BackCountry Dance Minuet




I taught the Country Dance Minuet twice at festivals around 1985 and then left it for 25 years.  I returned to the topic at Lichfield Folk Festival in June 2011 and made a better job of it!  In an hour and a quarter I only had time to explain the step and teach Sabina, Festing's Minuet and Irish Lamentation.  If I ever do it again I'll leave out Sabina (since the figure is too easy for the intended audience) and start with Festing's Minuet.

Most of us have a blinkered view of dancing in the eighteenth century: we think they walked around doing “Playford”.  Wrong on several counts.  They didn't walk; they danced, using a variety of steps, not the ubiquitous skip-change step.  Playford was dead and forgotten — they danced Country Dances published by John Young, Thompson, Walsh, Johnson, Welch, etc.  But the Country Dances were not the important thing.  They were done for fun at the end of an evening — the dancers letting their hair down, so to speak — but most of the dancing was performed by a single couple at a time while the others watched.  And the dance which was most highly thought of was the Minuet.  It was known as the Queen of Dances, and was the dance for most of the eighteenth century.  It was a social accomplishment of great importance: a lady or gentleman who couldn't display a passable minuet would be like someone today who couldn't use a telephone.

The minuet was considered the summit of grace, style and elegance, but if the refinement was taken a little too far it could easily turn into artifice and foppishness: the little mincing steps and overdone gestures were open to ridicule, and books of the period which explained how to dance the minuet warn the dancer to “take care of Affectation”.

The minuet wasn't a free-form dance like the later waltz, where you and your partner go where you like on the dance floor.  There was a standard figure using a “Z” or “S” shape: the two dancers started at either end of the shape and moved along it, passing each other and finishing in each other's place, doing this a number of times.  Before that was the formality of the gentleman approaching the lady, bowing, removing his hat, escorting her to her starting position, bowing to the audience, etc.  All of this was laid down in enormous detail.  As well as the standard minuet (which allowed some variation in the steps) there were figured minuets, devised by dancing masters of the day, where the dancers made various patterns as they moved.  These were printed with the steps and floor patterns described in Feuillet notation.  One of the best-known Dancing Masters was Pierre Rameau (not the composer) who wrote a book explaining how to dance the minuet, from which my description is taken: “The Dancing Master” (1725) translated into English by Cyril Beaumont in 1931.  You can see the original French version here and the English translation by John Essex here with the Minuet description starting at page 43.  Another book available on the Library of Congress site is The Art of Dancing by Kellom Tomlinson.  He described four diffent ways of doing the minuet step, so I'll try not to be too dogmatic, but I'm just sticking to one.  And as Anne Daye points out:

The phrasing of figures seems to be at the taste of the dancers: remember that there are other steps to be used, such as the contretemps, pas balance, 2 x fleurets, to cover ground or not.

Since the minuet was so popular, it surprises me that there weren't more country dances involving the minuet step; I've only found a few in the three volumes of The Dancing Master and one volume of Wright that I looked through.  There are also some such as “The Marlborough” which change rhythm to minuet part-way through.  Perhaps people felt that the genteel refined step of the minuet didn't belong with the more boisterous style of the country dance.

The Step

I know some English Folk dancers have trouble with anything involving a step, so I'll keep it simple.  Wendy Crouch (Knight) taught it as a single followed by a double.  Eighteenth century dancers certainly wouldn't have thought this way — singles and doubles were early Playford terms — but it may help us.  Graham Knight says it's important for couples with hands joined to keep them at waist height and not let them drop.

  Take a partner and face round the room in ballroom direction (man on the inside), inside hands joined.  Just try a single on the right foot (Right, Close), followed by a double on the left foot (Left, Right, Left, Close).  That's not difficult, is it?  One minuet step takes two bars of music, and the “double” starts on the third beat of the first bar.  Let's try going round the room, doing that to the music.  Remember that every minuet step starts on the right foor.

  But to make it a minuet step, instead of a Close you need a Sink — feet together, bend both knees (it doesn't have to be particularly deep) and don't actually put the closing foot on the ground.  This should also tell you which foot to use next — if your left foot isn't touching the ground it's pretty obvious that's the one to use next!  So it's Right, Sink — Left, Right, Left, Sink.  Let's try it: if you get confused just go back to the previous version until you think you can risk sinking again.  To be a little more technical, the first step of the single or double comes down onto a flat foot, whereas the second and third steps of the double are on the toes.

Let's put it into a dance, then we'll think more about the style.  These dances are my interpretations from the originals of Young or Wright.  Some I'm pretty sure about; some are modified because I can't make sense of the original, or to convert from the ubiquitous triple minor to duple minor or a three-couple set dance.  We may even find that some don't work; it depends how many minuet steps you need to do a figure such as right-hand star or half figure eight.

