Preliminary Considerations

The following is a tentative draft of a section from “Preliminary Considerations,” chapter 1 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 use careful tracings of original illustrations instead, with irrelevant detail from background, costume, etc. omitted when desirable, and these tracings are presented below. In some cases, originals are given below temporarily until tracings can be furnished.


1.1 Methodology and Scope

It must be most strongly foregrounded at the outset of this reconstructive study that no comprehensive description of the technique of eighteenth-century ballet survives from the period, nor a neat full inventory of its vocabulary. Indeed, it appears that no such detailed study was ever written down during that century. Weaver (1712: 3) notes at the beginning of our period that “if the Writers of the World have been (in these later Ages at least) silent about [dance], it has been, because the Professors of this Art, like the Disciples of the Druids, thought fit to convey its Mysteries by Word of Mouth, from Generation to Generation.” The Spectator (1712: 24 March) similarly writes, “why should dancing, an art celebrated by the ancients in so extraordinary a manner, be totally neglected by the moderns, and left destitute of any pen to recommend its various excellencies and substantial merit to mankind?”

One contemporary author on ballroom dancing, namely, Pierre Rameau, had clearly meant to bring out a book on theatrical dance for the benefit of the “noble youth,” that is, those among the aristocracy obliged to participate in “the King’s ballets and the like,” or court festivities. He writes (1725a: 269-270) that “if hereafter my hopes are not dashed, I will bring out without delay a further treatise, which will teach how to do all the different steps in ballet, both serious and comic, as well as the different characters with which they are to be executed.” To dance history’s great loss, this projected work evidently never materialized.

While treatises on dance did in fact appear in our period of study, not one of them outlines the technique of high dance with any fullness. In fact, there appears to have been some opposition on the part of dancers or dancing masters to the very idea of committing to paper a comprehensive description of the art. As Théleur writes just beyond our period (1831: i), “it has been observed, that a work of this kind would injure the profession, by giving too ready an explanation of the art to the world in general, thereby rendering the masters in a degree unnecessary.” In fact, some thought that the very idea of attempting to describe dance in words was outright silly. One such was Grimm (1878: 5/443 = 15 Jan. 1764), who writes that “treatises on dance technique are about as useful as those on agriculture. The famed Marcel showed pupils how to dance and turned out outstanding students; he did not waste his time writing books on his art.” In a few cases, works known to have been published in the period have not survived. Augustin Averos’s Essai sur l’usage de la danse en médecine of 1759, for example, may have given some insight into eighteenth-century dance technique, but the work is apparently no longer extant. Thus, the sad fact remains that the technique and movement vocabulary of eighteenth-century ballet must be reconstructed, that is, pieced together from fragmentary descriptions found in disparate sources.

This process of reconstruction, unfortunately, is complicated by a number of factors, which must always be borne in mind in any discussion of eighteenth-century ballet. Firstly, there were four distinct styles cultivated during our period, and practice changed in the course of the century, even if theory did not. Secondly, dance technique was subject to varying interpretations according to the dictates of personal taste. Thirdly, the movements and positions outlined in the extant handbooks belong mainly to ballroom rather than theatrical dance. And lastly and most problematically, some aspects were simply not recorded anywhere during the age. These four factors will be discussed in more detail below in the following sections.

In the absence then of a complete record, complicated by the existence of considerable stylistic variety, the reconstructor must by necessity adopt a historical and structural approach to the material, considering the dance conventions found throughout a very broad time-span running from the late sixteenth century right down to the present day in order to establish organic lines of development whenever possible. As will become apparent in the course of this study, the history of ballet over the last few centuries, like that of the other arts, is not a succession of neatly departmentalized periods convenient to academic syllabi or a map charting discrete islands of utter novelties invented ex nihilo. On the contrary, the development of ballet technique has been a gradual process of living change, of inherited traditions partly preserved and at the same time partly reshaped to suit the vagrancies of changing taste. (Given the broad historical approach adopted here, this study can function partly as a sketch of dance history from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.)

Any attempt at coming to a more comprehensive understanding of the fragmentary and incomplete information surviving from the period must rely on a thorough and systematic comparison of the materials in their historical contexts. One must especially guard against the fallacy of equating historical document with history and thus assuming that the absence of a feature in the former must necessarily mean an absence in the latter, or alternatively, that the presence of one given feature necessarily means no other option was possible. Any approach that narrowly focuses solely on a single incomplete source, such as the handbook of Pierre Rameau (1725a), or even a few, divorced from any consideration of what came before and after is apt to result in a skewed view of the dance technique from this period.

By adopting a contextual approach, certain possible answers to vexing questions resulting from lacunae present themselves readily and convincingly. A knowledge of the conventions predating and postdating our period of study can hint at likely historical developments, either that of continuity or change. Lacunae can be filled with varying degrees of likelihood if a feature is present both before and after our period in the same contexts: most likely the same held true for the intervening time-span but simply went unrecorded. (See, for example, the discussion of spotting here.)

Some features, moreover, can be inferred by analogy. If a given feature is described in a specific context with a few steps, the same feature may also have been found in the same context with other steps which are described with less detail. (See, for example, the discussion of the balancement or ‘sway’ here.) Elsewhere, biomechanical considerations strongly suggest a given reconstruction or practice. (See, for example, the discussion of tempo here.) This then is the “structural” approach, to be used together with the “historical” approach in order to supplement the study of the extant descriptions and the pictorial record.

Ultimately, I have striven throughout, especially in areas that are poorly described, such as those dealing with the movements of the upper body, to lay bare what appear to be the underlying but unstated principles governing the known choices of movements and positions. This is to ensure that given reconstructions, particularly when the sources are silent, are not mere flights of wanton fancy but rather the results of reasoning rigorously informed by analogical thinking, considerations of the broad historical development of formal dance technique, and the demands of biomechanics.

Most chapters in this study begin with all the relevant excerpts dealing with formal dance technique from the eighteenth-century sources presented chronologically in their original English form or, in the case of foreign-language texts, in English translation, that is, all those excerpts that I have been able to unearth. More or less identical passages from sources plagiarizing earlier works have not been included here but are simply referred to in end-notes in order to eschew redundancy and to keep this study from becoming needlessly unwieldy.

The presented excerpts are followed by a detailed discussion wherein the passages are carefully analyzed and other pertinent evidence is taken into consideration in order to eke out a more comprehensive understanding of the movement in question. Such evidence includes extant images, notations of steps, relevant descriptions of movements from later or earlier periods, insightful details found in descriptions or reviews of theatrical performances from the period, and more general remarks extant from the eighteenth-century dealing with the nature of stage dancing specifically. In some cases, so little information is extant that the few quotations which are available have been simply embedded into my discussion. To eschew needless repetition, the discussions of steps focus narrowly on the movement of the lower limbs in isolation. For a consideration of all the movements to be done in connection with a given step, the reader will need to consult cross-referenced sections in earlier chapters dealing with the carriage and movement of the upper body, the positions of the feet and legs, the basic movements of the lower limbs, and so forth. (For an example of this manner of presentation, see the chapter on the pas de rigaudon here.)

For clarity’s sake, a number of computer-generated illustrations have been included throughout, showing position-by-position the execution of the reconstructed movements belonging specifically to the dance of the eighteenth-century stage rather than the ballroom. And in doing so, I have been forced, in several places, to choose between different options, as there were not uncommonly different views during the period on how positions were to be formed and movements to be executed. I have generally opted for what appears to have been the more common option, but at times too little information is available to determine which manner was most representative, and in such cases, I have simply followed my own personal taste. Due to constraints of space, it has not been possible to illustrate all the steps described or, in the case of those that are illustrated, to show the manner of execution in all four styles, when these can be reconstructed.

To sidestep the high fees demanded by institutions and publishers for the use of copyrighted images, I use careful tracings of original illustrations instead, with irrelevant detail from background, costume, etc. omitted when desirable, and these tracings are presented below. In some cases, originals are used temporarily until tracings can be furnished.

I should stress that this work is about eighteenth-century ballet technique in the broadest sense of the word. It deals not merely with the basic positions and basic movements, but also with how these positions and movements were combined to form larger units – “steps” and set ports de bras – and how these units, in turn, were altered in longer sequences or simply for variation’s sake. In other words, this work also aims to create a comprehensive inventory of theatrical steps and their variants, as well as of attitudes. This study does not discuss the broader question of how dance was used as an art form on the eighteenth-century stage, within the contexts of opera, pantomime ballet, or other theatrical works.


1. 2 The Four Traditional Styles of Ballet

Essential to any discussion of eighteenth-century ballet technique is an understanding of the system of different theatrical styles cultivated during the period. As this system has already been examined in detail elsewhere, namely in my earlier study The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (2003: 81-188), I present here a brief summary, enough to make intelligible the many references to the styles throughout this work. The reader will need to consult the aforesaid study for a more comprehensive treatment.

In sharp contrast to contemporary classical ballet, eighteenth-century theatrical dance availed itself of four broad but distinct traditional styles, or characters as they were also termed. These genres differed not merely in the nature of roles or costumes but also in the choice of positions and movements and even in the manner of their execution. In few, these styles differed in subject matter, choreography, and technique. It should be noted, moreover, that writers from the period are inconsistent in the naming of these four characters, and depending on the source, one term can refer to a style or a broad category of two styles different from that in some other treatise.

1.2.1 The Serious Style

The loftiest of the four characters was the so-called serious style, alternatively named the grave, la haute danse (‘the high dance’), le genre gracieux (‘the graceful genre’), le grand genre (‘the grand genre’), la danse noble (‘noble dance’), and la belle danse (‘fine dance’), even though the latter two expressions were also used confusingly to designate formal French ballroom dance, which was more closely related to the serious than to the other theatrical styles.

