Read Some Thoughts on the Utility of Learning to Dance, and especially upon the Minuet of A Treatise on the Art of Dancing , free online book, by Giovanni-Andrea Gallini, on ReadCentral.com.

Was I, in quality of a dancing-master, to offer even the strongest reasons of inducement to learn this art, they could not but justly lose much, if not all, of their weight, from my supposed interest in the offering them; besides the partiality every artist has for his art.

It would however exceed the bounds prescribed to modesty itself, were I to neglect availing myself of the authority of others, who were not only far from being professors of this art, but who hold the highest rank in the public opinion for solidity of understanding, and purity of morals, and who yet did not disdain to give their opinion in favor of an art only imagined frivolous, for want of considering it in a just and inlarged view.

After this introduction, I need not be ashamed of quoting Mr. Locke, in his judicious treatise of education.

“Nothing (says he) appears to me to give children so much becoming confidence and behaviour, and so to raise them to the conversation of those above their age, as dancing. I think they should be taught to dance as soon as they are capable of learning it; for though this consists only in outward gracefulness of motion, yet, I know not how, it gives children manly thoughts and carriage more than any thing.”

In another place, he says,

“Dancing being that which gives graceful motions to all our lives, and above all things, manliness, and a becoming confidence to young children, I think it cannot be learned too early, after they are once capable of it. But you must be sure to have a good master, that knows and can teach what is graceful and becoming, and what gives a freedom and easiness to all the motions of the body. One that teaches not this, is worse than none at all; natural awkwardness being much better than apish affected postures: and I think it much more passable, to put off the hat, and make a leg like an honest country-gentleman, than like an ill-fashioned dancing-master. For as for the jigging, and the figures of dance, I count that little or nothing better than as it tends to perfect graceful carriage.”

The Chevalier De Ramsay, author of Cyrus’s travels, in his plan of education for a young Prince, has (page 14.) the following passage to this purpose.

“To the study of poetry, should be joined that of the three arts of imitation. The antients represented the passions, by gests, colors and sounds. Xenophon tells us of some wonderful effects of the Grecian dances, and how they moved and expressed the passions. We have now lost the perfection of that art; all that remains, is only what is necessary to give a handsome action and airs to a young gentleman. This ought not to be neglected, because upon the external figure and appearance, depends often the regard we have to the internal qualities of the mind. A graceful behaviour, in the house of Lords or Commons, commands the attention of a whole assembly.”

And most certainly in this last allegation of advantage to be obtained by a competent skill, or at least tincture of the art, the Chevalier Ramsay, has not exagerated its utility. Quintilian has recommended it, especially in early years, when the limbs are the most pliable, for procuring that so necessary accomplishment, in the formation of orators gesture: observing withall, that where that is not becoming, nothing else hardly pleases.

But even independent of that consideration, nothing is more generally confessed, than that this branch of breeding qualifies persons for presenting themselves with a good grace. To whom can it be unknown that a favorable prepossession at the first sight is often of the highest advantage; and that the power of first impressions is not easily surmountable?

In assemblies or places of public resort, when we see a person of a genteel carriage or presence, he attracts our regard and liking, whether he be a foreigner or one of this country. At court, even a graceful address, and an air of ease, will more distinguish a man from the croud, than the richest cloaths that money may purchase; but can never give that air to be acquired only by education.

There are indeed who, from indolence or self-sufficiency, affect a sort of carelessness in their gait, as disdaining to be obliged to any part of their education, for their external appearance, which they abandon to itself under the notion of its being natural, free, and easy.

But while they avoid, as they imagine, the affectation of over-nicety, they run into that of a vicious extreme of negligence, which proves nothing but either a deficiency of breeding, or if not that, a high opinion of themselves, with what is not at all unconsequential to that, a contempt of others.

