What is "baroque dance"?

When people discover that I take baroque dance classes, there's usually some curiosity, and also some misunderstanding about what it involves (my mother asked "Is it, y'know funny dancing?").  This page is a distillation of conversations in pubs in which I have tried to describe exactly what this uncommon hobby of mine involves.


Baroque dances are historical dances.  That is, they are dances which went out of fashion long ago.  Today both amateurs and professionals are performing reconstructions of old dances, mainly the social dances, from at least as far back as the 12th century, right though until the early 20th century.  There are also new dances being choreographed in old styles.

Baroque dance: a short definition

Baroque dance is theatrical and social dancing of the European upper classes from around 1650–1760.  In practice it often means the style originating in France, since this is the style about which we have the most information.

Baroque dance: a long, rambling definition

The term baroque is used to talk about classical music from around 1600 (when Monteverdi was composing, and Shakespeare was writing) until around 1750 (the year J. S. Bach died, and six years before Mozart was born).  It's a convenient, though imprecise, way of talking about music written around the period when instruments like harpsichords were in fashion, when viols were gradually losing ground to the violin family, when trumpets and horns had no valves, and when the piano and the clarinet were barely sparks in their daddies' eyes.  Composers from this time include Vivaldi, J. S. Bach, Handel and Purcell.

One of the characteristics of a lot of baroque music – particularly the French stuff – is that it either is dance music, or it was inspired by the court dances of the time.  Many of these tunes share the name of the associated dance – so you may have heard the terms minuet, sarabande, gigue (or jig), bourée, rigaudon, gavotte, courante, chaconne or passacaille mentioned in the context of music.  These dances are all examples of baroque dances.

Baroque dance was just the dances done to this music – music now found in the "classical" section of record shops.  The style includes both social (ballroom) dancing and theatrical dancing (ballet).  Unlike today, the same basic vocabulary of steps was used in these two different arenas.  However the theatrical style added more virtuosic steps, and actions appropriate to the character that the dancer was playing.

The dates for baroque dance don't correspond exactly with those for baroque music.  Dance at the beginning of the 17th century is now generally viewed as having more in common with the dances of the 16th century.  It is, of course, simplifying things to pick a date when a historical period started, but that's what I'm going to do.  I hereby choose 1650, mainly because it's a nice round figure, but partially because I heard an anecdote that the minuet was introduced to the French court in 1650 – although there doesn't seem to be much evidence of its presence before Lully's Ballet de la Rallerie of 1659.  Now that I've named a date, I feel compelled to remind you again that the style evolved – indeed, some of the characteristics now associated with baroque dance were described by de Lauze in the 1620s.

The end is also hard to pin down.  The minuet was danced socially right through the 18th century (the style of late 18th century dance is sometimes called rococo dance, I'm not sure exactly how it differs from the earlier style).  The other social dances don't seem to have been so long-lived.  The theatrical dance would eventually evolve into classical ballet, but its baroque period might be said to have ended in the 1760s, when Noverre's fancy modern ideas started to take effect.

Baroque country dances (not usually considered under the general umbrella of "baroque dance")

In 1651, John Playford published The English Dancing Master a collection of country dances such as Gathering Peascods, Kemp's Jigg and Cuckolds all a Row.  Note that these publications were aimed at the literate, and hence the dances described don't necessarily bare any resemblance to folk dances – the "country" tag can be interpreted as "not at court" rather than "rustic".  However, they may have been inspired by the dancers' perception of folk dancing, and they seem to have evolved into what are now considered folk dances.  Many of the Playford-dances were reconstructed around 1900 and those reconstructions, accompanied by a squeezebox, are now enjoyed by many, whatever the pedants may say about their authenticity.

There's a nice introduction to the dances on The Round's site.

Country dances were the light-relief dances of the balls.  Compared to the more respectable dances of the time, country dances had simple steps and were danced socially by several couples at a time, either in columns, squares or circles.  What they shared with their respectable cousins was a tendency to have symmetrical floor-patterns, with the dancers tracing out intricate interlocking shapes, and at the end of it all arriving, sometimes rather improbably, back where they started.

