Guidelines for Dance Research and Reconstruction
Richard Powers



Interest in reconstructing historical dances has been growing for over a century, but lately we have seen a significant change in sophistication among historical dance enthusiasts.  The appeal of bygone eras is as strong as ever, but the quaint charm of the "old timey" approximations of traditional dance is being replaced by a growing interest in historical authenticity.  Perhaps this is influenced by the greater accuracy of period films, museum displays, YouTube videos of historical dance and general historic detailing that has blossomed recently.  Whatever the reason, historical dancers today have a greater desire to know original steps, styles, figures and music.  Dancers describe a greater satisfaction in authenticity... a feeling of substance.

This trend is appearing in most branches of historical dance, urging dancers to come up with increasingly authentic reconstructions.  And many are responding with their own explorations into uncharted areas, doing their own research, no longer relying solely on previous recreational dance traditions.  Others would like to do their own work, but don't know where to begin.  It is for this purpose that I have sketched these guidelines for dance research and reconstruction.


The Guidelines


1Do your own research, using primary sources.

Primary sources are firsthand records from the time of an event or era, recorded by those who witnessed or participated in an event.  Primary sources for historic dance include dance manuals, diaries, newspaper accounts, music notations, illustrations, film documents (only for the past century) and sources that you'll find below.   Secondary sources pass on secondhand information and hearsay, perhaps conscientiously, but without certain knowledge.  Secondary sources include the many histories of dance found on the Web, history books, most academic theses, restaged films and teleplays, and the teachings of dance instructors who did not experience their material firsthand.  Some scholars divide this second category into secondary and tertiary sources, but the advice to use primary sources when doing your research remains the same.

Secondary sources are often wrong.  Sometimes the authors have unconscious biases, or perhaps they have a theme to promote.  Dance leaders might be afraid that their favorite dances might not be popular without certain modifications.  There are some esteemed secondary sources that deal intelligently with primary source materials, but most dance histories quote other dance histories, which have quoted previous dance histories.  Errors mount exponentially in the process, especially on the Web.  Not only are the fallacies passed on, but the unfortunate student who reads the same "fact" in several sources will become convinced that it is true.

There are also in-between grey areas that scholars enjoy debating:  Are interviews based on distant memories primary or secondary sources?  How trustworthy are dance descriptions in novels written at the time?  If a primary source in German is translated into English, is it still primary?  Either way, use your common sense awareness of the inherent shortcomings of some sources.

Primary sources are increasingly available and fascinating to study.  Reading an account written at the very moment of an event offers an immediacy not found in history books.  Authors and teachers who work from primary sources speak with a freshness and vividness that can only come from a direct tap to the wellspring.


      Some Primary Sources

  • Dance manuals.  This vade mecum tradition goes back to the hand-written dance descriptions of the fifteenth century.  The earliest dance manuals were intended to be used by professional dancing masters, then the 19th century American Lyceum movement helped launch the widespread publication of how-to dance manuals, where home study could hopefully transform readers into graceful and accomplished dancers.  You can find a listing of my collection of dance manuals here.

  • Professional and enthusiast dance magazines like Dancing Times, The Director, The Two-Step, The Galop Magazine, Dance Lovers Magazine, La Danse, The American Dancer and The Dance.  These often chronicle month-by-month and regional developments more precisely than books.

  • Etiquette books, which offer a different perspective, often more cautious concerning dancing.

  • Anti-dance treatises, which sometime describe the more illicit dances which are hard to find in dance manuals.  You can find a listing of my collection here.

  • Diaries, letters, journals and autobiographies, for personal insights and unique details.

  • Novels and other literature contemporary to the era, for period ambiance and personal interactions in a dance setting.

  • Newspapers, for the latest breaking dances and regional variations.

  • Iconography: illustrations from the era including paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, sculptures, tapestries and photographs.  See further suggestions for using illustrations in section 9 below.

  • Ball programmes (carnets de bals, dance cards).  These small cards listed exactly what dances were done at a ball; and when and where the ball was.  Collections of these dance cards may indicate dance trends, regional variations, partnering patterns, favorite orchestras, and other details.  Observing which dances were signed up for and which were left blank (sat out) will also reveal which dances were truly popular.

  • Music notations.  In addition to being an essential component of dance, sheet music occasionally contains dance instructions printed inside the cover.

