18th-century dance is a complex subject. Dance technique throughout the period changed frequently as new fashions and fads swept across the land. Usually described as “the latest,” “with the newest methods,” or “the most fashionable,” dancing was an expression of social values. Among the upper classes it functioned as the presentation and ritualization of their status through grace of body and display of fine clothing and jewels. Among the lower, it could become competitive, enhancing ones reputation in the community. Personal ability, sophistication of taste, and availability of new material as well as social standing, region, and environment all affected dance interpretation and performance.
The dances most frequently performed in 18th-century America were the country dance, the cotillion, the minuet and the reel. The jig, gavotte, and allemande were show-off solo or duo dances that were tailored to specific dancers.
[London, April 15, 1751] I have learned to dance almost six Months, & as I have a great Inclination to be a good Dancer, am resolved to continue learning a few Months longer, I am to go pretty often this Summer to an assembly at Chelsea, in Order to compleat myself in that genteel Science. I have been three or four times this Winter, at an Assembly at Mileud: the first time I danced a Minuet in public, my Knees trembled in such a Manner, that I thought, I should not have been able to have gone through with it, however by taking all Opportunities of dancing in Public, I have got over that foolish Bashfulness. Mabel Webber, “Peter Manigault’s Letters” [to his mother in Charleston, SC] The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 31/3 (July, 1930), 277
There were many variations of the minuet step, dozens of versions of setting or show-off steps, and several ways to “cast off one couple.” Dancers would dance differently depending on where they were, who they were, who was watching and also probably how much liquor they had consumed. In a tavern, dancing would be unconventional and free; in a ballroom, refinement and grace would be the rule.
The minuet is danced by one couple alone on the floor while the rest of the company looks on. It has a fixed sequence of figures: lead-in, right-hand turn, left-hand turn, and two-hand turn closing. These are punctuated by a Z figure. While the sequence of figures is fixed, dancers can vary the spacing and number of hand turns by interrupting them with Z figures. The number of minuet steps* used in the each figure depends on the length of the tune and the size of the dancing space.
THE FIGURES OF THE MINUET
After the honors** to audience, then partner, dancers are facing each other in the center of the floor.
Lead-in Figure: Dance curving sideways to meet at back of space, then forward to middle, holding inside hands. Man wheels partner around 3/4, then both dance sideways to corner of space.
Z Figure: Dance sideways to other corner, then cross diagonally through middle of space, changing corners, then sideways to each other’s previous corner.
Right-Hand Turn: From corner, dance sideways to other corner, then diagonally to meet, taking right hands. Turn by right hand, then dance sideways back to corner.
Z Figure: (once or twice)
Left-Hand Turn: As right-hand turn, but with left.
Z Figure: (once or twice)
Two-Hand Turn and Ending: From corner, dance sideways to other corner, then forward to meet. Take two hands and turn. Keeping hands, dance sideways to back of space, opening out to face audience at end.
Honor audience, then partner.
* Minuets are in 3/4 time. The basic minuet step-combination consists of four steps in six beats (two measures) of music. Begin with a plié on left foot flat on up-beat and rise to ball of right foot on beat 1, straightening both legs, heels close together. Plié on right foot flat on beat two, and rise to ball of left foot on beat 3, straightening both legs, heels close together. Keeping legs straight, walk forward on ball of right, then left foot on beats 4 and 5 (or 1 and 2 of second measure of music). On beat six, sink into plié on left foot flat. Start again on beat one, rising to ball of right foot.
** Minuets begin and end with a special sequence of honors. Detailed instructions can be found in Charles Cyril Hendrickson’s Minuets for Dancing. Image of dancers approaching for left-hand turn is from Kellom Tomlinson's The Art of Dancing (London: 1735), plate x.
Created and published September 18, 2001; updated September 18, 2015.
© 2001. Colonial Music Institute(tm)
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