Overview of Early Dance

Like “early music”, the term “early dance” covers the dancing of a range of historical periods. Early dance (or historical dance) refers to the dances current in Western Europe from the middle ages up to the end of the 20th century. Details of such historical dance can be derived from descriptions in original sources and from careful use of reliable secondary sources. Early dance is a growing area of dance research and of social history. Fresh insights reward those who return to the sources, but historical dance is also an art form and, like early music, invites us to explore interpretations. Its riches still have much to offer us today.

For example, there are no age barriers in historical dance: everyone used to dance and everyone can enjoy the pleasures of social dancing today. Moving in company to beautiful music is a huge pleasure.

Overview of the EDC

The Early Dance Circle (EDC) is a UK charity that aims to promote the enjoyment, performance and study of historical dance in the UK and beyond. Formed in 1984 as an umbrella organisation, it counts individuals and groups, both amateur and professional, among its members. We believe that knowledge of earlier forms of dance helps enrich the cultural life of the UK, by accessing a heritage of international importance that belongs to us all, but has been until recently largely forgotten.

EDC and CultureMoves Collaboration

The EDC, Chalemie School and the CM team came together to create an "Introduction to Baroque Dance" Module for the CultureMoves MOOC. The EDC explored what Baroque Dance content was available on Europeana. This collection represents some of those findings.

History of Baroque Dance

Baroque dance is the conventional name given to the style of dancing that had its origins during the seventeenth century and dominated the eighteenth century until the French Revolution. Louis XIV was a major influence in its development and promotion. Even at the age of fourteen, Louis was an accomplished dancer: as the sun god Apollo in the ‘Ballet de la Nuit’ (1653), he became Le Roi Soleil, an image that he was to cultivate throughout his life.  His courtiers were expected to  dance in the his new style at the formal balls, and they performed in court ballets, in rather a similar fashion to what was considered appropriate to Stuart court masques.  During 17th century dancing had not only a great social importance, but could also carry political importance. (Text from EDC)

In 1661, Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse. This academy was responsible for devising a system of notation (first published by Raoul Auger Feuillet in his book Chorégraphie in 1700) to enable dancing masters more readily to assimilate the new style of dancing and to learn new dances.

It became customary to publish each season’s new dances in this notation, in readiness for performance at court balls and other grand occasions. While the French style of dancing had prominence throughout most of Europe (including Britain, Germany and Russia), contemporary Italy saw the parallel development of a distinct Italian style continuing Renaissance traditions of dance. This area remains to be thoroughly researched, but in 2004 Barbara Sparti edited the manuscript of Ercole Santucci’s manual of 1614. Dancing masters in Italy were described as either ‘French’ or ‘Italian’ in accordance with the style they specialised in.

The French Noble Style, or La belle danse

Various styles of eighteenth-century dance existed: ballroom, ballet, a number of traditional styles of theatrical dance, regional differences. The French noble style was danced both at social events and by professional dancers in theatrical productions such as opera-ballets and court entertainments. Other styles included the comic/ grotesque and mixtures of comic and serious. At the Académie Royale de Danse, where professional dancers, both male and female, were trained. The most distinctive features of the new style were the complex  use of arms raised in opposition to the foot, the turnout of legs and feet and a rise to mark the beginning of the step. An important discussion of the preliminary plié and rise is to be found in Ken Pierce’s article, ‘Saut what? (Sauts in early eighteenth century dance)’, Proceedings (Society of Dance History Scholars) 11th annual conference, 1988.

The same step vocabulary was used in social and theatrical dance, but it was in the theatre that the most demanding and complicated steps were seen. Professional male dancers could execute aerial beaten steps such as entrechats six and cabrioles. La Camargue or Camargo shortened her skirt to show off her footwork. Such dancing was the immediate precursor of classical ballet, which inherited the range of step-names while developing the actual steps, sometimes beyond recognition.

Social dancing too  required skills of footwork, upper body movement and timing. Complex dances were often popular adaptations from the stage. By this time, the left foot start that marked Renaissance dances, had been abandoned in favour of beginning steps on the right foot. However, couples dancing a duet would relate to each other in mirror symmetry, the male dancer starting on his right foot and the female on her left.

The standard notation outlined the floor pattern as a continuous line divided into musical bars. Alongside are placed the symbols for the required steps. This system could become immensely complex for specific dances. To learn how to do the actual steps, we have to consult the dancing manuals of the period (see below). The placing of the arms was not generally notated, but certain rules applied which were described in the manuals, and the dancers could choose the most appropriate ones to follow for each dance or devise their own system. Floor patterns were generally made up of flowing symmetrically curving lines, “the line of beauty”, with dancers relating closely together, coordinating both steps and hand movements.   A wealth of information enables researchers and dancers to reconstruct dances from this period with a fair amount of accuracy, although interpretative differences are legion.

