Kellom Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing. London, 1735.
My story starts with flute players. Or maybe it starts with sonatas. Or perhaps it starts with both, and more specifically, with the encounter between the performer, on the one hand, and the score, on the other. It is this encounter, after all, that makes music, as audiences know it, happen.
A majority of flute sonatas at mid century end with a Minuet or with a stylized movement that strongly resembles one. For the modern flutist, whose vanity would much prefer the whiz bang of a traditional final movement; that is, several minutes of flash and fire that shows off just how quickly one’s tongue and fingers can move, the minuet ending is anticlimactic, a letdown.
Furthermore it’s confusing. Why would a composer end a piece with something that, in the thoughts of many modern musicians, is so technically simple that it doesn’t even really need to be “practiced” at all? How to approach what feels like a “meek,” wilted – dare I say boring – ending?
Conversations in lessons with students usually went something like this:
“Do you know what a minuet is?”
“A dance in 3/4 time.”
“But what kind of a dance is it?”
“Uh… like a waltz, maybe”?
And with that my students found themselves on an imagined nineteenth-century dance floor filled with couples whirling around to music by Johann Strauss, Jr. Or, if they were “lucky,” their minds went to that painful relic of high school physical education classes, social dance, where awkward and unwilling teenagers were forced to learn such common – and popular! – dances as jive, foxtrot polka (another dance in ¾ time!). And waltz.
But the minuet is neither polka nor waltz. It emanates from a very different cultural sphere, it articulates different values and understandings
What is a minuet?
Who danced it?
What stories does it tell?
Why might it be important?
I talk through all of this with my students. I explain the complexities between dance steps and music. I outline the tensions between a musical movement of 3 beats and a dance movement of 6.
And they nod obediently.
And then I threaten them with dancing. Using bribery, I suggest that if things haven’t improved by next lesson, we will dance. This usually strikes fear in the heart of even the most intrepid student.
The title to this post is, in of course, facetious – my students never learned to love dancing – but it points to the fact that many of my students, in both music and gender studies – have resisted the embodiment of the very texts that they are studying. Minuets, for my flute students, were threats imposed upon them by their malevolent teacher. To dance – indeed, to even think of dancing – required them to move into a space of radical embodiment that lay well outside their comfort zones. It meant moving their bodies in new ways, exploring things that they were not necessarily comfortable imagining. The minuet was, quite simply, a threat: to their bodily comfort, to their bodily knowledges, and to the neat tidiness of a music history textbook definition.
Since the turn to ‘bodies’ in scholarly research, it would seem that bodies are everywhere. Textual bodies. Visual bodies. Conceptual bodies. Anatomical bodies. Methodological bodies. Curiously, however, most of the bodies that we study – either in our research or in our classrooms – are largely disembodied. They remain texts, ideas, abstractions. In addition to this, we rarely use the bodies we do have access to – our own bodies – a resources; as sites of knowledge production. So, too, it was for my students, who diligently learned the abstract principles of the minuet in order to avoid the necessity of dancing.
But as I think back on those years I wonder why we didn’t just dance right away. I wonder why dance became an intellectual exercise. Why did the minuet remain an imaginative – rather than embodied – experience? And I wonder, too, why that threat of embodied learning struck fear in my students, all of whom, as musicians, were already actively engaged in what would appear – at least at first glance – to be a profoundly embodied activity.
Because it seems to me that if the minuet remains nothing more than an abstract idea represented in text or in visual representations, then we’re missing the point. And we’re also missing a profound opportunity for understanding eighteenth-century culture and society – and the texts they produced – given that the minuet was the most popular social dance among the elite of the period.
According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of the Encyclopédie article on the minuet,”The minuet has become the most commonly used dance, due to the facility with which it is performed as well as the graceful figure that is practiced, by which one is indebted to Pécour, who gave to it all of the grace that it has today.” (Rousseau, “Minuet,” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Pamela Gay-White).
The Reverend Mr. Walter Young, writing in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1790 (by which time, I have to say, flash and fire had largely replaced the elegance of the minuet in sonata forms), concurs: “The minuet … ever has been, as is at this day accounted the most elegant and pleasing movement in music” (88).
One young woman, of the remarkable name Ethelinda Lindamira D., in a letter to the Lady’s Magazine just a few decades earlier, observed that:
I once heard an eminent dancing master say – ‘ that the minuet had been the study of his whole life, and that he had been indefatigable in the pursuit of its beauties, and at last, he could only say with Socrates, he knew nothing (659)
Her letter continues by extolling the sensuous virtues of the dance itself. Ethelinda Lindamira stresses the embodied experience not only of the dance, but also of watching it:
The ordinary, undulating motion of the body in common walking (as may be seen by the waving line, which the shadow of a man’s head makes against a wall, as he is walking between it and the afternoon sun) is augmented in dancing, into a larger quantity of waving by means of the minuet step, which is so contrived as to raise the body by gentle degrees, somewhat higher than ordinary and sink it again in the same manner, lower in the going on of the dance. The figure of the minuet path, on the floor, is also composed of serpentine lines, when the parties, by means of this step, rise and fall most smoothly in time, and free from the sudden starting, and dropping, they come nearest to Shakespeare’s idea of the beauty of dancing ….The other beauties belonging to this dance are the turns of the head and twist of the body, in passing each other, as also gentle bowing and presenting hands… (659)
Indeed, dancing treatises themselves assert the social relevance of the dance, pointing not only to its salutary health benefits, but also for its ability to reveal social graces.
