Inclinations of the Body

The following is a tentative draft of an introductory section from “The Positions and Movements of the Torso,” chapter 5 of the work in progress The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (© Edmund Fairfax 2018). Some aspects are discussed in detail in other sections or chapters, and the reader would simply consult those sections in a completed work, but these are not available here at the present time. To sidestep the high fees demanded by institutions and publishers for the use of copyrighted images, I include here careful tracings of the original illustrations instead, with irrelevant detail from background, costume, etc. omitted. In some cases, originals are given below temporarily until tracings can be furnished.


5.3 Inclinations of the Body

A number of sources, both pictorial and textual, show or fleetingly allude to the use of leaning dispositions of the body in eighteenth-century dance, that is, those placements wherein the upper body is inclined either to the fore or to the side, or arched back. These dispositions should be seen as the forebears of the nineteenth-century positions of the body as described by Adice and Emmanuel and presented above (§5.1). Depictions of such inclinations to the fore, rear, and side can easily be found in the sources, such as those in fig. 1, showing ballroom dancers performing a small forward inclination (Tomlinson 1735: pls. 7, 9); fig. 2, showing ballroom dancers performing a small sidelong inclination (Tomlinson 1735: pls. 11, 15); fig. 3 showing theatrical dancers evidently in poses with a sidelong inclination (Lambranzi 1716: pt. 1, pls. 4, 11); and fig. 4 showing Gaétan Vestris (1728-1808) evidently in poses with forward and rearward inclinations.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Some of the handbooks on dance, such as Rameau (1725a), Tomlinson (1735), Ferriol (1745), and Magri (1779), explicitly mention inclinations of the body in connection with given steps. Other textual sources, such as reviews of theatrical performances or works not concerned primarily with dance, likewise make incidental reference to bends of the body in dancing. Consider, for example, Caraccioli (1768: ‘pas’), who mentions leans of the body in the minuet when executed by show-offs:

Minuet: Dance the steps of which are made up of a coupé, a rise, and a balancement. The music is likewise called the minuet. This is where the elegance of the fop reaches perfection. Mélidor sways [se balance], leans, rises, and seems to dance two feet above the floor, such is his nimbleness and lightness. No one can take his eyes off him, everyone admires him, and he is scarcely through before they applaud him. This is perhaps the only time when Mélidor thinks himself foremost amongst men, when he feels that he exists.

Goudar (1773a: 117-18) also makes mention of leans of the body to the fore and rear in the pantomime ballets mounted during his day:

I cannot conceive how these great masters of the art find women dancers who wish to disfigure themselves in order to do honor to their glory and become Furies on the stage in order to establish their reputation. I assure you, my Lord, that I was angry to see fair Campioni and pretty Curtz in the ballets Sémiramis and Le déserteur become frightfully ugly at the end of the ballet by dint of contortions and unmeasured movements, their looks distraught, their features altered, their fine color pallid such that they were not to be recognized. Moreover, these forced and unnatural expressions almost always shock the laws of modesty. It is not a question here of pedantry; I have never preached the Gospel. It is certain that these emotions, these outpourings are not all done according to the rules of true decency. The performer must become convulsive, must stir and thrash about, must give to her body an unregulated posture, must lean forward and back, must fall to the ground, must be raised and held up.

Inclinations of the body were evidently important enough in the eighteenth century to merit being practiced separately in dance lessons. Sol (1725: 18-19) indicates that a dancing master was to have his student do backbends after pliés and relevés:

After this the feet must still be held in the same way, and instead of having the student do bends, you must have him go back, with the knees well closed and very stretched (he still held by both hands) and inclining backwards, he must be stretched from the waist down, and have him bend the body from the waist up as he inclines to the rear and then have him come back in and bend again in the same way a number of times.

At the very end of our period, Kattfuss (1800: 29) describes the lessons suitable for teaching the ballroom minuet to a beginner. He gives exercises that are very similar to Sol’s and has the student also do inclinations to the fore: “As soon as he can stand steadily thus, have him bend forwards a number of times and then draw the upper body back up, just as one more or less does a compliment or bow.” And of course, bends of the body are still important constituents of classical ballet.