  • Phonograph records from the era solve tempo problems and questions about performance practices, offer an aural glimpse of the character of a dance, and sometimes give vocal dance descriptions.

  • Original motion picture documents, the ultimate imagery for a dance scholar, if they can be found.  It's too bad films and phonographs weren't invented centuries earlier.

  • Interviews, which are especially important for dances of the past half-century.  Conduct your own interviews with people who were there, and don't put this off until next year.  Aging dancers might not still be around.
       Suggestion: If you find that your questions are not eliciting a response, play original recordings of the music or demonstrate some steps to jog the memory.  Follow up for details... you can't ask a book further questions.

  • Advertisements and broadsides, sometimes the only surviving record of a dance event.

  • Surviving archives from dance academies and dance masters, sometimes still intact as a collection.  These can include correspondence between dance masters, fee schedules, and travel routes of itinerant preceptors.

  • Critics' reviews and social column gossip, for opinions from the period on stage and social dance.

  • Original clothing, regalia, and costumes, in museums and private collections.  Clothing influenced dance as much as dance changed fashions.

  • Architecture.  A visit to ballrooms or dance academies still standing will show how a space may have affected the dances that were known to have taken place there.

  • Receipts and other financial information may indicate the social prestige of an event, or possibly list inventories of musical instruments, dance props (as for the German cotillion games) and costumes.

  • City directories list dates and locations of dance academies, cabarets and dance halls, although sometimes only paid announcements were listed.

  • Many of these sources are available online.  Google key words and word combinations.


          Where To Find Primary Sources

  • The Library of Congress has made over two hundred entire dance manuals available on the Web, on their very useful site entitled An American Ballroom Companion.

  • Google Books.  Over 20 million books have been scanned by this ongoing project, and many early books not currently protected by copyright can be downloaded as pdfs.  It helps if you know a book's title and author, but you can browse by category and by century.  Project Gutenberg has digitized another 42,000 books.

  • Public libraries.  Check them all, not just the largest libraries.  Often dance troupes, academies and private collectors bequeath their collections to a small library.  An increasing drawback of larger libraries is that they are changing over to computerized indexes and closed stacks.  Some of the best sources are those found on the shelf next to the book you were looking for, while digitized data requires prior knowledge of your sources.  Don't overlook the newspaper stacks, clipping files, phonograph records, and rare book room.  Microfilms of rare sources can sometimes be ordered, even from overseas.

    The best libraries for dance research in the U.S. are The Dance Collection at The New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, and the Library of Congress.  In France, try the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Bibliothèque-Musee de l'Opera in Paris.  There are many other collections of historical dance resources throughout the world.

  • Institutional, university and corporate libraries.  These may require membership or special permission to peruse, but don' t be easily daunted.

  • Rare book dealers.  If they don't have what you're looking for, they can sometimes search for you through advertisements in their trade magazines.

  • YouTube is becoming an increasingly valuable repository for historic films, as primary records of 20th century dances.

  • eBay and other online auctions.  You can save the scanned images of illustrations and ball cards without actually purchasing the items.

  • Google and other online searches can locate primary sources (among the abundance of secondary sources).

  • Antique shops, conventions and flea markets.  They are time-consuming to search, but enjoyable and eventually rewarding.

  • Private collectors and researchers.  Most dance scholars collect primary sources, but be aware that you should not ask them to copy their books for you, as this is extremely time consuming for them and damaging to their rare books.  The best you can usually hope for is a one-for-one exchange for a source that they don't have.


          Concerning Secondary Sources

    Despite their shortcomings, secondary sources can be helpful if used with caution.  They can give others' perspectives and insights, and they can direct you to primary sources through their bibliographies.  It is sometimes not possible to use primary sources on every project.  If this happens, the second best approach is to find out who is doing esteemed research in the field and follow their work, or hire them to present a workshop.


    The other guidelines


    2)  Search out multiple concordances for each dance, step, and figure before presenting them as a reconstruction.  A single source usually contains too many unknowns, with the author assuming that the reader will understand a great number of unstated conventions.  (Perhaps their readers did at the time.)  There are so many pitfalls — non-uniform terminology, mistranslations, pirated material, typographical errors, and so on — that dance scholars consider it essential to compare several descriptions from the same era before arriving at a conclusion.


