudes in apparently the original sense, that is, poses of any sort making conspicuous use of garlands (flexible flowery festoons), wreathes, and possibly more rigid hoops, or a combination of these, were not a novelty in the eighteenth century (fig. 9, right); indeed, they are depicted already in the seventeenth-century iconography (fig. 9, left and middle).

Figure 9. Left: a triton from Thésée (1675); middle: a “woman dancer at the Opéra, dressed as Flora, the goddess of spring,” late seventeenth or early eighteenth century; right: a “Zephyr,” c1760s.

Whether these were actually called les (attitudes) arabesques in the seventeenth century or first part of the eighteenth is impossible to say, but such poses and groupings were clearly not uncommon. Indeed, they were an essential element of garland dances, and there are several references to such dances. In the prologue to Lully’s Atys (1676), for example, “the goddess Flora, led by one of the Zephyrs, comes forth with a troupe of nymphs bearing sundry ornaments of flowers (fig. 9, middle). In a review of Les fêtes de Polymnies as mounted at the Paris Opéra in 1745, we read that

Hymen appears followed by Games and Pleasures, who carry garlands of flowers. It is hard to describe the arrangement of this dance. While Hymen dances between Hébé and Alcide, around each of the lovers are formed two rings of garlands held by Games and Pleasures. Hymen holds in one and the same hand one of the garlands from each ring. (Mercure de France Oct. 1745: 142-43)

Figure 10. Philippe Taglioni as a satyr “binding” Aglaé (c1827).

A dance in Les hommes as performed at the Comédie-française in 1753 ended thus: “The men are instructed by the cupids to place themselves at the women’s knees, who bind them with garlands” (Mercure de France Aug. 1753: 182). And a dance in Les femmes, mounted at the Comédie-italienne in the same year, showed genies danced about by a group of women covered with foliage, who “bind them [i.e., the genies] with garlands of flowers” (Mercure de France Oct. 1753: 175). Cf. figure 10.

A dance included in a performance of Castor et Pollux at the Paris Opéra in 1754 again conspicuously included attitudes and garlands: “The women of the corps d’entrée present themselves to him [i.e., Pollux] in attitudes all grouped together well, with their arms interlaced with their garlands” (Mercure de France Feb. 1754: 189); cf. figure 7. In a performance of Noverre’s ballet La fontaine de jouvence in 1754, the shepherds at one point “begin their dances with their garlands only” (Mercure de France Nov. 1754: 176). According to La Ferté (13 Sept. 1788), the pas de deux inserted into the Paris Opéra’s production of Le devin du village in 1788 featuring the young Charles Didelot and Guimard “was made up of interweavings of garlands and crowns, attitudes and movement with which we are already familiar” (trans. in Guest 1996: 279). Such garland dances were long-lived and continued to be performed throughout the nineteenth century as well (figs. 11-13).

Figure 11. A garland grouping (Théleur 1831: pl. 48a).

Figure 12. A grouping with garlands (Théleur 1831: pl. 48b).

Figure 13. A tableau with garlands and hoops (Zorn [1887] 1905: 96.


Figure 16. “Pantomime dancer in the ballets of the Opéra doing the Spanish peasant dance,” second half of the eighteenth century.

If in the eighteenth century the term arabesque did not refer to a straight-legged pose as in contemporary ballet, how did one then refer to such a position? Apparently, no unique term was used. The strict opposition between attitude and arabesque of ballet today reflects a more recent “balleticization” of poses, wherein the freedom in form typical of early ballet has been severely limited, and even the turnout of the legs, which originally and properly belonged to pure dance movements, has been imposed. In contrast, the poses of early ballet were not “dance” but moments of “non-dance,” so to speak, and were commonly taken from the visual arts of painting and sculpture, hence the common absence of turnout, the frequent presence of unstraight legs and unpointed feet bent to varying degrees and lifted to a great variety of heights, and the appearance of fanciful arm arrangements that are so conspicuous in the early-ballet iconography. Poses were clearly meant to provide contrast to the movements of pure dance and allow for the plastic expression of the passions. Such an open-ended motley collection of shapes does not lend itself well to a neat distinction between a bent-legged pose and a straight-legged pose, and so there was little need to make such a distinction. (For further discussion of eighteenth-century dance poses, see Fairfax (2003: 172-81).)


The foregoing is a somewhat reduced presentation of material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. For a general discussion of the stylistic conventions of early ballet, see The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



Adice, G. Léopold. 1868?. Note sur l’arabesque. Ms.
Blasis, Carlo. 1820. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse. Milan: chez Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti.
Blasis, Carlo. 1831. The Code of Terpsichore: a Practical and Historical Treatise, on the Ballet, Dancing, and Pantomime; with a Complete Theory of the Art of Dancing: Intended as well for the Instructions of amateurs as the Use of Professional Persons. Translated by R. Barton. London: Printed for James Bulcock. Centrale de Napoléon Chaix et Cie.
Cecchetti, Grazioso. 1995. Manuale complete di danza classica, Metodo Enrico Cecchetti, Volume 1°. Ed. by Flavia Pappacena. Rome: Gremese Editore.
Desrat, G. 1895. Dictionnaire de la danse historique, théorique, pratique et bibliographique. Paris: Librairies-Imprimeries Réunies.
Emmanuel, Maurice. 1895. Essai sur l’orchestique grecque. Paris: Hachette.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Guest, Ivor. 1996. The Ballet of the Enlightenment: The Establishment of the Ballet d’Action in France, 1770-1793. London: Dance Books Ltd.
Guest, Ivor. 2002. Ballet under Napoleon. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books.
Hentschke, Theodor. 1836. Allgemeine Tanzkunst. Stralsund: W. Hausschildt.
Pitou, Spire. 1983-1990. The Paris Opéra: an Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers. 3 vols. in 4. Westpoint, Connnecticut: Greenwood Press.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Vaganova, Agrippina. [1934] 1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Zorn, Friedrich A. [1887] 1905. Grammar of the Art of Dancing Theoretical and Practical, Lessons in the Arts of Dancing and Dance Writing (Choregraphy). Translated by Benjamin P. Coates, edited by Alfonso Josephs Sheafe. Boston.

The Bent-Legged Jumps of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The Bent-Legged Jumps of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


One of the most interesting aspects of eighteenth-century ballet was its system of distinct styles: There was not one technique but rather four, commonly called the serious, half-serious, comic, and grotesque. In practical terms, this meant that a single given step would have had potentially four or more different manners of execution. The choice between these then depended on the role and the general style performed. Indeed, some movements and positions were proper to only one style and thus were not used in the other three.

One of the distinctive features of the comic and grotesque styles was the practice of “picking up the feet” in jumps. That is to say, while airborne, the dancer bent the knees and drew the feet up under the torso. These bent-legged jumps are mentioned or described a few times in some of the eighteenth-century sources, the most important of which in this context are Lambranzi (1716) and Magri (1779). Such jumps could be denoted in Italian by either ritirato or rancignato / ranzegnato, both meaning ‘drawn up.’ The former author (1716: 1/3; 2/45), for example, notes in one of his dance scenarios, almost certainly grotesque in style, that the dancer is to do “ranzegnati, that is, with the knees and feet drawn up.” And Magri (1779: 1/122) writes at one point that “all these sorts of capers stretched can likewise be done drawn up, be they French, Italian, or Spanish entrechats or cabrioles; the only difference is that the legs are shortened or drawn up [ritirato].”