Sabina        Sabina: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this dance

Source: Dancing Master Volume 3, c. 1719:  John Young.
Interpretation: Colin Hume, c.1985

Original wording:

Note: This dance must be done with the Minuet Step.

First all four Hands round the Minuet Step, and turn single .   Then the other half round, and turn single :   Then the first Couple cast off and turn Hands .  Then lead through the third Couple and cast up : 

No difficulties of interpretation here.  The dance is triple minor, the threes doing absolutely nothing.  This is true of a lot of dances of the period, not just minuets.  I found one minuet where the twos and the threes both do nothing, except that the twos move up.  I've converted Sabina to a three-couple set dance with each couple leading the figure twice, though I haven't altered the moves in any way.  It seems natural to turn single to the left.  The two-hand turn in two minuet steps may seem rushed while you're learning the step, but it really isn't.  If you were doing it to a dance walk you would take 8 steps.  One minuet step involves 4 walking steps, interrupted by two sinks, so you still have the 8 steps!

Formation: 3 Couples longways

A1:Top two couples circle left half-way (2 minuet steps).  Same four turn single left (2 minuet steps).
A2:All that again.
B1:Ones cast, twos lead up.  Ones two-hand turn.
B2:Ones lead down through the threes.  Cast back up.
The second time through, the same ones repeat the dance with the bottom couple. The lead in B2 will be up through the couple above and cast down.

The Step in more detail

Perhaps some historical dance experts will read these notes and tell me I've got it all wrong and missed the vital point that a minuet step starts with a sink.  Yes, I know that, but read on — though I won't go into this when I'm actually teaching the workshop.  And Anne Daye, Chairman of the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, says:
I absolutely agree with your approach to teaching the steps: much as I do it.  I suggest you don't emphasise the sink before the step as it tends to result in people emphasising it as an important movement.  It functions exactly like the temps leve of the skip change, as you say.  The key feature is the step itself.  But gentle encouragement to step lightly on a quarter toe, initiated by the sink, then lower the heel ready for the next preparatory sink, would be productive.

Foot Positions

I've taken these from Welch (the lines represent the toes), and they're much the same as in ballet and Scottish:

Positions

Rameau mentions one version of the minuet step but says it is not so much used because it requires a very strong instep, so he devotes most of the description to an easier method, which he describes (in French) as:

…two demi-coupez, the first on the right foot and the second on the left foot, and two walks on the toes, one on the right and the other on the left, which is executed in the course of two measures of triple-time…
Each demi-coupé takes two beats, each walk one beat, total 6 beats.  The demi-coupé is a bend of both legs, followed by a step forward on a flat foot.  I could quickly describe a minuet step as sink-step-sink-step-toe-toe.  The minuet, like the rant, is very precise, made up of small movements; it's not a step for travelling long distances like the skip-change.  And every minuet step starts on the right foot — even if you're moving to the left.

For some English Folk dancers the problem is that the step starts on the up-beat — the first sink is actually on beat 3 of the previous bar.  In fact skip-change is the same: if you don't push upwards and forwards with the back foot on the up-beat you're doing a pas-de-bas.  In a minuet it's a sink rather than a push, but the principle is the same.  However, once you're moving I don't see any difference between thinking of the sink as the start of the step and thinking of it as the end of the step — they look exactly the same — so I can describe it as step-sink-step-toe-toe-sink.

The step starts (on the up-beat) with a demi-coupé on the right foot.  So the left foot must be in fourth position front with the weight supported on it.

Bring the right foot against the left in first position and bend both knees equally, without letting the right foot touch the floor.

Carry the right foot forward to fourth position, transferring the weight to it, and rise on the right demi-pointe.

Straighten both knees and bring the left foot close to the right heel.  Then lower the right heel to the ground to complete the demi-coupé.

Now demi-coupé left: bend the right knee without letting the left foot touch the ground, move the left foot to fourth position, transfer the weight to it and rise on the demi-pointe, straightening both knees and bringing both legs together.

Then two “pas marchés sur la demi-pointe”, right and left, lowering the left heel to the ground after the second.

You are now back in the starting position, ready for the next minuet step.

You can see examples of the minuet step on YouTube — some much better than others!  For instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s-Rp72dfPI and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUplaATIBjQ.  And you can read John Essex's translation of Rameau's description here.

Style

The minuet is nothing if not stylish; it's not the free and easy lilt of the country dance.  Stand up straight; imagine you are wearing a tight corset, and the ladies are wearing panniers which extend on either side.  Hands slightly forward of the body, arms with a slight curve, hands neither open nor shut, with a slight lift of the upper arm.  During the step the hands are raised and opened a little.  All the movements are small, but avoid affectation.  And — as in ballet but not so extreme — when bending the knees take care to open the hips (which will open the knees without twisting the knee caps) and turn the toes well outward.

