“Many people before me have worked at different times to put dances down on paper through the use of various marks [par le moyen de quelques Signes]; but because their work has not borne fruit, I have tried to bring my own [work] far enough along to make it useful to the public; it is true that Furetière’s Dictionnaire Historique, under the heading ORC, mentions a dance book in which steps are transcribed with musical notes [nottez avec des nottes de Musique], but this book is unavailable [ne se trouve pas]. Here’s what Furetière says.
[‘]There is a curious treatise by Thoinet Arbeau, printed in Langres in 1588, which he entitled ORCHESOGRAPHIE; he is the first or perhaps the only one to have transcribed [notté] and represented [figuré] the steps of his era’s dance in the same way one would transcribe songs and airs.[’]
So we are obligated to that author for having given us the first ideas about describing dance, though there are those who’d like to say that our debt should be to Holland.
Of all the marks, characters, and figures that I have been able to invent, I have employed in the current work only those that have seemed to me the most appropriate and illustrative, and I have tried to explain clearly everything necessary to facilitate their usage. [De tous les Signes, Caracteres & Figures que j’ay pû inventer, je n’ay employé dans cet Ouvrage que ceux qui m’ont paru les plus propres & les plus démonstratifs, & j’ay tâché d’expliquer clairement tout ce qui peut être necessaire, pour en rendre l’usage facile.]
One can’t deny that this will be very useful and advantageous to dancing masters, as much to those in Paris as to those in the provinces and even other kingdoms, and finally to students because both one and all, with the help of the marks, characters, and figures that I give, will be easily able to read [déchiffrer] dances just as one reads the transcriptions of musical airs [comme on déchiffre les Airs de Musique nottez].”
So begins the preface to Raoul Auger Feuillet’s Chorégraphie ou l’art de décrire la dance par caracteres, figures, et signes démonstratifs, avec lesquels on apprend facilement de soy-même toutes sortes de dances [‘Choreography, or the Art of Describing Dance by Characters, Figures, and Descriptive Marks, with Which One Easily Learns by Oneself All Sorts of Dances’]. Published in 1701, Feuillet’s Chorégraphie was remarkable in a number of respects, not the least for offering chorégraphie (whence, with a minor tweak, English choreography) as an alternative to orchésographie as the standard term for the orthographic representation of dance. (The choré– part of chorégraphie is from Greek χορεία ‘dancing’ while the orchéso– part of orchésographie is from Greek ὀρχεῖσθαι ‘to dance,’ an ὀρχήστρα ‘orchestra’ having originally been the area of the theatre in which dancers performed.) As an indication of the extent of its success, two translations of the work into English appeared virtually simultaneously in 1706, one by the English dancing master John Weaver (Orchesography, or the Art of Dancing by Characters and Demonstrative Figures wherein The whole Art is explain’d; with compleat tables of all Steps us’d in Dancing, and Rules for the Motions of the Arms, etc. whereby Any Person (who understands Dancing) may of himself learn all manner of Dances being An Exact and Just Translation from the French of Monsieur Feuillet) and the other by the somewhat less well remembered dancing master, P. Siris (The Art of Dancing Demonstrated by Characters and Figures; whereby one may learn easily, and of One’s Self, all sorts of Dances, being a Work very useful to all such as practice Dancing, especially Masters. Done from the French of Monsieur Feuillet, with many Alterations in the Characters, and an Addition of the English Rigaudon, and French Bretagne).
Both Weaver and Siris wrote prefaces to their translations (replacing Feuillet’s) in which they called attention to the role that Pierre Beauchamp had played in the creation of the notational system that Feuillet claimed to have invented. (One can’t help but wonder at Feuillet’s choice of the verb inventer (as in “tous les Signes, Caracteres & Figures que j’ay pû inventer”), which originally meant something more like ‘come upon, discover,’ and then ‘come up with, create.’
