Social Dance

The King's Grand Ball.jpg

Fig. 20 The King's Grand Ball from Le Maître à Danser by Pierre Rameau (1725)

Social dancing was a fundamental part of daily life at court. Dancing was considered to be one of the most important skills a gentleman could have, alongside fencing and horse riding. Similarly, women were expected to be educated in dancing as well as needlework, languages, drawing, and music.[1] Social dance required the same steps used in ballet de cours and mascarades, but performed with less dramatic affect and in formal attire rather than costumes. Not only did dancing provide courtiers with social interaction, it was also one of their principle forms of entertainment.[2]


Ballroom Dances

Social dancing was enjoyed by the most aristocratic and noble members at the court of Louis XIV. Ceremonial balls were held at court to celebrate a variety of important events, including military victories, signing of treaties, marriages, birthdays, and anniversaries, and often took place after a main recreational activity.[3]

Balls in the 17th and 18th centuries were pre-rehearsed and strictly organised events with choreographed routines which courtiers practiced daily to ‘present a graceful picture while they danced.’[4] The danse à deux was the most important style of dance, where couples danced in order of societal hierarchy, one couple at a time, beginning with the King and his partner and working down by rank. Each dance began at the back of the ballroom facing the King, who was sat at the head of the room, whilst the remaining dancers watched from the side and spectators from the galleries.[5] Musicians sat behind the dancers or in the raised galleries. As the floor was not crowded, the symmetrical, sometimes intricate, special formations were clearly visible to all.

All dances began and ended with a reverence to acknowledge a dancer’s partner and the King. The quality of the dance that followed would have been clearly visible and carefully considered by those watching, as each participant would have known each choreography and whether it was performed correctly or not. Good, accomplished dancers, Wendy Hilton writes, ‘required not only grace and elegance, but also a keen intellect.’[6] Courtiers learnt between 2 and 4 new choreographies a year, which were to be added to their already memorised repertoire of dances. Many popular dances, including the menuet, gigue, gavotte, and sarabande, were choreographed to fit to a specific piece of music, although some simple menuets and passepieds could be performed to any piece of music the dancers or musicians chose. Dance masters were tasked with teaching these new choreographies, as well as ensuring everyone understood and followed the appropriate etiquette at court and completed the correct rituals at the appropriate time during balls.[7]


Jours d’appartement


Informal social gatherings at the King’s apartment in Versailles took place 3 evenings a week during the winter. Here, the standard etiquette and procedure was relaxed to allow courtiers to enjoy refreshments and participate in fun activities including gambling, billiards, and dancing. Musicians would provide music which many people would listen to or dance to.[8]

[1] Conyers, C. (2020) Grove Music Online: Social Dancing

[2] Tarling, J. (2000) Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners

[3] Little, M; Jenne, N. (1991) Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach

[4] Little, M; Jenne, N. (1991) Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach

[5] Hilton, W. (1981) Dance of Court and Theatre

[6] Hilton, W. (1981) Dance of Court and Theatre

[7] Little, M; Jenne, N. (1991) Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach

[8] Hilton, W. (1981) Dance of Court and Theatre