Where there is music, there is dancing. The saying couldn’t be truer than in the Baroque period. 

Louis XIV dans Le Ballet de la nuit
Louis XIV dans Le Ballet de la nuit
In the microcosmos of the Royal Court of France, dancing had a symbolic and political (regulatory) function: its maze-like floor patterns required the perfect synchronisation of all the dancers, a metaphor of the harmony necessary to the mechanism of the perfect state. Such precision could only be achieved through constant training. A good dancer was necessarily a good subject who contributed to the smooth working of court and state. Dancing was compulsory in gentlemen’s education, and was accomplished to a very high level among these ‘amateurs’. The neat structure  of the choreographic patterns was a reflection of the hierarchical order in place at the Court, and involvement in intense training allowed control of subjects, a practical factor in deterring subversive plots against the crown.

But what do we understand by ‘Baroque dance’? The experts prefer the label ‘early dance’ since  the strict definition of baroque varies depending on geographical, temporal and formal contexts. Currently, what is understood with ‘early dance’ is the style practiced at the French court during Louis XIV’s reign (1661 – 1715). The style influenced the whole of Europe with French dancing masters flooding foreign courts. The King’s passion for dance was such – Louis XIV was himself a great dancer (see Corbiau’s film Le Roi Danse of 2002) – that one of his first actions after being crowned was the institution of the Académie Royale de la Danse (forerunner of the Paris Opera Ballet). Music was also high valued Louis XIV’s and great composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau strived under his patronage.

The Académie trained certified dancing masters and also had a unique notation system which was used to record the dances: the Feuillet-Beauchamp notation (Feuillet stole Beauchamp’s idea). Recording dances allowed collections to be gathered and the latest dance trend to be published. The notation archives, beautifully ornamented, show the patterns on the floor and the steps to be performed and it is through these winding signs that it has later been possible to reconstruct some of the dances.

But for Louis XIV, dance was no light matter; its staging a demonstration and symbol of political power. The lavish productions involved the whole of the court. There were also ‘professional’ productions, often hybrid of more than one art form, such as the comédies ballets, plays with danced intervals produced by Molière, Beauchamp and Lully and Rameau’s opéras-ballets, individual acts with a prologue. With the Early Music/Dance Revival some of these lavish performances have been revived – Lully’s tragédie-lyrique Atys (1987 and 2011) and Rameau’s Zaïs (2014) in London are great examples.

As for what it looks like, it is best to see some examples such as the Minuet

or Passacaille d’Armide's theatrical piece.

As an antecedent to ballet the torso is up right with stylised arms that rest on an imaginary skirt or in front of the person. The floor patterns are drawn with fast footwork and legwork, heels slightly off the floor, allowing the men to show off their beautifully muscled calves (the equivalent to today’s appreciation for a six pack). Different period, different tastes. Baroque dance classes, any one?