A consideration of all the references to this practice – I have given only two here – makes it clear that any jump, whether beaten or not, could be performed in the low styles with the feet picked up, as well as with the legs stretched straight. As an example, I include here reconstructions of two different ways of executing a comic changement de pieds, with the legs straight (fig. 1), and with the feet drawn up (fig. 2).


Figure 1. A reconstruction of the comic changement de pieds with straight legs; the land on the floor is not shown.


Figure 2. A reconstruction of a changement with the feet drawn up under the body (land not shown).



Stylistic Restriction

This drawn-up execution was proper only to the low styles (comic and grotesque) and was not found in the high styles (serious and half-serious). It was, as it were, a kind of “thumbing the nose” at the high styles, wherein a stretched leg was de rigueur. As Pasch (1707: 61) notes, comic and grotesque dances “must be formed and arranged in contravention of all the rules that belong to the serious.” That such a practice was indeed proper to the low styles is clear from the following (as well as from other sources not cited here):

All the beaten springing steps and capers must be done with the knees well stretched as the legs interweave when bounding into the air, and this is what is known as fine dancing, for drawn-up capers were used in the past only in the theater, contrary to the rules, by grotesque dancers, and if today good taste has removed the ban on them, it would be unseemly to see them done in a hall for civil conversation [i.e., in the ballroom]. (Costa 1831: 227)

Costa mentions only “grotesque dancers,” but it was common terminological practice to lump together the two closely related styles of the comic and grotesque and refer to them by one term, either the comic or grotesque, even though they were, strictly speaking, not identical. The “ban on them,” that is, the stylistic restriction limiting their use, had been done away with by Costa’s day, as an upshot of the meltdown of the system of distinct styles at the end of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 257-91).

For further information on the low styles of eighteenth-century ballet, see the video below:



The rancignato was no innovation of the eighteenth century. Bent-legged jumps were already in existence by the beginning of the seventeenth century, although the absence of full turnout creates a rather different appearance. Negri (1602: 77) describes a salto con le gambe piegate (‘jump with the legs bent’):

In the first jump with the legs bent, stand a piè pari [i.e., with the feet together side by side]; first rise straight up off the floor and bend both legs equally, with the left ankle over the right, and spreading [i.e., bending] the knees, land in the same place.


The practice of picking up the feet in jumps continued well beyond the eighteenth century, although without the old “ban” mentioned by Costa, i.e., without being restricted to low characters. Roller (1843: 216-19), for example, gives a few examples of some basic jumps – écart, pas sauté, changement de pieds, and entrechat – executed with the feet drawn up once or even twice while the dancer is airborne. Emmanuel (1895: pl. 3) provides a sequence of eighteen time-lapsed photos showing a dancer executing a string of three entrechats with the feet picked up (fig. 3). Note that the concluding land of the sequence (no. 18) is not in a demi-plié but on the toes with the knees only slightly bent, such that the greater part of the impact is absorbed by the elasticity of the insteps – another old practice. Compare the arms with those shown in figure 4, a detail from a dance for Harlequin from the 1720s.


Figure 3. A sequence of time-lapsed photos showing three entrechats done with drawn-up feet (Emmanuel 1895: pl. 3).


Figure 4. A detail from Le Roussau’s notation of a “Chaconne for Arlequin,” early 1720s.

Picking up the feet was particularly popular in the so-called Italian school – one of a number of connections between the old comic and grotesque and the later Italian school. (The comic and grotesque styles were extremely popular – indeed dominant – in eighteenth-century Italy (Fairfax 2003: 189-217).) In his preamble to jumping generally, Lifar (1951: 105), for example, writes that “the legs must be stretched out as far as possible, contrary to the teaching of the Italian school which recommends jumping à la crapaud, i.e. with knees bent.” Nicolaeva-Legat (1947: 118) also notes that “entrechats are taught with bent knees in the Italian school.”

Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 72, 74, 76) clearly disliked the practice and broadly proscribed it. In her discussion of the grand changement de pieds, for example, she writes that “in the Italian school, it is customary to bend the knees when doing changement de pieds” but prescribes straight legs for her Russian school (fig. 5).


Figure 5. The grand changement de pieds in the Italian and Russian styles (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 71)


And in connection with the assemblé, she adds that

in order to create an impression of a higher jump, the Italians bend their knees after grand battement, before lowering themselves into 5th position. This bending of the knees during the jump renders the dancer a grotesque character, spoiling its classic line. [fig. 6]


Figure 6. An assemblé in the Italian style (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 74)


So too in the pas jeté, she notes that “the Italian school teaches the pupil to throw up the legs very high and to bend them sharply; the movement acquires a great strain and the design acquires a definitely grotesque shade.”

This practice has been largely rooted out of contemporary classical ballet, no doubt owing to the widespread influence of the Russian school in the twentieth century, which disseminated Vaganova’s taste. Only a small number of jumps involving such leg movements, most notably the pas de chat, are now regularly seen in contemporary ballet performances. The same goes for jumps with only one leg drawn up, such as the passé sauté.



The foregoing is drawn from material that will appear in a major study to be called The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. For a more general discussion of stylistic conventions, see The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



Costa, Giacomo. 1831. Saggio analitico-pratico intorno all’arte della danza per uso di civile conversazione. Turin: Stamperia Mancio, Speirani eCompagnia.
Emmanuel, Maurice. 1895. Essai sur l’orchestique grecque. Paris: Hachette.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lambranzi, Gregorio. 1716. Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul. Nuremberg: Joh. Jacob Wolrab.
Lifar, Serge. 1951. Lifar on Classical Ballet. London: Allan Wingate.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Negri, Cesare. 1602. Le gratie d’amore. Milan: Gio. Battista Piccaglia.
Nicolaeva-Legat, Nadine. 1947. Ballet Education. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Pasch, Johann. 1707. Beschreibung wahrer Tanz-Kunst. Frankfurt: Wolffgang Michahelles and Johann Adolph.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Vaganova, Agrippina. [1934] 1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Zorn, Friedrich. [1887] 1905. Grammar of the Art of Dancing. Boston.

The Boned Arm of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The “Boned” Arm of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


In contemporary classical ballet, the arms not uncommonly move in a such a way that they can appear to be rather “boneless,” as it were, i.e., with marked bends at the wrists and elbows, in order to create a pronounced sinuous effect. The “trailing” hand – the flexion at the wrist such that the hand seems to follow or trail behind the arm when the latter is lowered or raised – was already a feature of classical technique by the early twentieth century and is clearly depicted and described in Vaganova’s textbook of 1934 (1969: 45-47):

Turn the hands palms down, and as you exhale, bring them smoothly down, allowing the fingers to “trail” slightly behind, but without overemphasizing, and without two much break at the wrist [fig. 1].

Figure 1. Detail of a port de bras from Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 45).