The serious was devoted to the portrayal of the lofty and grave, the noble and grand, the dignified and sublime, and thus was the style usual with such roles as the high gods and goddesses, and the grand heroes and heroines of high serious tragedy. Choreography in this style was typically danced to slow tempi, to such dance movements as the sarabande, loure, courante, grave, passacaille, pavane (les folies d’Espagne), and sometimes the chaconne.

The gravity demanded by this style ensured that much of the serious dancer’s movement was terre-à-terre, with few fast pirouettes or high beaten jumps. Important here were pleasing serpentine lines, beautiful unfolding movements of the limbs, and a certain “languid” quality, that is, a marked smoothness in movement. Finely executed ports de bras, wonderfully sustained balances, and picturesque attitudes took the place of airborne brilliance. Ideally, the serious dancer was to be elegantly slender and long-limbed, with a marked degree of limberness to give ease to his expansive unfolding movements of the leg.

This style should not, however, be simplistically equated with what is known today in classical ballet as adagio, in contrast to allegro, for the serious genre of the eighteenth century differed from the other styles in technique as well, most notably using, among other features, a different position of the arms (fig. 1), and thus different ports de bras, as well as a different position of the body.

The lack of airborne brilliance and a preponderance of smooth and typically very slow movement resulted in a style that was seemingly simple in appearance. Such a lack of flash ensured that the serious was the least popular of all the styles throughout most of Europe, especially in Italy, although it was greatly popular in Paris, especially at the Paris Opéra. Indeed, nearly all of the great dancers in this style were to be found at the Paris Opéra throughout our period, such as Louis Dupré (1697?-1774), Marie Sallé (1707?-1756), Gaétan Vestris (1729-1808), Anne Heinel (1753-1808), and Pierre Gardel (1758-1840).

The lack of flash in this style went hand-in-hand with a lack of expressiveness, thanks to the common practice of French serious dancers, at least at the Paris Opéra, normally wearing masks until well into the second half of the century, which robbed the dancer’s countenance of expression. The common avoidance of pantomime in this genre also resulted in a certain “coldness” in performance, again especially in France and at the Paris Opéra in particular, and a typically more abstract or nonrepresentational quality, evident already by the late seventeenth century (Ménestrier 1682: 146), continued to characterize the French serious style well into the second half of the period.

However unpopular it was outside of France, the grave is, nonetheless, the one style about which we are the best informed. The terre-à-terre nature of this genre made it potentially the easiest of all the four styles wherein amateur dancers outside of the theater could excel, those bent upon developing skill in ballet. Not surprisingly then, the bulk of the theatrical dances extant from the period in Beauchamps notation, published mainly for the benefit of amateurs and their teachers, it appears, belong in fact to this genre (ch. 2). The greater amount of information available concerning this style together with the great popularity that the serious enjoyed in France and particularly at the Paris Opéra have unfortunately led to a widespread confusion of this one style the serious with mainstream dance of the eighteenth century as a whole, and this confusion has led to the grossly skewed view of ballet history found in most secondary sources today (Fairfax 2003: vii-xv).

Fig. 1. “Fourth” position of arms, used with “turns of the elbow” to form opposition in the serious style. Left: a mid-eighteenth-century demi-caractère faun evidently en attitude, by an unknown artist, in the New York Public Library Dance Collection, Cia Fornaroli Collection, reproduced in De Mille (1963: 89); right: “arms in opposition, frontal view” (Blasis 1820: 105; pl. 4, fig. 2). The latter shows the continued use of this position in the early nineteenth century.

1.2.2 The Half-Serious

Far more popular among eighteenth-century audiences, and thus far more representative of mainstream dance in the period, was the so-called half-serious style, or the demi-caractère (‘half-character’), the brisk, or the galant, the latter term also confusingly used to designate formal French ballroom dance in some sources. The half-serious style took up a middle-ground between the serious and comic, coupling the gracefulness of the former with the animation of the latter, and apparently sharing some technical features with both (click here for the arm position likely used to show opposition in this style). Danced commonly to such lively movements as gavottes, rigaudons, passepieds, gigues, and even minuets and chaconnes, the half-serious was devoted to the display of bubbly nimbleness and sylphlike lightness in quick jumps and brilliant capers.

More often than not centering on lighthearted affairs of the heart and pastoral subjects, the demi-caractère was suitable for the representation of such lesser divinities as Cupid and Mercury, such figures drawn from daily life as gallant youths in love or even characters from high comedy, as well as such anacreontic figures as idealized satyrs, fauns, nymphs, sylphs, and shepherds. Ideally the half-serious dancer was to be middling in height and well-proportioned, with strength in the legs for his nimble gambols. The most highly regarded demi-caractère dancers from the period were Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770) and Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), although the latter was also a master of the serious and the comic. This style is particularly important in any broad overview of ballet history, for it is mainly from this character in particular, mixed with elements from the other styles, that the technique of modern classical ballet ultimately stems.

1.2.3 The Comic

The comic was given over to caricature and mirth, one betraying a frolicsome and rollicking character. As such, it was the style used in portraying figures from low comedy and farce, and in painting the lighthearted exploits of the common folk, such as artisans, villagers, peasants, pâtres (rustic shepherds), or inherently comic figures, such as Don Quixote and his ilk.

To this end, the comic dancer’s movements, gestures, and attitudes were drawn as much as possible from nature rather than high life, and thus elements taken from folk or national dance lay well within the comic dancer’s preserve. In order to bring to life the rusticity or unrefinedness of such roles, stiff graceless movement lacking roundness was employed, together with many jumping steps, typically to swift-moving music. Pantomime, as well as gesture and lazzi (tricks and slapstick antics), played a significant role in this style throughout the whole period, often at the expense of ports de bras, which were mostly functional (i.e., used mainly to aid in turning or jumping). Or as Angiolini (1765) puts it,

it is here [in the half-serious] 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, serving merely to allow the dancer to soar with greater ease.

The comic dancer appears to have employed arm positions different from those in the serious (click here for the arm position likely used to show opposition in this style), and a position of the body different from those in the serious and half-serious.

Dancers in this style needed to be short and stocky, indeed, the shorter the better. Some of the more outstanding comic dancers from the period were Jean-Barthélemy Lany (1718-1786) and Jean Dauberval (1742-1806), as well as Marie Allard (1742-1802) and Marguerite-Angélique Peslin (1748-?).

1.2.4 The Grotesque

The most remarkable of all the four styles was the grotesque, which was often indiscriminately lumped together with the comic under the rubric of “comic dance.” Like the comic, the grotesque was given over to graceless caricature, laughable grimace, and amusing oddity but was distinct in its use of movements and jumps marked by ridiculously extreme exaggeration and contortion, movements more in common with the antics of an acrobat or contortionist rather than with the movements of a dancer.

This style required a body with a marked degree of limberness, such that the foot of the gesture leg could be raised above the head, and demanded legs with an astonishing elasticity that allowed the performer to jump so high in his feats of elevation that he could soar over the head of a tall man standing upright or knock down with his foot some object hanging on a prop at a height much higher than the dancer himself. So important was elevation in jumping here that grotesque dancers would willingly sacrifice musicality and land off-beat if such negligence ensured remarkable height.

The grotesque style made conspicuous use of positions and movements not normally found in the serious or half-serious, such as parallel or turned-in positions of the legs, a number of droll jumps, as well as tumbling tricks. As with the comic, pantomime, gesture, and lazzi played a significant role in this genre throughout the whole period, a genre devoted to the portrayal of the lowest class of mankind, daft bumpkins and crude peasants; characters exotic to European audiences, such as Laplanders, Turks, and Chinese; those roles making up la grande vitesse, namely Furies, Winds, and Bacchants; and, above all, commedia dell’arte characters, such as Harlequin, Scaramouche, and Punch.

This style was particularly popular in Italy, and most of the talents in the grotesque haled therefrom, such as Gennaro Magri, a practitioner of this style in the 1750s and 1760s and the author of one of our sources.

1.2.5 Changes to the Tradition

In the course of the eighteenth century, the conventions governing these four traditional styles began to lose some of their force, with the system breaking down altogether at the end of our period. This meltdown has been discussed in detail in my earlier book The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (2003: 257-291), and I give here again only a brief summary.

Sometime in the 1730s, the French serious genre began to lose some of its staid and mainly terre-à-terre character and was adulterated by the introduction of more conspicuous and plentiful capering. This change was effected by a number of factors: the greater animation brought to dance music in French serious opera by the famed composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose more animated style of dance music obliged serious dancers to move with greater briskness; the precedent set by the famed serious dancer Louis Dupré, with his overdrawn movement; the popularity of the brilliant airborne half-serious dancer Camargo, who was widely imitated; and the great popularity in France of some itinerant Italian dancers known for their brilliant gambols in the more lighthearted styles, such as Barbara Campanini and Antonio Rinaldi (or Fossano). In the late 1760s, some undescribed novelty in the execution of pirouettes was introduced by Anne Heinel into the serious style at the Paris Opéra and was widely imitated.

Auguste Vestris c. 1781, London, painting by Thomas Gainsborough / Gainsborough Dupont, Tate.