- Weaver: “I persuade my self, that before so useful a Curiosity as the following Treatise, it would not be disagreeable to the Reader, to give him an Account of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Orchesography. Furetiere, in his Historical Dictionary, tells us of a curious Treatise of this Art by one Thoinet Arbeau, printed 1588, at Langres, from whom Monsieur Feuillet, in his Preface, supposes this Art to date its first Rise and Birth, tho’ he could never procure a sight of it to be found in Paris. But this very Book falling into my hands, I took care to peruse it with great attention, but found it far short of that Expectation, which such Recommendation had rais’d in me: For tho’it might perhaps have given the Hint to Mr Beauchamp, yet it is nothing but an imperfect Draught, nor is it confined to Dancing, since it treats besides of beating the Drum, playing the Pipe, and the like. But notwithstanding this blind Hint of Arbeau, to do Justice to Mr Beauchamp, we must attribute to him the Invention of this Art, who in all probability, could no more see the former Book than Mons. Feuillet. But as no Art was ever invented and perfected at once, so it remain’d for Mons. Feuillet to raise the compleat and finish’d Superstructure on Mons. Beauchamp’s Foundation…”
- Siris: “…It is to this last Gentleman [Feuillet] that France is Endebted for The Art of demonstrating Dancing by Characters and Figures, which he publish’d about six Years since; but ‘tis to Monsieur Beauchamp, nevertheless, that the Invention of the Art is wholly owing. I can assure you, on my Word, since he himself taught me the Grounds of it above Eighteen Years ago, but tho’ through an unaccountable Negligence he delay’d the publishing of it from Time to Time, it must needs be no small concern to him to see that another has all the Honour and Advantage of what cost him so much Study and Labor.”
Indeed, M Beauchamp, King Louis XIV’s dancing master and undisputed codifier of the canonical five basic ballet feet positions, filed a complaint with the king against Feuillet (and two other dance masters, André Lorin and a certain Sieur De la Haise) on the grounds that Feuillet et al. were basically eating his lunch, having been granted privilège du roi (an early form of copyright protection) to publish annotated dances while he was unable to exercise such privilege. Countersuits ensued, and the whole affair ended with Beauchamp’s being declared the inventor of the notational system promulgated by Feuillet but, because Beauchamp had never published, Feuillet and Lorin got to go on publishing as before. Lorin seems to have contented himself with publishing a couple of volumes of annotated English country dances while De la Haise quietly disappeared into the mists of history. Beauchamp died the year after the case was settled.
Subsequent dancing masters both in France and England added refinements to the Beauchamp-Feuillet system, as did Feuillet himself. The basic building blocks of the system remained the same, however, each dance step being represented by an elaboration of a basic schema
in which the dot (here marked A) shows the foot’s location at the beginning of the step (forward), the line labeled B represents the path the step is to travel, the line labeled C represents the foot, D the heel, and E the point of the foot. Marks may be added to B, it may be curved instead of straight, and the whole figure may be turned upside down to represent a step backwards, and all of this may be shown in mirror image to represent the adventures of the left foot.
So, for example, here are the building blocks for the eighth (final) step in the annotated sarabande (from Kellom Tomlinson’s 1735 The Art of Dancing Explained by Reading and Figures Whereby the Manner of Performing the Steps is Made Easy by a New and Familiar Method Being the Original Work First Design’d in the Year 1724) reproduced above:
(The little railroad ties mark the beginning and end of the musical measure during which the steps are to be executed; the barely legible 8s shown here designate the specific musical measure in question.)
So, if you’re the dancer on the right facing front, on the eighth measure of music for the sarabande, you bend your left leg, step backwards, and rise; step backwards with your right foot; bend your left leg, step backwards, and rise. But before trying this at home, you may want to consult one or another of the dance manuals at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/musdibib:@FIELD(SUBJ+@band(+Dance++Handbooks,+manuals,+etc+++Early+works+to+1800++)).