In contemporary practice, however, the flexion at the wrist is now commonly very pronounced, especially among women dancers. And while Vaganova shows the arm falling without flexion at the elbow, the contemporary manner can also be accompanied by a sagging elbow, again especially among women dancers (fig. 2). Indeed, this tendency often reaches its extreme in performances of Swan Lakee.

Figure 2. A sequential representation of lowering the arm with a sagging elbow in contemporary ballet.


The Practice in Early Ballet

A dance historian is apt to wonder whether such a soft arm was perhaps also a (typical) feature of early ballet. The evidence suggests that it was not. While there was clearly variation in the way early ports de bras and positions were executed, commonly the early sources explicitly proscribe or outright damn marked or angular bends at the wrist and elbow, in the dance of both the ballroom and the theater (with the latter, specifically in the high styles, when speaking of eighteenth-century practice).

Consider, for example, Rameau’s remarks (1725: 204, 206), that “you must guard against bending the wrist too much, for it would then look as if broken,” and again, “you must not, however, bend the wrist so much, for that would look forced.” In the context of the ballroom minuet port de bras, Bonin (1712: 147) writes that

in letting the hands and arms fall back, one must shun affectation and get used to letting the arms fall back under the shoulders not far away from the body with the arms unbent, the which should appear gentle, unforced, and pleasing. If the arms bend, on the other hand, it looks no better than if one wished to empty out water or swim through the air.

In the same context, Hänsel (1755: 134) writes that “in letting the arms and hands fall back, which should not come to be too close to or too far away from the body, avoid bending the elbows so that with this affectation you do not imitate a dancer from the rabble.” Borin (1746: 15, 14) writes broadly that “one can, furthermore, give as a rule to round the elbows and have the arms assume only pleasing shapes,” and he outright damns bent wrists:

One of the greatest offenses against good taste is the use of wrist movements. If one can find individuals who praise them, it is apparent that they do not mean to speak of the movements proper and particular to the wrist, which are always ridiculous, but only of the movements of the forearm, which are graceful. Thus, the movements particular to the wrist belong only to comic or impassioned characters.

Indeed, the professional dancer and choreographer Giovanni Gallini (1762: 146) speaks broadly against flaccid movement, for the true art of dance “equally reprobates an ungainly rusticity, and a mincing, tripping, over-soft manner.”

Reviewers at times also laud a dancer’s skill in having their arms avoid marked or angular bends. Writing of Théodore, a reviewer in the Journal des théâtres (15 Jan. 1778: 198), for example, notes that “her arms round gracefully and extend without stiffness.” Around 1784, Oberkirch (1869: 2/55) notes that Guimard “is as thin as a beanpole, but how graceful she is in curving her long arms and concealing her pointy elbows.”

Early nineteenth-century sources also proscribe marked bends, and certainly in lowering or raising the whole arm, the practice of having the hand “trail” is not prescribed, on the contrary. Bartholomay (1838: 34), for instance, has the hand lead and not follow the arm when the latter is lowered:

In order to lower the arm in a skillful manner, one lets the hand sink inwards first, the arm follows little by little and assumes its prescribed positions. This applies no less in the instructions for raising or lowering both arms.

In complete agreement, Théleur (1831: 37-38) writes that “the elbows or hands should never be allowed to fall so as to form angles at the wrists or elbows, but should be supported so that almost a straight line might be drawn from the points of the little fingers to the under part of the shoulders.” And further, “the elbows should be the first part of the arms in motion, to ascend, and the last to descend.” And “in the action of raising and lowering the arms at the side, they should be straight, but still, attention should be paid to keep the backs of the hands in a line with the points of the elbows.”

While no relevant pictorial representations of arm movements like that shown in figure 1 are extant for early ballet, surviving depictions of dancers do regularly show at least only slight inward flexion at the wrist in the formation of arm positions, in agreement with the foregoing remarks. Consider the dancers in figure 3, for example, which shows fourth position of the arms, a position used during the eighteenth century normally to show “opposition” in the serious style, a slow terre-à-terre style. (Eighteenth-century ballet was by convention divided into four distinct styles – and, thus, into four distinct techniques – commonly called the serious, half-serious, comic, and grotesque. For further discussion, see Fairfax (2003: 81-188).)

Figure 3. Dancers in poses with the arms in fourth position at the height of the shoulder. Left: a detail from a portrait of the famed dancer Camargo by Lancret, circa 1730; middle: a costume design for a dancer in the role of a faun, circa 1760s; right: “arms in opposition, frontal view” (Blasis 1820: 105, pl. 4, fig. 12).

The remarks above refer specifically to established positions and movements of the arms in pure dance. In poses, however, any arrangement of the body and limbs was theoretically possible in all four styles, and so more marked bends of the wrists and elbows were not out of place in that context. Consider the bends at elbow and wrist in figure 4, for example, which shows dancers in various poses. (Most extant depictions of dancers from this period arguably show dance poses, and a broad array of possibilities. For a brief consideration of eighteenth-century dance poses, see Fairfax (2003: 172-79).)

Figure 4. Dancers in more fanciful poses. Left: Claude Ballon (1671-1744); middle: Marie Thérèse Perdou de Subligny (1666-1736) “dancing at the Opéra;” right: Auguste Vestris, London 1781.

The sources strongly suggest then that the arms of early ballet were generally more “boned,” as it were, than their modern counterparts; that is to say, the marked bends at wrist and elbow not uncommon today were largely avoided in both the theory and practice of pure dance in early ballet. And it can be said that there is some aesthetic justification in this, for the result is a greater harmony in form and movement between arms and straight legs. More marked bends in the arms, not to mention more widely spaced fingers (fig. 4, middle, in contrast to the hands in fig. 3), were limited mainly to poses – strictly speaking, non-dance elements – wherein not uncommonly the legs (often with little or no turnout) were also bent at the joints to harmonize more with the arms (fig. 4, left & right), and the fanciful totality provided contrast to the movements of pure dance.

The eighteenth-century equivalent of the movement shown in figures 1-2 then can be seen in figure 5, which shows a reconstruction of the “capering” port de bras belonging to the half-serious style (a bubbly airborne style), based on the following quotation, the foregoing remarks, and other material not presented here. The arms are shown moving without flaccidity, passing through sixth position, formed with only gentle curves at the joints, before reaching second position. (For simplicity sake, a simple jump into the air is merely shown, with no land on the floor.)

With capers [i.e., beaten jumps], however, if one wishes to do one with force (straight up, to the side, to the back, out to the fore), the arms are taken down during the tempo [i.e., the preparatory bend of the knees, (the first three figures from the left in fig. 5)], but in springing they are re-extended so that both arms come to lie in a straight line [(the last two figures in fig. 5)]. From this, the following rule may be formulated: With the help of both arms, one can achieve height or elevation into the air off the floor. (Behr 1713: 47)

Figure 5. A reconstruction of the capering port de bras in the half-serious style.