5.3.1 Inclinations of the Body Before the Eighteenth Century

It is clear from even earlier sources that the use of bends of the body in the course of dancing was not an innovation of the eighteenth century. Such bends are mentioned here and there in descriptions of steps or dances or shown in notation in the pre-eighteenth-century dance treatises as well. Let us look at some of these. The article on notation by Goussier (1751: 1/371) summarizing a now lost manuscript outlining Favier notation alludes to the existence of inclinations to the fore, side, and rear and gives notational characters for these three options (fig. 5):

figure 12 [in fig. 5] the body inclined to the fore as in a man’s révérence, which is shown by a hollowing of the line representing the front of the body; the following (fig. 13) shows the body inclined to the right side, which is marked by a hollowing of the line on the side; figure 14 shows that the body is inclined to the rear, which is indicated by a hollowing of the line at the back; finally, figure 15 shows the body inclined to the left side.

Fig. 5

Goussier’s source may well have been written in the late seventeenth century or in the very early eighteenth century, before the death of Jean Favier the Elder (1648-1719?), the likely author of Goussier’s source, but the notation itself was already in existence by the 1680s.

In his handbook on dance, Lorin (1688: 42) writes that at one point in the “Contredançe du Roy,” the gentleman and lady “present the right hand in a small inclination.” A further example is afforded by Pomey’s 1671 description of a theatrical dancer performing a sarabande: “sometimes, with the finest timings in the world, he would remain suspended without moving and half-inclined to one side, with one of his feet in the air,” and further would perform “certain curvings of arm and body” (French text in Ranum 1986).

Inclinations of the body to the side figured in the ballroom dance the courante of the early seventeenth century and are explicitly mentioned by de Lauze (1623: 33), who writes that, at one point in the dance, the performer should

do two retirades like the foregoing two and a third with the right foot without crossing, whereupon instead of a chassé one can rise in a temps with the left leg sans sauter, rising onto the toe of the right foot so that the body, all as one piece, leaning towards the right-hand side, must follow slowly.

Lupi (1607: 9) also alludes to bends of the body: “in dancing the cinque passi, flank somewhat with the shoulder, and in doing the cadenza, do its inclination, with the knees somewhat open [i.e. bent], and in this way he will be able to do every kind of cadenza, capriola, and jump in a graceful manner.” And in his handbook on dance, Caroso (1581: 30, 27) also makes fleeting mention of inclinations of the upper body. He writes, for example, that the seguito finto is to be performed “gracefully bending the body backwards a little.” Likewise in the three last steps of the seguito doppio, the dancer is instructed to do an inclination: “When these steps are done to the rear, gracefully bend the body a little with the head upright.”

Even more ancient sources makes reference to an inclining and straightening up of the body in the course of dancing. In his handbook S’ensuit l’art et instruction de bien dancer of around 1488, Michel Toulouze, for example, has the dancer bend and then raise the body in the course of executing a composite step made up of two simples: “the first simple is done with the left foot by inclining the body and doing a step forward; and the second simple is done with the right foot, and one must raise the body and step a little to the fore.” According to the same source, the dancer in the double marks the first of the three steps making up this step by “raising the body,” that is, by straightening up after an initial inclination (the foregoing passage clearly uses the same expression to mean a return to an upright carriage of the body after a bend):

The first double is done with the left foot, and one must raise the body and lightly take three steps to the fore. The second double must be done with the right foot, and one must likewise raise the body and then take three steps to the fore, the first with the right, the second with the left and the third with the right.

5.3.2 Reconstructing Principles

While it is abundantly clear that inclinations of the body were in fact used in eighteenth-century dance, both on and off the stage, the sources from the period unfortunately fail to outline how precisely these inclinations were to be done, and where generally they could or should be used, especially within the framework of the four traditional theatrical styles. And so the principles governing their employment must be extrapolated from the few recorded instances of their specific use. Doubtless, not all instances of such usage were recorded in our period, especially in regard to theatrical dance with its differing styles, and hence it seems most likely that body-bends were also used or at least could be used in other places where the sources are utterly silent. In the face of so few recorded examples and the failure of the sources to outline underlying principles, the scholar can give only informed guesswork at times.

A few broad remarks concerning the use of inclinations can, however, be made. In some cases, a lean of the torso was simply a defining feature of a given movement, with such steps as the tombé, galletto, and spazzacampagna, among others. In other cases, the use of an inclination appears to have been triggered by a leg gesture (see the dancers on the right in fig. 2). In still other cases, the presence of an inclination apparently hinged upon the dancer’s focus and placement vis-a-vis another dancer, or upon the dancer’s changing orientation to the spectator. Elsewhere, it seems, the bend of the body was, in a more complicated manner, determined partly by the choice of port de bras and partly by bodily orientation, both of which in turn apparently hinged upon style or genre. Indeed, inclinations seem to have been particularly common in the serious style, which was known for its serpentine line and undulating movements, or “libidinous movements” as Suard puts it (1753?: 33-34):