The final deathblow to the system of four distinct styles came at the end of the period, thanks to Auguste Vestris, the “creator of the new school,” as Bournonville called his one-time teacher (1963: 31). Vestris

created, as it were, a new architectural genre wherein all the orders, all the proportions, were mixed and exaggerated; he did away with the three well-known and distinct styles; he melded them together and from this amalgamation created one style, a new style. (Noverre 1807: 2/127)

His great popularity, together with the spirit of the revolutionary times, led to a widespread imitation of his style. As Noverre (1807: 2/127) puts it, “all dancers embraced with idolatry the new palace that Vestris had just created. Everyone became imperfect and unfaithful copiers.” This resulted in the wholesale jettison of the old conventions, such that by the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, Vestris’s originally unique personal style had become the new norm and in effect the only style cultivated in ballet, except among a few diehards, like Charles Didelot (see §1.5 below). The new blended style is also mentioned by Théleur (1831: 81-82):

Formerly we had (independent of the grotesque) three distinct styles of dances. First, the grand serious; this was used on all occasions where the intention was to personate grandeur, or majesty; secondly, the demi-character; this was used to personate all light, airy, or gay characters, such as zephyrs, pages, peasantry, &c.: thirdly, the comic; this was used as a dance of country clowns, &c.: but of late the two first have been so blended with each other, that they now actually form but one, and the comic latterly has become almost obsolete. The last dancers of eminence in this style, were Messrs. Beauprée, Boisgirard, and Mazurier. Thus there remains at the present time (correctly speaking) only one style, in which all dancers strive to gain pre-eminence, individually endeavouring to gain to the greatest extent, the approbation of the public; thus it necessarily happens, that so few persons succeed in the attempt. How much better and more meritorious it would have been to have kept each style distinct.

Indeed, early-nineteenth-century reviews and descriptions of dancers also allude to the prevailing confusion of styles on stage. Luçay (Arch. Nat., AJ13 83, Luçay to Bonet, 10 Dec. 1806; cited in Guest 2003: 254) was concerned that the dancer Louis Henry was “doing himself and his art a disservice by performing things that belong to the demi-caractère and even to the comique,” and reminded the addressee, Bonet, that when Henry had been promoted to premier sujet at the Paris Opéra at the end of 1806, it was specifically “to preserve the beautiful character of the noble dance and become its model.” Ultimately, there was not much differentiation among the roles in the new blended style. As Glushkovsky (1940: 164), a student of Charles Didelot, remarked in his day,

you encounter different genres of dance which are all similar to one another: one dancer exits, having performed several entrechats and pirouettes, and after him a second and a third perform exactly the same thing. (Trans. in Wiley 1994: xii)

So too Noverre (1807: 2/127-128) writes that “the dancing at the Opéra is now of the same color, the same style, the same genre. There is only one manner of execution.”

The grotesque style, once so popular in Italy, was also lost. Blasis (1831: 10), for example, speaks of “the grotesque kind of performance so prevalent in Italy, a few years ago, but which seems at present almost banished from the theatres of that country.” Roller (1843: 207) also writes of the grottesco that “this sort of dancer has become rare now.”

The terms noble/sérieux, demi-caractère, and comique continued to be used into the nineteenth century, but they no longer had the same meaning as in the eighteenth century; i.e., they now referred mainly to roles and not to a combination of different character, different choreography, and different technique.


1.3 Caprice

In marked contrast to contemporary classical ballet, the theatrical dance of the eighteenth century was technically “loose,” as it were, thanks to the cultivation of caprice, or fancy – that is, personal taste – wherein the individual performer was granted the freedom to develop a unique personal style and was even encouraged to do so. Or as the stage dancer Giovanni Gallini (1762: 236) put it,

besides the necessity of learning his art elementally, a dancer, like a writer, should have a stile [sic] 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.

Indeed, failure to look different on the part of a soloist could result in a poor reception from a restive audience that expected to be entertained with novelties and was not afraid to show its displeasure or boredom in tumult or riot.

This freedom manifested itself in the novel interpretation of established positions, steps, and ports de bras. In the extant handbooks, this will be most readily seen in the lack of absolute consensus on how precisely a given movement was to be performed. As Bonin (1712: 204-205) explains,

the steps and capers in dancing can be likened to the painters’ colors; from the latter, all sorts of blends can be created, and from the former, as many variations can be made as a painter can brush on changes of color. This [blending and invention] is called caprice in dancing, which is nothing more than an alteration of that which one has learned, such that one embellishes, expands, diminishes, takes from or adds to, and binds oneself to no fixed step but rather chooses what is most suitable and in doing so betrays no affectation, the desired embellishment appearing not tiresome or meaningless but clever.
Here, one governs caprice itself and the composition of caprice. The first depends on the character of him who is learning to dance or wishes to make a profession of it; this, the master cannot show the student, for the manifold changes admit no orderly instruction. The student must find it out himself and use that method which is fitting in other things wherein one seeks perfection. One’s own search is the best dancing master for those who already have some understanding of the material with which they are dealing. Tireless practice brings a boon over the other, which sometimes is not found when one studies diligently [under a master].

So too Pasch (1707: 80) writes, “one has full freedom to alter the steps endlessly in a regulated manner.” Magri (1779: 1/66) also states that “these theatrical steps can be embellished with arbitrary airs and graces as it pleases the dancer.” The upshot of this variability was that

it is impossible, however, to give the names of the steps, for almost all of them go unnamed when conceived or invented, nor can the form of them be painted with words, for there are far too many very peculiar ways of interweaving and even more are invented daily by masters and need to be explained and described by word of mouth. (Bonin 1712: 166)

One area where the exercise of caprice was particularly marked was the management of the arms. As Feuillet (1700a: 97) puts it, “the ports de bras depend more on the taste of the dancer than on any rules that could be given.” Hänsel (1755: 135, 137) in like manner notes in connection with the so-called high port de bras that “many theatrical dancers do this port de bras according to 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.” In the so-called grands bras (‘big arms’), Magri (1779: 1/114) notes that the arms “cannot have a set measure or precise height but can be raised as much as you wish beyond the others [i.e., the other heights] depending on the character, the expression, the spirit, and ability of the performer.” Angiolini ([1773] 1998: 68) writes that “the diversity in the builds of both men and women dancers requires a varied treatment in the arms, in the movements, and in the legs.”

To give a concrete example of taste defining arm movement, Rameau (1725: 204) describes a “movement of the wrist” as follows:

when you wish to do the movement from above downwards, you must bend the wrist inwards, doing a circle with the hand; this same movement brings the hand back to its initial position . . . but you must guard against bending the wrist too much, for it would then look as if broken.

In other words, the half-circle is defined by the movement of the hand alone, with the wrist merely or rather primarily bending and unbending in turning. Borin (1746: 14), however, takes to task such an execution:

one of the greatest offences 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.

In the context of the low port de bras of the minuet, Behr (1703b: §4) similarly takes to task

many dancers and even dancing masters . . . who, instead of doing this movement with the arms, as they ought to do, execute it rather only with the hands, using the four muscles of the forearm . . . thereby moving the arms little or not at all. . . . How crippled and decrepit this makes a person appear in dancing, when he cannot avail himself of his limbs in a free and unforced manner . . . for it indeed looks better and pleases the eye when the arms are moved fully in a lively manner while dancing rather being carried as if they were dead.

The exercise of caprice was equally apparent in the way in which steps were combined, i.e., in the choreography itself. Noverre (1760: 360), for example, writes that “enchaînements are innumerable and that each dancer has his own particular way of combining and varying his movements.” For a more detailed discussion of caprice in dancing, see Fairfax (2003: 243-255).


1.4 Movements Mainly for Ballroom-Dancers

A further complicating factor is that most descriptions of dance technique from the period come from ballroom dance handbooks (§1.9) and thus outline positions and movements that were intended for the ballroom. One might rightly wonder then how the technique of theatrical dance can be reconstructed from a style of dance not meant for the stage. Fortunately for the scholar, the differences between the two lay not so much in a different repertory of positions and movements but rather in their different executions, although clearly some of these do not seem to have been ever used in the ballroom.

1.4.1 Range of Movement

A number of the sources clearly indicate 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.” The major way 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 an expansive execution, with arms and legs held higher than in the ballroom, and jumps reaching greater heights than on the ballroom floor. Rameau (1725a: 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 (1728: 40) “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: 162-163) 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 [i.e., theatrical dance], 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 fleetingly speaks of the excessively overdrawn movements cultivated by English 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.

As discussed below (§3.10), the foot of the gesture leg was commonly carried to the height of the thigh or hip on stage, or higher in the grotesque style (fig. 2). The Spectator is evidently taking to task dancers who too easily imitated the extreme heights of leg in the grotesque (Dubreil in fig. 2), with the foot carried above the height of the waist, clearly a position that would be “a Pain for any of the Spectators to stand in.” (For further visual examples of high limbs in theatrical dance, see Fairfax (2003: 21-27, 29-32, 35-36, 47, 153, 159, 235).)

Fig. 2. Left: “Monsieur Dubreil dancing Scaramouche at the Opéra,” before 1711, after an unknown artist, formerly in the Theatermuseum, Munich, reproduced in Winter (1974: 27); Right: Auguste Vestris, London 1781, after Nathaniel Dance, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, reproduced in Guest (1996: 35).

Not merely high limbs but also impressive elevation in jumping was expected in the theater. As Bonin (1712: 159) writes,

we know that everything that is found in la belle danse [i.e., ballroom dance] is also to be used here [in theatrical dance], only that it must be done high, not terre-à-terre, whence the rule can be formulated that all dances that are done with considerable force, with all sorts of springs, quick variations, and many capers belong to le ballet sérieux [i.e., theatrical dance] and thus take on utterly different characteristics.

Taubert (1717: 559) also stresses the need for elevation in the theater:

just as in this other branch of dance, namely serious dance [i.e., theatrical 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. 3].

(It will be noted that in the passages from Weaver, Bonin, and Taubert just cited above, the expression serious dancing / le ballet sérieux is used loosely to refer to theatrical dance broadly rather than specifically the serious style.) In agreement with Taubert, Vieth (1794: 2/431) writes, “the higher the pas and character, the higher the port de bras. In such jumps as cabrioles and entrechats, both arms are raised [i.e., thrown up] to the horizontally extended position [fig. 3]. Theatrical dance requires a higher port de bras than ballroom dance.”