It's quite likely that you've seen country dances from the baroque era in period films or plays (though not necessarily in films or plays set during the baroque era, since choosing a historically correct dance is not always a high priority for the director).  You may have even danced them.

At social events today, the set-up for the longways dances is usually as follows: men and women stand in rows facing their partners.  First you need to be taught the dance, so the "caller" describes a series of patterns for each pair of couples (two men and two women), which you walk through and try to remember.  Then the music starts and the caller prompts you through the dance.  After each repeat (if you got it right) some of the couples have moved up and some have moved down the set, so you keep your partner, but each time you and your partner dance in another foursome.  This repeats until everyone can remember how the dance goes, at which point the musicians stop, and the caller teaches you another dance.

I had a go at making an animation to show how a simple longways country dance progresses.  It's probably more irritating than informative, but that never stopped anyone putting anything online before.  Try following one of the dots.

The French Style

Louis XIV of France (1638–1715, reigned 1643–) was a keen dancer of the so-called Noble Style, which was developed under his regime and spread throughout Europe.  At this time, the French nobility were expected to be able to dance in the Noble Style at the formal balls, and they even performed in the court ballets.  It seems rather strange now that during the 17th century dancing had not only a great social importance, but also great political importance – I've heard tell that some ambassadors were chosen on account of their skill in the ballroom.

The social dances were typically danced by one couple at a time, with all the other guests around the sides of the room.  The people of the highest rank sat at one end of the room, and the dance was directed towards them.  The description of these balls by Pierre Rameau suggests that everybody danced twice, with different partners.  However, since for even average-sized balls this would have taken a huge amount of time, it seems likely that it was decided in advance who was going to dance, and they would have a chance to practice.  There also seem to have been opportunities to engage in group dances – either the country dances mentioned above, or branles, about which we know very little.

The dances of the Noble Style were stepped dances, with the partners moving across the floor, sometimes separately, sometimes holding one or both hands, often in symmetrical patterns.  Each one (except for simple dances, like ballroom minuets) had to be individually choreographed to a particular piece of music – this not only ensured that the dance was the same length as the music (which was useful), but it also meant that the patterns, rhythms and steps of the dance reflected or enhanced the music.

Theatrical dance

In addition to the social dances, there were also ballets, opera-ballets and other entertainments performed at court, as well as at theatres such as the Paris Opera.  Much of the dancing in these productions was in the same style as the social dance, and shared the same basic steps.  However as well as partner dances there were also solo dances, and dances for larger groups.  The performers would wear sometimes outlandish costumes and masks, depending on the character they were portraying – often the fantastic characters of classical mythology, although shepherds and shepherdesses seemed to turn up rather a lot too.

The theatrical style built on the ballroom style with the addition of virtuoso steps – like cabrioles (jumps where you beat your legs together), entrechats (jumps where you cross your legs in the air several times) and pirouettes on one foot – and more complex combinations of the basic steps.  Also the dancers were meant to portray characters so, while a god would dance in the Noble Style, more lowly characters like peasants, sailors, drunks or Harlequin would have characteristically "grotesque" motions.

So what does it look like?

I'll be the first to admit that trying to describe dancing, or any visual art, is pretty much doomed to failure.  But people do seem interested, so here is my best attempt – the best I can hope for is that none of this will be misleading.  Bear in mind, though, that what I say here can only really be a simplification, and a rather clumsy one at that.

The first thing to remember is that, even in the social dancing, if a dance is for two, that means there are only two people on the dance-floor.  So the partners can't just stay in one corner, keeping themselves to themselves – they need to cover the whole floor, but still look as though they are dancing with each other.  So one element of a dance was a spacious floor-pattern.

The surviving floor-patterns typically display a great deal of symmetry.  For example, in the dances for two, the dancers would often perform the same steps in mirror image, or spiralling about the centre of the ballroom.  Dances would often start with the partners dancing from the back of the ballroom to the centre (towards the people of highest rank), then separating and turning to either meet, or cross, each other.  At the end of the dance, the partners would retreat back to their starting positions to take their bows.

