WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Contra Dance

I could have danced all night
I could have danced all night
And still have begged for more
I could have spread my wings
And done a thousand things
I’ve never done before

My Fair Lady, I Could Have Danced All Night, music written by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, published 1956.

Contra Dance

A dance where the dancers of the different sexes stand opposite each other, instead of side by side, as in the minuet, rigadoon, louvre, &c. and now corruptly called a country dance.

Those of us familiar with the Regency era are well acquainted with dancing at balls and the obligatory appearance(s) at Almacks for a young marriage-minded miss, and we’ve heard the terms ‘minuet,’ ‘highland reel,’ and ‘quadrille,’ but what about those other dances mentioned by the estimable Mr. Grose?

Contra Dance

Popular since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the contra dance consisted of couples lining up opposite each other with men on one side and ladies on the other. The dance began at the top with the first couple, and they worked their way down the lines, weaving in and out. They were followed by the next top couple, until all couples had worked the line. As everyone had the chance to be the lead couple, the set could last a long, long time. A beautiful (albeit abbreviated) example of the contra dance is Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot from the cinematic version of Emma, 1995.

Minuet

Whether the dance as it was during the Regency period derived from the Italian or French versions, the minuet was so named due to its small steps. It was danced by couples in three-quarter time. This set opened balls as everyone knew how to navigate its steps, despite the fact the footwork was intricate. The dance was steeped in tradition and held with near reverence by the older crowd, likely because it quickly displayed a person’s grace (or lack thereof). It’s popularity began to wane in the Regency as the waltz gained popularity and eventual acceptance. (On a side note, the good Regency historian remembers that the waltz during this time was nothing like the waltz of the Victorian or current eras. This is the Viennese Waltz, with couples not dancing in the closed position, but rather semi-closed, side-by-side, then facing each other, as seen in the following illustration. Couples are very much embracing, but not tightly, bosoms brushing, as some might wish.)

Earl Waltz Steps from Thomas Wilson’s Treatise on Waltzing, 1816.

But I digress. A beautiful example of the minuet is presented by the Jane Austen Society of Florence and L’Atelier de Danse at the Grand Napoleonic Ball in Florence, in May of 2010, at the Villa del Poggio Imperiale, imperial residence of Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi from 1809 till 1814 while she was Grand Duchess of Tuscany.

Rigadoon

This dance stumped me until I discovered it is a version of a more well-known dance group, the cotillion, which came to England from France in the mid-18th Century. The cotillion was another lengthy dance and the rigadoon was merely one step variation that could be showcased by the hostess. The rigadoon was a set a continuous steps and swirls with the pattern increasing in difficulty as the set progressed. I found a beautifully executed version of A New Rigadoon based on Mr. Isaac’s Rigadoon of 1706, performed at the 2012 Ottawa English Country Dance Ball.

 

If your map-reading and deciphering skills are especially acute, please feel free to interpret the original sketches of Mr. Isaac, the Rigadoon, from 1706. They are beautiful, and beyond my ken.

Mr. Isaac, The Rigadoon, 1706, plate one.

A Supplement of Steps by Raoul Auger Feuillet and translated by John Weaver, Orchesography, 1706.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louvre

This is actually a “nickname” for the Aimable Vainqueur Danse, a ballroom dance choreographed by Louis Pécour that premiered in December of 1700. It’s also documented with the ‘Loure’ spelling, making it somewhat difficult to discover in the depths of Google. It became one of the popular historical dances to include at balls through the early 19th Century because of its stately movements and traditional elegance. Once again, the steps are intricate and the pace is steady without any breaks, very similar to the Allemande. Giovanni-Andrea Gallini’s A Treatise on the Art of Dancing in 1778 states the Louvre and Minuet as the two dances most in fashion throughout Europe, and that the Louvre “pleases particularly” with the “just concert of motions” exhibited by the couple. It’s important again for the Regency historian to remember that dance was also another language of diplomacy, and that the most exclusive balls and routs would feature dances that all the European ambassadors and attachés would know well. A very baroque example of this dance is performed by Thomas Baird and Suzanne Paterson for La Belle Danse, exhibiting the original 1701 choreography by L.G. Pécour. The tune is from André Campra’s 1700 opera Hésione.

 

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