Fig. 3. A detail from The Charmers of the Age, circa 1741, showing Barbara Campanini and Philip Desnoyer, after a sketch by William Hogarth, in the Clarke-Crisp Collection, London, reproduce in Ralph (1985: 78). The caption of the original reads “AB The Charmers of the Age: C.C. Prickt lines shewing the rising Height.” According to the “Scale of feet” at the bottom of the illustration, Desnoyer is roughly three feet off the floor. The jump shown is perhaps that styled the coup de poignet (‘flick of the wrist’), wherein the feet flex at the height of the jump (ch. 25).

A number of the sources indicate that this grander execution was necessitated by the larger performance space of the theater. Like Pasch (1707: 90) and Behr (1713: 115), Taubert (1717: 959) explicitly remarks upon the need for movement to be bolder in the theater:

If [pieces] are to be danced in an opera or play in a large theater, however, either solo or by several persons at the same time, then the high figured pas de ballet and powerful springs into the air (which must be adjusted here in accordance with the nature of the artificial lighting, the distance of the spectators, and the meaning of the representations) as well as the high port de bras par terre look the best, for not only is the space of the theater in this way well filled, but also the dancers have a far freer run and spring in their feats.

Indeed, dancing in too contained a manner on stage was in bad taste. As the famed ballet 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.”

Unfortunately, the misconception that eighteenth-century theatrical dance was “small,” especially at the beginning of the century, found widespread uncritical acceptance in earlier scholarship and continues to inform more popular presentations, even though such a notion is contradicted by both the textual and pictorial sources. Many more examples can be given which unambiguously point to the use of expansive movement on stage throughout the whole of the eighteenth century. For further discussion, see Fairfax (2003: 15-79).

1.4.2 The “Artful Carelessness” of the Ballroom

The eighteenth-century practice of dancing in a markedly contained and simple manner within the ballroom, in sharp contrast to the norm in the theater, was but a part of an overall “Artful Carelessness” that was to be cultivated by amateurs in an age wherein despite its popularity, dance was held in rather low esteem as an art, especially outside of France. Too great an interest and skill in dancing on the part of nonprofessionals was apt to be seen as a sign of superficiality. As Weaver notes (1712: 65-66),

TO Dance too exquisitely, is, I must own, too laborious a Vanity; and to be totally ignorant of it, and of that Carriage, Behaviour, Fashion and Address, gain’d by learning it; shews (on the other hand) a Man either Stoical, or but meanly bred, or not us’d to Conversation. The best therefore is a kind of Artful Carelessness, as if it were a natural Motion, without a too curious and painful practising. . . .
And in my Opinion it is requisite for a Man so to Dance as not to put his Friends or Acquaintance that behold him out of Countenance; or that he should be asham’d were his Enemy standing by.

Weaver’s contemporary Dietrich Hermann Kemmerich (1711) in like manner indicates that too much skill or interest in dancing outside the theater was not genteel, that

a gentleman should not play the dancing master. Thus, if he knows how to dance mannerly above all a minuet, a courante, besides the old and new passepied, then l’aimable vainqueur and perhaps a few other new dances, that is, to my thinking, enough for a gentleman. He, however, who wishes to show off with too many artful entrées and sarabandes places himself in a position where the intelligent will think that he has spent more effort on secondary rather than primary things. (Cited in Meletaon 1713: 82-83)

Taubert (1717: 616) also writes in connection with the ballroom minuet that social dancers made it their business to strive “to dance in a wholly gentle manner, both with the hands and feet as well as with the whole body,” and to this end “wholly forgo the great variations taken from the high dances.” The author of “A New Treatise on the Art of Dancing” (March 1785) likewise notes that it was an “affectation” to dance too well in the ballroom: “The best dancers of a minuet as well as country dances, were never dancers by profession. . . . the affectation of a dancing master, causes that stiff and unnatural mode of dancing in the man.” Martinet (1797: 21) too states that “it shows as little taste in social dance to imitate dancers from the opera as it is to imitate the grotesque dancers of Italy or the bayadères of Hindustan.”

Indeed, the overall preference for a simple and relaxed manner of execution in eighteenth-century social dance, one that eschewed grand movements and difficult steps, resulted in a relatively low level of dance ability among most amateurs throughout much of the period. As Philpot notes (1747: 108), “Dancing never was at so low an Ebb as it is at present.” This low technical ability in the ballroom is also commented upon by Josson (1763: 23) in connection with the most beloved social dance of the period, the minuet, he noting that

there are few persons who dance the minuet, for apart from a very small number, all the rest are ignorant of it down to its most basic principles. Those who take a turn around the room executing some ill-formed steps fancy that they know how to dance the minuet, which they have learned perhaps in fifteen days or in a month at the very most.

This predilection for a deliberately careless manner ensured that those basic steps which did in fact find their way into recreational dance could be simplified, and indeed they were, with balances on the toe or bends left out, and ports de bras and other features neglected. Philpot (1747: 107) gives an insightful example:

In the twenty years I have taught, the back step in the Minuet has lost two Sinks out of three, the forward and side Step each one Sink; and very probably the Minuet will be danced in a little time without any Sinks or Rises at all.
If these Innovators are asked, why they make such Alterations in the Steps, they answer, it is not the Dancers Business to be at the trouble of finishing the Steps, they are not to dance, they are only to walk smoothly round the Room, put on a pretty Smile, endeavour to look pleased, and seem in Raptures with their Partners; these and a number of such affected, fulsome Phrases, are the weighty Reasons given for leaving out those Sinks and Rises which were always deemed necessary to compleat the Steps.

The trend towards carelessness and simplicity in social dance became particularly marked after the second decade of the century, and a couple of sources note that the more artful demanding recreational dances inherited from the seventeenth century were largely jettisoned in favor of the minuet, French contredanses, and English country dances, wherein the choice of steps was greatly restricted and freely subject to personal whim. Bonnet (1723: 134-135), for example, writes that

since the marriage of Monsieur le Duc de Bourgogne [in 1697], one has seen the noble and serious dances year by year disappear, such as the bocanne, the canaries, the passepied, the Duchesse, and many others, which consisted in showing the fine grace and fine air of grave dance as it was practiced at the time of the old court. The brânle, courante, and minuet have scarcely been saved; in their stead, the younger sort at court dance contredanses, in which neither the gravity nor the nobility of the old dances can be found. Such are la jalousie, le cotillon, les manches vertes, les rats, la cabarretière, la testard, le remouleur, and so forth, so much so that in the course of time only clownish dances will be danced any more at ceremonial assemblies. This will mean the end of the serious dances and justifies the reproach that the French are of a fickle humor and in this as in many other things often sacrifice the good to the pleasure of novelty.

Later in the century, Feldtenstein (1772: 1/41-42) likewise comments on the prevailing love for simple undemanding dances and movements among amateurs:

some time ago, before taste for true beauty in dance had been refined, he who could not dance an aimable vainqueur, charmant vainqueur, passepied, danse d’Anjou, princesse bourrée, courante, rigaudon, gavotte, sarabande, and so forth was not held to be a skilled dancer, thanks to a slavish aping of the French. It was realized, however, that such dances were too theatrical in companies and were a hurdle to general amusement. Minuets and English dances were then danced. These occasioned such amusement, since the whole company could participate at the same time, that another sort was thought up and brought forth under the name of the cotillon.

1.4.3 Continuity With the Early Nineteenth Century

The difference in the manner of executing movements on the ballroom floor versus the stage, as outlined above, continued into the following period. The ballet master Carlo Blasis (1831: 489, 492-493) 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.

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.

In connection with the exercise of a développé en relevant, wherein the leg was to be raised “horizontally,” that is, to the height of the hip, Costa (1831: 23-25) adds that “the amateur gentleman never needs to do movements this grand when in a dance conversation.

1.4.4 Shared Movements and Positions

Eighteenth-century ballroom dance and ballet shared many of the same dance movements, even if executed differently, and there are several indicators of this. First of all, we have Weaver’s broad statement (1712: 162) that “the Steps of both are generally the same.” So too Bonin (1712: 159) states that “everything that is found in la belle danse is also to be used here” in theatrical dance. And further, passing remarks in the handbooks also speak at times of a given step being done both in recreational and theatrical dance, such as Magri’s concerning the pas grave (1779: 1/55), for example, which he indicates was “used in the theater and in the ballroom.” Tomlinson (1735: 81) includes a description of the contretemps-jeté en tournant and notes that

THIS Step is much used in Stage Dancing, to which, indeed it properly belongs, as well as the foregoing; but as there are Ladies, who frequently arrive at such a Perfection as to be capable of performing this Sort of Steps, it may not be improper here to give an Explanation of some of the most remarkable of them.

Indeed, a number of the basic steps used in the ballroom are at times actually said to be “theatrical.” Consider, for example, Magri’s following remark (1779: 1/102): “contredanses en quadrille are filled not only with this pas [i.e., the pas de rigaudon] but also with other theatrical steps, such as the chassé, fleuret, contretemps ballonné, and other such small steps.”

Second, a comparison of extant dances from the theater and the ballroom recorded in Beauchamps notation reveals that all the steps found in notated ballroom dances also appear in those belonging to the theater. Indeed, the notational characters for those steps shared by both kinds of dances show no significant changes in the basic structure of the step, as far as the abstract notation can reveal. But as Pemberton (1713: pref.) indicates, the notation cannot capture differences in execution: “the only Objection that seems to be of Weight is that ye Characters will not teach a particular manner of Dancing.”

