The Social Etiquette and Politics of Dance

Dance during the last half of the 17th century reached an unprecedented role of importance both socially and politically. The French court under Louis XIV became the paradigm of elegance and civil behavior, emulated by the other courts of Europe. Dancing masters, who were employed throughout Europe, not only taught dance technique but the rules of social etiquette. Through these stringent social standards, King Louis XIV used dance as a political tool to ensure his absolute authority.

Courtiers began training in dance, deportment, and social etiquette from early childhood (Hilton 3). Children often started formal life as early as the age of ten, and were expected to behave as adults. In his dance instruction manual The Dancing Master, Pierre Rameau states that "...good breeding demands that pleasing and easy manner which can only be gained by dancing" (2). Dance was considered to embody ideal Greek attributes such as wit, serenity, breadth of vision, love of harmony and order, personal courage, irony, fun, and a distaste of passionate excesses. The French nobility, aristocracy, and gentry were supposed to strive to be models of self-perfection. They looked to the mythological Greek gods and goddesses as examples (Hilton 3).

The technique of etiquette, as taught by the dancing masters of the age, was ideally simple. The modern day belief that there were many flourishes of hats or handkerchiefs is quite erroneous. In truth, only affected fops or conceited individuals would use such exaggeration. The truly "well-bred" person of fashion remained poised at all times, yet had to appear completely natural (Hilton 269). This basic concept is also a fundamental precept of modern ballet.

Much of the 17th century dance technique was the origin of modern steps in classical ballet. At all times, ladies and gentlemen were to be conscious of their physical stance and bearing. Rameau instructed that "a lady, however graceful her deportment, will be judged... For example, if she hold her head erect and her body upright, without affectation or boldness, it will be said: 'There goes a fine lady'" (31). Acceptable postures for standing, in the case of gentlemen, were named the third and fourth positions, analogous to those used in modern technique (Hilton 273). The plié, particularly as used in the first position, emanated from a ladies' bow. Standing with feet well turned out, a lady was meant to keep her body and head upright as she bended the knees while lowering her gaze. If she was bowing to an individual of high social status, her bow must be made lower, requiring excellent balance. The step commonly known today as chassé originated from the passing curtsy of a lady into the fourth position (Hilton 276-271).

Such obeisances, according to Rameau, showed respect and good breeding in an individual, not servility (25). In aristocratic and courtly life, obeisances were made for a large number of reasons. One was required to bow when entering or leaving a room, in greeting or in passing of an individual, when presenting a gift or handing an item to someone, and at the end of a conversation. The simple movement of the bow revealed a person's social background and upbringing. Obeisances were performed so often in company that standing seemed to be an interruption (Hilton 270-271). Wildebloode and Brinson describe the importance of bowing by saying ". . . every action of the well-bred gentleman now expressed something of that refined reserve which for generations to come was to be the hallmark of polite society" (Hilton 269).

These strict rules were especially important during balls at the French court. During the reign of Louis XIV, balls were held every week. During wars in foreign countries, the expense of which drained the finances, more balls were held to maintain the appearance of grandeur and power. In 1708, it is recorded that ten balls were given within a six week period (Hilton 18). In order to perform well at these balls, courtiers needed not only grace and elegance, but a keen intellect. Each year, the courtiers were expected to learn between two and four new dances, as well as to retain the old dances they had previously learned. At any given time, a courtier had to have approximately twelve dances at the ready, both in mind and body. Each dance was two or three minutes in length without repeating step patterns. In order that the footwork would harmoniously express the notes of the musical composition, patterns and steps within dances were seldom repetitive (Hilton 11-12). During the reign of Louis XIV, social dance reached its height of complexity, for this was probably the most sophisticated dance technique required of non-professionals.

Appropriate procedures for balls clearly reflected the social ranking of the court. A ball would begin whenever the king so decided, and he signaled this by rising. The court, in response, would also rise and obeisances would be made. Then the danses à deux would begin, in which one couple performed alone before the court. The order of the dancers was chosen by social rank, the highest dancing first. This was always the king and queen, thenfollowed by the blood relatives of the crown, and so on down the line of precedence. These danses à deux clearly allowed everyone in the court to judge the quality of the dancers performing, and of the choreographic patterns (Hilton 11). Performing these dances well was a distinguishing mark and a requirement for civilized life (Rameau 4).