As for the steps themselves, well, 19th and 20th century ballet, being direct descendants of baroque dance, can serve as a point of reference.  However, if you know about ballet, be careful about assuming too much about baroque – many of the steps and movements share the same names, but are quite different.  Also, I think it is misleading to think of baroque as a sort of ballet-lite.  Baroque is a separate, though related, dance-form with a different aesthetic, and although the basic steps themselves are technically easier than the steps of ballet, there is still much work involved in making a sequence of steps into a dance that is worthy of an audience.  As to the "difficulty" of a virtuoso theatre dance, this will always tend to a level that is determined by the skill of the best performers.

Some of the features of baroque steps are like toned-down ballet.  For example, as in ballet, the dancer has a turn-out of the legs from the hips.  However, compared to ballet, this turn-out is small – the feet are at 90 degrees to each other, rather than at 180.  Similarly, when you are "on your toes" in baroque, you should only raise onto the ball of the foot – what in ballet would be more of a quarter-pointe.  When you bend the knees (plié) in baroque, you bend much less than you would in ballet.  A jump in baroque will often barely leave the ground, in ballet the jumps can be extremely acrobatic.  And there's definitely no lifting of your partner in the baroque noble style!

Baroque steps are typically done on the ball of the foot (quarter-pointe) with straight legs.  At the end of each musical bar (measure) the knees bend and the heel is lowered, as preparation for the knees straightening on the first beat of the next bar.  This rising on the first beat gives the dance its rhythm, following the rhythm of the music.  Sometimes, a light jump or hop is used at the beginning of the bar, instead of a simple rise – in most reconstructions the landing from this jump will be on the beat.

Simple steps, bend/rises, hops and springs are combined together into "step-units".  A good rule-of-thumb (ignoring the potential complexities for the moment) is that there is one step-unit per bar of music, each beginning with either a rise, a jump, or a hop.  The basic steps-units usually break-down into approximately one step (or other action) per beat if the music has a slow or moderate triple pulse, and one or two steps/actions per beat for music with a moderate or lively duple pulse.  In practice this is varied, for example by having rapid travelling steps in one bar, and then, in the next bar, the step-unit is on the spot, with perhaps only one actual step, the dancer balancing easily on the ball of one foot.

However, even in the ballroom the rhythmic relation of dance to music is not always so simple.  In the minuet (as described by Pierre Rameau) the bends/rises give the dance steps a contrasting "hemiola" rhythm across the music.  In the French courante, the most typical step-units have a strong triple pulse, in contrast to the sometimes ambiguous pulse of the music.  A well-performed courante is a powerful dance, even with just these simple step-units.  In the more advanced ballroom courantes, the rhythmic content of the step-units becomes more varied and there may be between one and three accents within the steps of one musical bar.  Theatrical dances can have even more complex rhythms – a good example is the English hornpipe which has a varying dance rhythm moving in and out of sync with the triple musical beat.

The arm movements of the baroque noble style are not at all like ballet.  In fact, if you're used to ballet then you'll probably find the baroque arm movements a bit weird at first.  When not holding hands, the arms are generally held away from the body, and moved between certain "positions of opposition", like a shifting frame around the dancer.  It is fair to say that the movement of the arms is a huge source of contention between various groups of dance historians.  The dancing instruction manuals from the time say unhelpful things like "...if you have any Taste you will perceive your Faults, and by consequence mend." (Rameau trans. Essex) and everyone who tries to reconstruct the style seems to have different tastes!

Also it's worth noting that the clothing was very different.  Both men and women had heavy court clothes for social dancing, and women were further restricted by a corset and a long, wide dress.  Today we have a choice about what to wear (although the audiences, and many of the dancers, often seem to like the dressing-up more than the actual dancing!) but the clothing certainly had a strong influence on the style – for example, the generally upright posture of baroque may have been due to the costumes.  The clothing may also explain why the men's roles were generally more virtuosic than the women's, either because the dresses restricted the motion, or because there's little point in doing any elaborate footwork when it's hidden inside your dress.  Initially, the female parts in ballets were danced by cross-dressed male dancers, but gradually the acrobatic skills of the women increased and the clothes were modified until, in the 19th century, the woman sporting a tutu and dancing on full pointe defined the public's perception of ballet.

