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Definition of
Baroque Dance

Definition of Baroque Dance
Although many other forms of social and theatrical dance existed in the world during the Baroque period, the term Baroque Dance is often used in reference to the French noble dance style and technique of the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries. Cultivated by the dancing masters and dance activities at the court of Louis XIV, the style greatly influenced dancing in ballrooms and theatres throughout Europe. French dancing masters were prized commodities and French dances, via dance notation, were danced all over Europe while the French dancing manuals were translated (and paraphrased) into various languages.

danse à deux
King and court observe a danse à deux

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Social Dance
Social dancing was taken very seriously at the court of Louis XIV. A formal ball opened with a set of branles, in which couples lined up in order of social rank, taking hands in a large circular formation for some branles, as in the branle simple and branle gay, or taking hands with one's partner only and dancing in a linear formation with each couple progressing to the end of the line at the end of each musical strain, as in the branle de Poictou. Richard Semmens summarizes the often ambiguous evidence and evolution of the opening branles from descriptions by Arbeau in 1589, to De Lauze and Mersenne in 1623 and 1636 respectively, to Rameau in 1725 in his article "Branles, Gavottes and Contredanses in the Later Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries."

After the branles, courtiers presented the steps and figures of the courante and then other danses à deux (ball dances for two), one couple at a time while the King and entire court observed. Eventually, the menuet ordinaire gained popularity and was danced in place of the courante. Contredanses (country dances), imported from England in the 1680s, were danced at the end of balls. These dances were less formal than the danses à deux and like the opening branles, allowed more than one couple to dance. Examples of spatial formations used in country dances, as illustrated in John Playford's 1651 publication The English Dancing Master in London, are shown on the right: longways, square, and round.


Country Dance Formations
from The English Dancing Master
by John Playford (1651)




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Dance and Education
Dancing was an essential social grace and given high priority in the education of Europe's upper class, or polite society.
In his 1693 essay addressing education, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, English philosopher John Locke wrote that

"...nothing appears to me to give children so much becoming confidence and behaviour, and so to raise them to the conversation of those above their age, as dancing, [my emphasis] I think they should be taught to dance as soon as they are capable of learning it. For tho' this consist only in outward gracefulness of motion, yet, I know not how, it gives children manly thoughts and carriage more than anything." (part IV, section 67)

It was also thought that dancing could mitigate physical defects, as seen in this passage from Rameau's "Preface" to his 1725 dancing manual Le Maître à Danser (The Dancing Master), (Essex's 1728 English translation provided):

"For Dancing gives a Grace to the Advantages we receive from Nature, by regulating all the Motions of the Body, and strengthens it in its just Positions; and if it doth not quite efface the Defects we are born with, it softens or conceals them. This Definition alone is sufficient to shew the Use of it, and to excite a Desire of becoming a Proficient." (Rameau, 1725, p. viij-ix; Essex, 1728, p. xx)

Polite society in Colonial America was equally concerned about providing dance instruction for their children. George Washington, for example, hired a dancing master to teach his young children at Mount Vernon. Washington himself enjoyed dancing country dances and was apparently also fond of the menuet. Learn more in George Washington - A Biography in Social Dance by Kate Van Winkle Keller and Charles Cyril Hendrickson.


Photo by Dolly Sickles
New Bern Dancing Assembly
Colonial American Cotillion


Left hand star
Photo by Dolly Sickles
New Bern Dancing Assembly
Young Ladies Learning to Dance

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Louis XIV in the Theatre
During the early years of his reign, Louis XIV performed in theatrical works called
ballets de cour such as Le Ballet de la Nuit of 1653. The Apollo costume (to the right) was worn by Louis in the final entrée (act) where he portrayed the "rising sun" - appropriately coinciding with actual sunrise. The on-stage cast of this all-night production included a young Jean-Baptiste Lully, who would later compose the great tragédies-lyriques of the Académie Royale de Musique (eventually the Paris Opéra); actor and playwright Molière; and dancer Pierre Beauchamps, who would later become the king's dancing master and composer of ballets. Beauchamps is credited for the early development of the dance notation system that was officially published by Raoul-Auger Feuillet in 1700 as well as for the codification of the five positions of the feet still used in ballet today. Louis XIV's last theatre performance was in 1670.

In addition to ballet de cour decribed above, dancing appeared on the stage in other theatrical genres including

  • comédie-ballet - i.e. Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) libretto by Molière and music by Lully;
  • tragédie en musique - i.e. Armide (1686) libretto by Quinault and music by Lully; and
  • opéra-ballet - i.e. L'Europe galante (1697) libretto by Lamotte and music by André Campra.



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Louis XIV as Apollon
Louis XIV as Apollo
Le Ballet de la Nuit (1653)

Access the Livret online: Benserade, Isaac de. Ballet royal de la Nuict. Paris: Ballard, 1653.
*Note: I recommend using Safari to access this source.

Access the Score (incomplete) online: Cambefort, Jean de. Ballet Royal de la Nuict. Philidor, Ms., 1690.
*Note: I recommend using Safari to access this source.








Theatrical Dance Technique
The relatively less complicated, terre-à-terre (low to the ground) steps used in the ballroom served as the basis for the more elaborate, intricate, exaggerated, and haute (high) steps used in theatrical dance. Multiple turns on one leg (pirouettes), beating both legs together in the air (batterie), jumps with turns in the air (sauts en tournant), balances on one leg accompanied by circular movements or beats with the other leg (ouvertures de jambe, tours de jambe, pas battus), and "waving" steps (pas tortillés) were characteristics of the theatrical style of dance. Many of these elaborate theatrical steps are the predecessors of steps in the classical ballet vocabulary.
See notated examples of theatrical steps below.

Theatrical Step Examples

Multiple turns,
tours de jambe, beats

Jump with beats in
the air: entrechat six

Waving Steps (pas tortillés)


Steps with Beats


How do we know the choreography for the dances?

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•How do we know the choreography for the dances?

Decipher dance notations.

Several systems of dance notation were being developed during the 1680s to record ball and theatre dances as well as contredanses. The Baroque Dance Notation page provides background information on the various notation systems as well as an introduction to reading the most widely used system, Beauchamps-Feuillet notation. Links are provided to publications addressing Beauchamps-Feuillet notation in the Library of Congress online Dancing Manual Collection.

feuillet notation


•And, how do we interpret and perform the steps in these notations?

Rameau Lady

Read dancing manuals.

In addition to preserving their choreographies through dance notation, a number of dancing masters published dancing manuals in which they verbally described how to perform the steps, step timing, style and body carriage, arm movements, and ballroom etiquette. The Baroque Dance Notation page contains a brief discussion of the dancing manuals as well as links to manuals in the Library of Congress online Dancing Manual Collection.


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Content ©2007 Paige Whitley-Bauguess

updated 7/12/07