One of the most popular dances from this period was the menuet. Performed for nearly two centuries, the menuet was considered to be "a perfect expression of the artifice surrounding luxurious palace life." The Menuet was probably derived from a folk dance of Western France known as The Branle de Poitou, and was introduced in court by Lully in 1653. Though the movement of the dance has great potential for energy and vivacity, it was performed with control and precision, in keeping with good manners. Full of ceremonies, customs, and mincing steps, the dance became more slow and stately as time wore on, giving the menuet a hypnotic quality (Lee 73). It is unique from many of the other partner dances, for the performers directly face each other throughout most of the dance. Usually, court dances were done for the aesthetic pleasure of the viewers. Because of this direct facing, the focus between the dancers had the potential to be very intense, but facial expression was to remain modest and clear (Hilton 292).

Though social dance had been an integral part of court life for centuries, never before had it held so predominant a role as during the reign of King Louis XIV. In 1639, Louis's birth was celebrated by the Ballet de la Félicité (Au 18). Ascending the throne by the age of five, his mother Anne of Austria ruled as regent, under the guidance of Jules Mazarin. With a child king and foreign ministers ruling the country, many nobles began to stir up civil unrest with seditious activity. Several nobles who had distant claims to the throne saw this as an opportune moment to try to claim the crown for themselves. These uprising, occurring between 1640 and 1653, were known as the Fronde (Franko 109). With threats to both his throne and his life, Louis had to escape from Paris several times as a child. (Nicolson 20). Because of these rebellions, citizens began to lose faith in the court government of France. Mazarin, wishing to re-establish the courts power, used Louis and his talent for dancing to create an aura of divinity around the personage of the king (Hilton 5). When Louis gained absolute power in 1653, he was determined to keep control of the nobility who had so treacherously rebelled against him. He never forgot the fear of danger caused by the rebellions, and he knew that several of the perfidious men still remained in positions of power. Mistrusting everyone in his own government, he augmented the army to 400,000 soldiers, and moved the entire court to his opulent palace at Versailles (Lee 66). To keep strict reign over the nobles, he initiated strict protocol of behavior through etiquette. Courtiers were kept busy with trifling matters, and lived around the king's schedule so as to divert their attention. The king saw the ideological and political potential of dance. The ornate court ballets gave prestige to France. And, by making dance one of the most important social functions at court, Louis was able to control the nobles by controlling the dance, thus keeping the country stable. Having centralized control of dance, the king robbed the nobles of a vehicle for petty competition amongst themselves. In doing so, he was able to maintain unity and control. "This community of pleasures," Louis wrote, "that produces a courteous familiarity between our courtiers and ourselves strikes them and charms them beyond words" (Franko 109). To establish his belief in the divine right of kings, Louis presented himself as a deity.

In 1653, Louis performed as Apollo the Sun god in Le Ballet de la Nuit. In this allegorical dance, Louis was the rising sun, dispelling the darkness and being praised by virtues. Similar to the Egyptian pharaohs, Louis equated himself with the sun, the source of light and energy to the universe (Lee 68). He called his throne room at Versailles the "Salon of Apollo" (Blitzer 74). He was compared to the classical heroes, and rendered as a great and majestic man by artists. Louis became known as "Le Roi Soleil" or the Sun King, and he held absolute power over the country, remarking "L'etat c'est moi," or, "I am the state" (Lee 67).

The king took daily dancing lessons, and surrounded himself with the most talented artists to create his court ballets. These ballets de cour were meant to encourage a sense of unity amid the nobles, and almost always had an allegorical theme of unity and harmony, combined with praise of the monarch (Au 23). Casting in the court ballets, unlike the social ballroom setting, was determined by talent, not social status. Therefore, in order for a nobleman to maintain his dignity, he had to excel at dance (Hilton 4). Because roles were awarded on technical merit, lower ranking nobles or members of entirely different classes were able to dance beside the king. Professional dancers were often used in court ballets if a role was felt to be below a nobleman's dignity, or if it required a higher level of proficiency. During this time, some of the first professional women danced in the court ballets. In 1661, Mademoiselle Vertpré danced opposite the king himself in the Ballet de l'Impatience, and many other women are on record as having performed (Au 23). At this time, court women took part in the ballets, unless professional male dancers were used, for then it was considered unsuitable for high-born ladies to appear with them (Clarke and Crisp 22).