First of all I showed that the music of the French was intimately bound up with the dance which they were pleased to call “grave” and that no alteration to the character of one could be done without effecting the same changes in the other. I proved that the softness and monotony of this dance stemmed from the same taste that was responsible for the slowness of the music and that if Italian music were ever to be introduced on the lyric stage [of the Paris Opéra] (which cannot fail to happen), one could only with ridiculous inconsistency produce a monstrous mix with French [serious] dance, whence would need to be utterly proscribed those tilts of the head, those cadenced unfurlings of the arms, those libidinous movements of the body, the languor and softness of which put me to sleep as readily as one of Lully’s operas; the dancers would need legs and nimbleness. It is indeed only in entrechats, pirouettes, and gargouillades that dance can make its appearance when accompanied by the lively sound and the sparkling, brilliant convulsions of Italian music.

As will become apparent below, a number of the ports de bras used by the serious dancer required the body to be inclined at some point in their execution.

There is a very slight bit of evidence suggesting that forward inclinations of the upper body were normally done only when the dancer was oriented diagonally (fig. 1). (It should be noted here that Beauchamps notation does not capture diagonal orientations, evident again in fig. 1; in other words, choreographic track and bodily orientation were two distinct phenomena. This discussed in detail in ch. 8) The diagonal was an orientation commonly used in the serious and half-serious, it seems, but likely avoided in the comic and grotesque, as argued below (ch. 8). (This restriction does not apply to steps wherein an inclination of the upper body is an essential defining feature of the step, such as the galletto or spazzacampagna, or to the révérence, which, strictly speaking, is not a dance movement.)

First of all, if a forward inclination is executed with the body fully frontal to the spectator, the foreshortening due to perspective naturally results in a flat and slumped appearance, which is at odds with the general remarks extant from the period describing the character of the serious and half-serious styles, styles devoted to beauty of line. Indeed, the line of inclination simply cannot be made out when a forward bend is done directly to the fore. And so the aesthetics of the period would seem to favour the diagonal here (see further ch. ?).

Second, a hint comes from a comparison of two contrastive instances of upper body movement extant in the sources. As discussed below (ch. 24), a forward inclination of the body is prescribed by Rameau (1725a: ?) in the pas de sissonne de chaconne, specifically during the marché en avant following the initial pas assemblé. In contrast, no forward inclination of the body is prescribed in a very similar situation, to wit, the step following the final pas assemblé of the saillies; instead, a mere nod of the head is prescribed there (Rameau 1725a: ?).

And so these two instances of the combination assemblé + marché are treated differently as far as the upper body goes: the one is done with an inclination of the upper body, while the second is done with a mere inclination of the head. This inconsistency is perhaps due to the different positions of the feet prescribed in each case. In the assemblé of the pas de sissonne de chaconne, the dancer is to land in third position of the feet, while in the assemblé figuring in the saillies, the dancer is to land in first. As argued above (ch. 4), steps making conspicuous use of “crossed” positions of the feet (third, fourth, and fifth) seem to have generally required a diagonal orientation, if possible, while first and second positions seem to have required an en face orientation, as is still roughly the case in contemporary classical ballet. And so apparently these two steps typically differed in the choice of orientation, which, in turn, apparently resulted in a different choice of upper body movement: an inclination of the whole upper body when the step was executed on the diagonal, as implied by foot position, and an inclination of the head when executed en face, again implied by foot position.

If this analysis is correct, then it would seem not unlikely that the replacement of the forward inclination by a simple nod of the head when the dancer was fully frontal was perhaps a more general rule. Indeed, in the rearward movement of the second balancé after an initial demi-coupé en avant (a change of movement that should trigger an inclination of the torso when performed diagonally, as argued below (§6.3.9)), Rameau’s prescription (1725a: 153) to do merely a nod of the head rather than an inclination of the torso appears to have been determined by the fact that the step in his example was to be done “to the presence,” as he explicitly states, that is, straight to the fore rather than on the diagonal.

The foregoing example then illustrates a possible method whereby the historian might tease out some informed possibilities in this poorly described area of eighteenth-century dance technique. Admittedly, analogy based on postulates can hardly result in certainties, and there is an element of speculation involved here as well. But in some cases, the broader history of formal dance seems to confirm at least some of the reconstructed principles. The following sections then are attempts to piece together, from various sources, the underlying principles governing the use of inclinations of the body in eighteenth-century dance.