Such are certainly much mistaken, if they imagine that an art, which is principally designed to correct defects, should leave so capital an one subsisting as that of want of ease, and freedom, in the gesture and gait. On the contrary, it is as great an enemy to stiffness, as it is to looseness of carriage, and air. It equally reprobates an ungainly rusticity, and a mincing, tripping, over-soft manner. Its chief aim is to bring forth the natural graces, and not to smother them with appearances of study and art.

But of all the people in the world, the British would certainly be the most in the wrong for not laying a great enough stress on this part of education; since none have more conspicuously the merit of figure and person; and it would in them be a sort of ingratitude to Nature, who has done so much for them, not to do a little more for themselves, in acquiring an accomplishment, the utility of which has been acknowledged in all ages, and in all countries, and especially by the greatest and most sensible men in their own.

As to the ladies, there is one light in which perhaps they would not do amiss to view the practice of this art, besides that of mere diversion or improvement of their deportment: it is that of its being highly serviceable to their health, and to what it can never be expected they should be indifferent about, their beauty, it being the best and surest way of preserving, or even giving it to their whole person.

It is in history a settled point, that beauty was no where more florishing, nor less rare, than among such people as encouraged and cultivated exercise, especially in the fair sex. The various provinces and governments in Greece, all agreed, some in a less, some in a greater degree, in making exercise a point of female education. The Spartans carried this to perhaps an excess, since the training of the children of that sex, hardly yielded to that of the male in laboriousness and fatigue. Be this confessed to be an extreme: but then it was in some measure compensated by its being universally allowed, that the Spartan women owed to it that beauty in which they excelled the rest of the Grecian women, who were themselves held, in that point, preferable to the rest of the world. Hellen was a Spartan. Yet the legislator of that people, did not so much as consider this advantage among the ends proposed in prescribing so hardy an education to the weaker sex. His views were for giving them that health and vigor of body, which might enable them to produce a race of men the fittest to serve their country in war.

But as the best habit of body is ever inseparable from the greatest perfection of beauty, of which its possessor is susceptible, it very naturally followed, that the good plight to which exercise brought and preserved the females, gave also to their shape, that delicacy and suppleness, and to their every motion, that graceful agility which caracterized the Grecian beauties, and distinguished them for that nymph-stile of figure, which we to this day admire in the description of their historians, of their poets, or in the representations that yet remain to us in their statues, or other monuments of antiquity.

But omitting to insist on the Spartan austerity, and especially on their gimnastic training for both sexes, and to take the milder methods of exercise in use among the Grecians, we find that the chace, that foot-races, and especially dancing, principally composed the amusement of the young ladies of that country; where, in the great days of Greece, no maxim ever more practically prevailed, than that sloth or inactivity was equally the parent of diseases of the body, as of vices of the mind. Agreeable to which idea, one of the greatest physicians now in Europe, the celebrated Tronchin, while at Paris, vehemently declaimed against this false delicacy and aversion against exercise; from which the ladies, especially of the higher rank of life, derived their bad habits of body, their pale color, with all the principles of weakness, and of a puny diseased constitution, which they necessarily intail on their innocent children. Thence it was that he condemned the using oneself too much to coaches or chairs, which, he observed, lowers the spirits, thickens the humors, numbs the nerves, and cramps the liberty of circulation.

Considering the efficacy of exercise, and that fashion has abolished or at least confined among a very few, the more robust methods of amusement, it can hardly not be eligible to cultivate and encourage an art, so innocent and so agreeable as that of dancing, and which at once unites in itself the three great ends, of bodily improvement, of diversion, and of healthy exercise. As to this last especially, it has this advantage, its being susceptible at pleasure, of every modification, of being carried from the gentlest degree of motion, up to that of the most violent activity. And where riding is prescribed purely for the sake of the power of the concussion resulting from it, to prevent or to dissipate obstructions, the springs and agitations of the bodily frame, in the more active kind of dances, can hardly not answer the same purpose, especially as the motion is more equitably diffused, and suffers no checks or partiality from keeping the seat, as either in riding, or any other method of conveyance. At least, such an entertainment, one would imagine, preferable, for many reasons, to an excess of such sedentary amusements as those of cards, and the like.