The lady (says Rameau) should have her “head upright, shoulders back, which inlarges the breast, and gives a better grace to the body; the arms extended by the sides,” (but remember she was wearing panniers) “so that the elbows touch the hips, but all naturally.”  Does he really mean “elbows touch the hips”, or does he just mean “elbows in line with hips”?  Again there's the emphasis on looking natural, not artificial or affected.  These days when people slouch and don't carry themselves properly it won't look natural, but that's our fault not Rameau's.

Festing's Minuet        Festing's Minuet: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this dance

Source: Complete Collection of Celebrated Country Dances:  Wright, c.1740
Interpretation: Colin Hume, c.1985

Original wording:

The two 1st Cu. hands all four quite round  .   yn back again into their own places  :  then the ist Cu. cross over the 2d. Cu. and over the 3d. Cu. and turn behind the 3d. Cu.  .  then lead up thro the 3d. Cu. and so thro the 2d. Cu. and cast off into the 2d. Cu. place and turn  : 

Format: 3 Couples longways.

A1:(12 bars): Ones and twos circle left (6 minuet steps).
A2:Circle right (6 minuet steps).
B1:(20 bars): Ones cross, go below twos who move up (3 minuet steps), cross again, below threes who move up (3 minuet steps).  Ones two-hand turn (4 minuet steps).
B2:Ones lead up, others down outside and follow to invert set, ones cast to middle (6 minuet steps).  All two-hand turn (4 minuet steps).
Reverse progression.  Originally triple minor: the twos and threes would have taken no part in B2.

Other directions

We've been using the minuet step to move forwards.  You also need to go left, right and backwards.

Backwards: the step is the same, but all the steps are made backwards rather than forwards.

  Let's try something that they probably never did with the minuet step: Up a double and back — two minuet steps forward, two backward.

To the Right: the right foot is moved sideways, the left sideways but not too close (second position).  The left foot then goes behind the right both times in the double.

To the Left: it's the same steps and timing (and it still starts with the right foot), and again the feet cross twice.  The right foot goes in front of the left at the start of the single and behind the left in the middle of the double, as in a grapevine step.  If you want it by positions: right crossed to fifth position in front, left closed to first position, right crossed to fifth position behind, left to second position.

Suppose you want to set and turn single.  Playford describes a set (and it's about the only move he does describe) as a single to one side and a single to the other.

  This is perhaps how Playford would have danced a set.

I know that we do it with more bounce, and Scottish dancers do it with a lot more bounce, but in essence it's a single in each direction.

I haven't found any books that explain how to fit country dance figures to the minuet step, so I've made assumptions.  The minuet is a bit like a strathspey in that it's about half the speed of a normal jig or reel step; strathspey setting is again one step to the right and one to the left.

  I will attempt to demonstrate 8 bars of strathspey setting.

My assumption is that a set in minuet time is one minuet step to the right and one to the left, but it seems there are other ways of setting.  Anne Day says:

Really it's the dancers' choice to convey the spirit of the movement.  In the 1696 instructions for Mr Lane's Trumpet Minuet the instructions are 'set to the 2 wo.  then fall back and turn S.' so the set bit could be done with 2 sideways minuet steps or, as I often do, one minuet step forwards and 2 balances, taking same amount of music.

and Valerie Webster (who was at the workshop in Lichfield and knows a lot more about minuets than I do) says that it can be one minuet step forwards and one backwards, which looks good and is easier for inexperienced dancers.

  This is 8 bars of setting in minuet time.

  Try Set and turn single.  That's one step to the right, one step to the left, two steps rotating to the right.

Mr Lane's Trumpet-Minuet        Mr Lane's Trumpet-Minuet: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this dance

Source: Dancing Master Volume 3, c. 1719:  John Young.  (Same instructions with different music)
Interpretation: Colin Hume, c.1985

Original wording:

Mr Lane's Trumpet-Minuet, to be Danc'd with the Minuet-Step.

The 1. Man sett to the 2. Wo. then fall back and turn S .    The 1. Wo. sett to the 2. Man, then fall back and turn S :    The 1. Man take the 2. Man by the Right-hand, and turn round till they come into their own Places again, then all four take Hands quite round, till they come into their own Places again ; then 1. Wo. take Right Hands with the 2. Wo. and turn her till she comes in to her own Place, and all four Hands round back again, till they come into their own Places ; then 1. Man take his partner and lead her into the 2. cu. Place.    This to the second Strain played twice, and so far back as from the Repeat.