The foregoing is a brief presentation of material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, a companion to my earlier The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



Bartholomay, Paul Bruno. 1838. Die Tanzkunst. Giessen: the author.
Behr, Samuel Rudolf. 1713. L’art de bien danser, die Kunst wohl zu Tantzen. Leipzig: Martin Fulde.
Blasis, Carlo. 1820. Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse. Milan: Joseph Beati et Antoine Tenenti.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
[Borin]. 1746. L’art de la danse. Paris: Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Ballard.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Hänsel, Christoph Gottlieb. 1755. Allerneueste Anweisung zur aeusserlichen Moral. Leipzig: auf Kosten des Authoris.
Oberkirch, Henriette-Louise. 1869. Mémoires de la Baronne d’Oberkirch. Paris. Charpentier.
Rameau, Pierre. 1725. Le maître à danser. Paris: chez Jean Villette.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Vaganova, Agrippina. [1934] 1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

The High Leg of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The High Leg of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

Dance Magazine (7 Jan. 2019) recently ran an article called “The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher” (click here to read). The view presented there is informed by a kind of teleological evolutionism, such that the range of leg movement in the course of ballet’s history is seen as simply getting bigger and bigger. This is a completely mistaken notion: a careful examination of relevant primary sources reveals a much more complicated development. This blog-post then, which is based on my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, is intended to debunk the myth and show some of the wayward changes in fashion, by focusing mainly on theory and practice in the eighteenth century.


Ballroom Versus Theatrical Dance

It is incontrovertible that eighteenth-century ballet employed a number of different leg heights, from the very low to the very high. This fact, however, has not been widely embraced in both scholarly and popular presentations wherein older ill-informed views have been uncritically accepted. Part of the problem here has been the unfounded assumption that the dance of the ballroom and that of the theater were more or less the same as far as technique goes.

While many movements were shared by both kinds of dance, it is quite clear, however, from both textual and pictorial sources that the execution of movements in the theater differed from that in the ballroom, or as Magri (1779: 1/137) puts it in his handbook for amateurs, “generally speaking, all these steps, being theatrical, are performed on stage differently, not as we have minutely shown.” One of the major ways in which the two differed was in the range of movement: that is, movements on stage were exaggerated, while those in the ballroom were contained. Mattheson (1739: 37), for example, writes broadly that

the art of gesture is as indispensable to the art of dance as the feet themselves. A composer who is poor at judging dances, whether they belong, say, to the choric [i.e., social] or hyporchematic [i.e., theatrical] styles – the difference lying more in the positions than in the steps, turns, or springs – will not do well at all here, for from his notes must stem comic or serious gestures.

Other sources clarify that by “positions” here was meant in part an expansive execution, with arms and legs held higher on stage than in the ballroom, and jumps reaching greater heights than on the ballroom floor. Rameau (1725: 70) writes in his ballroom handbook that “as I have undertaken, however, only to give instructions on how to do the different steps belonging to ballroom dancing [danses de ville], I am obliged not to go into these [theatrical] steps, which are executed in a grander way.” That danses de ville meant ‘ballroom dance’ is made clear by Essex’s translation of the phrase (1728: 40) as “Ball Dancing,” and by Ratier’s definition (1759?: 38) “the dance of the salon, or la danse de ville.

The professional dancer and choreographer John Weaver (1712: 162-63) also notes specifically that dance steps on stage differed in the performance, so much so that a theatrical execution would have been “rough and ridiculous” in a ballroom, that is, too exaggerated for so small a space:

SERIOUS Dancing, differs from the Common-Dancing [i.e., ballroom dance] usually taught in Schools, as History Painting differs from Limning. For as the Common-Dancing has a peculiar Softness, which would hardly be perceiveable on the Stage; so Stage-Dancing would have a rough and ridiculous Air in a Room, when on the Stage it would appear soft, tender and delightful. And altho’ the Steps of both are generally the same, yet they differ in the Performance: Notwithstanding there are some Steps peculiarly adapted to this Sort of Dancing, viz. Capers [i.e., cabrioles], and Cross-Capers [i.e., entrechats] of all kinds; Pirou[e]ttes, Batteries [i.e., battements], and indeed almost all Steps from the Ground [i.e., jumps].

The Spectator (25 Aug. 1712) likewise touches upon the overdrawn movements cultivated by theatrical dancers:

the Dancing [i.e., the dancers] on our Stages are very faulty in this Kind; and what they mean by writhing themselves into such Postures, as it would be a Pain for any of the Spectators to stand in, and yet to hope to please those Spectators, is unintelligible.

Indeed, dancing in too contained a manner on stage was in bad taste. As the famed choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre puts it (1760: 344), “confined steps, slight or ‘shrunken’ movements, in short, an execution that is too small, this is equally offensive to good taste.” The professional dancer and choreographer Giovanni Gallini (1762: 146) also speaks against mincing – and flaccid – dance movement generally, for the true art of dance “equally reprobates an ungainly rusticity, and a mincing, tripping, over-soft manner.”

The difference in the manner of executing movements on the ballroom floor versus the stage, as outlined above, continued into the following period. Carlo Blasis (1831: 489, 492-93) notes that “the private dancing [i.e., ballroom dancing] derives its origin from the theatrical dancing” and that

as to the movements of the body [in the former], they are nearly the same as those practiced by stage dancers, with this difference only, that they should not be carried to that grandeur and elevation, should have less impulse, and be modified, and adapted to the circles of Private Dancing. The legs ought to be raised from the ground but very little above the method of the second position; however, gentlemen may raise them something higher: the peculiar style of their dancing being more powerful and unrestrained, will admit of more elevated steps.

The professional dancer Théleur (1831: 100-101) in like manner comments on the difference in range of movement between stage-dancers and social dancers, noting that ballroom dance was the simpler part of theatrical dance executed “in miniature”:

Room-dancing is nothing more or less than that which is used for the stage, but executed in a more quiet style, avoiding all extravagances, or large steps; consequently, the practice to acquire this part of the art is considerably more easy than that of the public-dancer; it consists of the bending in the first position [i.e., fifth position], the little battemens from the first ground station to the fifth half aerial [i.e., from fifth to second position off the floor], the little battemens to, and from, the third half aerial station [i.e., battements sur le cou-de-pied], the ronds de jambe on the ground, the little ronds de jambe, the changes of the feet, the assemblées, the temps levés, the chassés, &c. selecting the more simple part of the practice laid down for the theatrical dancer, employing all the grace, &c. but in miniature.

For further discussion, see Fairfax (2003: 15-79).


References to a High Leg

The two heights of leg normally used in ballroom dancing were those wherein the toe of the gesture foot was raised to the heights of the ankle or the calf of the supporting leg. These are either explicitly prescribed in the ballroom handbooks or shown in surviving illustrations of ballroom dancers (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Ballroom dancers, 1735.

As was made clear in the foregoing section, the range of movement on stage was normally grander than in the ballroom, and this then implies that heights of leg above those of the ankle and calf were common in the theater. And, indeed, the heights wherein the toe of the gesture leg was raised until roughly level with the hip or above – to the height of the shoulder or even above the head – are alluded to or actually depicted in surviving illustrations of theatrical dancers. In his chapter on “serious dance” (and not the comic and grotesque), Bonin (1712: 169), for example, writes that “cabrioles can also be cut out in front, wherein the feet must come to lie almost level with or opposite the hips” (fig. 2):

Fig. 2. A reconstruction of the cabriole en avant according to Bonin (1712) and Behr (1713).