Certainly those of the fair sex who use exercise, will, in their exemption from a depraved or deficient appetite, in the freshness or in the glow of their color, in the firmness of their make, in the advantages to their shape, in the goodness in general of their constitution, find themselves not ill repaid for conquering any ill-habit of false delicacy and sloth, to which so many, otherwise fine young ladies, owe the disorders of their stomach, their pale sickly hue, and that languid state of health which must poison all their pleasures, and even endanger their lives. These are not strained nor far-fetched consequences.

But even as to those of either sex, the practice of dancing is attended with obviously good effects. Such as are blessed by nature with a graceful shape and are clean-limbed, receive still greater ease and grace from it; while at the same time, it prevents the gathering of those gross and foggy humors which in time form a disagreeable and inconvenient corpulence. On the other hand, those whose make and constitution occasion a kind of heavy proportion, whose muscular texture is not distinct, whose necks are short, shoulders round, chest narrow, and who, in short are, what may be called, rather clumsy figures; these will greatly find their account in a competent exercise of the art of dancing, not only as it will give them a freedom and ease one would not, at the first sight, imagine compatible with their figure, but may contribute much to the cure, or at least to the extenuation of such bodily defects, by giving a more free circulation to the blood, a habit of sprightliness and agility to the limbs, and preventing the accumulation of gross humors, and especially of fat, which is itself not among the least diseases, where it prevails to an excess. Not that I here mean any thing so foolishly partial, as that nothing but dancing could operate all this; but only place it among not the least efficacious means.

Nothing is more certain than that exercises in general, diversions, such as that of hunting, and the games of dexterity, keep up the natural standard of strength and beauty, which luxury and sloth are sure to debase.

Dancing furnishes then to the fair-sex, whose sphere of exercise is naturally more confined than that of the men, at once a salutary amusement, and an opportunity of displaying their native graces. But as to men, fencing, riding and many other improvements have also doubtless their respective merit, and answer very valuable purposes.

But where only the gentlest exercise is requisite, the minuet offers its services, with the greatest effect; and when elegantly executed, forms one of the most agreeable fights either in private or public assemblies, or, occasionally, even on the theatre itself.

Yet I speak not of this dance here with any purpose of specifying rules for its attainment. Such an attempt would be vain and impracticable. Who does not know that almost every individual learner requires different instructions? The laying a stress on some particular motion or air which may be proper to be recommended to one, must be strictly forbidden to another. In some, their natural graces need only to be called forth; in others the destroying them by affectation is to be carefully checked. Where defects are uncurable, the teacher must show how they may be palliated and sometimes even converted into graces. It will easily then be granted that there is no such thing as learning a minuet, or indeed any dance merely by book. The dead-letter of it can only be conveyed by the noting or description of the figure and of the mechanical part of it; but the spirit of it in the graces of the air and gesture, and the carriage of the dancer can only be practically taught by a good master.

I have mentioned the distinction of a good master, most assuredly not in the way of a vain silly hint of self-recomdation; but purely for the sake of giving a caution, too often neglected, against parents, or those charged with the education of youth, placing children, at the age when their muscles are most flexible, their limbs the most supple, and their minds the most ductile, and who are consequently susceptible of the best impressions, under such pretended masters of this art, who can only give them the worst, and who, instead of teaching, stand themselves in need of being taught. The consequence then of such a bad choice, is, that young people of the finest disposition in the world, contract, under such teachers, bad, awkward habits, that are not afterwards easily curable.

Those masters who possess the real grounds of their art, find in their uniting their practice with their knowledge, resources even against the usual depredations of age; which, though it may deprive them of somewhat of their youthful vigor, has scarce a sensible influence on their manner of performance. There will still long remain to them the traces of their former excellence.

I have myself seen the celebrated Dupre, at near the age of sixty, dance at Paris, with all the agility and sprightliness of youth, and with such powers of pleasing, as if the graces in him had braved superannuation.

