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The social importance of dance in the 17th and 18th centuries

In the 21st century, dance is a part of life—it can be an occupation, a part of traditional weddings, a hobby, and a pastime, among other things. However, it is regarded quite differently than it was in the time of the Enlightenment, when it was a much more important part of regular social life, especially for the wealthier classes. In this time, young adults went to dance instructors to make sure they were properly trained for the social activities they would soon be a part of. Read on for excerpts of correspondence from Electronic Enlightenment highlighting just how important dancing was to everyday life in the 17th and 18th centuries.

René Descartes to père Marin Mersenne, 1630, using dance as an example to explain whether one can discover the essence of beauty:

“[W]hat makes some people want to dance may make others want to cry. This is because it evokes ideas in our memory: for instance those who have in the past enjoyed dancing to a certain tune feel a fresh wish to dance the moment they hear a similar one; on the other hand, if someone had never heard a galliard without some affliction befalling him, he would certainly grow sad when he heard it again.”

John Locke to Mary Clarke [née Jepp], 1685, giving advice on how to raise young girls:

“Girls should have a dancing master at home early: it gives them fashion and easy comely motion betimes which is very convenient, and they, usually staying at home with their mothers, do not lose it again, whereas the boys commonly going to school, they lose what they learn of a dancing master at home amongst their illfashioned schoolfellows, which makes it often less necessary because less useful for the boys to learn to dance at home when little: though if they were always to play at home in good company I should advise it for them too. If the girls are also by nature very bashful, it would be good that they should go also to dance publicly in the dancing schools when little till their sheepishness were cured…”

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu [née Pierrepont] to Alexander Pope, 1717, writing about women dancing that she witnessed on her trip to Turkey:

“The great lady still leads the dance, and is followed by a troop of young girls, who imitate her steps, and, if she sings, make up the chorus. The tunes are extremely gay and lively, yet with something in them wonderfully soft. The steps are varied according to the pleasure of her that leads the dance, but always in exact time, and infinitely more agreeable than any of our dances, at least in my opinion. I sometimes make one in the train, but am not skilful enough to lead; these are the Grecian dances, the Turkish being very different.”

Image credit: Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield by Allan Ramsay, 1765. Public domain via National Portrait Gallery.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield to his son Philip Stanhope, 1739, explaining how dancing relates to “decency,” which he considers one of the most important points of life:

“It is very proper and decent to dance well; but then you must dance only at balls, and places of entertainment; for you would be reckoned a fool, if you were to dance at church, or at a funeral. I hope, by these examples, you understand the meaning of the word Decency; which in French is Bienséance; in Latin Decorum; and in Greek Πρεπον.”

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield to his son Philip Stanhope, 1748, again imploring the importance of learning to dance well while at school:

“Do you mind your dancing while your dancing-master is with you? As you will be often under the necessity of dancing a minuet, I would have you dance it very well. Remember, that the graceful motion of the arms, the giving your hand, and the putting-on and pulling-off your hat genteelly, are the material parts of a gentleman’s dancing. But the greatest advantage of dancing well is, that it necessarily teaches you to present yourself, to sit, stand, and walk genteelly; all of which are of real importance to a man of fashion.”

Featured image credit: “A Dance in the Country” by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. Public domain via Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recent Comments

  1. Rogrt Allen

    There were other opinions: “Dancing is for the most part attended with many amorous smiles, wanton compliments, unchaste kisses, scurrilous songs and sonnets, effeminate music, lust-provoking attire, ridiculous love pranks, all of which savour only of sensuality, of raging fleshly lusts. Therefore it is wholly to be abandoned of all good Christians. Dancing serves no necessary use, no profitable, laudable or pious end at all. It is used only from the inbred pravity, vanity, wantoness, incontinency, pride, profaneness or madness of men’s depraved natures. Therefore it must needs be unlawful unto Christians. The way to Heaven is too steep, too narrow for men to dance in and keep revel rout. No way is large or smooth enough for capering roisters, for jumping, skipping, dancing dames but that broad, beaten, pleas ant road that leads to Hell. The gate of Heaven is too narrow for whole rounds, whole troupes of dancers to march in together.” William Prynne from Histriomastix

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