Dances Of The English Nobility And Gentry

The dances of the nobility and gentry in Europe underwent great change in the fifteenth century. This was a century in Europe which marks a watershed. At this point Courtly and Folk Dances become permanently separated. They will though continue to influence each other but they have very different aims and very different styles. Before this period it is probably true to say that everybody could move expressively if they felt so inclined. People learned the unwritten rules by observation and participation. More restrained movements showed courtly influence and the spontaneity and improvisation of folk dance was lost. The gap between the upper and lower classes was also an influence. Courtly movements were constrained partly due to the costumes of the period. Men wore skin-tight clothing and shoes with extremely long points. Ladies had dresses with trains which could consist of five yards of heavy material. A very pedantic attitude know prevails. It is important that all movement is performed “correctly”. Figures, positions and steps must be mastered according to set rules. Detailed textbooks were published describing the way that everything should be performed.

In France between 1550 and 1650 the galliard was very popular. This was an energetic and vigorous dance which moved forward, backwards, sideways and diagonally. The men progressed down the hall once or twice with their partner, released her, and then danced in front of her before she retreated to the opposite end of the hall. Queen Elizabeth the First of England had her own form of morning gymnastics. At the age of fifty-six she is recorded as performing six or seven galliards when she got up. It is also recorded that she enjoyed watching her ladies in waiting perform old and new country dances.The branle became popular. In Queen Elizabeths’ reign masters and servants took part together.

Folk Dance continued to be acknowledged in courtly circles. Catherine de Medici as Queen is recorded in 1565 as having given a great feast in Bayonne. During the meal groups of her subjects from the French provinces performed folk dances associated with their home areas. Broadly speaking 1650-1750 is the baroque period. It is at this point that the ballet assumes greater importance. Louis X1V of France regularly took on the roles of gods in court ballets. By the end of the 1660’s Louise had made his last stage apperance. He then allowed noble roles to be played by professionals who had previously only appeared in comic or grotesque roles. Professionals performing alongside the nobility led to a gradual increase in the complexity of the choreography. These performances developed a basis for combining ballet with expressive story telling.

The formal dance was used to persue political ends. It helped to establish the dominance of the French court. It also played a role in celebrating royal marriages or to show respect to high ranking visitors to the court.

The minuet is in introduced in this period. Essentially it belonged to the common people and underwent a metamorphosis at court. The minuet was performed in open couples. Spectators and partners were saluted with ceremonial bows. The minuet itself consisted of dainty little steps and glides, quarter turns and dancers approaching and retreating hand in hand.

The Italian court custom of presenting grand costume balls or “masques” had spread to France and Spain in the sixteenth century. This form of entertainment arrived in England in the seventeenth century.Anne of Denmark in 1604 celebrated her Christmas at Hamton Court Palace with a masque. She and her ladies were dressed as twelve goddesses.

When Charles the First of England succeeded his father he introduced the French branles to the court. French influence in general was beginning to supercede the Italian. Under Cromwells’s Commonwealth, established in 1649, dancing was frowned upon. Even so Cromwell took part until dawn at a ball which he held for his daughter’s wedding.

It quickly returned to public life with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

In early eighteenth England country dance continued to be enjoyed by all levels of society. Kissing was still an essential part of these occassions. In rural areas landed gentry might partner their tenants when there was a birthday or wedding to celebrate in the manor house. The atmosphere could be very informal on these ocassions.
The trend to formal choreography which started in the late seventeenth century continued.

In 1744 an important event took place. During the celebrations to honor the marriage of Peter the Third to the future Catherine the Great for the very first time Russian dance was performed by Russian ballerinas on the Russian court stage.

In the ninteenth century group dances continued to be extremely important. The quadrille enjoyed great popularity. It was performed by four couples who formed a square. The English Country dance continued to more than hold its own during the early part of the century. By the 1830’s behaviour in the home and ballroom became ever more ceremonious. Great importance was attached to the corrct way of asking a partner to dance and to making appropriate conversation while engaged in a quadille. Advice was offered on the best way to learn the latest steps and the importance of wearing the latest ballroom fashions. This was a great period for self-help and how to manuals. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the manuals devoted less and less space to ballroom etiquette and more to the dances themselves. After 1840 the Cotillion became popular. It consisted of a series of party game figures, led by a conductor or leader. Waltz music was the usual accompaniment. The biggest revolution in the mid-nineteenth century social scene was the ever growing enthusiasm for the waltz. Until the late 1840’s waltzing couples turned clockwise while moving counterclockwise around the room. The constant turning with no change of direction produced a feeling of euphoria. This was said to be unhealthy especially for women and was one of the many criticisms levelled at the waltz throughout the century. The polka was also very popular. By the 1850’s various modifications regarding turning in the waltz were introduced.

By the end of the 1890’s the “German” (a form of cotillion), the quadrille, the waltz and a new dance, the two step were very popular. The quadrille finally eliminated the intricate steps and was simple walked.The growing influence of the emerging middle classes put an end to “courtly” manners and killed off the minuet. Individuality became important in the nineteenth century and couple dances started to predominate. Country dancing became less popular as it ceases to have an authentic reason to exist. It had become a feeble artifice to give a gathering of a few dozen guests a communal feeling.

The dances of the 20th century were destined to be very, very different.

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