Third, teaching “theatrical” movements to amateurs was seen theoretically as an aid in improving performance in the ballroom, in so far as dancing well was the goal for some amateurs. As Link (1796: 10-12) writes,

it is also most helpful if students are taught some theatrical steps; therefore let the master endeavour to teach his pupils first some easy theatrical pas, such as the pas de bourrée en avant, pas de bourrée ouvert, pas de bourrée en tournant, pas de bourrée en arrière, pas tombé, pas [11] grave. All these steps have much in common with the minuet step, and the students will learn thereby the rules about bending, stretching, and rising. So that they may acquire speed and lightness, they are taught the pas chassé, chassé en tournant, glissé [i.e., glissade], brisé, contretemps, contretemps en tournant, and more of such beginning steps. In order to make the body lissom and plastic, they are shown some choice “Strasbourg figures,” which represent a tableau or attitude. [12] The theatrical steps given here are shown to the students with the so-called port de bras, that is, the elegant carriage of the arms, and only when they are already perfect in the minuet are they taught by turns these steps with the other dances.

Vieth (1794: 2/423) says essentially the same at the end of his discussion of dance steps:

these are the most outstanding pas, both low and high. The latter are used less in the low art of dance than in the high dance of the theater, yet we have included them here equally for the sake of coherence, the which is all the more to be justified, given that, to begin with, it will still be of great use even to the student whose purpose is not exactly theatrical dance to practice movements high off the floor, for the limbs will be developed far more hereby than through the low steps. And secondly, as already mentioned, high jumps are not essential for the higher art of dance.

Fourth, expressions used to describe the serious style of theater are sometimes also used to refer to formal ballroom dance, most notably la belle danse (‘fine dancing’) and la danse noble (‘noble dance’). The following are some examples wherein these terms clearly refer to the serious style of the theater. De la Lande (1767) speaks of “la belle danse terre-à-terre in the style of [Gaétan] Vestris and Guimard,” two famous dancers in the serious style (cited in the Journal de musique 1773: 6/61). A critic in the Mercure de France (July 1772: 2/150) speaks of Gaétan Vestris as “the best model of la danse noble.” Laus de Blossy (1771?: 16) mentions in one breath “noble or serious dance.” Noverre (1760: 343-344) uses the expression la belle danse to describe the style of dance cultivated by the serious dancer Louis Dupré. Grimm (1879: 8/262 = 1769) employs the expression la danse noble to describe the serious style of both Dupré and Gaétan Vestris.

In the following examples, however, the two terms clearly refer to ballroom dance. Taubert (1717: 378) at one point equates la belle danse with the ballroom dances the minuet, courante, and bourrée. Pauli (1756: 50) notes that “la belle danse, or la danse simple, is that which persons of fashion learn in order to make use of it for an occasion. It is made up of steps and figures which two or more persons do together in order to make a cadence walk in harmony with the tune chosen for the dance.” Sulzer (1794: 4/505) speaks of “common, or social, dances (la belle danse).” As is evident from the last quotation, the term common dancing was also used in our period. Weaver (1712: 162, 169) too speaks of “the Common-Dancing usually taught in Schools” and uses the expression in contrast to stage-dancing. And later he writes, “THE Dancing so much esteem’d among us, and so necessary a Qualification for Gentlemen and Ladies, whether taught privately or publickly, I shall call common Dancing.” The expression la danse noble is used to refer to ballroom dance in Taubert (1717: 1067) and Dufort (1728: pref.). Philpot (1747: 100) also mentions “noble Dancing (by which he means School-Dancing),” while Sacchi (1770: 33) notes that “dance is generally divided into two kinds, the dance of the theater, and noble or ballroom dancing, as they say.”

The use of the expressions la belle danse and la danse noble to refer to both ballroom dance and the serious style of the theater reflects the fact that formal ballroom dance was closest to the serious style technically; in other words, it was at bottom the serious style simplified and performed in miniature – “dumbed down,” one might even say. Indeed, Lecointe (1752: 63) draws a connection between the ballroom minuet and the grave genre, noting that

the Minuet is excellent, for it contains in its Simplicity all the Delicacy and Difficulty of the serious Dance, which is the Reason that few are able to perform it elegantly, and that even great Masters sometimes fall in the execution; for the Movements of the upper Part of the Body being regulated by some general Rules which determine them, it happens for the most Part, that those who suffer themselves to be guided merely by Rule, do nothing extraordinary.

It follows from the foregoing remarks then that the extant ballroom dance handbooks can in fact be used to reconstruct the dance movements as they were performed by the serious style of the theater. In doing so, however, the manner of execution as described in such sources, devoted as they are mainly to ballroom dance technique, must in many cases be altered, in light of those fleeting disparate passages that describe the differences that set apart the technique of stage and ballroom. These alterations will be discussed in detail below in the relevant chapters.


1.5 The Incompleteness of Record

Perhaps the most vexing problem confronting any study of eighteenth-century ballet is the incompleteness of the record, that is, the failure of the sources to give a complete description of the practices of the day, whether for the theater or even the ballroom. Even in those sources that do discuss some of the movements of theatrical dance, it is amply apparent, from either the lack of detail or the authors’ own admissions, that such handbooks leave much unsaid. Magri (1779: 1/90, 137, 54), for example, ends his brief discussion of pirouettes by noting that “there are others but since they are related to these, we will pass over them in silence.” Likewise he concludes his section on capers with the statement that “these are the main capers, to which a prodigious quantity could be added.” In connection with his description of the contretemps, Magri (1779: 1/94) alludes to “some other unnamed steps, as there are in so many other unmentioned combinations.” More broadly, he notes elsewhere that “practice and above all the stage will teach what I cannot explain or show here, for I do not presume to give more here than first principles so that you will be able to discuss the basics as needed.”

Even sources which deal only with ballroom dance technique do not purport to outline all the movements used in recreational dance. Rameau (1725a: 269-270), for example, explicitly indicates that “I have undertaken in this book to deal only with the way of doing all the main steps in ballroom dances.” The book was admittedly intended to supplement personal dance instruction, that is, to help amateurs “more easily understand their master’s lesson” (1725a: 194-195). In his chapter on arm movements, Tomlinson (1735: 153) writes that what he presents “cannot be compleated without the very best Masters.” In other words, some personal instruction was needed to fill out what was lacking in the handbook.

Roller (1843: v-vi) also comments on the shortcomings of the dance handbooks that came out in his day and even earlier, which were flawed with omissions and nebulous descriptions:

the literature on the art of dance still has an unfilled lacuna, going back continuously for well over a half-century. Many books have in fact appeared in this time-span, but not one of them is comprehensive; indeed many are without substance and even shot through with inaccuracies in the naming and explanation of the steps. Elementary instruction, anatomical knowledge of the human body and of the movements of its limbs are wholly missing. . . .This dearth of instructional writing finds its rise herein, that those who must know the art in all its fullness – theatrical dancers of worth and training, those who could have likely written something capital – have left this off. Noverre was the only one who, in his Lettres sur l’art de la danse of 1769, had written something outstanding, but only in regard to ballet; pedagogy it is not. The theatrical dancer, as a performing artist, is beyond the basics; he no longer needs them and does not think of them once he has reached the higher sphere of the art. Even in [vi] theatrical dance schools, one proceeds at once to the practical, without thinking of the basics, or without bothering with them, because only those individuals are taken on who have been favorably endowed by nature and who are already skilled in their movements.

Or as Roller (1843: 101) later more pithily puts it, “who understands when one says ‘slip the foot forward,’ or ‘bring the foot forward’? But how?”

Even when information is in fact given in the handbooks, the presentation frequently leaves much to be desired, for the descriptions are often marred by a lack of clarity or a dearth of concision. Such shortcomings are remarked upon by Vieth (1794: 2/406-407) at the end of the period:

on the whole it is hard to imagine in what a disorderly and off-putting manner are written almost all books which deal with dance as well as with other bodily exercises; what confusion of concepts are found therein, how one word is to mean now this, now that; how unbearable and long-winded the style is, and thus what unpleasant work is it to read through such books, which can at times be over a thousand quarto pages long [– presumably Taubert (1717) is meant here]! It is enough to make one want to take quite to one’s heels, when such writers from a given period affect mathematical methods and speak of geometry where a couple of straight or bent lines are drawn out. O Father Euclid! Forgive them, for they know not what they do!

The lack of information is particularly acute when it comes to the positions and movements of the upper body, namely, those of the torso, arms, and head, as used on stage. This is most regrettable, as some of the main differences between the four traditional styles were apparently to be found here. One might cite an insightful retrospective comment made by Glushkovsky ([1856] 1940: 163-164), a student of Charles Didelot, the latter a famed dancer and choreographer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to Glushkovsky, Didelot employed for each style not only different tempi and different characteristic steps but also notably different positions and movements of the arms and body. As Glushkovsky writes,

serious dances were performed to the music of adagio and march. Didelot always composed smooth, fluent dances for the principal character, with various attitudes but rarely mixed with entrechats or fast pirouettes. The demi-charactère [sic] dancer performed to the music of andante grazioso and allegro; for him Didelot composed graceful dances with a completely different position of the body and arms, made use of quick and fine steps and pirouettes of a different kind from those of the serious pas; and for the comic dancer he made a pas to allegro music – for the most part with different kinds of jumps, namely: tours en l’air with a different movement of the body and arms. Thus the public saw in each dancer a particular type of dance, not as in some ballets where you encounter different genres of dance which are all similar to one another: one dancer exits, having performed several entrechats and pirouettes, and after him a second and a third perform exactly the same thing. (Trans. in Wiley 1994: xii)

There is no reason to assume that this practice as cultivated by Didelot was an innovation of the late eighteenth century, for the trend throughout our period of study was for the distinctions between the styles to become lost or blurred rather than to become more marked or developed (Fairfax 2003: 257-291). Indeed, Taubert (1717: 930) at the beginning of our period stresses that broadly the comic and grotesque were to depart from the rules observed in serious dance:

In le ballet sérieux, the qualities and virtues of illustrious people are represented through serious, reserved, and tempered gestures in order to be enticing to others; in the ballet comique or grotesque, however, the vices and absurdities of brutish persons, as said, are corrected through satire and the contravention of all the rules that belong to the serious so that other brutes will become disgusted and revolted by such gestures of vice, as if they were unripe fruit, and thus it might be said of this last style and comic representations, ridendo castigant [‘through laughter, they chasten’].