The Dances

There are over 350 extant dances published in notation. There was a basic vocabulary of approximately twenty steps, though these were performed with many subtle variations and at least 20 different types of dances were notated, their names familiar from the dance suites of baroque composers. The minuet became a rite of passage at courts across Europe. Dances can be categorised in accordance with their basic rhythm:

duple rhythm: bouréegavotterigaudon, etc.

triple rhythm: chaconnecouranteminuetsarabande

compound duple rhythm: canarieforlanagigue, etc.

French contredanses (the French adaptation of English Country dances) were given in simpler notation. Fleurets or pas de bourrée were generally used, with full notation only for more unusual steps such as pas de rigaudon.

More resources on Baroque Dance

Barbara Segal is a specialist in Baroque Dance, the fashionable dance of Europe from about 1650 to 1750 and what is sometimes considered the forerunner of classical ballet. It originated at the court of Louis XIV and became known as the French noble style, a highly stylised form of baroque dance. This elegant, graceful form of baroque dance rapidly spread throughout Europe.
Not content solely with baroque dance, Barbara has extended her studies and her repertoire to cover the known choreographies in European sources from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. These range from the court dances of Italian Renaissance dance masters such as Domenico, Caroso and Negri to Regency dances, including dances of Jane Austen’s time, and dances of  the Victorians.

Matt’s Baroque Dance Pages

Informal Baroque dance site including an extensive collection of links and HTML versions of some dancing manuals.

What follows in this collection is more content found on Europeana with a short framing note on the image.  

Portraits: William Hogarth "The Shrimp Girl"

The joyful, healthy face of this naturally beautiful young girl reaches out to us. It makes a counterpoint to the heavily painted and artificially coiffed women of upper-class families. However, it is an idealised image that glosses over the dirt, hunger and ill-treatment so often the daily experience of such street hawkers in London.

Pastimes: "What is this my son Tom"

Men did not escape ridicule for the size of their wigs. Here the joke is accentuated by the juxtaposition of the good old honest father with the affectations of his fashionable son. A common moralising theme of the baroque era was the contrast between court and country.

Pastimes: "A woman wearing a high wig and protective hood entering into Wellcome"

This caricature shows another high wig, protected from the elements, by a hood (a common enough accessory). However, here the two women are dwarfed by their coiffeurs, in a lack of decorum designed to seem ridiculous.

Pastimes: "Coiffure belle poule"

This is one of many satirical portraits aimed at the ridiculous elaboration of women’s hairstyles in the baroque period. Here, ironically, the image is connected with independence, when any real woman in a highly dressed wig would have been very much encumbered by it

Pastimes: Accessories (18th century, Russia)

Extreme delicacy and femininity are expressed by these accoutrements of the female toilette, belonging to an upper class woman of the baroque period. The enamels and fan painting are examples of the ultimate in craftsmanship of the day and came at a huge cost. 

Pastimes: "Damskor Skoklosters slott"

Elite women wore extraordinarily beautifully made and expensive shoes to balls and other social occasions. Sometimes, these light confections would not outlast one evening’s dancing.

Pastimes: "English Baroque shoe buckles in original box" (1750-1770) Bata Shoe Museum

Upper class and aspiring men of the 18th century sported enormously expensive shoe buckles, to complement their finely embroidered silk and satin waistcoats. Of course, a similar effect could be achieved lower down the social scale with “paste”, or glass, adornments.

Pastimes: "Klack på stövel Livrustkammaren"

These shoes with talons rouges, or red heels, were a mark of the highest nobility from the time of Louis XIV on. The height helped provide a flattering shape to the calf of a man’s “well turned” leg.

Pastimes: "Pearl"

This naturally unevenly shaped pearl is an example of the kind of jewel that gave the baroque period its name. It defies the emphasis on control and classical symmetry that characterised much of the Renaissance. Its value and rarity also embodies the lavish expenditure that underpinned the ruling elites of Europe at the time.

Pastimes: "Gin Lane"

Gin Lane, a print issued in 1751 by English artist William Hogarth, supported the Gin Act, aimed at ameliorating one of the social evils of the baroque era in London. The theme of death activates every hideous detail, from the men gnawing bones to the cadaverous drunk and the burial in the background. Even the buildings are tumbling down. This is the underbelly of high baroque.

More information on Baroque Dance

For more information on Baroque dance visit the EdX platform to enroll in the CM MOOC. The EDC is also a resource for all things Baroque and Historical Early dance.