Such is the advantage of not having been content with a superficial tincture of this art; or with a mere rote of imitation, without an aim at excellence or originality.

But though there is no necessity for most learners to enter so deep into the grounds and principles of the art, as those who are to make it their profession, it is at least but doing justice to one’s scholars to give them those essential instructions as to the graces of air, position, and gesture; without which they can never be but indifferent performers.

For example, instead of being so often told to turn their toes out, they should be admonished to turn their knees out, which will consequently give the true direction to the feet. A due attention should also be given to the motion of the instep, to the air of sinking and rising; to the position of the hips, shoulders, and body; to the graceful management of the arms, and particularly to the giving the hand with a genteel manner, to the inflections of the neck and head, and especially to the so captivating modesty of the eye; in short, to the diffusing over the whole execution, an air of noble ease, and of natural gracefulness.

It might be too trite to mention here what is so indispensable and so much in course, the strict regard to be paid to the keeping time with the music.

Nothing has a better effect, nor more prepossessing in favor of the performance to follow, than the bow or curtsy at the opening the dance, made with an air of dignity and freedom. On the contrary, nothing is more disgustful than that initial step of the minuet, when auckwardly executed. It gives such an ill impression as is not easily removed by even a good performance in the remaining part of the dance.

There is another point of great importance to all, but to the ladies especially, which is ever strictly recommended in the teaching of the minuet; but which in fact, like most of the other graces of that dance, extends to other occasions of appearance in life. This point is the easy and noble port of the head. Many very pretty ladies lose much of the effect of their beauty, and of the signal power of the first impressions, as they enter a room, or a public assembly, by a vulgar or improper carriage of the head, either poking the neck, or stooping the head, or in the other extreme, of holding it up too stiff, on the Mama’s perpetually teizing remonstrance, of “hold up your head, Miss,” without considering that merely bridling, without the easy grace of a free play, is a worse fault than that of which she will have been corrected.

Certainly nothing can give a more noble air to the whole person than the head finely set, and turning gracefully, with every natural occasion for turning it, and especially without affectation, or stifly pointing the chin, as if to show which way the wind sits.

But it must be impossible for those who stoop their heads down, to give their figure any air of dignity, or grace of politeness. They must always retain something of ignoble in their manner. Nothing then is more recommendable than for those who are naturally inclined to this defect, to endeavor the avoiding it by a particular attention to this capital instruction in learning the minuet. It is also not enough to take the minuet-steps true to time, to turn out their knees, and to slide their step neatly, if that flexibility, or rise and fall from the graceful bending of the instep, is not attended to, which gives so elegant an air to the execution either of the minuet, or of the serious theatrical dances. Nothing can more than that, set off or show the beauty of the steps.

It should also be recommended to the dancers of the minuet, ever to have an expression of that sort of gaity and chearfulness in the countenance, which will give it an amiable and even a noble frankness. Nothing can be more out of character, or even displeasing, than a froward or too pensive a look. There may be a sprightly vacancy, an openness in the face, without the least tincture of any indecent air of levity: as there may be a captivating modesty, without any of that bashfulness which arises either from low breeding, wrong breeding, or no breeding at all.

But to execute a minuet in a very superior manner, it is recommendable to enter into some acquaintance, at least, with the principles of the serious or grave dances, with a naturally genteel person, a superficial knowledge of the steps, and a smattering of the rules, any one almost may soon be made to acquit himself tolerably of a minuet; but to make a distinguished figure, some notion of the depths and refinements of the art, illustrated by proper practice, are required.

It is especially incumbent on an artist, not to rest satisfied with having pleased: he should, from his knowledge of the grounds of his art, be able to tell himself why he has pleased; and thus by building upon solid principles, preferably to mere lucky hits, or to transient and accidental advantages of form or manner, insure the permanency of his power to please.