Taubert (1717: 964) notes in particular that the comic and grotesque on the whole differed especially in the manner of holding the body, that “in this dance, which is called le ballet comique et grotesque, one does not at all bind oneself to any air or galant step. Rather the art here rests mainly on the attitude of the body, which is altered in all sorts of ways, as the situation demands.”

And so, what “completely different position of the body and arms” did the half-serious use? And what “different movement of the body and arms” did the comic employ? None of the eighteenth-century sources states explicitly what these movements and positions were. (For a likely answer to the question of the arm position used in the half-serious, click here.) And, to give another example, what was the “step” that Gaétan Vestris created which expressed merely “look how beautiful I am!” mentioned in the Journal des théâtres (15 Jan. 1778: 198)? Again, none of the sources describes this. (For a likely answer, click here.)


1.6. The Unreliability of the Sources

Regardless of whether they deal with ballroom or theatrical dance, the sources, moreover, cannot always be taken at face value. Some handbooks make false claims about their material, or that of other writers, or they are outright contradicted by other works or even by passages elsewhere in one and the same source.  This is particularly the case when claims about “dance history” are made. And at times authors such as Sgai (1779) show what can be described only as pig-headed bias.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding examples of such untrustworthiness and bias comes from Noverre (1760: 364-365), who writes in his letter on Beauchamps dance notation that – at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, it is implied –

dance was simple and not very [365] complex, and so the manner of writing it down was easy, and one could learn to read it without difficulty. Today, however, steps are complicated; they are doubled and tripled and greatly mixed together. It is thus very hard to write them down and even harder to decipher them. This art, moreover, is very imperfect. It indicates only the movement of the feet exactly, and if it draws for us the movements of the arms, it gives neither the positions nor the shapes that they must have. Furthermore, it shows us neither the attitudes of the body nor their effacements, neither the oppositions of the head nor the different situations, noble and easy, that are needed here. I regard it as a useless art since it can add nothing to the perfection of our art.

The notion of “simple” early ballet is repeated uncritically, with embellishments, in later works indebted to Noverre, notably Blasis (1820: 79-81). The latter writes,

we owe pirouettes to the astounding progress of modern dancing. Our dancers of yesterday, and even Noverre, did not know them and thought that it was impossible to exceed three turns sur le cou-de-pied. The best dancers of today have proved the contrary, and present-day execution of divers pirouettes is truly extraordinary on account of the success in wonderfully sustaining aplombs and keeping the body perfectly balanced. Messrs. Gardel and Vestris should perhaps be regarded as the inventors of pirouettes; the latter, by perfecting and increasing [the number of] them, brought them into greater vogue.

And thanks particularly to Blasis, the misconception became firmly entrenched in dance history that early ballet was “simple and not very complex” but by the beginning of the nineteenth century had undergone a fabled “expansion of technique” (e.g., Cohen 1960: 27; De Mille 1963: 98; Wynne 1970: 25; Winter 1974: 3; Sorell 1986: 236; Warren 1989: 1).

Unfortunately, dance history has overlooked Angiolini’s highly critical response (1773: 49-76) to Noverre’s claim, and it is worth citing at length:

And you will allow me to say that you are still mistaken when you say that the dance of our forefathers “was simple and not very complex,” that as a result “the manner of writing it down was easy, and one could learn to read it without difficulty. Today, however, steps are complicated; they are doubled and tripled and greatly mixed together. It is thus very hard to write them down and even harder to decipher them.” All of this makes me doubt that [54] you have learnt dance notation fundamentally, you being happy, then, with a smattering thereof, and this doubt I base on the following reasoning. Dance in its fundamentals, as you certainly know, has not changed in any way, nor can it change without running the risk of falling back into that barbarism whence our masters, clever pilgrims, have worked so hard to lift it. L’aplomb, l’ensemble, les déploiements, les développements, le moëlleux, le liant, le point d’appui [‘balance, a sense of the whole, openings, unfoldings, smoothness, connectedness, placement’] in every attitude and position, with a hundred certain facts derived from experience, form the basis of true dance and do not suffer alteration without harm.
The diversity in the builds of both men and women dancers requires a varied treatment in the arms, in the movements, and in the legs, requires a dance that is either expansive, or confined, or in-between, requires freedom in rounding or raising the arms less or more, requires a dance that is either dry, or slow, or quick, and other little instances of chiaroscuro which do not in any way alter the aforesaid fundamentals although these instances of chiaroscuro adapted to the build of each executant are of greater consequence to each since upon them depends a fine, middling, or poor execution.
[55] The same is true in regard to music; but the barbarous taste of our times, born in Italy and then taken to its extreme by other nations (I mean, that great quantity of notes, those florid passages introduced by individuals who have never known how to sing four single notes as done at school), in no way harm the true fundamentals of music. The appoggiaturas, trills, flights, pauses, passagi, when done well and sparingly in their proper place, create a fine effect and greatly serve to make simplicity, which is ever beautiful, stand out, just as the abuse and poor choice of the same ornaments mask and mar it.
I do not wish to dispute further whether the likes of Vestris and Lany dance or have danced better than Dupré and Malter, nor do I wish to dispute if it is true that our fine dancers triple what the likes of Blondy and Filibois did simply, as you say, but I cannot nor should I let pass the view that it is nearly impossible to notate the complicated combinations of modern dance, that there could be nothing more difficult than trying to decipher such. The doubling and tripling of steps can be difficult to execute, but their encoding always stays the same; where then is there any difficulty in deciphering them? [56] The great quantity of notes which the French and Germans put into their symphonies is a hurdle perhaps for any middling professional or any fine amateur to play at sight. The same happens in dance notation, as much in writing as in reading it, if one truly knows as one ought to do. Everything is simple to those who know; everything is difficult to those who are unsure, and impossible for those who have learnt nothing.
That the dance, then, performed by the likes of Blondy, Pécour, and Cheviller was easier than that of modern dancers, as you assert, I have my doubts, and I base such doubts upon what I find written in Monsieur Feuillet’s masterly book from the beginning of the century. In it, you will find everything that is finest and most difficult in terms of the elements of dance, ronds de jambe, pas battus, emboîtés, jetés, contretemps, chassés, sissonnes, cabrioles, entrechats, pirouettes, and all of this varied in a thousand ways and in a thousand ways linked together according to the whim, needs, and spirit of the music. If you mean to say then that the combinations of these, called legazioni in Italian or enchaînements in French, vary somewhat from those times to [57] ours, I will agree with you, but at the same time you must concede that although the elements are the same, the combination of them is a question of utter taste. Hence it is that your manner of linking steps together differs not a little from mine, and naturally mine from that of Monsieur Lany, and so on and so forth.
The argument then becomes one of knowing if our manner of linking steps, all other things being equal, is better than theirs, to which I respond that in order to answer such a question with any basis, one would need to compare the dancers from one age with those of another, which is impossible. Yet everyone knows and everyone agrees that Blondy was a dancer of the greatest merit, and that of merits he possessed more than one; that every dancer, or better still, that the most outstanding dancer in our day would think himself boundlessly honored to partner the great Dupré; that this most excellent dancer, although not from the time of Beauchamps or Pécour, is still not of our generation; that being able to dance like him is difficult and rare; and lastly that that difficulty, that [58] complexity, that tripling, that great mixing together does not, whatever you say, constitute a difficulty for dance notation, and is not even something to be praised in fine dancing, no more than in the any of the other fine arts, since such is not required of these, nor regarded as a main feature: not the difficult, the complicated, the dense, but rather the clear, the good, and the beautiful.

Noverre’s misconception that the dance of old was simpler may be owing to a couple of factors. First, there is perhaps present here a simplistic belief in progress broadly, which was not unknown to the Enlightenment. Noverre himself (1760: 49) writes that “the public takes delight in deluding itself that the taste and talents of its century are far superior to those of foregoing centuries.” Compare Cahusac’s remark (1754: 3/102) that “I believe modern dancers are far superior to those of the last century.” And compare in turn Blasis’s remark (1820: 79) that “the artists from the past century were inferior to those of the last years of the same age and to all of those at the beginning of the present age.” (One might wonder how Blasis, who was born only in 1795, could have had any meaningful knowledge about the quality of dancing in the eighteenth century.) Second, there was in the eighteenth century no detailed accurate history of dance. And third, there doubtless exists here a confusion of styles, wherein the early published dances belonging to the serious style of the theater and even to the ballroom were apparently taken as representative of all theatrical dance, an error that has also bedeviled modern dance historians (Fairfax 2003: 311-337).

A further instance of unreliability can be found in Feuillet (1700a: 47), who makes the false claim that his tables of notated steps – which show in fact very few beaten jumps – contain “the greater part of steps that are used in dancing.” This statement is belied by Bonin’s remark (1712: 169) that

there are very many different sorts of capers, both of entrechats as well as of the latter class [cabrioles], which depend upon the master’s caprice, now this way, now that, as the thought comes to him, such that their variety defies a proper description.