    3Read the entire book or source before reconstructing a dance contained in it.  Dance descriptions are often incomplete in some important details, which may be found elsewhere in the book.  Also read other books by the same author to see what changed and what remained the same over the years.


    4)  Read the source in its original language if you can.  Translations are full of errors.  If you must use a translation, at least find one from the period, which is more likely to understand now-obsolete terms and colloquialisms.  And never overlook a source simply because it isn't in English.  For example, detailed descriptions of the American ragtime "animal dances" were very rare in American sources because of their impropriety.  But I discovered some Italian, French and German dance manuals from the period that included illustrated descriptions of the Grizzly Bear and "ll Turkey Trot," which were all quite proper in their eyes because they had been imported from America.


    5Re-read your sources a few years later.  It's amazing how many critical details escape a first reading.


    6)  Investigate the authors.  Were they dance masters, biased or impartial observers, compilers or editors?  Did they do the dances themselves?  Were they young and idealistic, or weary and bitter?  Were they writing their own material?  Did they even exist?  While dance manual plagiarism was common, it was usually limited to the borrowing of a few paragraphs or chapters from previous books.  Occasionally it was more extensive, as in DeWalden's Ball-Room Companion.  Everything except the title page of Emile DeWalden's book was a verbatim copy of Cellarius' famous manual, including the typographical errors.  One line that Emile should have changed in his piracy was in the description of the "Cellarius Waltze-Mazurka,' where DeWalden (ostensibly) writes, "My pupils would have this waltze called after me, and have named it the Cellarius."

    If you cannot locate biographical information on the author, at least go back and read the entire book for the author's tone.  This can greatly affect your interpretation of a dance description.  If the source was simply compiled by a publisher, not a dance master, be cautious about the common practice of reprinting obsolete dances, which often sold well to an unsuspecting public.  Dick's Quadrille Call Book (1878) was still being promoted as "embracing all the modern favorites" in its 1923 reprinting.


    7)  Be aware of what was ideal in the eyes of the author (what he wished would be done) and what was actually done by the public.  You will often find a dance master describing his own terpsichorean inventions as "the most popular dance of the season," but you won't find his dance mentioned anywhere else.  Another bias you will find is lavish praise of high-society dances, and elaborate descriptions of complex steps that can only be learned in the author's own dance academy, but no mention of the simpler steps actually danced by most people.  This bias has existed since the fifteenth century.  Always dig deeper for vernacular dances and styles.


    8)  Don't confuse similar terminology and traditions from different eras and locales.  One name does always not mean one dance.  Terms and styles varied widely from one locale to another and from one year to the next.  It's careless to incorporate 1885 German steps into an 1845 Polish figure just because they're both called "mazurka."  The term "Viennese Waltz" meant one thing in 1830 Germany, something different in 1860 France, and different again in 20th century British ballroom dance.

    Although it might be possible for earlier steps to survive into a later era, never insert later steps into an earlier dance.  Evolution doesn't work that way.

    Definitions and word usage change over the years.  Try to find a dictionary from your era of study, to double-check the original meaning of any word that strikes you as out of place.  One author wrote the amusing footnote that the title of Charles Durang's Fashionable Dancer's Casket referred to "the coffin-like shape of the book" (even though it had a normal shape).  If he had checked an 1850 dictionary, he would have found that the definition of "casket" at that time was a small jewel box. Durang's previous book was entitled Ball-Room Bijou (jewels) so he was just continuing his theme.  The coffin association of casket wasn't made until decades later.


    9)  Incorporate iconographic evidence.  Search out illustrations of all kinds, for they will often contain a wealth of information that you'll never find in print.  Look through collections of paintings, prints and posters, period novels and social satires, newspapers and magazines, sheet music covers, clipping files, on the internet, postcard collections, scrapbooks and Google Images.  I recommend scanning illustrations into computer files or photocopying them, for constant reference.  There will always be details missed in the first viewing that will jump out with great significance two years later.  Collecting illustrations this way will also allow quick side-by-side comparisons of a dance or an era.

    There are some cautions, however, in using illustrations as source material.  Be aware of the illustrator's conventions and artist's license.  The artist's intent was not necessarily to preserve the details of the moment for future historians.  Artists exaggerated.  They satirized.  And very often they idealized.  Artists underwent years of training in the classic ideals of beauty, symmetry, form, and proportion, and they often portrayed these ideals regardless of their actual subject matter.

