The following is an adaptation of a section drawn from “The Positions and Movements of the Head,” chapter 7 of the work in progress The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (© Edmund Fairfax 2018).


7.3.3 Spotting

In contemporary classical ballet, a dancer normally spots when executing fast multiple turns either on the floor or in the air, in order to forestall dizziness, to help give continued impetus to consecutive revolutions, and to maintain a sense of front, as it were. To give Beaumont’s definition ([1922] 1975: 27), spotting is done thus: “the head should be the last to move as the body turns away from the spectator, and the head should be the first to move as the body returns towards the spectator.” A notable exception to this rule today are slow sustained turns wherein such whipping around of the head is both unnecessary, since little dizziness results from slow turning, and is generally at odds with the gentle character of the slow movement. Spotting in the Eighteenth Century

The question arises if the practice of spotting was also known in the eighteenth-century theater. Unfortunately, very little information is extant concerning how the head was to be disposed in turning steps generally and especially in pirouetting. The following remark given by Rameau (1725a: 245), for example, is rather typical. He notes simply that in the pirouette ouverte “your head is most upright in order to keep the body balanced, for the body must turn on only one foot as if on a pivot,” but he fails to indicate how the head was to move during the turn.

While none of the sources ever unambiguously describes or prescribes spotting, it is clear, however, that as a general principle, the head was not to be held stiff and unmoving while dancing – or indeed in daily life – but was to move independently of the body. This principle is stated explicitly in a number of the handbooks. Bonin (1712: 53, 151-152, 124), for example, writes as follows (it should be borne in mind that in the German of this period eher als could mean either ‘rather than’ or ‘sooner than’):

Wherever possible, one must never lose sight of the lady unless the nature of the dance and figure does not otherwise allow it, yet it appears right pleasing if not bewitching when in turning around or in dancing past, one knows how to manage the head and body in such a manner as if one longed not to lose sight of the lady or as if it were impossible for us to do a neat step without being reassured like a well-behaved child. . . .
In dancing past or down [in the minuet], I must see to it that I either do side steps or otherwise at least keep the body to the side and the lady in sight and turn the head rather than [eher als] the body when turning around both at the bottom and top so that, as already mentioned, it looks as if I long for her and wish to keep before my eyes the attractiveness of her pleasing person. . . .
One last thing to be observed in walking [outside of dance] is that if you wish to look about, this happens with the head rather than body.

Meletaon (1713: 130) likewise states that the head is to turn “rather than the body”:

The foremost qualities of good grace consist in not being affected, to speak generally; thus, the body, together with the head, must always be level while dancing; in turning around, one must turn the head rather than [eher als] the body and must not betray anything ridiculous both with the eyes as well as with the mouth. Natural movement, furthermore, is expected here, and a mannerly giving of hands, which must be done with great gentleness accompanied by a courteous look.

In his handbook on dance, Lecointe (1752: 70) also damns a stiff neck as inelegant and states that turning the torso in order to redirect the face was to be avoided:

We must be natural in our Carriage: Where Ease is not, Labour and Constrant must necessarily appear. Let us not imitate Ipscis, who, when he turns about, seems as if he were impaled, and the Wolf, cannot turn his Head without turning his whole Body at the same Time. His Face is up to the Stars, and his Eyes will hardly reach the Top of the Lady’s Head with whom he dances.

Indeed, keeping the neck stiff and immobile was broadly held to be inelegant in daily life in the eighteenth century, and some of the handbooks on deportment outrightly proscribe an unmoving head. Gallini (1762: 163), for example, writes that “certainly nothing can give a more noble air to the whole person than the head finely set, and turning gracefully, with every natural occasion for turning it, and especially without affectation, or stifly pointing the chin, as if to show which way the wind fits.” Londeau (1760: 9-10) likewise writes in his handbook on deportment that the head was to move freely and independently of the body, that

it must be held without stiffness at all times; it must not go pagoda-wise, nor be too high or too low. Rather it must be held upright and balanced over the body; it must be turned to the right or the left, lifted or raised, as the situation may demand, without the shoulders or body leaning or turning at the same time, without the head being agitated or moved when speaking.

In his handbook on deportment, Méreau (1760: 55-56) also damns a stiff unmoving neck as inelegant and proscribes moving the head and the body as if of a piece:

Most persons of either sex cannot look to their side without their body forthwith following the movement of their head; that is, they turn the head and the body at the same time to the same side whither they wish to look. Nothing is more disagreeable; nothing has the grace of looking to one’s side. I am convinced that if those who have contracted this habit were to feel how laugh-worthy it is, they would do their utmost to correct it. Sometimes we laugh in seeing someone, incommoded by a stiff neck, turn all of a piece; how, with even more reason, is a person not to appear laughable who not incommoded seems to have a continual stiff neck?

The English artist William Hogarth (1753: 145) broadly writes that “true elegance is mostly seen in moving [the head] from one position to another.”

Certainly in turns of one revolution or less, the head was to move independently of the body in dancing. This is rather clearly stated by Ferriol (1745: 171), who notes broadly in connection with pirouettes done with “either a full, half, or quarter turn” that “the head must be to the side turning.” That is, the head is to lead by turning in the direction of the turn before the body rotates. Just such a turn of the head in the direction of the turn is shown in one of Tomlinson’s plates (fig. 1). It is clear from the notation by his feet and the position of his body that the dancer here has disengaged to second before placing his foot behind in fifth position in order to rise and turn and that he has his head already turned in the direction of the turn.

