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.