The truthfulness of Bonin’s statement is underborne by Magri’s mention above of “a prodigious quantity” of capers being in existence. Indeed, a large number of basic steps – named or described elsewhere in the sources or commonly notated in extant dances (even by Feuillet himself), all roughly contemporaneous with Feuillet – do not appear in Feuillet’s tables of 1700, such as the pas de menuet, échappé, saillies, tombé, ballotté, brisé, temps de cuisse, pas de basque, saut de basque, tour en l’air, fouetté, tourne-broche, bourrée en l’air, among others. A number of the steps passed over by Feuillet clearly were of some age and can be convincingly derived from movements of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

A further example is afforded by the claim put forward by the Encyclopédie (1786: 417-418) that Marie-Françoise Lyonnois (1728-post1790), who debuted at the Paris Opéra in 1744, “was the first woman dancer who did this brilliant and difficult step” the gargouillade. Earlier sources cast doubt upon the truthfulness of this statement. A review in the Mercure de France (April 1738: 761) notes that child prodigy Lolotte Cammasse impressed her Parisian audience in 1738 by “undertaking and succeeding, furthermore, in performing everything that the high dance has which is most difficult to execute with justness, cabrioles, pirouettes, entrechats, gargouillades, and so forth.” Casanova (1961: 2/141-142) reports of Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770), who debuted at the Paris Opéra in 1726 and retired from dancing in 1751, that “when she was young, she used to do the saut de basque and even the gargouillade.” And so the claim that Lyonnois was the first woman to perform the gargouillade is contradicted by other sources.

Differences in taste are at times misconstrued as changes in fashion by writers, who had little in the way of accurate commentary on the history of dance in their century. What was perceived as new is not uncommonly simply new to the writer rather than new to a given time. In a few places throughout his handbook, Magri makes sweeping claims about the dance of the “moderns” versus that of the “ancients” without ever clearly defining what periods he meant by these two terms. When referring to the “ancients” in his discussion of the minuet step, he (1779: 2/26) clearly has Dufort (1728: 133-136) and his contemporaries in mind and notes that the manner of marking the beats in the minuet “was ill understood by the ancients, who squeezed two bars into one, and Signor Dufort is out of his mind here.” Magri is overgeneralizing here, for Dufort’s manner of marking the beat in the minuet was used also by Bacquoy-Guédon (1784: 12, 16), a contemporary of Magri, but not by such contemporaries of Dufort as Taubert (1717) or Rameau (1725), for example. And so no “early” or “late” distinction can be discerned. Magri himself is “out his mind here,” as it were.

Dubious claims inform even descriptions of minor details in the execution of movements or dances. Again, Magri (1779: 2/23) claims that “the head remained immobile” when the “ancients” danced the minuet, but this is entirely at odds with the instructions given in such early-eighteenth-century sources as Pasch (1707: 22), Bonin (1712: 53, 151-152), Behr (1713: 33), and Meletaon (1713: 130), for example, who stress that a dancer was to move his head above all in turning and in partnering, the dancers endeavouring to maintain eye contact with each other regardless of what orientation of the body was needed for the figure of the dance. Ironically, Sgai (1779: 79) dismissed Magri as “a master from a barbarous, old-fashioned school,” thus, the “old-fashioned” calling the “ancients” old-fashioned!

Contradictory assertions are equally evident in references to the “old minuet.” Guillemin (1784: 12) writes that “the old minuet used to be danced always on the toes of the feet. Marcel [i.e., the famed dancer and teacher François Marcel, b. 1680s, d. 1759] came up with the idea of setting down the heel when bending, and rising on the toe while sliding very lightly in the step.” But the practice of not setting down the heels in the minuet clearly was not restricted to the “old minuet,” for Delpêch (1772: 42) prescribes in his description of the pas de menuet that “the step to the fore begins in first position by bending the knees each to the side and having the heels almost touch the floor.”

Given then the fallibility of the authors throughout the period, it is vital to corroborate assertions as much as possible to ensure that claims are indeed not misinformed or biased. Any lack of a critical and comprehensive consideration of the sources is apt to result in a skewed view of ballet history, and indeed it has, as witnessed by the prevailing misconception that the dance technique of the eighteenth century was markedly different from that of the nineteenth century. While ballet did experience some major changes and innovations, especially around the beginning of the nineteenth century, these alterations affected more how basic movements were combined rather than how basic movements were executed. A systematic comparison of technical descriptions from both centuries reveals, in fact, a strong degree of continuity at the basic level (e.g., turnout, pointed feet, stretched legs, pull-up, plié, relevé, retombé, sauté, positions and movements of the arms, formation of attitudes, etc.). Indeed, the one-time serious dancer of the late eighteenth century Franz Roller (1843: 18) clearly felt that the technique of his day broadly was not a recent innovation but rather had been well established more than a century before: “the French, however, must be given the honor of having systematized dance under Louis XIV, and this system is still in force today.” Nor is there any real evidence that basic dance technique underwent any significant changes in the eighteenth century itself. As Angiolini (1773: 54) writes, “dance in its fundamentals, as you [Noverre] certainly know, has not changed in any way” since the time of Pécour, i.e., the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.


1.7 The Fallacy of “National Schools”

It is sometimes claimed in the secondary literature that there were “national schools” of dance in the eighteenth century, i.e., a “French” school verus an “English” one, and in turn “Italian” and “German” ones. This view appears to be based partly on analogy with the musical culture of the time and a later period in dance history. And so it is sometimes thought that if one dance handbook, which happens to be written in French, contains a different technical prescription from, say, one in German, then the first prescription must reflect specifically a “French” school, while the latter a “German” one. And so to reconstruct the true “French” art of dance for the period, one should consult – so the argument goes – only sources that are “French.”

It must be owned that this is a very simplistic and dubious approach. First of all, determining what is “French” versus “German,” or something else, is not at all straightforward. Louis Bonin (1712), for example, was a Frenchman who trained as a dancer in France, as he says of himself, but who lived in Germany and taught dance there. Is the technique that he taught in Germany to be regarded then as “French” or “German”? And is the technique taught in Spain by the Frenchman Ratier (1759?) to be regarded as “Spanish” or “French”? And is that of the Frenchman Dufort (1728), who was active in Italy as a dancing master, “Italian” or “French”? If a born and bred German, such as Taubert (1717), copied material from Bonin’s handbook into his own treatise – which Taubert did – is the latter’s style still “German,” or is it now “French,” or perhaps “bastardized German”? If Tomlinson (1735), as he states, was taught dance by a French dancing master named René Cherrier, is Tomlinson’s technique then “English” or “French”? And are the pronouncements about dance made by Pasch (1707) – a German dancing master who studied dance in France under the great Pierre Beauchamps no less – relative only to “German” dance? And if the Italian Carlo Blasis (1820) lifted passages concerning the management of the arms in dance directly out of the handbook by the Frenchman Pierre Rameau (1725a), as he did, are his pronouncements then “bastardized Italian”?

The same problem arises when the styles of individual dancers from our period are examined. Gaétan Vestris – or Gaetano Vestri, to give him his original name – received his basic dance training in Italy but studied serious dance under the French grave dancer Louis Dupré (Guest 1996: 35-26). And so how “Italian” or “French” was his technique? Anne Heinel, who was held to be the nonesuch of the serious style in France, was a German dancer originally active in Stuttgart and Vienna (Guest 1996: 39).

In the dance culture of this period, there was in fact a decided prejudice against anything that did not originate directly from France, or did not at least exude France. As Taubert (1717: 624) puts it, “there are people here who esteem nothing in the world more than that which directly stems from France.” Elsewhere he (1717: 1010-1011) elaborates on the same topic:

if it is then mainly a question of good training and wise instruction in this art with those nations and persons known for their dancing, of which we have already heard, then they are very mistaken who say, “my children and minors can put off mastering dance until they get to France; it’s not done right here,” and so forth. Yet everywhere at the present time, both in Germany as well as in other countries, both at the universities in the cities and at the royal, electoral, and princely courts, not only galant French-born masters but also other good masters who owe their skill and experience to the Academy of Dance in Paris are to be found, and parents then need not look so far afield.

This obsession with things French was quite widespread in Germany, it seems. In a similar vein, Feldtenstein (1776: 2/8) writes: “congratulate yourself, my young readers, that you do not belong to the throng of the affected, who look at every work to see if it is German or not, who praise nothing except what comes from abroad, and yet out of ignorance of German works, prefer those of the French ten times more.” Vieth (1793: 1/296) also comments on not only the Germans’ love of things French but also on their keenness to imitate the French:

just a word on the orchestique of the Germans. In this, as in many other things, the Germans have become imitators of the French. Over the Rhine has come the French art of dance, along with the language, clothing, and customs of the French, and one need not be ashamed to own that French dance has earned acceptance on account of its lightness and grace, more than on account of many other things. Even the English dances have become known very widely among Germans. Both social as well as theatrical dance was brought to a pitch of flawlessness in France and is now so in Germany.

Such prejudice was no less marked in the decades before the eighteenth century. Mercurius (1671: 152-53), for example, speaks of “the French dances of today (which are usually called ballet and sarabandes and are well known to us Germans now, who quickly wish to imitate and learn everything from the French).”

Many of the dancing masters, theatrical dancers, and choreographers active outside of France were in fact French. As Little notes (1988: 9), the choreographers active in Germany up to 1753, for example, were largely of French background, judging at least by names extant in theatrical records. And Riccoboni (1741: 153) notes that “formerly all the Dancers of the Opera in Germany and other Countries were brought from Paris.

The preference for French dancers was no less strong among Londoners throughout the century. Count de Saussure (1903: 277) noted during his visit to London in the 1720s that “their best dancers are French men and women brought from Paris.” Price et al. (1995: 440-441) similarly indicate that still in the 1780s

most of the principals and second dancers who appeared in London had received their training in France, a few in Italy. . . . So fixed was the prejudice in favour of imported dancers that fewer than half a dozen local residents became second dancers or stars during the decade, and most of those who did were of French extraction.

