The Elegance of Baroque Social Dance in Our Time

By Meggi Sweeney Smith, Guest Contributor

As Dancetime Publications revisits some of their wonderful videos – providing a look at how dance has evolved and existed throughout time – I am inspired to continue and help facilitate the conversation regarding its role and relevance in our contemporary world. Carol Téten’s work in developing How to Dance Through Time Volume IV: The Elegance of Baroque Social Dance brings to the viewer an introduction to Baroque dance by focusing on the dance forms allemande, minuet, and contradance (country dance). She discusses history and social context, step patterns from a variety of views that highlight the footwork and geometric floor patterns, and performance videos in period costuming. As dance was an art form directly connected to the other arts (music, architecture, etc.) as well as the social ideologies that stemmed from the humanistic movement in the Italian Renaissance, cultural context is deeply embedded within the movement, choreography, and performance of Baroque dance. It engages not only the physical dancing body, but also the cosmic and social bodies as well.

What I hope to provide is an introductory overview of the ideologies that underline Baroque dance, with a focus on the ways that dancers, choreographers, and educators can mine the riches of this form to continue their own growth and the evolution of the dance community at large. Following this, I will share a brief reflection on my journey with Baroque dance and offer a look at the many ways that it continues to be embedded in our community.


In May I Have the Pleasure: The Story of Popular Dancing, Belinda Quirey describes Baroque dance as “an illustrious era, lasting for just over a century [1661-1789] in which all our earlier developments in dance form reached the ultimate flowering,” leading then to the development of ballet. The development of Baroque dance, however, evolved, in part thanks to the 15th century dancing masters who, through their treatises, brought dance into a direct relationship to the quadrivium art of music – therefore increasing its rank in society.

In The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy, Jennifer Nevile (2004) explains that the ideas of the humanistic movement during the Renaissance were strongly rooted around the ideas of Pythagoras and Plato – stemming directly from the Middle Ages music theory, for “humans are numerically united with the cosmos, and each person’s physical body is connected to his or her spiritual soul by the reality of mathematical relationships.” Music, as a quadrivium art, based on the same ratios that “ordered the human soul and body,” had the power to link the soul to the cosmos and actually correct defects in the movement of the soul.

Engaging in the philosophical and theoretical arguments in society at that time, dancing master Domenico stated that through misura, dance “shared the numerical basis of music” (Nevile).

Misura is described as a measure of

  • Elevation in the bend and the rise
  • Space around the dancer’s body through movements of the body
  • Proportioning of the ground/floor patterns
  • Proportioning of time (quickness and slowness) in relation to the music

This allowed dance to be viewed as the physical manifestation of music and therefore a vehicle and stimulus towards a more virtuous life for those who understood it on a physical and intellectual level. By shedding affectation and achieving this measure of “neither too much nor too little” (Nevile). Dancers could practice and possess levels of virtue that allowed them to obtain a ranking of nobility.

Catherine Turocy, artistic director of the New York Baroque Dance Company (NYBDC) in her article Vitruvian Man, Baroque Dance and Fractals, finds Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to be a visualization of the perfect ratios within the human figure – embodying both the spiritual center (found within the circle) and the material or human world (within the square).


Together in practice, misura within the body and the choreography, brings the microcosm of the human body into relationship with the macrocosm of the cosmos – an idea presented in da Vinci’s cosmografia del minor mondo (cosmography of the microcosm).  Turocy explores this idea through her investigation of fractals; first mentioned by Benoit Mandelbrot 1975 in The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Turocy describes fractals as “infinitely self-similar or iterated”– the choreography of the minuet reflecting the spiraling that happens in the body and mind.

This integration and reflection of social ideology within the dancing body during the Baroque period creates a connectedness seen across the arts and embedded in every element of social life.

Training in dance as well as fencing, poetry, music etc. was a necessity in the Baroque period. Not only did the nobles have to dance in front of the king at the balls, but their dancing also had the power to demonstrated the purity of their nobility or to disgrace them. For instance, weddings were called off upon seeing a gentleman dance poorly, as it demonstrated his lack of virtue. In Dance and Music of the Court and Theater, Wendy Hilton describes how, when executing the refined movements, the aim was to appear supremely natural, embodying the idea that “good breeding shows itself most…where it appears the least.”

Nobles began training at a very young age and Louis XIV could do “all sorts of dances to the music of a violin; at four and a half he donned a mask ‘to dance a ballet’ for his father” (Jonas in Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement). Pierre Beauchamp worked daily with Louis XIV on his dancing; he was known for his unmatched beauty in the courante.