How do we know all this?

The main sources of information are the published dance manuals and dances.  The style can be reconstructed to a certain extent from books such as Rameau's Le Maître à danser (Paris, 1725), Taubert's Rechtschaffner Tantzmeister (Leipzig, 1717), and Kellom Tomlinson's The Art of Dancing (London, written 1724, pub. 1735).

The dances themselves were mainly recorded in what we now call Feuillet Notation or Beauchamp-Feuillet Notation.  The notation was first described in 1700 by Feuillet in his book Chorégraphie, and most of the 300+ surviving dances are from published collections from subsequent years.  Unfortunately the notations do not generally include the arm motions, apart from noting where couples should take hands – it seems that the conventional arm movements were well-known, and there was a certain amount of choice.

Where did it go?

As professional dancers became more and more highly trained, they took more and more of the roles in the court ballets, with its increasing complex and acrobatic steps that didn't exist in the ballroom.  Conversely, the simpler social dances – country dances, minuets and gavottes – became the fashionable dances amongst the new generations of nobility.  Thus the dances of the ballroom and the stage separated and evolved separately.

In the ballroom, the minuet remained popular for many years, and as time progressed, it was joined by cotillions and quadrilles.  However, by the end of the 18th century the social climate was changing.  In France after the 1789 revolution, anyone who could dance an elegant minuet stood a good chance of sharing their last dance with Madame Guillotine.  While other European nations didn't object quite so violently, the old styles did seem to be getting a bit passé and new dances such as the Viennese waltz would eventually supplant them.

In the theatre, the style would eventually mutate into romantic and then classical ballet.  If we want to put a date on the end of baroque dance on the stage, we could choose 1760: the year in which Jean-Georges Noverre published his Lettres sur la Danse which described a vision of ballet with fewer formal rules, in which dance served to advance the plot, rather than being simply a diverting entertainment or a display of skill and taste.  The result of this was ballet d'action, in which the whole story was told using dance and mime.

And Today?

There's been a bit of a revival of interest in historical dances, with both amateurs and professionals performing renaissance and 19th century dances, as well as baroque and country dances from different periods.  However, it's still a minority interest, and there aren't that many people who know about the baroque style.  In addition, there are different schools of thought about the interpretation of the historical evidence.  Sources of contention include how to move the arms, whether to bend the knees when you land from a jump or hop, how to execute certain steps (for example the pas tombé), and the tempi of the different dances.  There are also apparently tiny differences in emphasis depending on the taste of teachers and directors.

Because of all this, if you see two independent performances of baroque dance, you're quite likely to see two different things.  Ironically, in trying to reconstruct old dances, it seems that all we've done is to invent new dances.  But then, one presumes that in the 18th century there were different schools of dancing, so perhaps we've got that right anyway.

Further reading

Elsewhere on the web, you could try reading Western Social Dance.  It gives a background for the Library of Congress' collection of books on social dancing, which includes some information on all the different dance styles covered, from around 1490 to the early 20th century.

There's also introductions on the pages of The Early Dance Circle, and La Belle Danse.

For those daring enough to want to look beyond the web, the first stop is probably Rebecca Harris-Warrick's article Ballet §1 1670–1800 from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition which should be available in most reference libraries (I think you can also pay a subscription and read it online).  For more information about the actual dances, the best introduction is probably Wendy Hilton's Dance and Music of Court and Theater [find on Amazon.com].  It describes the Noble Style as reconstructed by Wendy Hilton and gives an introduction to Beauchamp-Feuillet notation.  While some of the step descriptions quoted from original sources may not allow you to pin down exactly how a step should be performed, they at least give you an idea about how the author reached her conclusions.  I'll nail my colours to the mast here and say that my teacher was a pupil of Wendy Hilton, so this book describes my teacher's dancing, which is very good indeed, so I'm probably a teeny bit biased (although just because it looks great that doesn't mean that it's guaranteed 100% historically correct).