My thanks to Anne Daye for pointing out that I had ignored “and so far back as from the Repeat”  which means that after the second B you need to play the last four bars of the B again — there's a little “:S:” above this point in the music.  So instead of rushing the circle right and throwing in the ones' lead down in the last bar, we can take the same amount of music as for the circle left and then the ones have four bars to meet and lead down as the twos move up the outside.  For clarity I've notated this as the C-music.

Format: Longways duple.

A1:First man set forward to 2nd lady.  Turn single to place.
A2:First lady the same to second man.
B1:(14 bars): Men right-hand turn (3 minuet steps).  Circle left all the way (4 minuet steps).
B2:Ladies right-hand turn (3 minuet steps).  Circle right (4 minuet steps).
C:Ones meet and lead down, twos move up the outside (2 minuet steps).

New Minuet / Trumpet Minuet        Trumpet Minuet: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this dance

Source: New Minuet:           Dancing Master Volume 2, c. 1713:  John Young.
Source: Trumpet Minuet:    Dancing Master Volume 3, c. 1719:  John Young.
Interpretation: Colin Hume, 2011

Original wording:

Note : Each Strain is to be play'd twice over.

[ Note : This Dance must be done with the Minuet Step. ]

The two first men take Hands, and the two first women, and lead backward, the first couple cast off, and the second couple lead up.  This to the first Strain play'd once.  The first and second couple take Hands and meet each other, the second couple cast off and the first couple lead up.  This to the first Strain play'd twice.  The first couple cross over and turn Hands.  This to the second Strain play'd once.  Then lead up all abreast, and the first couple cast off.  This to the second Strain play'd twice.

The above wording is for New Minuet.  Trumpet Minuet has virtually the same wording, with underlined dots rather than references to the first and second strains, and the tune is one of Handel's minuets from the Water Music.

Format: Longways duple.

A1:Fall back with neighbour (2 minuet steps).  Ones cast while twos move in and up, taking inside hand as they meet, then turn in to face down.
A2:Lead partner towards neighbours.  Twos move down the outside while ones lead up.
B1:Ones cross and cast while twos meet and lead up (2 minuet steps).  Ones two-hand turn half-way while twos cast to the ends of a line of four.
B2:Lead up in line (2 minuet steps).  Ones cast while twos move in to meet partner.

My principle is that it you're already facing down or out you don't spin round if the instructions say “Cast”, you just go, so that's what I've said for the second half of A2 and that's also what I mean at the start of B1.  As usual, the instructions don't mention the “inactive” couple moving up.  If I find the whole set is shifting up I'll leave out the twos leading up in B1.

Mrs Booth's Minuet        Mrs Booth's Minuet: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this dance

Source: Dancing Master Volume 3, c. 1719:  John Young.
Interpretation: Colin Hume, c.1985

Original wording:

Note : Each Strain twice over.

First Hands all four quite round and cast off  .  Then Right and Left with the third Couple  :  Then the first Man turn the third Woman, and the first Woman with the second Man, and then his own Partner  .  Then the first Man turn the second Woman, and the first Woman the third Man, and then turn Partners  : 

Mrs Booth was a theatrical dancer of great distinction, and you can read about her here.

I'm not sure whether this one will work!  If it weren't a minuet I'd be quite happy with the timing, and I would alternate hands in the turns: right to corners, left to partner.  But a minuet step is not designed for travelling quickly, and therefore I'm using two-hand turns so that the ones' turn will be ¾ rather than 1¼.  Does the final “and then turn Partners” mean that everybody turns?  That's unusual, but we'll try it!

Format: Longways triple.

I will use the RSCDS approach of three working couples in a four couple set, so that the dance goes eight times through and each couple has two turns of being active, then move down the outside to the bottom while the new ones are starting the next turn.

A1:Top two couples circle left (3 minuet steps), ones cast, twos move up (1 minuet step).
A2:Four changes at the bottom (1 minuet step per change).
B1:Ones with first corner, two-hand turn (2 minuet steps).  Ones two-hand turn partner ¾.
B2:Ones with second corner, two-hand turn.  All two-hand turn partner.

Irish Lamentation        Print this dance

Source: 3rd Book of The Complete Dancing Master, c.1735: Walsh.
Interpretation: Colin Hume, 1995.

You can see the original wording, my interpretation and a link to the music on my Interpretations page.  The instructions don't say that it's to be danced to a minuet step, but they start: “First Man dances the Minuet Step to the 2d Wo.” so it's a fair assumption.  It also explains why there seems to be such a lot of music for the figures!  So in this workshop we'll go back to the minuet step at the start (which I take to be setting) rather than the set and turn single I would use at a regular dance.

I have other country dances which are all or part minuet, but there's far too much in this session already!

If you want to know more about minuets and much other dancing from a historical perspective, I recommend that you contact the Historical Dance Society (formerly the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society) at historicaldance.org.uk.