In The Dancing Master by P. Rameau, 1725 (translated by Cyril W. Beaumont), he discussed Louis XIV’s reign, noting that “Among all the arts which have flourished through the encouragement and liberality of so powerful a monarch, dancing has made the most rapid progress; everything has contributed to the this end.” Night-long balls, staged theatrical productions, masked dance, and commedia del’Arte, are a few examples of the ways that dance was part of the fabric of society. The social ideologies that existed and became the foundation for the dances and choreographies made the act of watching dance more than passive entertainment. It was, as Turocy mentions, an “active” participation. Their training not only informed their dancing, but also the way the perceived the world around them.

Mining the riches

The benefits of training in Baroque dance continue today. From my own experience as a dancer of many genres and from teaching and discussing its application with other dancers and choreographers, I would like to highlight some of the benefits that stand out.

  • Context: In a world of heightened technical training of the physical body, Baroque dance uses its history to bring into the picture a relationship between the past and present as well as the cosmic and social bodies –  specifically presenting an opportunity to engage with the ideology of the micro/macrocosm. What does it mean to fully embody and know these ideas? I believe that by bringing teaching and learning into the body – engaging the whole cosmos of self as a “thinking/feeling – mind/body” – it allows for a more deeply integrated way of knowing that is situated in one’s own perspective and that of history. The context of self and other in relationship to time, creates a state of wide-awakeness that, as described by Maxine Greene in her works on educational theory, enlivens the imagination and supports continual growth.
  • Harmony of the whole: The ideology of the body as a cosmos – with a proportion unique to one’s own (each step is the length of one’s foot; the placement of the arms corresponds to one’s height etc.) – enlivens both figures of the Vitruvian man. This technical style and the ‘harmonious whole,’ do not, however, mean that the practice of Baroque dance utilizes simply one dynamic. Just at the earth has flowing water and hardened rock, so do the movements of the body encompass a coexistence of expression, united through the harmony and proportion of the body.

    Baroque dance simultaneously requires a heightened strength of the instep and lower leg, while graceful arms carve the space above. P. Rameau states that the movements of the arms (wrist, elbow, and shoulder) must “harmonize” with the movements of the ankle, knee and hips.Again, embodying the fractal nature, each dance form of the period [minuet, gigue, allemande, etc.] is imbued with a character its own. From the full-bodied power of the male solo Entreé Appolon (1704) to the playful Gigue a deux (1709) – both notated in Feuillet’s collections – this permeation and character informs the harmony of the microcosm within each choreography.
  • Subtly/nuance and tools for dynamic expression: Working within this technique brings into play a different approach to and type of virtuosity. This is not to say that Baroque dance is not virtuosic, (there are multiple pirouettes, beaten jumps, and a challenging sense of balance and equilibrium on the standing leg). That said, it is a virtuosity situated within a far greater context. The steps themselves are in harmony with the music and do not reach such extremes that they take over the full picture. For those who have never seen Baroque dance, it may require a deeper look – a different type of listening – to appreciate the subtle variations and expressions within the noble form, within which one may find a delightful play between form and passion. A dancer who has been trained in our contemporary setting to move to the extremes of their body, or beyond – creating large, ‘full’ movement (the highest develop, taking the most space etc.) – may find this sense of measure, “restraining” at times. I find as a dancer myself, however, that working within limitations brings a heightened awareness to every part of the movement, not just the end goal or extreme.I also find a new type of initiation and/or release in the smaller range introduces and even requires grading of the movement, phrasing, and musicality. In our current society where bigger is better and overstimulation is the norm, bringing subtly, nuance, stillness and quietness establishes a more dynamic range of expression, phrasing, and resonance. The ability to offer expressive range (utilizing Baroque tools and training), and to be present and engaged throughout, can activate a new depth and articulation of expression within the artist.
  • Gesture/performance study: Beyond this nuanced and ‘restrained’ virtuosity, the Baroque period brings to light an authentic use of gesture and performance. Acting treatises examine this (Watch for Dancetime Publications upcoming video Baroque Dance Unmasked). As a quadrivium art, Baroque dance has the power to not only bring the dancer closer to the gods, but also the power to inspire virtue in those viewing the dance. This description from Pomey’s French and Latin dictionary published in Lyons in 1671, found in Dance and the Music of J.S.Bach by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, brings to light the power of a look, a gesture and stance:

    “But all this was nothing compared to what was observed when this gallant began to express the emotions of his soul though the motions of his body, and reveal them in his face, his eyes, his steps and all his actions.
    Sometimes he would cast languid and passionate glances throughout a slow and languid rhythmic unit (cadence); and then, as though weary of being obliging, he would avert his eyes, as if he wished to hide his passion; and, with a more precipitous motion, would snatch away the gift he had tendered.
    Now and then he would express anger and spite with an impetuous and turbulent rhythmic unit; and then, evoking a sweeter passion by more moderate motions, he would sigh, swoon, let his eyes wander languidly; and certain sinuous movements of the arms and body, nonchalant, disjointed and passionate, made him appear so admirable and so charming, that throughout this enchanting dance, he won as many hearts as he attracted spectators.”
    • Musicality: The musicality of Baroque dance was one of the primary elements highlighted by the dancing masters. Inherent in the ‘mouvement’ (bend and the rise action), which is present at the beginning of almost every measure, is this sense of a landmark – the inherent pulse of the music and movement. If you consider this the lifeblood, the essence, of the piece, the expression and rhythmic variation that happens between each movement, phrases Baroque dance with character and quality. screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-1-09-29-amIt requires a depth of musical embodiment and memory, which at times is layered with the musical dialogue of playing instruments while dancing (I am training with castanets and have often performed with finger symbols and tambourines).  Additionally, there is often a need to simultaneously shift meters as a dance such as The Diana (1725) changes from a mussette to a rigaudon, or in Bourée d’Achille (1709, Feuillet) during the shift from a boure (duple meter) to a minuet (triple meter) and back again.


  • Spatial Awareness: Perhaps the most identifiable characteristics when looking at the Beauchamp-Feuillet Notation (first published in 1700 as a way of codifying the dance), are the geometric floor patterns.



(Feuillet’s 1704 collection of dances by Pécour – Library of Congress)

Showing the order of the cosmos through their use of symmetry and mirroring, those who study in Baroque technique gain an ability to proportion their use of space in relationship to the length of time (music).  Even in the floor patterns, the social relationships are at play whether addressing the king or presence by advancing (downstage) in the opening figure, or the use of two bodies to show the beauty of the micro/macrocosm.  If one person were to veer wide in their circle, not only would they loose the relationship and energy between their partner, but the cosmic order demonstrated through the spatial pathways would be lost to all watching.  Engaging in other genres and modern forms, it is incredible to see how this sense of spatial training informs my memory, performance, and understanding of the choreographies I dance and my relationships to the other dancers. It is as though this physical and social measure engages the presence of a larger ‘cosmic’ understanding.


In order to situate this perspective, I feel it is important to briefly share my own history and background. I was first introduced to Baroque dance at the University of Kansas where I received my BFA in dance and music minor. Professor Joan Stone taught a course in Renaissance and Baroque Dance: Notation and Reconstruction that was rooted in the work of Wendy Hilton and Belinda Quirey.

I was enamored by the challenging coordination, integration of mental and physical presence throughout, and the opportunity to more deeply understand a culture and people so instrumental in the development of dance history while sustaining and bringing to life works from this period that would otherwise be lost.

When the opportunity arose to work with the New York Baroque Dance Company (NYBDC), founded in 1976 and led by Turocy, I was more deeply exposed to the history and exploration of what is old and what is new in the world of dance.

Fusing Baroque ideologies with modern work was a concept first introduced to Turocy by Shirley Wynne in her company The Baroque Dance Ensemble. Replacing assumed knowledge with research and investigations of Baroque notation and treatises, the company developed and explored these ideas. Though this embodied exploration mostly remained within the university environment, The Baroque Dance Ensemble performed one modern work at UC Santa Cruz in 1975. When the company dissolved Turocy and Ann Jacoby moved to New York where they founded the NYBDC. Here, Turocy developed her voice as a choreographer in the Baroque style as well as Baroque-informed modern styles – developing a full program in 1979 that applied various techniques (from Isadora Duncan and Merce Cunningham) and styles (Broadway) to Baroque notation, steps, and patterns, while playing with connections between contemporary music and costuming.

This idea of mining that which we have been given from this rich history, and applying it as a lens to our own world and perspective, is not new in itself, but it is something that I believe has relevance today – offering context and inspiration to the creative voices in our community.

In my own experience as a teacher of Baroque musicians in the university setting, and having worked as a consultant for contemporary choreographers such as Alexandra Beller and Christopher Gattelli (through the NYBDC) for the musical Amazing Grace, it seems that finding people and/or the resources that can help highlight the riches of this history is the first step to understanding and supporting the potential that Baroque dance can have in inspiring the creative voice today.

In the 1980’s, Turocy was often sought after as a consultant and teacher of this historic form.  She worked with notable dancers such as Edward Villella, Jacques Cesbron, and Clark Tippet (choreographer and dancer with American Ballet Theater) who, according to the New York Times article by Anna Kisselgoff, “did not try to replicate Miss Turocy’s excellent work” but rather developed his own “quirky,” neo-classical ballet titled ‘Rigaudon’ from their workshops. In 2013, Turocy worked with Yanira Castro and her company a canary torsi on their new work COURT/GARDEN presenting a workshop at what used to be Dance New Amsterdam.