For more examples of the widespread admiration and imitation of French dancers, see Fairfax (2003: 1-14). Such a climate then, wherein French dancers were not only held in great esteem but also favoured abroad to the disadvantage of local dancers, could hardly be conducive to the creation and maintenance of “national schools” of dance. The French simply dominated the dance scene in this period. As Grimm (1879: 9/122 = 1 Oct. 1770) puts it, “one dines and dances just about the same in all civilized countries.” (The grotesque, however, was largely the provenance of Italians, it appears.)

One must also be wary about making sweeping claims about “national schools” based on descriptions of seemingly imperfect performances. It is beyond doubt that the comic and especially the grotesque were very popular in eighteenth-century Italy (Fairfax 2003: 200-205), and it follows that many Italian dancers must have been schooled primarily in these styles. But it is also apparent that a dancer could be called upon to perform outside his usual style, and this could result in a poor or “incorrect” performance. Magri (1779: 1:111-112) alludes to this problem.

Why is it that oftentimes such characters [as the Furies] do not meet with success in our Italian theaters? It is because more often than not a serious dancer, who is accustomed to his many soft attitudes and is versed in the emotionalism of his tender, passionate ways, is given the task of portraying the violent character of a Fury. How can this be done, if the action needs great liveliness and fire? If used to bends, how can he adapt himself to violent poses? This forces him to go against his style, wrenches him from his manner, and dresses him in borrowed clothes, as it were.
This is true what I say. In French theaters, wherein the dances rival the perspective paintings of the most renowned artists, the ballerini practice only the style that is known to be within their capacity. They do not endeavor to do everything; they do not waste their time where success is not possible. A poor dancer is sent to slaughter by being forced into a style for which he has no bent. He whose ability lies with the serious gives his all to this style; the grotesque dancer confines himself to his speciality and does not don buskins; he in the demi-caractère devotes himself to this style; gavottes and bubbly movements are ever his steady business, and thus they come to do them all to perfection.

It was not merely in Italy that the practice of dancing outside one’s genre – with unfortunate results – might be encountered. Ehrensvärd, the first director of the Swedish Royal Opera, said of the serious dancer Louis Gallodier that, in the 1778 production of Amphion in Stockholm, he chose to dance a demi-caractère duet “which is not his genre and was not successful” (cited in Skeaping 1967: 52). Indeed, the difficulty dancers had in “cross-dancing,” as it were, is also apparent from Angiolini’s remarks (1765) about comic dancers:

normally incapable of bending and maintaining aplomb, they dance almost always to lively, swift-moving tunes; they would not be able even to walk to the slow, starchy movement of a passacaille without falling.

In other words, a comic dancer would have been at a great disadvantage if asked to dance in the slow serious style. And so too in the other direction; or as Magri puts it (1779: 1/116), “he who dances in the serious style will have a hard time dancing in the other styles.”

Being shunted into a style wherein one had not been trained or for which one had no aptitude may account for the peculiar performance seen by the Duchess of Södermanland in a Swedish theater in 1783. She writes in a letter to Sofia Albertina (dated 24 July 1783) that the Italian dancer Giovanna Bassi, a one-time student of the French comic dancer Jean Dauberval,

does an entrechat six without the least trouble, I believe almost an à huit. The most remarkable is, nevertheless, that in her jumps she neither moves her head nor her arms, neither does she turn her body to either side, possibly one could believe that this would look stiff, but this is by no means the case. She is perfectly free and easy and has specially noble movements. (Trans. in Skeaping 1967: 59)

The reference to “noble movements” would seem to suggest that this was not a comic or grotesque performance. The immobility of the head and arms, as well as the apparent absence of diagonal orientations or épaulement (“neither does she turn her body to either side”) – typical features of the comic, it appears – would suggest that her performance was “tainted” by features proper to the comic style. In other words, these features need not be seen as manifestations of an “Italian national school” – Bassi was a student of the French comic dancer Dauberval – but simply as the possible result of being asked to dance outside one’s usual style and failing to perform with all the expected positions, movements, and qualities.

A passage in De la Lande (1767, cited in the Journal de musique 1773: 6/61) also alludes to a “bastardized” form of the serious style sometimes presented in Italy.

Several of their good dancers have come to France in order to learn the best principles of this art and to better themselves, but upon returning to Italy, they have never been able to succeed in developing a taste there for our graceful style [i.e., the serious style] despite their attempts. . . . There are, however, good dancers who present it quite differently but are obliged to give it up in order to please the majority.

This different presentation was not then a manifestation of a “national” school, but an adaptation – or, rather, fitful adaptations by individuals – of the serious style intended to make it more palatable to Italian audiences.

When the extant descriptions of technique are systematically compared as a whole, it becomes apparent that in many cases, what some dance historians might claim to be instances of technical differences from “national schools” can be more convincingly explained as examples of caprice, or personal taste. Nor does the use of ethnic terms in the names of dance movements necessarily imply a “national” execution. Both Behr (1713: 55) and Magri (1779: 1/30) call parallel positions of the feet “Spanish,” but this is not meant to point out an execution peculiar to Spanish dance. Already in the seventeenth century, Esquivel (1642: 10v) wrote broadly that “as to the turnout of the toes, this is to be done in all dancing.” And so this Spaniard did not prescribe “Spanish” positions. The suggestion in the preface to Dufort (1728) is that the term was simply historical deadwood: “the Spanish were the first to learn Italian dance, to which they added some capers and the sound of the castanets; thus this dance, which was first said to be Italian, soon acquired two names, by which it was indifferently called, that is, Italian and Spanish dance, as it still is today.” These “Spanish” positions were broadly used in the comic and especially the grotesque (§3.5).

Magri (1779, 1:122, 96) also makes what seem at first sight to be references to “national” executions. He writes, for example, that “all these sorts of capers stretched can likewise be done drawn up, be they French, Italian, Spanish entrechats or cabrioles; the only difference is that the legs are shortened or drawn up [ritirato].” And in connection with the temps de cuisse, he states that there were two ways of beating here:

some would have it that after the initial bend the beat must be done with the foot and the knee stretched, maintaining that in this way it proves to be more brilliant. Other hold with more reason that doing it with the knee bent has more merit and is rendered more praiseworthy, and this is in fact the way the French do it, and as such, it makes a finer sight. This is also my view, for if you wish to do it in an [entrée] grave, the bar of the music is filled out more by the said bend.

It is clear from the first quotation that the ethnic terms were merely labels, for even in Magri’s “Italian” school, all these capers – and not just the so-called “Italian” ones – could be done, regardless of the name. And it is apparent from the second quotation given here that the phrase “the way the French do it” refers rather to the serious style, a genre very popular with Parisians, as the mention of the grave suggests. That is, the “national” allusions simplistically refer to stereotypical taste: French = serious, Italian = comic. Indeed, this simplistic equation can be found in other sources, such as Martello (1715: 229-230). While the serious style was “peculiar to the French” (Grimm 1879: 8/262 = 1 Feb 1769), it was not the only style cultivated in France (Fairfax 2003: 199-200).

Moreover, it is unclear how typical Magri’s ethnic terminology was. There was in fact considerable caprice in the naming of steps. As Taubert (1717: 668) writes,

one master always names them differently from the other, indeed, so much so that rather often one would conclude from the name that this or that step must be an utterly unfamiliar and brand-new movement which has just arrived from Paris by an express on the Extra-Post only three days ago. Yet when it is shown, it turns out to be something in essence already known and merely overlaid with a new name.

And while it is well documented that a given style of dance could meet with varying degrees of favour, or hostility, depending not merely on country but even on city or theater (Fairfax 2003: 189-217), the sources ultimately do not support the sweeping claim that there was an “Italian” way of doing a demi-coupé, for example, which was different from a “French” manner, and likewise with other movements. That is to say, there is no evidence for eighteenth-century national schools from the point of view specifically of dance technique.


1.8 “Baroque Dance”

In this study, I have studiously avoided using the term “Baroque dance,” which is problematical. (The expression seems to have been introduced by twentieth-century scholars to refer to the dance contemporaneous with the “Baroque” period in music.) The term is commonly used to refer to dance from roughly 1600-1750. While such a time-frame may be meaningful in the history of the visual arts, it is certainly not in dance. That is to say, the dance of 1600-1750 does not form one stylistic period. It is quite clear from the sources that the time-frame 1660-1680 (or beginning even a little earlier) was a time of major change, characterized notably by the establishment of the four traditional styles of theatrical dance more or less as we know them from the eighteenth century, the introduction of a system of new ports de bras, the codification of the positions of the feet, and the regular use of “full” turnout. The driving forces behind these changes were Pierre Beauchamps (1631-1705) and Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).

A number of the sources explicitly allude to the creation of a new style at this time. Borckmann (1707) writes, for example, “it is well stated in the words of wise Beauchamps that ‘formerly one danced by caprice and grimace, but now one dances by rules and reason.’ With the first sort of dance, he refers to that which was done at the beginning of his youth.” For further examples, see Fairfax (2003: 2-7).

A further problem here is that there is very little description of dance technique from the later decades of the century. And so, in order to reconstruct the dance of the late seventeenth century, one must use mainly eighteenth-century materials, with the (likely correct) assumption that the dance of 1680-1700 was not greatly different.

And even if we redefine “Baroque dance” as a style beginning circa 1680, there is no real evidence for a stylistic change circa 1750. All of the evidence points to a major change at the very end of the eighteenth century, as described above (§1.2.5). A careful examination of the sources then suggests a periodization of 1680/1700-1790/1800. As this period then falls very neatly within the confines of the eighteenth century, a much more appropriate term is simply “eighteenth-century dance.”