    In earlier centuries, woodcuts and engravings were expensive to commission but cheap to copy.  As a result, many dance manual illustrations were lifted from previous sources, sometimes out-of-date by decades.  Publishers didn't seem to mind if an old waltz woodcut was used to illustrate the latest Varsovienne.  Even today, you can't always believe the captions of collected illustrations, especially in dance history books and on the Internet.


    10)  Give a high priority to the research of dance music.  Music is one of the primary reasons for dancing, and one of its greatest joys.  Particular tunes and rhythms often led to the creation of new dances.  Conversely, music was frequently composed for a particular dance, and in some cases the composer was also the choreographer.  Each dance belonged to its own music, and the pairing should be preserved in a reconstruction.  It is tempting to substitute music that is easier to locate.  This isn't the place to take short-cuts.

    Look for references to the original tunes.  If they aren't provided or named in the dance sources, then check collections of dance music.  If you're studying nineteenth century dance, ball programs occasionally listed the compositions and composers for each dance of the evening.  If you cannot find references for original music, then seek out appropriate dance tunes from the same era and region.  Research original instrumentations and orchestrations.  Further pursuit can enter areas of original instrument design and period performance techniques.  Surviving information in each of these areas dates back to the Renaissance.  If you feel this is too far from your expertise, then you may wish to collaborate with a musicologist.

    Original tempos are especially important in dance music.  Scholars often slow down their reconstructions far below the original tempos.  Social dances were done primarily by young people as an aspect of courtship.  In past centuries, the unmarried dancers were usually teenagers, often dancing at brisk tempos befitting their youth.  Scholars sometimes approach these dances with such reverence that they inadvertantly slow down the youthful tempos.  Or conversely a 70-year-old scholar may reconstruct a youthful energetic dance at a tempo comfortable for a 70-year-old.

    Or conversely, modern tastes sometimes accelerate the tempos of genteel dances.  Cast your preconceptions aside and look for empirical evidence of tempos, preferably metronome markings.

    For example, some scholars of nineteenth century social dance slowed down their polka reconstructions to a dirge (about 80 beats per minute) because the Parisian dance master Cellarius stated (in a translated edition of his 1847 book) that the polka was to be danced "rather slow."  But "slow" is a relative term.  Slow compared to what?  Twentieth century scholars were simply making their polkas slower than the twentieth century polka, which couldn't possibly be what Cellarius meant.  In the original French edition of that book, Cellarius' comment ("un peu lent") was accompanied by a metronome marking that had been deleted from the translation: 104 beats per minute, which is somewhat brisk.  The slowness that Cellarius was referring to was probably relative to the dance most similar to the polka at that time: the rapid Galopade.


    11)  Thoroughly research the entire context of a dance, beyond the steps, figures and music.  This includes the fashions, makeup, social deportment, courtship customs, ballroom etiquette, the age and social standing of participants, period aesthetics as they influenced body carriage, posture and gestures, the economic and political climate of the time, gender markers and biases, racial interactions, the influence of concurrent dance traditions, evolutionary patterns in dance and music, and the many other details that surrounded dance.

    One of the reasons for this peripheral research is to approach the consciousness of the era.  We tend to interpret early dance descriptions with current semantics, just as we tend to perform ancient dance reconstructions with modern body language.  Some Renaissance dance scholars with ballet training have on occasion interpreted the descriptions "graceful" and "courtly" with balletic mannerisms, for dances that predated turnout and pointed toes by centuries.


    12Share your findings.  This is an ideal that is sometimes complicated by career development in academia, where scholars feel they must keep their resources and findings to themselves until they publish (or otherwise gain recognition for their work).  It's an understandable dilemma.  But if you are free from these conflicts, and if your goal is to further the world's understanding and appreciation of historical dance, then you will probably share your discoveries enthusiastically.  It costs you little (once you pass it on, you haven't lost it), and your sharing usually results in a reciprocation by fellow researchers.  Other scholars can be seen as colleagues, assistants and resources, not competitors.


    13Challenge others' conclusions, in a respectful and mature way.  In most cases, a challenge will not be received as an affront, but rather as a helpful suggestion to recheck one's sources or underlying assumptions.  Most of us look forward to these questions, as they result either in a correction of our errors or a clarification of what we already knew.  We appreciate the feedback.

