Do you belong to a historical dance group or school, similar to a nineteenth century dancing academy?
Does the group have a leader, similar to a nineteenth century dancing master? If so, here are three important questions.
1. Does your group do what nineteenth century dancing academies did, teaching classes and organizing balls?
2. Do the group members do what nineteenth century dancers did, performing dances from that time, in the attire from those eras?
3. Does your group's dance master perform the functions of a nineteenth century dance master?
No? Why not?
I am often surprised to see a group that only does the first two, but then stops there, thinking that re-creating the full picture of all three is
somehow wrong. How can it possibly be wrong to let your dancing master perform the functions of a nineteenth century dancing master?
The role of a nineteenth century dancing master
Teaching classes was only one part. Dance masters sometimes created new dances and variations for their students. Their pupils regularly attended
balls, and wanted something new to dance at the next ball. It was the job of the dancing master to come up with these new dances and variations.
Dance masters sometimes learned figures from dance manuals and from other teachers, and they also created their own new variations. Sometimes they created
entirely new dance forms. Chivers and Markowski were especially notable for their innovations. Cellarius created a waltz in 5/4 time, and then
gave only one version, as "a mere suggestion," because he wanted others to come up with their own variations.
Most nineteenth century dance masters choreographed new quadrilles for their dancers, like Joseph Hart's 49 sets of quadrilles. Or Hillgrove's Favorite
Quadrilles, Hillgrove's Second Set, Hillgrove's March Quadrille, Hillgrove's Waltz Quadrille, Hillgrove's Social Quadrilles, Hillgrove's Royal Polka Set, etc.
Dance masters also modified existing dances, frequently creating a new fifth figure for the First Set of Quadrilles. They sometimes edited or deleted
a figure of an existing quadrille. Did anyone say it's wrong to modify an existing quadrille? No. Hart's Lancers was a significant example of a
modified quadrille, after Duval's Lancers. Other dance masters created a Waltz Lancers, Diagonal Lancers, a Lancers for 16, Glide Lancers, Dodworth
Lancers, Loomis Lancers, and so on. Modification was commonplace. Then in the 20th century, a frequent modification of an existing dance was converting an
English sequence dance into a mixer. Over the Top is a good example.
Here are only some of the many nineteenth century dance masters who created new dances and variations:
Duval of Dublin
Franz Anton Roller
G. M. S. Chivers
D. L. Carpenter
And that's only the first half of the nineteenth century. The list for the second half of the century is longer.
There is also the distinction between a dancing master and a teacher. An academy's dancing master often created and modified dances, but the teachers
at the academy only taught dances created by others. Allen Dodworth was a dancing master. His son Frank was a dance teacher at his academy.
So if you are re-creating a nineteenth century dance academy (a historical dance group or school), decide whether your leader is a dancing master, or a dance teacher.
Today, some historians keep the dance master's role alive, continuing to perform these functions of the original dance masters, including occasionally
modifying historical dances for their group. But others insist that one should only teach dances created by others, exactly as
described in nineteenth century sources, with no modifications allowed. They understand that the original dance masters continually modified and created
dances, but they would rather be a dance teacher than a dancing master. OK, everyone has their own preferences in recreating historical dance. Each
one is valid.
Oddly, some people believe that today's historical dancers can be as creative as the original dancers were, improvising polka variations or mazurka
figures at a ball, but that today's dance masters should not be allowed to be creative in the manner of the original masters. Why allow one living
process, and deny the other? It would be more academically correct to either allow both, or prohibit both. To only allow one, but not the other,
is inconsistent, while missing an important function of a nineteenth century dancing master, in my opinion.
I'd like to clarify that I am not saying that historical dance teachers should create and modify historical dances. It's perfectly fine to choose
the role of a dance teacher, and only teach the choreographies of others. The point is that both approaches are authentic and valid. Don't complain
about anyone who prefers to take the other road. Both paths are correct and historically authentic choices.
How to do it
90% of my work is in exact dance reconstructions, without any modifications. But I also think we can occasionally engage in the creative process of
a nineteenth century dancing master, to keep that process alive.
When I do this, I prefer to only use choreographic elements and traditions that were known to a nineteenth century dance master, from a certain year and
locale. And I think the modification should be plausible, that is, having the same look and feel as the original creations, following the same conventions.
I don't recommend modifying a dance that is already in active repertoire among reenactors. We don't want to create confusion among ballgoers about
which version to dance.
I haven't done many of these, but my modifications include my own version of a Triplet Galop Quadrille,
which I created at the request of my Flying Cloud Academy students, and a short two-figure edit of Durang's
Russian Mazurka Quadrille as a performance, because most audiences don't want to watch four repeats of five figures. My original creations
include Romany Polka and the contra
Denis Aksenov created his Russian March. Fabio Mollica created his own Spanish Waltz, and more.
You might feel that some of these follow the original prototypes, while others are too creative, with elements not authentic to the era. OK, so do I,
each to their own. I don't wish to control your preferences, because we should never tell others what they should like or dislike. Dancers naturally
enjoy what has true value for them.
Instead of following my guidelines for creating new work, I encourage you to develop your own approach. Do your own research, to explore how the original
dance masters created their new variations. What were their philosophies and techniques? Research the choreographies of past dance masters, to better
emulate their creative process. Then make your own choices.
It is important to clearly identify which of your reconstructions are unmodified, which are modifications, and which are new
creations. If you teach someone
else's reconstruction, always include this clarification.
I wrote this paper for those who reenact historical dance, not necessarily for scholars who only live in the world of books and dissertations. If you
re-create historical dance, in costume, you are essentially role playing. My point is that one role is that of a dancer attending a ball, and another
role is that of the group's dance master. Both roles have their dynamic function. Both roles work together.
This paper focuses on reenacting nineteenth century dances, but it applies to earlier or later eras as well.
Historical dance re-creation is a living process, as the original was. Keep the original spirit alive.