Nothing, writes the anonymous author of an essay on dancing:
contributes more than motion to heighten and display the charms of beauty; and personal elegance, as it is of a fugitive nature, exists chiefly in motion; for being communicated by the principle of action that governs the person, it is found diffused through the whole body, and has no fixed residence. Hence two painters and poets always add motion as the last and highest embellishment to beauty. All the charms of an agreeable person are then in the highest exertion, every limb and feature appears in its respective grace. (522)
In this iteration, the minuet might be imagined as a species of gallantry, a socially acceptable space for the articulation of sensual delights and easy flirtations, but also a space ideally designed for the performance of normative gender and class roles.
Grace, charm, beauty, elegance, poetry – here we see embodied the very nature of elite femininity.
But such a performative embodiment is not just a textual embodiment. It’s not merely conceptual or abstract. It’s in every limb of the body. It’s in the way that the limbs and dress reflect the flickering lights of candles in mirrored spaces. It’s in the steps that are traced in patterns across the floor. It’s in the eyes of the observers, and in the pretty ankle movements of the female dancers. It’s in the muscular – and virile – male calves shaped by hours of dancing. It’s in the dancers’ eyes as they watch each other and follow each others’ bodies through the dance.
And it’s in bodies themselves, entities that are never touched and never touch, that are on public display for the critical eye. It’s in the spatial relationships between dancers, and it’s in the understandings of how the relationships between space and embodiment shape social relations, not only between the sexes, but also within the sphere of polite society itself.
Elite gender, class and sexuality – all are performed in the space and time of the minuet step.
Measured in three in the music, the most basic dance movement itself is considered in six, thus crossing the musical bar line. Where the music suggests emphases on beat 1, and less so, on beat 3, the pas de minuet à deux mouvements emphasizes beats 2 and 6 (there is also a pas de minuet à trois mouvements).
The dance itself is most commonly danced by two dancers at a time (although different pairs of dancers can sometimes be involved in the dance). These dancers inscribe a serpentine or Z pattern on the floor. The two dancers start at opposite ends of the Z pattern and, facing one another, mirror each other’s movements, with three pas de minuet along one line of the Z, two along the diagonal and three along the other line. While the two dancers face one another at all times, they do not touch; rather, they cross paths along the diagonal, following each other’s bodies with their eyes. The dance is a social affair, witnessed by many as the dancers trace their patterns across the floor.
In its spatial arrangement, the minuet serves to map geographies of social identities, inscribing social relations in movement. How is propriety measured in space? How do individuals come together? How are body movements themselves shaped by the ubiquity of dance to elite social functions? All of these questions can be answered here.
The counterpoint between musical gestures and dance steps – that tension between 3 and 6 as embodied in the rhythmic rise and fall of dancers’ bodies and musicians’ bows – reflects the sensual (and indeed, erotic) tensions that lie at the heart of gallantry, a seductive ambiguity that cannot easily be contained in the regular ¾ movement. What did the counterpoint of sexual awareness look like? How was it imagined? How was it performed? These questions cannot be answered unless we explore those sensual possibilities for ourselves.
It is this rhythmic complexity, too, that contributes to the elegance of the dance, an elegance that relies on the contained sensuality of social gender relations among the elite during this period.
Our anonymous dancing master argues that the minuet asks both dancers and observers to consider the foundational role of the body in the presentation and articulation of the social self through dance.
There is a reciprocal effect between the sentiments of the mind, and the actions of the body. Indelicate or awkward gestures or motions are very indicative of an illiberal and unpolished mind; while contracted or gross sentiments are as evidently marked by rustic and ungraceful actions. Dancing cannot bestow generous motions or refined sentiments, but it can teach us to regulate all our exterior actions by the laws of order and decency, (in consequence of the mutual relation between sentiment and action,) it will at least tend to improve and heighten a love for grace and beauty in our ideas and sentiments. (524)
We can, of course, glean a lot of knowledge from a purely textual or visual encounter. We can learn much from considering the body and embodiment at a conceptual level.
But what of space, time, and movement? What of lifts, falls, proportions, balance, gesture, architecture? What of plays of light on moving dresses? What of ankles and calves? How do we get at these various layers without actually exploring the body itself, without actually exploring its gestures and movements? Finally, how can we understand eighteenth-century embodiment – and how can we teach it – if we don’t take the time to think with our own bodies?
Anonymous, “Essay on Dancing,”The Lady’s Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the FAIR SEX, appropriated solely for their Use and Amusement ,” London: Robinson, 1774. October 1774, pp. 522-525.
D., Ethelinda Lindamira, “Remarks on the Minuet Bowing and Curtseying,” The Lady’s Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the FAIR SEX, appropriated solely for their Use and Amusement ,” London: Robinson, 1774. December 1774, p. 659.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Minuet.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Pamela Gay-White. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. Web. 28 October 2013. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.256>. Trans. of “Menuet,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 10. Paris, 1765.
Young, Rev. Mr. Walter. “An Essay on Rhythmical Measures,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 11. London: T. Cadell; Edinburgh: J. Dickson, 1790, 55-110.