BackThe English foundations of the French Cotillon

Anne Daye

The cotillon was danced in French and English ballrooms from the 1760s to around 1815, when it was superseded by the quadrille.  The dance was always viewed as quintessentially French: the majority had French titles, instructions were often printed in French, the step-names were French and many new cotillon figures and established English ones were given French terminology: poussette, queue de chat (promenade within the set) and moulinet (hands across).  The longways country dance, of course, was definitely English known as 'contredanse anglaise' in France, while the cotillon was called 'contredanse française'.  The characteristic feature of the cotillon was its square formation, danced by two or four couples.  The sociable and more democratic nature of the square was part of the appeal in the late 18th century ballrooms of both countries, enjoyed alongside the couple minuet, the couple allemande and the longways country dance.

Understanding of the cotillon's origins in France has been guided by the publications of Jean-Michel Guilcher, for example La Contredanse: un tournant dans l'histoire française de la danse.  Centre National de la Danse: Editions Complexe, 2003.  The story starts with the adoption in court circles of the longways English country dance during the 1690s, as a welcome contrast to the serious and refined solo couple dances and the ancient branle in its formula of dancing repetitive step-sequences in a string of couples.  Guilcher argues that the country dance introduced a diversity of figures never known previously in French repertoires: a significant change to French artistry in social dancing.  However, Guilcher argues that the square form of the cotillon derived from the branle, rejecting the proposal of Cecil Sharp that the squares and rounds of the English country dance were the foundation of the cotillon (Sharp, Cecil The Country Dance Book: Part 2. London: Novello & Co., 1927, p. 15).  One reason for Guilcher's stance is the assumption that only the longways form of the country dance was known in France at that time, using as an example the two manuscripts of André Lorin based on his dance-collecting trip to England in 1685 (Livre de Contredance presente au roi MSfr.1697 and Livre de la Contredance du Roy MSfr 1698.  Bibliothèque Nationale).  However, French understanding of the country dance had been circulating since at least the 1620s, and the diaspora of the English royal family and nobility to France and the continent during the Civil War and Commonwealth (1640 to 1660) took English practice abroad at a time when the squares and rounds were still fashionable.  A useful pointer to this is that Charles II called for Cuckold's All a Row (square for two couples) at the Whitehall ball of 1662, as recorded by Pepys in his diary.  Guilcher's argument is also based on Feuillet's Le Cotillon of 1705, the first cotillon published in France (Feuillet, Raoul-Auger 3e Receuil de danses de bal pour l'anneé de 1705.  Paris).  Feuillet states: 'Le Cotillon…c'est une manière de branle à quatre' (a kind of branle for four) and labels the tune 'Branle'.  However, Guilcher is not able to provide any examples of branles danced in a square and restricted to four couples.  Indeed, the 18th century notated records for the branle show that it was still stereotypically danced in a line (La Vigne MS Durlach 210 Badische Landesbiblioteck Karlsruhe, n.d; Malpied Danse de Ville [Les Tricotets].  Paris: Bouin [1786]).  It is likely that the tune is called a branle by Feuillet as it is in gavotte rhythm, a metre strongly associated with the branle, and was the only French dance-form for as many as will.  At the least, the notion that the square formation was devised by the French and not copied from English models is unproven.

A further characteristic feature of the cotillon from its earliest days has been ignored in discussion of its origins: the bi-partite structure of changes and a figure.  Each cotillon has its own tune and its own figure but the figure is repeated between a section of changes that follow a conventional sequence.  Le Cotillon 1705 for two couples in a square commences with leading forward and backward, followed by a short figure; the dancers then meet their own partners by right and left shoulders, followed by the same short figure; the dancers then turn their own partners by the right and left hands, followed by the same short figure.  They continue this sequence with the changes of two-hand turns, right and left hands across for all and circling one way and then the other for all, each time followed by the figure.  Feuillet calls the figure 'refrain' and the changes 'le couplet'.  The English terminology of 'figure' and 'changes' is used in publications of cotillons from the late 1760s but is useful here for discussing earlier dances.  The structure of changes and a figure is found of course in the earliest publication by John Playford of the English country dance The English Dancing Master of 1651, but not in any French publication prior to 1705.  Upon a Summer's Day is typical of eleven dances with the same bi-partite structure of Le Cotillon of changes followed by the same figure.  The first three changes of Le Cotillon follow the pattern of leading, siding and arming.  The bi-partite structure is found in 54 more dances in Playford 1651 with more complexity as the three changes are followed by varying figures in longways, rounds and squares, Cuckolds all a row being an example.  The cotillon in France adopted this more complex structure, only recorded in publications from 1775 and called 'medley contredances' (Landrin Potpourri François des Contredances Anciennes.  Paris).  This type, apparently never enjoyed in England, became a mainstream form and led to the sets of quadrilles once the changes were dropped.  None of Lorin's country dances have this complex bi-partite structure, although it had been commonplace in the English repertoire until the 1690s (Daye, Anne 'Taking the Measure of Dance Steps 1650 — 1700' in John Playford and The English Dancing Master 1651

There is further evidence that the bi-partite structure of English country dances was known in France in another publication by Feuillet for which he simplified his notation system to publish longways country dances, both English and new ones by French masters (Recueil de Contredances.  Paris 1706).  La Chaine, longways for four couples commences with leading up to the Presence and back twice, followed by the first couple crossing the set and casting until they reach the bottom of the set, a figure repeated by all three couples until all are in place again.  The leading up and back figure is repeated before a succession of other figures, with clear instructions by the author so that there is no doubt about the bi-partite structure of the dance.  While there is no exact concordance in Playford 1651 for La Chaine, the repetition of a leading figure between other figures is found, for example, in The Chirping of the Lark and Pepper's Black.  This 1706 publication also includes La Chasse which comprises the figure we know today as 'strip the willow'.  The English concordance is Trenchmore in the second edition of Playford (1652) for which it is one of the figures each interspersed with a leading figure.  The 'strip the willow' figure was popular in France becoming the basis of the famous cotillon Le Boulanger matched to a traditional song tune.  Le Boulanger became a popular simple cotillon in England too, often used as a finishing dance at a ball or assembly.  Considered delightfully French, it was an English invention re-imported to these islands.

As Feuillet (1706) stated in his Preface: 'The English being the first inventors of them, all the country dances of England found in this collection are originals chosen from the most beautiful, the most popular and the most memorable ones as they are danced in that country'.  In cultural history, and dance history in particular, it is rare for English influence to be so clearly acknowledged.  While the cotillon/contredance française was formed in France, the English model for the square formation and the bi-partite structure of the genre must also be reclaimed from the French narrative of the dance.

To enjoy cotillons see our publications and enjoy a workshop: Dances for Jane Austen; More Dances for Jane Austen and A New collection of Dances for Jane Austen see the website

© 2021  Anne Daye, Director of Education and Research for The Historical Dance Society