Fig. 1. Copy of plate XV (Tomlinson 1735).

All of the foregoing strongly suggests that spotting was likely the norm in fast multiple turns of the eighteenth century. (As discussed below (§28.2), there is ample indication that multiple pirouettes were no strangers to the eighteenth-century stage.) This suggestion is made all the more convincing by the fact that the practice of spotting while turning both predates and immediately postdates our period of study.

Fig. 2. A reconstruction of the tourne-broche in the half-serious style (to be read from left to right). Historical Context

Spotting is both described and shown in some of the nineteenth-century sources. Helmke (1829: 204), for example, alludes to the practice in connection with the ballroom waltz: “You will get dizzy only if the eyes meet many objects in turning; if the eyes, however, are directed to only one object, then dizziness is eschewed.” Le Pitre (1829?: 126-127) also mentions the practice as an optional way of avoiding dizziness in the ballroom:

Many imagine that turning is extraordinarily difficult and believe that they will never learn to do it, for perhaps trying it once they have found that they get dizzy and imagine then that they will not be able to do it without getting dizzy and thus will never be able to learn to turn. That this is not the case I know from much experience; not one of my pupils has ever left my dance classes dissatisfied even if many have had the aforesaid thoughts. Indeed, the dizziness will disappear little by little by itself through much practice; the pupil must not let his spirits fall. My method is always thus: I have the pupil, whenever I sense that he is getting dizzy, either turn around to the left at once or hop up and down a few times, whereupon the dizziness will pass. Moreover, I always advise the pupil, whenever he feels that he is getting dizzy while turning, to fix his gaze firmly on a certain point before which he is about to waltz past, and do this a number of times, and I am certain that the dizziness will pass while turning.

Emmanuel’s time-lapsed series of illustrations depicting a woman dancer executing a pirouette sur le cou-de-pied from the end of the nineteenth-century (1895: 160-161) clearly shows the turn being done with the head spotting.

Already by the end of the sixteenth century, the practice of spotting was known in formal dance. In his description of the salto tondo (‘turning jump’), Negri (1602: 75), for example, mentions three possible ways of disposing the head while turning in the air, the dancer either keeping the head all of a piece with the body, or alternatively turning first the body and then the head, or alternatively turning first the head and then the body. The latter two options were clearly not to Negri’s taste, but his comments show that spotting was indeed known by this early date. He writes thus:

Note that in turning around you are to move with the body straight and as one, that is, the head, the arms, and the legs together, and not as some thoughtless individuals do, who perform the said jump turning first the body and then the head, or the head and then the body, the which is most unbecoming and unpleasant to behold. This rule holds true in learning the thirteen other kinds of different jumps.

Later in his description of the girata, or turn on the floor, Negri (1602: 91) again mentions the practice of spotting, admonishing the would-be student of his handbook not to imitate those who “turn first the body and then the head.”

Other early writers on dance vaguely allude to keeping the head directed to the fore or to a partner as long as possible when turning. In his description of the so-called ‘careless turn,’ Esquivel (1642: 15v), for example, writes that “rising onto the toes of both [feet], do a turn keeping your face to the master in a most graceful and carefree manner.” Pasch ([1659] 2000: 51) also mentions keeping one’s face directed towards a partner when turning:

It is to be well borne in mind here that in leading a woman, one is not to squeeze her hands too much, or keep one’s hat on, or ever turn one’s back towards her, which ought never to happen, but rather one’s face must always come to be directed towards her, half-wise or sometimes fully, above all when turning around.

It might be added further that the three ways of disposing the head in turns mentioned by Negri above survived into the twentieth century. As noted above, the practice of not spotting, which was prescribed by Negri, is still used in classical ballet in connection with very slow turns, while the manner of turning the body before the head was prescribed by Beaumont at the beginning of the twentieth century and is still the norm today. The third option of turning the head before the body in turning steps, that is, leading with the head, was favored for very quick turns by the famed dancer Erik Bruhn (1928-1986), who found the method advocated by Beaumont apt to pull the dancer off his center (1963: 42):

My experience has been that for any very fast pirouettes or chaîné turns, your head must lead. It must go around first, before the shoulder and the rest of the body. Looking back over the shoulder as you start can cause too much of a twisting of the head and shoulders (like a renversé) which can throw you off balance or at least slow up the turn. The head should be level, not tilted, and should have a very clean, quick, snapping movement.

It would seem most likely indeed that the options of not spotting (esp. in slow turns), of spotting by leading with the head, and finally of spotting by leading with the body were all practices inherited from the pre-eighteenth-century period and were all used in eighteenth-century dance – and thence passed on to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – even if the eighteenth-century sources fail to describe spotting. Such silence is not surprising given that the dance handbooks of our period of study are more concerned with ballroom dancing, wherein fast multiple turns would have been largely out of place owing to a predilection for simple or simplified movement (Fairfax 2003: 15-79). The choice of the three options in the eighteenth century likely depended upon both individual caprice, or personal style, as well as dance convention. As fast pirouettes with multiple turns were largely avoided in the traditional serious style, spotting must have been less conspicuous in this style than in the other brisker airborne styles of the half-serious, comic, and grotesque, at least in the first part of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 86-102).