The same height is mentioned by Taubert (1717: 728) in the same context; cf. the height shown in figure 3.

Figure 3. Auguste Vestris, London 1781, an engraving after a design by Nathaniel Dance.

In the écart (i.e., the splits in the air), Ferriol (1745: 1/127) has the dancer “jump and while in the air fully open the legs as much as possible” (fig. 4). Pauli (1756: 20) sketches a grand rond de jambe thus: “the ouverture de jambe is performed when the leg does a rond in the air at the height of the thigh.” In the gargouillade, Magri (1779: 1/124) has the performer execute the circular movements with “the legs and thighs in an even line parallel to the floor.”

Figure 4. A caricature of a comic dancer apparently doing the splits in the air, circa 1780s, George Dance.

Compare as well the height of leg depicted in figure 5, which arguably shows poses, hence the reduced turnout, the bent legs and unpointed foot, and the more fanciful arrangements of the arms.

Figure 5. Dancing dwarfs: left 1716; right 1720s.


It also needs to be stressed here that raising the foot of the gesture leg to the height of the hip was not restricted merely to comic and grotesque roles, even in the early eighteenth century. Both textual and iconographic evidence indicates that a high carriage of both the leg and arms was also characteristic of lofty roles. In the passage cited above from Weaver (1712: 162), it is stated generally that “SERIOUS Dancing, differs from the Common-Dancing [i.e., ballroom dance] usually taught in Schools, as History Painting differs from Limning,” and that in contrast to ballroom dancing,  it “would have a rough and ridiculous Air in a Room, when on the Stage it would appear soft, tender and delightful. And altho’ the Steps of both are generally the same, yet they differ in the Performance.” It is apparent from Taubert (1717: 559), moreover, that in “serious” dance, second position of the arms was formed at the height of the shoulders, as in classical ballet:

Just as in this other branch of dance, namely serious dance, all the steps, even those which are borrowed from la belle danse [i.e., ballroom dance], are done high with considerable force (not to mention here the sundry capers, or powerful springs into the air wherein the feet must work away in the air for most of the time), so the arms here as well, which should necessarily accord with the legs, must always be held high, to the sides in a straight line with the shoulders [fig. 6].

Figure 6. A detail from Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753), showing a dancer with his arms in second position.

Since not “all the steps” used in ballet were springing steps, “high” in the context of non-springing steps can mean only ‘with a high leg.’ Indeed, see figure 7, which shows a posed dancer in the role of a “Roman” (by its very nature, highly unlikely to be a comic or grotesque character), with the gesture leg raised behind to the height of the hip.

Figure 7. Left: a posed dancer in the role of a “Roman” (Lambranzi 1716: 2/21); right: the same pose reconstructed to show better the lines of the body.


References to an Overhigh Leg

References to an overhigh height – above the hip, to the height of the shoulder or above the head – are found in Magri, for example, who had been a professional dancer in the so-called grotesque style from the late 1750s to the early 1770s. Consider his description (1779: 1/40-41) of the grand battement (the bolding is mine in the following quotations):

Figure 8. A reconstruction of Magri’s grand battement.

There is another kind of battement, which is said to be a high battement dégagé. Placed as usual in fifth, raise the right leg, for example, keeping the knee well stretched and turned out and the cou-de-pied arched, disengage the leg at least to the height of the shoulder, then take it down behind the left but see to it that it does not go beyond the foot on the floor; otherwise the body will be visibly contorted, and raising it again to the height of the first, take it back down in front, this second one done heeding the same warning. As many of these as possible are repeated thus. Not going beyond the foot on the floor will be difficult because of the force of the descent; this must be done with care, curbing this force of the descent, which is easy to achieve if done with caution. There are two movements here, the first lifting the leg and the second lowering it. These are also done as quickly as possible in order to acquire the desired benefit and fine dégagé of the thigh.
I have proven myself with these battements and have gone higher than the head. Indeed, I held up my left hand so that it was raised perpendicular, and I touched the palm of my left hand with the right foot, or rather cou-de-pied, a clear indication of having disengaged the leg well [fig. 8]. Take care, however, not to practice these battements violently; do them after you have made the sinews soft and flexible, and do not be heedless of keeping the foot on the floor well supported. In practicing these in a heat once, my beating foot displaced the other on the floor, and falling flat on my face, I broke my nose. With the same carelessness, Cesarini had the ill-luck to break an arm.

In one version of the grande révoltade, Magri (1779: 1/126) notes of the gesture leg, at the height of the jump, that “its thigh [is] taken up so high that the knee passes close to the face with the leg pointing upwards and the foot going above the head.” And most impressive of all, both feet are taken above the head in the grotesque jump the spazzacampagna (lit. ‘blunderbuss’), reconstructed in figure 9, which is based on the following two descriptions and other relevant material not presented here:

The caper known as the spazzacampagna begins in fifth position. Bend both knees, and in rising into the air, draw up the legs under the body as much as possible without taking the feet apart from this fifth. Then with them both coupled together in fifth, stretch them forwards to just above the head, which is drawn down a little to hide behind the feet. From here both legs are stretched out to the sides, opening and stretching as much as possible; raise the head and straighten the body at the same time. As you start to descend, begin to bring the feet together until they are in fifth again in coming down, but with the foot in front that was behind at the beginning. To do this caper, you need to precede it with a grand brisé or a grande [demi-]sissonne, which will be able to give force to the jump. Usually the fifth positions in which it begins and ends are forced, for when greater force is needed for height, an exact position is not to be looked for but rather that which will give greater force to the jump. (Magri 1779: 1/127)

The Spacciato Campania [sic]. This was always the most outstanding tour de force of the grotesque dancer. A tempo [i.e. preparation] for it with a few steps in a running start and a forward spring is needed. With both feet on the toes in first position, spring up at the very same time and do a high jump. At the same time as the spring into the air, the right foot does a tour de jambe to the right from front to back; the left does a tour de jambe to the left from front to back. The right arm does a circular movement to the right from front to back, and the left arm does a circular movement to the left from front to back. Land again in first position. Not a little strength and practice are needed here in order to do these four circular movements with the arms and legs very high at the same time. When highest in the air, the body looks like a frog tossed up into the air with all fours stretched away, which may well be the source of the name. (Roller 1843: 221-22)

Fig. 9. A reconstruction of the spazzacampagna (land not shown).

Clearly, raising the gesture foot to the height of the shoulder or higher was already established by the beginning of the eighteenth century and continued into the early nineteenth century, as is apparent from figure 10.

Figure 10. Left: “Monsieur Dubreil dancing the role of Scaramouche,” before 1713; right: the comic dancer Charles Masurier dancing with his mistress in Blache’s ballet Les meuniers, 1824.

As mentioned above, Magri was a dancer in the so-called grotesque style, a genre which by definition was to be as contorted and exaggerated as possible (Fairfax 2003: 124-61), and these overhigh heights almost certainly were proper to this style in theory. (Eighteenth-century ballet was by convention divided into four distinct styles – and thus into four distinct techniques – commonly called the serious, half-serious, comic, and grotesque. For further details, see Fairfax (2003: 81-188).)


