Sarabande illustration


“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

right foot diagram

Feuillet’s Right Foot

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:

Sarabande Measure 8

Sarabande’s Eighth Step for Two Dancers

(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.)

Building Blocks

Building Blocks

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,+manuals,+etc+++Early+works+to+1800++)).


“If you can walk, you can dance” and “The music tells you what to do” are well-meant, if somewhat misleading statements intended to reassure the inexperienced dancer that, unlike the nonswimmer asked to leap into the deep end of the pool, you have nothing to worry about when you and your partner step out onto the ballroom floor: You can do it.

While obviously less reassuring, it would be more accurate to say that if you can dance, you can walk, and if you’re dancing, the music tells you not so much what to do as when, how fast, and for how long to do it. As for what “it” is, someone has to teach you what the requisite moves are and how to fit them to the music, whether by example (showing you) or instruction (telling you). In other words, you have to be taught how to dance in a way that you don’t have to be taught how to walk.

Well, actually, you do have to be taught how to do certain kinds of walking, again, either by example or instruction: It takes more than the normal development of human motor functionality to make a tight-rope artist, a cat-walk model, or a log-roller, or to enable you to saunter, skip, or “walk like a girl” (cf. French se déhancher) in accord with local cultural norms. Indeed, even so rudimentary an act of bipedal locomotion as crossing the street can involve a set of instructions. (A friend recounted that on the first day she was allowed to go to school by herself, she knew that she was supposed to do something when she got to the corner but, having forgotten what it was, she made the sign of the cross before proceeding to the other side of the street.) Such instructions may include graphics and, in some cases, auditory cues. The plain crosswalk (known in Great Britain as a zebra crossing) is a simple visual instruction, namely: Cross here.

zebra crossing

zebra crossing

Complicated traffic patterns and other pedestrian safety considerations may occasion more elaborate instructions:

three crossing signals
Exhibit A presents official written instructions and an unofficial floral warning of the possible consequences of ignoring those instructions, never mind the parental injunction to look both ways before crossing the street. Pressing the button activates a beeping signal that takes effect when traffic has (at least in theory) stopped and it should be safe to cross. Exhibit B offers extensive written instructions, complete with graphics and accompanying sound effects—when you push the button, a synthetic voice says “Wait!” and, when the walking-person icon is displayed, a rapid ticking is broadcast, lasting until the “time remaining” numbers replace the icon. Two clues to the mystery of Exhibit C are (1) the lower button conforms to the standard distance-from-ground specifications of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) ( and (2) pressing the upper button does not activate any noise-making mechanism (whereas pressing the lower button does).

While government-sponsored formal instructions such as these for traversing a street on foot are historically relatively recent, those for dancing go back at least to the late 1500s, where “dance” referred specifically to European courtly dance. Bloch and von Wartburg tell us in their Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française that the verb danser—whence English dance—comes originally from the north of France and referred to “elegant dance, of good society [belle société],” while terms descended from the Late Latin verb ballāre—whence ballet and Spanish bailar ‘to dance’—referred to “more popular forms of dance.” Noting that danser is etymologically of Germanic origin, Bloch and Wartburg remark that terms referring to dance are often borrowed from other languages because dance is strongly subject to fashion, to which the Larousse étymologique adds that with dances of the descendents of the Roman Empire [dances romaines] having been proscribed by the Christian Church, dance must have been reintroduced by Germanic people.

One of the earliest how-to manuals of courtly dance instruction is Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie (, first published (posthumously) in 1589 and which the preface to its 1948 English translation aptly characterizes as “…deal[ing] with what we should call today the ballroom dances of the period, considered by Arbeau and his pupil, Capriol, to be an essential part of the education of every well-bred young man.” (Thoinot Arbeau is actually an anagram of the author’s real name, Jehan Tabourot, a member of the clergy in the north-eastern French commune of Langres, who seems to have written the Orchésographie essentially for his own amusement, never seeking to have it published.)

The book is a dialog between Capriol and his teacher, Arbeau. Capriol has come to the realization that in order to be successful in affairs of the heart, he needs to learn how to dance, and Arbeau tells him he has come to the right place, elaborating that learning to dance is a good way for prospective mates to check each other out: “for these dances are practiced to reveal if lovers are healthy and their limbs are fully functional [dispos], at the end of which they can kiss their lady loves [maistresses], so that they can smell each other and be smelled, to see if they have bad breath or if they smell bad, like a shoulder of mutton: so, besides whatever other of the many pleasurable aspects [commoditez] arising from dance, it turns out to be necessary for well ordering of society.”

Arbeau goes on to distinguish between two forms of dance: dance guerrière and dance recréative, the former being what today would be called in French exercice militaire and, in English, close-order drill. Arbeau’s discussion of dance guerrière is chiefly concerned with rhythm and the musicality involved in marching—apparently, military music had yet to be thought of as an oxymoron. The modern-day analog would be an approach to teaching the “Virginia Reel” that proceeded from an exploration of jody calls (in which a marching cadence is supplied vocally, as, e.g., I hád a wífe and I léft hér/léft [´] léft [´], the canonical example being the call-and-response “Duckworth Chant”

Once Capriol has a firm grasp on the notion of left and right and how to match the corresponding feet with a metrical beat, Arbeau moves on to describe how to perform several kinds of courtly dance, describing the dancer’s positions and moves, sometimes with accompanying graphics
and sometimes with the instructions aligned with the music:
Finally, mindful that a new dancer will inevitably have a hard time remembering even the simplest dance routine, Arbeau provides rudimentary shorthand “memoranda” [memoires des mouvementz] for dances (or parts thereof) consisting of the initial letters of the names of the steps/figures as needed. It was not until a century later as the inventory of court dances had grown and become more elaborate that more detailed methods of dance notation began to appear. One of these—Beauchamp-Feuillet notation—will be the subject of our next viabrevis posting, “Best Foot Forward.”