Recently Turocy was involved with another intriguing project choreographed by Julie Eichten and LA Dance Project. As described on the New York Times ArtsBeat, this piece features guest soloist and “‘jookin’ street dance phenomenon Lil Buck, starring as the sun god Apollo… ‘O’de,’ takes its inspiration from 17th-century dances created and performed by King Louis XIV in the original Water Theater.” This is definitely a video worth watching:

In her own productions, Turocy continues to create dynamic work that investigates this rich history and its role in our current culture. For a more in-depth look at the staged ballets and operas by the NYBDC, check out this link:

Recent highlights include:

  • Rape of Lock with Deborah Mason (2016): Choreography by Caroline Copeland and staging by Catherine Turocy.
    • This featured video projections of dancers flying above and interacting with staged performers.
  • Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Égypte (2014): Presented by Opera Lafayette and conductor Ryan Brown in collaboration with the NYBDC, Kalanidhi Dance, and the Sean Curran Company.
  • The Teseo Project: On Stage and on the Internet (2011): Presented at the Gottingen Handel Festival

Reflecting on these many projects and my personal journey, I am thrilled to see how alive Baroque dance is in our communities:


  • On Broadway
  • Informing work of ballet, contemporary, modern and street dancers
  • Watch for some upcoming Dancetime Publications videos highlighting Marie-Geneviève Massé’s work in Dance Vivaldi: A Contemporary Baroque Ballet.
  • Bringing to life museum exhibits and archives
  • Such as performances at the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Garden in Washington, DC, Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, PA, etc.
  • Universities


      • Lecture demonstrations (See lecture by Catherine Turocy)
      • Dance departments
      • Theater departments: Staging both new productions and learning period etiquette.
      • Music departments: In my own work in teaching “Baroque Dance for Musicians” at NYU and with others such as Dr. Julie Andrijeski and Thomas Baird, musicians learn the physical manifestation of their music, which can allow them to embody the ideology of that culture and inform their practice and performance. Additionally, they explore the ‘dance score,’ learning how to read and reconstruct Beauchamp-Feuillet dance notation.
      • Academic Development/Research: I have developed in-person and Skype lessons with professors in Brazil, researching both the influence of European culture and the notations in their archives.


  • Operas and staged productions


      • From period productions to neo-Baroque such as Seth William’s recent choreography in You Us We All presented at Brooklyn Academy of Music


  • Films and documentaries


    • Including The King Who Invented Ballet Louis XIV and the Noble Art of Dance:
  • Music festivals
    • Both international and national festivals such as the Boston Early Music Festival

Additionally, opportunities for training exist through various workshops and classes:

  • Open monthly classes at the Mark Morris Dance Center offered by NYBDC members, on the first Saturday of each month. These classes are open to all levels and will exploring Feuillet’s Recüeil de Contredances (1706). (
  • Thomas Baird teaches classes and workshops introducing various ballroom figures throughout the year. For more information keep an eye on Dancing History.
  • For an international experience, Nordic Baroque Dancers offers workshops during the summer for both beginners and advanced dancers
  • Santa Barbra Historic Dance Week (NYBDC) introduces historic dance from different eras (Renaissance, Baroque, 19th century ballet and social dances with notable teachers such as Richard Powers and Sandra Noll Hammond). Additionally, they have been featuring special guest artists each year that provide a specific lens (2016 guest artist is Ana Yepes for Spanish Baroque dance). A unique platform from this workshop exists through their Vimeo channel/archivesTake a look to see reconstructions/modern work by Alan Jones, Sarah Edgar, Bruno Benne, and others.
  • Master classes are also offered in various summer workshops for musicians (e.g. Amherst Early Music, NYU Classical Voice Intensive, and High School Piano Workshop at Westminster Choir College of Rider University), Music Festivals, and more.

I am excited to see where the presence of Baroque dance today will take us as a social dancing community, whether it is used to:

  • Inform one’s practice of historically grounded works or research;
  • Deconstruct the underlying elements such as geometry, measured form, the practice of authentic expression, or the rhythmic richness of time, to inspire and challenge the creation of new movement phrases and choreography;
  • Ground a contemporary perspective on ‘form’ and order (i.e. to investigate freedom or lack of form, one must know that against which they rebel); or
  • Provide a lens for social, cosmic, or physical observations and explorations.

Choreographers, dancers, performers, and educators, can engage with these opportunities to discover Baroque dance (and therefore our current time) anew – responding through their unique artistic voice with an informed perspective of the connections between the micro/macrocosms of our contemporary world.

meggidancepicMeggi Sweeney Smith is a performer and educator and currently lives in NYC. She has performed solo roles for companies including CorbinDances, Nellie van Bommel, Cohen/Suzeau, and internationally for the New York Baroque Dance Company. She also dances for the Sokolow Dance/Theater Ensemble performing Anna Sokolow’s 1965 piece Odes as part of the project Sounds of Sokolow

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