Excursus on the Upper Body

Figure 11. Parisot in a pose, London, 1790s.

I might mention here only very fleetingly that there appears to have been a stylistic difference in the way the upper body was managed when a high straight leg extension to the rear was executed. In the high styles (the serious and half-serious), the dancer seems to have regularly performed here a forward upper-body inclination, so that the whole body came to be horizontal to the floor when the gesture leg was highest (figs. 11-12). Cf. Bonin’s remark (1712: 169) in connection with the cabriole en arrière as described in his chapter on the high styles:

If I wish to do this cabriole to the back, however, the body and the feet must come to lie in a horizontal line [fig. 12], but I have even seen it done with the heels visible above the horizontal line so that the head and feet formed a transverse line.

Fig. 12. A reconstruction of a cabriole en arrière according to Bonin (1712),

In the low styles (comic and grotesque), however, the torso seems to have been regularly held as upright as possible to produce a more contorted line in the body (fig. 13). Further evidence relevant here will be outlined in my forthcoming study.

Figure 13. Left: posed dancer in the grotesque role of Scaramouche, 1716; right: grotteschi, 1823.


The Dupré Precedent

In the 1730s, Louis Dupré, a famous dancer in the so-called serious style (a slow graceful terre-à-terre style), set a precedent for plentiful use of overhigh leg extensions in this genre, and he was widely imitated by other serious dancers. Dupre’s elasticity is alluded to in a number of sources, such as Casanova (1961: 2/141), who saw Dupré perform at the Paris Opéra in 1750, at the end of his career: “Truly it was an elastic body, which became bigger as it unfolded.” Noverre (1760: 342-44), who had been a student of Dupré, clearly indicates that many imitated these lofty extensions (the bolding is mine in the quotation):

The déploiements [i.e., unfoldings] of the leg and the temps ouverts [i.e., movements into an open position] were doubtless suitable to Monsieur Dupré; the elegance of his figure and the length of his limbs went wonderfully together with the temps développés and daring steps of his dancing, but what suited him will not suit dancers of middling height, yet everyone wanted to ape him. The shortest legs were forced to run through the same spaces and describe the same circles as those of this celebrated dancer, thus, the loss of stability: The hips were never in their place, the body wavered continuously, the execution was ridiculous, I thought I saw Thersites imitating Achilles. . . .
This fault [of disproportionate movement], Monsieur, is very fashionable among serious dancers, and as this style holds greater sway in Paris than everywhere else, it is very common there to see the dwarfish dance with movements of gigantic and ridiculous proportions. I would even go so far as to say that those who are gifted with a majestic figure sometimes misuse the extent that their limbs can reach and the ease with which they cover the stage and make their movements stand out. These exaggerated déploiements alter the noble and peaceful character that la belle danse [i.e., the serious style in this context] should have and deprives the execution of its softness and gentleness.

Figure 14. Costume design by Boquet for the serious dancer Gaétan Vestris, circa 1760s.

Elsewhere, Noverre (1760: 183) again implies that these high leg extensions were to a height well above the waist. In speaking (ill) of the tonnelet, which was a kind of male tutu worn by especially serious dancers throughout much of the eighteenth century and which in this case was not uncommonly made with pronounced lateral projections (fig. 14), he writes that “I would do away with those stiff tonnelets, which in certain dance positions, bring the hip to the shoulder, as it were, and which obscure [the body’s] contours.” Carrying the gesture foot markedly above the height of the waist would naturally cause one edge of the tonnelet to rise with the leg, thus bringing “the hip” (i.e.., the outer edge of the tonnelet) “to the shoulder.”

And so, the not infrequent use of overhigh extensions, which almost certainly were originally proper to the grotesque style, spread to the serious style in practice. The latter style in theory, however, was to cultivate only graceful movements and positions and avoid any contortion and caricature which might “alter the noble and peaceful character” requisite here.


The Vestris Precedent

Figure 15. Auguste Vestris c.1781, Thomas Gainsborough and Gainsborough Dupont.

The course of ballet history was radically changed by Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), a superstar dancer (fig. 15) who developed a highly idiosyncratic style of dance wherein elements from the four traditional styles were blended into a single composite style, during the heady days of the French Revolution. His style was marked by, among other things, much use of exaggeration, such that “his leg would rise to the height of his head” as in the grotesque style (Berchoux 1808: 20), a penchant caricatured in figure 16. (For a discussion of the freedom granted dancers to cultivate a unique personal style, see Fairfax (2003: 243-55).)

Figure 16. Two caricatures of Auguste Vestris circa 1800: left by Isabey; right by George Dance.

His tremendous popularity induced a widespread imitation of his personal style and ultimately resulted in the demise of the four traditional styles and the emergence of a single composite style in the early nineteenth century. As Noverre remarks (1807: 2/127-28), “everyone became imperfect and unfaithful copiers,” such that he could ask,

what has come of this unreasonable and capricious aping? The dancing at the Opéra is now of the same color, the same style, the same genre. There is only one manner of execution. This art has driven out variety in order to adopt the most unbearable monotony.

As part of this widespread imitation and “unbearable monotony,” limbs now were not infrequently raised overhigh with all characters, soloists and corps, men and women alike. That is to say, the exaggeration that had originally been proper only to the grotesque style, but then became common in the serious style, was now found everywhere. Noverre (1807: 2/167) complains of typically having “to see sixty arms raised well above the head and thirty straight legs carried in one spontaneous movement to the height of the shoulder.” In like manner, Roller (1843: 19), who had been a professional dancer in the 1790s, speaks broadly of “the loathsome contortions and grotesque movements to which ballet has now degenerated, little by little since the French Revolution,” and which are lampooned in figure 17.

Figure 17. A caricature of a pas de deux in Giselle, entitled Grise-Aile (‘Tipsy-Wing’), from Le musée Philipon, 1841.

Compare also Costa’s description of a grand rond de jambe (1830: 29-30), with my bolding:

From second position, the left foot sliding, and bending, comes into fifth in front, and raising the heel, the foot comes to be in front of the ankle of the right leg. Straightening the knees, raise the left foot horizontally almost to the height of the chest, also rising on the toe of the foot that is on the floor, and in this way off the floor, the said left leg is carried sideways to the height of the shoulder, which are a forced fourth and second, as with dégagés. Lower the leg little by little to second, and in setting down the heel of the right foot, which supports the body, the left repeats the unfolding, that is, the same movement.

A fuller discussion of these changes can be found in Fairfax (2003: 275-91).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the theoretical norm of hip-height seems to have been favored, at least in the Russian school. While Bernay (1890: 199) still gives an overhigh height for a grand battement – “the said left foot then leaves fifth and rises to the height of the left temple, still forming a continuous straight line with the leg” – Alexandra Danilova (1903-1997), however, notes in her memoirs (1986: 40) that

at that time, during my years at the school, we didn’t lift the legs high – it was considered not classical, rather daring, a little bit vulgar. “You are not in the circus,” our teachers would scold if développés or grands battements got too big. Just a teeny bit above the waist was as high as we were allowed. The Victorian attitudes still prevailed.

