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La Batteuse, a Figure Dance
Contributed by Paul Cooper, Research Editor
La Batteuse (also known as La Bateuse or La Batteause) was a social dance that achieved a moderate degree of popularity in London during the Regency era, and was the subject of an entire work published in 1817 by the dancing master Thomas Wilson (see Figure 7). It was a square dance related to the Quadrille, but featured an unusual musical arrangement in 10-bar strains. It was referred to as a figure dance, and would showcase the talents of the dancers who performed it. In this paper we'll consider the story of this distinctive dance, and how it was performed.
But first we'll investigate the concept of Figure Dancing.
Figure 1. Illustration for the 1820 L'Horatia figure dance from Belle Assemblée
Some early references to La Batteuse described it as a Figure Dance. This term was applied to a wide range of choreographed dances, their distinguishing characteristic being a need for performers to know the figures. Figure dances were distinct from the unchoreographed Country Dances that were the staple of London's Ball Room dancing at the start of the 19th Century. The concept of a figure dance was sufficiently broad to include solo dances, couple and trio dances, or involve an entire team of performers. The term was often applied in social dancing to refer to the French style of Cotillion dancing introduced to Britain from the mid 1760s, and to its successor in the late 1810s, the Quadrille.
Many early references to the Quadrille dance described it as a figure dance; British quadrille dances of the Regency era featured complex choreographies and step sequences for the dancers to learn and then memorise. For example, the Duchess of Devonshire hosted a Fancy Dress Ball in 1811 in which
Figure dances could be challenging for many social dancers, the abundance of popular Quadrille choreographies required significant effort in order to memorise the figures. Modern Regency dancing enthusiasts are often encouraged to memorise sequences of figures, but this wasn't a characteristic of typical social dancing two hundred years ago... except with the figure dances.
A tactic sometimes employed to help the dancers was to hold a practice session ahead of a public Ball; for example, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette for 12th February 1818 advertised a subscription Ball, and added that
Figure 2. Detail from a 1792 Print called Rehearsing a Cotilion; the dancers have sheets of paper with instructions
A similarly useful term can be found in the phrase
Some early 19th Century references do exist to Figure Dances being performed at society Balls. In 1805 the Duchess of Abercorn hosted a ball in which
Figure 3. An 1833 Figure Dance on stage from Gustavus, Figaro in London 30th November 1833.
Figure dances could be performed by entire troupes of rehearsed dancers. Mrs Hope's Grand Ball in 1826 (The Morning Post, 1st May 1826) featured an example:
The term was also used to describe indigenous dances from around the world. The adventurer James Bruce in his 1790 Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile recorded a tribal dance from Abyssinia in which men
The link between these various different figure dances is that they all required practice. An untrained dancer couldn't simply give it a go, they needed to have memorised the choreography (i.e. the
It remained relatively common in the Regency era for public Balls to be commenced with a Figure Dance in the form of a courtly minuet; a lead couple, often the dancing master who was presiding over the ball together with a star pupil, would demonstrate their prowess to the admiring audience, before opening the floor to general social dancing. Figure dances were also a staple part of the various juvenile dancing academies; children would be taught routines, and would display what they'd learnt at a dancing-masters ball, presumably to the applause of their family and friends.
Benjamin Towle's Figure Dances, 1759
Figure 4. Towle's advert, Oxford Journal, 10th November 1759
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
A Dancing Master named Benjamin Towle began working on what could have been an important text on English figure dancing in 1759, unfortunately the book seems not to have been published. A discussion of that work is a little out of context here, but it seems a shame not to mention it. Benjamin Towle was a member of a successful family of Dancing Masters in the Oxford area, the family were active throughout much of the 18th Century. Benjamin published his Universal Dancing Master in 1759, then began work on a sequel. The law interrupted however; he was accused of assaulting several of his female pupils in 1760, convicted and pilloried, and sentenced to three months in prison (Oxford Journal, 19th July 1760):
He had previously shared his intentions, perhaps with a view to receiving subscriptions, in the Oxford Journal, 10th November 1759 (see Figure 4):
Mr. BENJAMIN TOWLE, Dancing-Master, BEGS Leave to inform the Publick, that he hath completed a Work, intituled,The Universal Dancing-Master, and is composing of a Universal Grammar, Introduction, and Dictionary, for the Explanation of Figure-Dances, which will explain all the known different Changes and Figures that can be performed by two Couples in an entire new Method, so plain and easy as the meanest Capacities may learn any of the Figures, and compose new Figure-Dances at Pleasure ad infinitum. In this Work Rules for the Composition of Figure-Dances will be written and explained in a proper Method, and will be published according to the Proposals when ready for the Press. The great Variety of Changes and Figures as will bear a proper Connection to each other in the above Work are imperceptible till they appear to the World, and speak for themselves; the Figures will be wrote so concise, that in 36 Pages of Letter-Press Octavo will be contained 1296 proper Figure-Dances, never before made publick, with proper Explanations of the Figures, Characters, and Abbreviations, &c, &c. Above 40,000 Figure-Dances, with their proper Explanations, are now ready for the Press. He doubts not of all Sorts of Practitioners receiving of the Work with Candour, Pleasure, and Satisfaction; particularly such as delights in Variety and the Improvement of Arts and Sciences. He is indefatigable in his Studies to compleat the Work as soon as possible, for the Benefit, Entertainment, and Ease of Dancing-Masters, Families, and all Sorts of Practitioners of Figure-Dances. The Time of his beginning to publish is uncertain, as the Work, when compleated, will be of a great Extent; and what renders it more tedious is, that he can't gain any Assistance from any former Writers of Figure-Dances, neither from foreign or domestick Writings. That Nothing may be wanting as the first to render the Work serviceable, plain, and easy, to all Sorts of Practitioners of Figure-Dances, he defers beginning to publish till the Work is near compleated to the utmost of his Power, and then to begin publishing.