There is a vice in dancing, against which pupils cannot be too carefully guarded; it is that of affectation. It is essentially different from that desire of pleasing, which is so natural and so consistent even with the greatest modesty, in that it always builds on some falsity, mistaken for a means of pleasing, though nothing can more surely defeat that intention; there is not an axiom more true than that the graces are incompatible with affectation. They vanish at the first appearance of it: and the curse of affectation is, that it never but lets itself be seen, and wherever it is seen, it is sure to offend, and to frustrate its own design.

The simplicity of nature is the great fountain of all the graces; from which they flow spontaneous, when unchecked by affectation, which at once poisons and dries them up.

Nature does not refuse cultivation, but she will not bear being forced. The great art of the dancing-master is not to give graces, for that is impossible, but to call forth into a nobly modest display those latent ones in his scholars, which may have been buried for want of opportunities or of education to break forth in their native lustre, or which have been spoiled or perverted, by wrong instruction, or by bad models of imitations. In this last case, the master’s business is rather to extirpate than to plant; to clear the ground of poisonous exotics, and to make way for the pleasing productions of nature.

This admirable prerogative of pleasing, inseparable from the natural graces, unpoisoned by affectation, is in nothing more strongly exemplified, than in the rural dances, where simplicity of manners, a sprightly ease, and an exemption from all design but that of innocent mirth, give to the young and handsome villagers, or country-maids, those inimitable graces for ever unknown to artifice and affectation. Not but, even in those rural assemblies, there may be found some characters tainted with affectation; but then in the country they are exceptions, whereas in town they constitute the generality, who are so apt to mistake airs for graces, though nothing can be more essentially different.

But how shall those masters guard a scholar sufficiently against affectation, who are themselves notoriously infected with it? Nay, this is so common to them, that it is even the foundation of a proverbial remark, that no gentleman can be said to dance well, who dances like a dancing-master. Those false refinements, that finical, affected air so justly reproached to the generality of teachers, a master should correct in himself before he can well give lessons for avoiding them to his pupils. And, in truth, they are but wretched substitutes to the true grounds and principles of the art, in which nothing is more strongly inculcated than the total neglect of them, and the reliance on the engaging and noble simplicity of nature.

It is then no paradox to say that the more deep you are in the art, the less will it stifle nature. On the contrary, it will, in the noble assurance which a competent skill is sure to bring with it, give to the natural graces a greater freedom and ease of display. Imperfection of theory and practice cramps the faculties; and gives either an unpleasing faulteringness to the air, steps, and gestures, or wrong execution. And as the minuet derives its merit from an observation of the most agreeable steps, well chosen in nature and well combined by art, there is no inconsistence in avering that art may, in this, as in many other objects of imitative skill, essentially assist nature, and place her in the most advantageous point of light.

The truth of this will be easily granted, by numbers who have felt the pleasure of seeing a minuet gracefully executed by a couple who understood this dance perfectly. Nay, excellence in the performance of it, has given to an indifferent figure, at least a temporary advantage over a much superior one in point of person only; and sometimes an advantage of which the impression has been more permanent.

But besides the effect of the moment in pleasing the spectators; the being well versed in this dance especially contributes greatly to form the gait, and address, as well as the manner in which we should present ourselves. It has a sensible influence in the polishing and fashioning the air and deportment in all occasions of appearance in life. It helps to wear off any thing of clownishness in the carriage of the person, and breathes itself into otherwise the most indifferent actions, in a genteel and agreeable manner of performing them.

This secret and relative influence of the minuet, Marcel, my ever respected master, whom his own merit in his profession, and the humorous mention of him by Helvetius, in his famous book DE L’ESPRIT, have made so well known, constantly kept in view, in his method of teaching it. His scholars were generally known and distinguished from those of other masters, not only by their excellence in actual dancing, but by a certain superior air of easy-genteelness at other times. He himself danced the minuet to its utmost perfection. Not that he confined his practice to that dance alone; on the contrary, he confessed himself obliged for his greatest skill in that, to his having a general knowledge of all the other dances, which he had practised, but especially those of the serious stile.