Contrast Danilova’s statement with that of the grottesco Magri from the eighteenth century, who prescribes that the foot of the gesture leg in a grand battement be raised “at least to the height of the shoulder.” Or contrast it with that of Noverre, who writes that serious dancers after Dupré commonly performed “with movements of gigantic and ridiculous proportions.” Danilova attributes the popularization of overhigh leg extensions in the twentieth century to the influence of George Balanchine, who “wanted the legs higher” – higher once again, it could be said, in light of the foregoing.



The remarks given above concerning eighteenth-century practice refer specifically to male ballet technique. The history of women’s technique for this time frame is somewhat different and more nuanced, but I have not dealt with it here, as the purpose of this already lengthy blog-post is to debunk the myth that very high extensions of the leg were foreign to early ballet. (For a partial treatment of changes to women’s technique, see Fairfax (2003: 219-42).)




Berchoux, J[oseph]. 1808. La danse, ou la guerre des dieux de l’Opéra. Second ed. Paris: chez Giguet et Michaud.
Bernay, Berthe. 1890. La danse au théâtre. Paris: E. Dentu.
Blasis, Carlo. 1831. The Art of Dancing. Translation by R. Barton. London: E. Bull.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
Casanova de Seingalt, Jacques. 1961. Histoire de ma vie. 6 vols. Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus.
Costa, Giacomo. 1831. Saggio analitico-pratico intorno all’arte della danza per uso di civile conversazione. Turin: Stamperia Mancio, Speirani eCompagnia.
Danilova, Alexandra. 1986. Choura, the Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Essex, John. 1728. The Dancing-Master. London: J. Essex and J. Brotherton.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Ferriol y Boxeraus, Bartholomè. 1745. Reglas utiles para los aficionados a danzar. Copoa: a costa de Joseph Testore.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Hogarth, William. 1753. The Analysis of Beauty. London: Printed by J. Reeves for the author.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Mattheson, Johann. 1722-1725. Critica musica. 2 vols. Hamburg.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1806-07. Lettres sur les arts imitateurs en général, et sur la danse en particulier. 2 vols. Paris: chez Léopold Collin.
Pauli, Charles. 1756. Élémens de la danse. Leipzig: Ulr. Chret. Saalbach.
Rameau, Pierre. 1725. Le maître à danser. Paris: chez Jean Villette.
Ratier, Joseph. 1759?. Observación 1 sobre el arte de la danza. Manuscript Mn Barbieri Mss 14059. Madrid: National Library.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Taubert, Gottfried. 1717. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. Leipzig: bey Friedrich Lanckischens Erben.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Tomlinson, Kellom. 1735. The Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Weaver, John. 1712. An Essay Towards an History of Dancing. London: printed for Jacob Tonson.

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

It is a commonplace in dance histories to claim that pointe was an innovation of the nineteenth century. This is, in fact, a misconception: pointe was clearly in use already in the eighteenth century. The clearest reference to such early use comes from Magri (1779: 1/91), who writes that the French dancer Antoine-Bonaventure Pitrot (fl. 1744-1770)

does not remain in equilibrium on the ball of one foot, as others do, but raises the whole body on the tip of the big toe and straightens all the joints so perfectly that the thigh, the leg, and the foot itself fall into one perpendicular line.

And there is some evidence that Pitrot was not the only eighteenth-century dancer to perform this feat. Almost certainly, Sandham, an early eighteenth-century English dancer specializing apparently in comic and grotesque roles, performed on pointe in his dance the Dutch Skipper during the 1721-22 season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. A bill draws attention to his performance “on his Toes” (cited in Highfill 1991: 13/202). If the phrase is taken to mean simply ‘on the balls of the feet,’ then there would have been little need to highlight this manner in a bill, since a high rise on the ball was the norm in eighteenth-century theatrical dance.

Almost certainly, a further example is mentioned in a description of a performance seen by Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1935: 31) at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1710:

A man appeared as Scaramouche, but he was far from being as elegant a dancer [as Hestor Santlow, who preceded him], though he excels in droll attitudes, leaping and contortions of the body, in which I never saw his equal. The most amazing of all was that he danced a “Chique” [i.e., a jig] with great agility on the tips of his toes with his feet turned entirely inwards, so that one cannot conceive how he was able to bend his feet thus backwards, stand on tiptoes, and spring about without straining his feet or breaking them at the ankle-joints.

A description of Giovanna Baccelli’s début at the Paris Opéra in 1782 also alludes to the “tours de force” of landing, balancing, and pirouetting “sur l’orteil” (‘on the toe’):

It was in the ballet in the second act of Électre, to an air by Monsieur Sacchini, that Mademoiselle Baccelli débuted yesterday. It cannot be gainsaid that she is a most agreeable dancer, who links strength and a brilliant execution to a neat figure; but because her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s (who made her appearance a few months ago and who already has many partisans), she excited less admiration especially in her tours de force of landing, holding herself, and pirouetting on the toe [sur l’orteil] without losing anything of the nobility and grace in her role, which the former did as well. (Bachaumont 1783: 21/1/ii = 16 Nov. 1782)

The “landing” sur l’orteil here most likely refers to a sharp rise onto the toe with the ball raised off the floor in a terre-à-terre jump. Indeed, springing up onto the tips of the toes is in fact prescribed by Gourdoux-Daux (1817: 55-56) in his description of the “assemblé upon the toe,” within the context of even ballroom dance technique.

Place yourself according to the rules of deportment, the knees straight, the feet in the third position. To perform this motion, place the weight of your body entirely upon the fore foot and straight upon the hip; this will disengage the hind foot. Bend upon the fore knee, raising, at the same time, the hind foot upon the toes. This motion will cause the hind knee to bend also; hold it well turned out and unfold it by sliding the foot with the toes low and near the floor towards the [56] second position, which it will reach, being extended, at the same moment the foot you stand on will reach its utmost bend. To rise up straight again, hold the foot extended which is pointed in the second position, and drawing it on the toes towards the ones you stand on, you will enter it above that one, which will be straightened at the same moment that the foot, coming from the second position, will reach the third, where you will continue to hold yourself upon the tip of your toes, bending them down as much as possible, and let the heels come down gradually.

That pointe is indeed referred to in the description of Baccelli is strongly suggested by the fact that the expression sur l’orteil was used in the first part of the nineteenth century to refer to a position on the toe(s), and not on the ball. Saint-Léon (1852: 31), for example, writes that

to be sur l’orteil is said of that position of the feet wherein the body is carried onto the tip of the toes, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the little phalanx of the big toe and onto the little phalanxes of the four other toes. . . [In contrast,] to be sur la demi-pointe is said of that position of the feet wherein the heel leaves the floor while the body is carried onto the front of the foot, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the back of the sesamoid bone and the metatarsal bones of the toes.

Saint-Léon is clearly referring here to an alternative form of pointe, one wherein the toes are not fully vertical, and the body’s weight is borne by the pads of the toes, with the ball still lifted from the floor. This version might be called “pad-pointe” as opposed to “tip-pointe.” (These two forms might have been distinguished by the expressions sur les orteils and sur les pointes respectively; Michel Saint-Léon (1829: 13r) seems to use them contrastively when he occasionally notes that a rise is to be done “sur les pointes / orteils,” although synonymity is not out of the question.)