Perhaps the work, or some portion of it, was in fact published. If you know more please do get in touch! It's one of my great disappointments to find a reference this detailed only for the associated publication to appear to have been lost... sadly this isn't the only such example. Towle mentioned that his choreographies are for
Matthew Towle, one of Benjamin's relatives (probably his Nephew), published his own Young Gentleman and Lady's Private Tutor in 1768 (Oxford Journal, 19th March 1768). It contained detailed information on deportment and on the dancing of the Minuet. It may have been influenced by Benjamin's work.
Popularity of La Batteuse
The Batteuse is a specific and named example of a figure dance, it combined a tune with a set of figures that were to be performed together. It's unusual to find historical evidence of named social dances being enjoyed - we generally just know the categories of dance: Waltz, Quadrille, Country Dance, etc.. But unusually, with La Batteuse, a reasonable amount of evidence of it being danced does exist; sufficient to know that it was popular, and that casual written references to it would be understood by contemporary readers.
Figure 5. The covers of Louis Jansen's c.1815 The Batteuse, and Böhmer's c.1815 Six New Favorite Dances
First Image © BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD, g.232.c.(30.) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The earliest reference I know of to La Batteuse being danced in England is from 1812. The Morning Chronicle reported:
The dancing master Mr Palmer from Liverpool advertised in 1815 (Liverpool Mercury, 17th February 1815) that
An 1816 playbill for the burletta Joconde, or Le Prince Troubadour mentions that an intermediary Waltz and the
Some dancers were evidently struggling to dance La Batteuse as Thomas Wilson wrote specifically about their poor performance in his 1816 Companion to the Ball Room (the words could have been added in a subsequent edition after this date). He wrote:
The author has seen theBatteauseattempted (and what was called danced) in a large Company, composed of Persons of the first Fashion, who instead of performing the Steps so necessarily adapted to the Dance, made a single Chassé answer to all the Purposes of the Dance, which reduced the Dance to nothing more than the Beating and the Figure, by which the Dance lost its principal Interest and Effect. From this Example, and the Dance (as being deprived of its Steps) looking so very easy, induced others to try it who had never learnt a Step, producing enough to bring any Dance, however good, into Contempt.
Despite this, Wilson went on to advertise his 1817
Figure 6. Figure of the Batteuse from Böhmer's c.1815 Six New Favorite Dances (above) and Martin Platts' c.1816 10th Periodical Collection of Popular Dances, Waltzes, &c. (below)The 1818 novel A Year and a Day by Frances Brooke included the dancing of La Batteuse:
a party of girls were dancing. There may be a double meaning to the wordla batteusein time to their own voices, professedly to warm themselves; but in reality to show off advantageously both their voices and their figures to a party of gentlemen who, crowding round the blazing fires, deprived the linked graces of any other hope of warmth
figurein this context!
References are harder to find after this date, though as late as 1835 the dancing mistress Mrs Thomas of Newcastle continued to feature it in her repertoire (Newcastle Journal, 17th January 1835). It also resurfaced in the 1850s in the repertoire of Mr. Smart (Leicestershire Mercury, 22nd June 1850); a dancing master named Mr. Huet went on to mention
The music or instructions for La Batteuse were published in several different sources, but the most verbose was that of Thomas Wilson's 1817 La Batteuse. It was published shortly after the second edition of his Quadrille Instructor, the Repository of Arts in 1817 even suggested it was a sequel to that work. In reviewing Wilson's book, they wrote:
The ten-bar musical strains, or multiples thereof, are one of the defining characteristics of La Batteuse; they are evident in almost all of the publications that include it (see, for example, Figures 6 and 7). Standard quadrilles used eight-bar strains, so this dance would be a distinctive hybrid, not quite a Quadrille (in the post-1818 sense), but clearly related. The 1817 date of Wilson's publication was a point in time when the standard formula for a British Quadrille had yet to gain acceptance, the dance could be referred to as a Quadrille despite failing to match the characteristics associated with later Quadrilles.It treats very minutely on the correct execution of the quadrille calledLa Batteuse, and, like the Quadrille Instructor, assists the directions by choreographic figures. The tune, which Mr. W. has added, is of a peculiar construction, having ten bars in each strain.