But certainly it is not only to the professed dancer, that dancing in the serious stile, or the minuet, with grace and ease, is essential. The possessing this branch of dancing is of great service on the theatre, even to an actor. The effect of it steals into his manner, and gait, and gives him an air of presenting himself, that is sure to prepossess in his favor. Persons of every size or shape are susceptible of grace and improvement from it. The shoulders so drawn back as not to protuberate before, but as it were, to retreat from sight, or as the French express it bien effacees, the knees well turning outwards, with a free play; the air of the shape noble and disengaged; the turns and movements easy; in short, all the graces that characterise a good execution of the minuet, will, insensibly on all other occasions, distribute through every limb and part of the body, a certain liberty and agreeableness of motion easier to be conceived than defined. To the actor, in all characters, it gives, as I have just before observed, a graceful mien and presence; but, in serious characters, it especially suggests that striking portliness, that majestic tread of the stage, for which some actors from the very first of their appearance so happily dispose the public to a favorable reception of their merit in the rest of their part. An influence of the first impression, which a good actor will hardly despise, especially with due precaution against his contracting any thing forced or affected in his air or steps, from his attention to his improvement by dancing, as the very best things may be even pernicious by a misuse. Whatever is not natural, free, and easy, will undoubtedly, on the stage, as every where else, have a bad effect. A very little matter of excess will, from his aim at a grace, produce a ridiculous caricature. Too stiff a regulation of his motions or gestures, by measure and cadence, would even be worse than abandoning every thing to chance; which might, like the Eolian harp, sometimes suffer lucky hits to escape him; whereas affectation is as sure forever to displease, as it is not to escape the being seen where it exists.

Among the many reasons for this dance of the minuet having become general, is the possibility of dancing it to so many different airs, though the steps are invariable. If one tune does not please a performer, he may call for another; the minuet still remaining unalterable.

There is no occasion however for a learner to be confined to this dance. He should rather be encouraged, or have a curiosity be excited in him, to learn especially those dances, which are of the more tender or serious character, contributing, as they greatly do, to perfect one in the minuet; independently of the pleasure they besides give both in the performance and to the sight. The dances the most in request are, the Saraband, the Bretagne the Furlana, the Passepied, the Folie d’Espagne, the Rigaudon, the Minuet du Dauphin the Louvre, La Mariee, which is always danced at the Opera of Roland at Paris. Some of these are performed solo, others are duet-dances. The Louvre is held by many the most pleasing of them all, especially when well executed by both performers, in a just concert of motions; no dance affording the arms more occasion for a graceful display of them, or a more delicate regularity of the steps; being composed of the most select ones from theatrical dances, and formed upon the truest principles of the art. This dance is executed in most countries of Europe without any variation. It is generally followed or terminated by a minuet; and these two dances, the Louvre and the minuet, are at present the most universally in fashion, and will, in all probability, continue so, from their being both pleasing beyond all others, to the performers, as well as to the spectators, and from their not being difficult to learn, if the scholar has but common docility.

Youth being for learning this art undoubtedly the best season, for reasons as I have before observed, too obvious to need insisting on, the master cannot pay too much attention to the availing himself of the pliancy of that age, to give his scholars the necessary instructions for preparing and well-disposing their limbs. This holds good, particularly with regard to that propensity innate to most persons of turning in their toes. I have already mentioned the expediency of curing this defect, by the directing them to acquire a habit of turning the knees outward, to which I have to add, that on the proper turn of the knee, chiefly depend the graces of the under part of the figure, that is to say, from the foot to the hip.

Frequent practice also of dancing, or of any salutary exercise, is also highly recommendable for obtaining a firmness of body; for a tottering dancer can never plant his steps so as to afford a pleasing execution. It may sound a little odd, but, the truth is, that in dancing, sprightliness and agility are principally produced by bodily strength; while on the contrary, weakness, or infirmity, must give every step and spring, not only a tottering, but a heavy air. The legs that bear with the most ease the weight of the body, will naturally make it seem the lightest.