Louis de Rouvroy, second Duc de Saint Simon was an avid diarist and courtier at this time. In his Mémoires, he detailed the etiquette, behavior, rules of precedence, and every day life of courtiers under Louis XIV. In one of his entries, the important use of dance for maintaining social standing is clear:

A son of Montbron...had been asked if he danced well; and he had replied with a confidence which made every one hope that the contrary was the case. Every one was satisfied. From the first bow, he became confused, and he lost step at once. He tried to divert attention from his mistake by affected attitudes, and carrying his arms high; but this made him only more ridiculous, and excited bursts of laughter, which, in despite of the respect due to the personage of the King (who likewise had great difficulty to hinder himself from laughing), degenerated at length into regular hooting. On the morrow, instead of flying from the Court or holding his tongue, he excused himself by saying that the presence of the King had disconcerted him, and promised marvels for the ball which was to follow... As soon as he began to dance at the second ball, those who were near stood up, those who were far off climbed wherever they could to get a sight; and the shouts of laughter were mingled with clapping of hands . . . Montbron disappeared immediately afterwards, and did not show himself again for a long time. (Hilton 15-16)

In 1661, Louis wrote the Letters Patent for L'Académie Royale de Dance. Saying that few of the nobles were worthy to dance in his court ballets, the king blamed the nobility for laxness and irresponsibility in dance technique. He saw dance as a central point of culture in France. The Letters Patent actually called for a political reform, though this meaning was masked and only alluded to (Franko 100). He established the Royal Academy of Dance to "re-establish the art in its perfection" (Clarke and Crisp 18). Though the main concern of the academy was social and courtly dances, the king kept artists organized and under his official authority and service. No new choreographic works were permitted to be performed without first auditioning before the academy and having a majority vote. Dancers in Paris were required to register their names and addresses with the academy (Franko 110). This gave the king completely control over dance both in the court and in the city. Soon after in 1670, Louis retired from dancing, and, as protocol demanded, the courtiers retired with him (Lee 71). The people of the court subjected themselves to the whims, ambitions and egoism of one man, who was described to have "that terrifying Majesty so natural to the King" (Hilton 3). With the king's retirement, ballet became a field for professionals, yet many of the dances choreographed for stage were often adapted to the ballroom (Hilton 9). Because ballet development shifted from the courts to the theater, it did not become extinct during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.

The life and fashion of the French court was extremely popular. Society, which imitated the court ideals, held rules which were almost draconian. Every movement made had to be well-considered and exact. Elegance through simplicity was a main goal of dance technique. "Dancing adds graces to the gifts which nature has bestowed upon us, by regulating the movements of the body and setting it in its proper positions" (Rameau xii). By using dance as a vehicle for ensuring political power, Louis XIV helped establish ballet as a singular art form. The modes of fashion, etiquette, and dance which were set up in the French court for the king's own political reasons dominated the culture of Europe for nearly two centuries.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesography. Trans: Mary Stewart. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.

Rameau, Pierre. The Dancing Master. Trans: Cyril W. Beaumont. New York: Dance Horizons Republications,1970.

Secondary Sources

Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Blitzer, Charles. Age of Kings. New York: Time Incorporated, 1967.

Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Ballet: An Illustrated History. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.

Franko, Mary. Dance as Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Guest, Ivor. The Ballet of the Englightenment. London: Dance Books, 1996.

Guthrie, John. Historical Dances for the Theatre. London: Dance Books, 1982.

Hilton, Wendy. Dance and Music of Court and Theater. New York: Pendragon Press, 1981.

Lee, Carol. Ballet in Western Culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

Migel, Parmenia. The Ballerinas. New York: Macmillan Co., 1972.

Nicolson, Harold. The Age of Reason. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1961.

Schwartz, Judith L., and Christena L. Schlundt. French Court Dance and Dance Music. New York: Pendragon Press, 1987.

Winter, Marian Hannah. The Pre-Romantic Ballet. New York: Pitman Publishing, 1974.

Wood, Melusine. Historical Dances. London: Dance Books, 1952.