    Importantly, this means offering the challenge privately, ideally face-to-face, though e-mail works as well.  Never criticize another scholar's work publicly, behind their back.  That is universally regarded as unprofessional, usually the mark of an amateur's overreaching ambition to pose as superior, more informed or smarter than an established scholar.

    If a scholar needs to discuss an example of another's work that they think is wrong, they never mention the person's name.  Some beginners, on the other hand, will either give the name of the person they want to be seen as superior to, or drop a hint so a listener can figure it out, which is the same thing.  It's just petty one-upmanship.


    14)  Stay flexible.  In reconstructing a dance or formulating a theory, avoid becoming attached to the first conclusion that occurs to you.  Take your time, consider all possible alternatives, and continue to keep an open mind afterward.  New information may reverse your current beliefs.  If you change your mind, there may be critics who say, "But last year you taught it differently."  Don't let their limitations become your own.

    One way to stay flexible is to expand your dance training.  Learn modern dance, ballet, salsa, Baroque, hip hop, tap or any form that will add variety to your present experience.  We tend to interpret a written dance description in ways that we are accustomed to moving; the more ways we learn to move, the more possibilities will occur to us in reconstruction.  This guideline was first suggested to me by my original mentor and great inspiration, Dr. Ingrid Brainard of Boston.


    15)  Beware of the tendency to generalize.  Our predisposition to perceive patterns and order keeps us from being overwhelmed with contradictory information.  Our tendency to oversimplify keeps us sane.  We often don't even perceive information that doesn't fit our preconceptions, just as we derive gratification from inputs that support our beliefs.

    But this aid to sanity can be an enemy of dance research.  History wasn't organized for history books.  The interaction of social, political, gender, economic, aesthetic and personal variables, plus random chance, combine to form an exceedingly complex matrix where variations and exceptions seem to outweigh continuity and consistency.  Dance history is even more problematic because the actual evidence of past dances is so elusive.  Dances existed for an intangible moment and then were gone without a trace, unless someone recorded their subjective impressions.  Before films and video, even the best of records were only fragmentary.

    The resulting problems begin to multiply and scholars can find the complexities and information gaps difficult to deal with, while their audience demands comprehensive simplicity.  The better scholars learn to accept contradictions and alternatives.  They proceed their findings with "It may be concluded that..." or "It is open to speculation whether..." Beginners often overstate, saying, "This is the only correct way to do this step," or, "It was never done that way."  With historical dance, the more we learn, the more we discover how little we know with certainty.

    Unfortunately most of your students won't want to hear this, and will support the lesser historian who makes the simplest statements and most sweeping generalities.  Just the opposite should be true.  The human tendency to favor easy generalizations is worth resisting.  Fight for the more complex truth.


    16Organize your findings.  Before you know it, you will accumulate more information than your memory can retain.  Some researchers scan and digitize their data, some still organize with paper notes and photocopies in file folders, while others simply dump everything into a box marked "research" (not recommended).

    A method that works well for me is creating file folders (either digital or paper) on subjects within my field.  Some subjects are general, such as "The Gentleman's Bow," "The Language of Flowers" or "The Nineteenth Century Tango".  Others are more detailed: "References to the Tilting of the Head in Waltzing", "Suggested Topics for Conversation in Quadrilles," "References to Women Prompting Dances in the Nineteenth Century."  I read through each primary source with some 150 categories in mind, scan or photocopy each applicable reference, along with the source title, author and date, and drop the excerpt into the appropriate file.  After cataloging hundreds of dance manuals this way, I have folders filled with references on a single subject, in chronological order, easy to find when needed.




    Disclaimer:

    I would like to conclude by giving humble assurance that my rules, guidelines and a few examples of others' errors do not imply any superiority to other scholars.  We're all still learning.  Over the past three decades I have learned much through trial and error, and from fellow dance historians.  My wish is simply to make this process easier for the reader by passing on some of what I have learned.

    Although many of my examples are centered on historic social dance, the guidelines are applicable to dance research in any area.

    These guidelines may seem overwhelming to someone just starting to dig.  Don't worry about it.  Choose a dance and just a few resources.  Don't fret about making mistakes at the outset.  You will refine your process as you progress.

    This field is still young and there is a vast amount of undiscovered material out there.  The secrets still outnumber the answers.  One final warning:  Once you get started, uncovering these secrets through your research may become an even greater obsession than dancing is.




    © 1988, 2013 Richard Powers



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