The pictorial record suggests that these two forms of pointe existed side by side in the first part of the nineteenth century. Consider the depictions of the feet in figures 1-3: the first two show “pad-pointe,” and the third “tip-pointe.

Figure 1. The three Prices: Sophie, Amalie, Juliette, circa 1850s.

Figure 2. Deblin, Mr. Conway, and Mrs. Conway, New York, 1827.

Figure 3. Geneviève Gosselin, 1815.

As is apparent from these figures, men as well as women could rise up sur l’orteil or sur la pointe. And this was clearly true for dancers in the eighteenth century as well. In an extant engraving of Pierre Gardel from the 1790s (fig. 4), the lack of foreshortening in the toes of his right foot strongly suggests that a position sur la pointe is intended. Indeed, the engraving agrees completely with Magri’s description of Pitrot’s pointe given above.

Figure 4. Pierre Gardel in a small pose, circa 1790s.

An eighteenth-century example of “pad-pointe” is possibly shown in an engraving of Gallini (fig. 5), although the diagonal line of the forepart of the weight-bearing foot may be simply due to the engraving’s lack of skill.

Figure 5. Giovanni Gallini in a small pose, 1762.

Bachaumont states that Baccelli excited less admiration during her début at the Paris Opéra because “her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s,” and that Bacelli’s feat of dancing sur l’orteil, Eléonore Dupré “did as well.”

These few references suggest, moreover, that pointe-work was largely a virtuoso feat in the eighteenth century, and that the norm was still to rise on the ball rather than on the toe(s). These moments of pointe, moreover, were apparently just that, virtuoso moments, such that the position was normally not maintained for long in the course of a dance. Indeed, what made Geneviève Gosselin’s pointe-work so memorable were both the remarkable duration of these moments and their frequency of occurrence. A critic in Le journal des débats (3 Aug. 1827), for example, writes that “her astonishing flexibility of limb and her muscular power . . . allowed her to remain suspended for a minute or two on the extreme tips of her feet.” And “she could rise more often than usual on the point of her feet, presenting an elegant body supported, so to speak, on the big toe, or on a single toe-nail” (Journal de Paris 23 Jul. 1813).

It is unclear how far back the use of pointe goes. The material available for the pre-eighteenth-century periods is simply too sparse to make any certain claim about the origin of the technique. But given the high level of skill achieved by early acrobats, who were able to perform amazing feats of contortion, jumping, and balance already by the beginning of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 28-33), it would not be surprising if pointe originated fairly early among this latter class of performer and then eventually spread to more highbrow performances. Indeed, it was not unknown for some performers to lead a double life as acrobat and dancer (especially in the comic and grotesque styles). Consider the figure of Antoni, who was

in his day the most perfect rope-dancer [i.e., acrobat who performed dances on a tightrope] ever seen in France. His dancing was noble and easy, such that a skilled dancer might have performed on a stage. To this talent he united that of jumping with admirable elevation, justness, and precision, not to mention that he was original in the dance of the Drunkard, which he performed several times on the stage of the Académie Royale de Musique [i.e., the Paris Opéra] to the liking of all connoisseurs. (Parfaict 1756: 1/152-53)

Interestingly enough, two of the earliest allusions to pointe, adduced above, are found in connection with dances for low characters.

And finally, it should be stressed that a pointe position does not require a modern pointe-shoe. (For a brief discussion of eighteenth-century dance shoes, click here.)

The foregoing is a somewhat abbreviated presentation of material from my study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



[Bachaumont, et al.]. 1777-1789. Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu’à nos jours, ou Journal d’un observateur. 36 vols. London: chez John Adamson.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
G[ourdoux-Daux], J. 1817. Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing As Used in the Polite and Fashionable Circles. Philadelphia: J.F. Hurtel.
Highfill, Philip H., Jr. et al. 1973-93. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vols. Carbondale, Illinois: South Illinois University Press.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
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Saint-Léon, Arthur Michel. 1852. La sténochorégraphie, ou art d’écrire promptement la danse. Paris: the author.
Saint-Léon, Michel. 1829. “1ier Cahier, Exercices de 1829.” Opéra Rés. 1137.(1).
Uffenbach, Zacharias Conrad von. 1935. London in 1710: from the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Translated and edited by W.H. Quarrell and Margaret Mare. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Was the “Wrapped” Position Used in the Eighteenth Century?

Was the “Wrapped” Position Used in Eighteenth-Century Ballet?

Part of reconstructing an earlier dance technique is determining not merely what was done but also what was not done. In other words, what features from periods predating and postdating the age in question were likely or almost certainly unknown? Since technical features must have a beginning, sometimes an end, and not uncommonly a metamorphosis, a ballet historian might wonder when the “wrapped” position of the traditional Russian school of ballet came into existence, i.e., whether it was perhaps known as early as the eighteenth century (and eighteenth-century ballet is, by the way, the focus of my academic research).

First, let’s be clear about the formation of this position. According to Grant (1982: 33-34), the “wrapped” position is

the position of one foot placed between the ankle and the base of the supporting leg just under the calf muscle. The sole, with instep stretched and toes pointed, encircle the ankle so that the pointed toes are behind the heel of the supporting foot [see photo]. This position is used for petits battements sur le cou-de-pied and battements frappés.

The little evidence that I have unearthed points to an early nineteenth-century origin for this position. The following passage from Helmke (1829: 136-137) seems to be the earliest description. He writes that

not long ago, even a sixth position was invented, but I must wholly spurn it, however neat it may be, for firstly it is seldom used, and secondly you are apt to dirty your stockings with the soles whenever you attempt to use it. I know this sixth position under sundry guises and find many of them so meddled with that it seems to me that the inventor had suffered brain damage.

Helmke gives no further particulars on the shape of this position, but his vague remarks that this arrangement was “neat” and further “apt to dirty your stockings with the soles” do in fact well characterize the wrapped position. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what other position of the feet Helmke could possibly have had in mind here. His comment that this arrangement was “seldom” used – at least in the ballroom – would also explain why other nineteenth-century dance handbooks do not commonly show or describe the position. But clearly it was used and eventually became a codified position in the Russian school by the early twentieth century (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 32-33).

Helmke states that the position was invented “not long ago.” Given that his handbook was published in 1829, it would be reasonable to assume that the position was introduced into formal dance sometime in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. And so it seems most likely indeed that the wrapped position was foreign to eighteenth-century ballet.



Almost certainly some reader of this post will want to add that “eighteenth-century dancers couldn’t have performed this position, because they had only shoes with biggish heels, which would have made the position impossible or uncomfortable to do.” No. Soft flexible dance shoes with only a slight heel – “pumps” to use the period term – were in existence already by 1717 and are clearly described and even shown in the pictorial record (click here to see a detailed discussion). And so, this position could have been done if it had been known in the period.



Grant, G. 1982. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet. Third ed. N.Y.: Dover.
Helmke, E.D. 1829. Neue Tanz- und Bildungschule. Leipzg: bei Christian Ernst Kollmann.
Vaganova, A. [1934] 1969. Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. N.Y.: Dover.