Some eight-bar variants of the music for La Batteuse do exist, specifically adapted for Country Dancing; an example can be found in Wheatstone's Elegant & Fashionable collection of 24 Country Dances for the Year 1814, another is in Martin Platts' c.1816 10th Periodical Collection of Popular Dances, Waltzes, &c. (this is in addition to the standard 10 bar arrangement published in that same collection, see Figure 6). A further example of an eight-bar variant can be found in the c.1816 Goulding D'Almaine Potter & Co's Select Collection of Country Dances, No 38; dating this work is mildly problematic, their 35th publication is known to date to mid 1815 (Morning Post, 8th July 1815), and the 37th includes a tune called St. Helena, so the 38th collection is likely to date to 1816.
A later hybrid variant of La Batteuse was also published by Thomas Wilson in his 1819 6th L'Assemblée Book (and also in some of his other publications for that year). He called the new version La Bateuse and arranged it as a Country Dance with an 8-bar A-strain followed by a 10-bar B-strain. The B-strain featured clapping and Pas de Basque steps, reminiscent of the primary Batteuse arrangement. This hybrid is interesting as being a-typical for a Country Dance, though it's unlikely to have been widely danced.
Returning to Wilson's main Batteuse arrangement, an 1817 review in The New Monthly Magazine added:
Notwithstanding the clear and copious manner of explaining the figures through eleven pages of this treatise, we were still at a loss for steps, when fortunately we discovered in a note at the bottom of page 4 thata knowledge of the steps is to be acquired of the author.So that we shall lose no time in hobbling to the Old Bailey to procure the proper information, and sip the Castalian stream at the fountain head. The melody of La Batteuse is, we believe, correct, but we would advise Mr. Wilson to get some musical friend to correct his basses.
There's an unfortunate irony in Wilson complaining in his 1816 Companion to the Ball Room that dancers were ignoring the steps that are so essential to La Batteuse, but then failing to fully document them in his own 1817 guide to the dance, resulting in a mixed review from an influential magazine.
Variant versions of La Batteuse were also in circulation. For example, Böhmer's c.1815 Six New Favorite Dances (see Figure 6) included a slightly simpler version than that described by Wilson, the Martin Platts variant (also figure 6) matches that of Böhmer. Wilson's version may not have been the more widely danced variant, though it is the best documented.
Wilson's Introduction to La Batteuse
The following text is how Thomas Wilson introduced the dance in his book (the cover of which can be seen in Figure 7):
Figure 7. Thomas Wilson's 1817 La Batteuse, and the music from Böhmer's c.1815 The Batteuse
First Image © BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD, h.125.(34.) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Wilson also provided two versions of the music, one called La Batteuse, and one called New Batteuse. The first was made up of 3 strains of 10 bars (the third strain repeating the first, but with a different bass line), the new version had two strains of 10 bars and a Da Capo. His new music was better adapted to emphasising where theThe great Celebrity which this Dance has so generally acquired in the first Circles of Fashion and the required frequentcy of its Introduction in all Fashionable Balls and Assemblies has rendered it necessary that every Teacher of Fashionable Dancing should become properly acquainted with it.
Beatingshould occur, but for a dance with so much repetition I suspect the original might be more stimulating. Gow's version of the music only provided a single strain of 10 bars, which would be even more dull to dance to. Böhmer's music can be seen in Figure 7, it consists of a 10 bar A strain followed by a 20 bar B strain.
Wilson's Figures for La Batteuse
The table below shows the figures for La Batteuse, as supplied by Wilson himself. The images are his, as is the text. I've added the bar numbers in the left hand column. If I've interpreted it correctly, the dance requires 640 bars of music in order to be performed once through. This is in clear contrast to a typical Quadrille which might only require 128 bars (32*4 bars). Each dancer is required to perform solo dancing figures at various points in the dance, and specific steps are required.
It might be noticed that the Böhmer and Platts variants in Figure 6 require less than half of the music of Wilson's version. Alternative arrangements are clearly possible. It's unclear whether Wilson's version documents the popularly accepted version of the dance, or if he had documented his own arrangement. It's unusual for Wilson to provide such detailed information about dancing a specific dance, that he did so hints that La Batteuse was relatively popular, and that a market existed for this degree of detail.
Wilson's publication was, perhaps, published a little too late. The dance was already going out of fashion, and references to it are rare after 1818. The First Set of Quadrilles had captured the public imagination; new Quadrille choreographies were introduced at a rapid pace between 1816 and c.1822, but they increasingly followed the conventions from the First Set. La Batteuse was briefly a Regency favourite, but it was an anomaly, and soon forgotten. It was one of the figure dances that competed with the early Quadrille, but it lacked sufficient popularity to endure; it's largely forgotten today.
That's where we'll end our investigation of this dance. If you have any further information to share, do please get in touch, we'd love to know more. If you do decide to dance La Batteuse, perhaps you could share a video of your group enjoying it?
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