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The Pousette Figure in English Regency Dancing
Contributed by Paul Cooper, Research Editor
We considered the history of the Allemande dance figure in a previous article, this time we'll review the Pousette figure in English social dancing of the greater Regency era. We'll look at the history of the figure, how it's interpreted, and how to dance it.
The word 'Pousette' derives from the French pousser meaning 'to push'. It involves a couple joining both hands, and one person pushes the other backwards, they then reverse direction to return. The most common pousette variant involves two couples moving around each other, counter clockwise, in 8 bars of music. The name 'Pousette' enters the English Ball rooms from France around 1770, though as we'll see, the figure itself is much older.
Figure 1 shows a couple dancing what could be a Pousette1. They have joined both hands, but we can't see the direction of movement. This scene is probably a caricature of the Waltz, the couple depicted were influential in popularising that dance form in London. The Pousette figure is largely unrelated to the Waltz, but the picture is helpful in visualising the Pousette hold.
The typical Pousette figure involves two couples, and is depicted using stick figures in Figure 2. This is an 1817 illustration showing two couples moving around each other2. Figure 9 shows details from a c.1795 Rowlandson caricature of a Country Dance3, the couples appear to be mid-pousette. If they are dancing a Pousette, they've returned into a near perfect longways line; a well danced Country Dance Pousette should involve a perfectly straight line half way through the figure, and again at the end of the figure. But more of that later.
The Pousette in Cotillion Dancing
The term Pousette enters England from France through the Cotillion dances of the 1760s. The French writer De La Cuisse describes two different Pousette figures for use in Cotillions in 1762. He says (I've translated using Google Translate) Pousettes are holding hands with a lady and pushing ahead, the lady in turn pushes the gentleman. Sometimes Pousettes are done by rotating around each other.4. His first variant is a simple backwards and forwards movement, the second involves rotation. The second of these variants is illustrated in Figure 35. This rotational pousette involves the couples moving around each other, but each individual faces the same direction throughout the figure. The head man pulls his partner into the side couples place, at the same time the side lady pulls her partner into the head couples place; they then repeat the figure to return to their original positions.
The first collections of English Cotillions were published in the late 1760s. These Cotillions occasionally feature the Pousette figure, and several writers describe the figure for us. Giovanni Gallini writing in 1770 tells us that the Cotillion Pousette
Another significant writer publishing in London around this time is Monsieur Gherardi. He describes three Pousette variants in his 1768 A Second book of Cotillons or French Country Dances. I've not located an online copy of this document, so I'll instead quote from Volume VI of Dr. John Gardiner-Garden's epic Historic Dance series8 (it's essential reading if you're interested in historic dance). Gherardi tells us of three Pousette variants, the first two match those of De La Cuisse, but the third is a new figure:
Gherardi provided a diagram for his chain pousette that indicates a double progression longways figure. I've not identified any dances that use this figure, but it's interesting that it exists. Gherardi's rotational pousette (he calls it Poussette en tournant, but I'm using the word 'rotational' to avoid confusion later on) is also a longways dancing figure, though it can be used in Cotillion dancing, as in De La Cuisse. It's interesting that Gherardi promotes an oval movement, this allows for greater sideways movement in a longways dance. Gherardi also provides an illustration for this figure, and as with De La Cuisse, he shows that the individual dancers face the same direction throughout the Pousette, but the couples rotate around each other. The dancers shift into a diagonal alignment, rotate around each other, then return to places (see Figure 4).
The Pousette in English Country Dancing (ECD)
We've seen that Gherardi wrote of Pousette's for longways English Country Dancing in 1768, but the first example I've found of the term Pousette in a published Country Dance is in the 1779 Ruffs and Rhees by Ignatius Sancho9. The Pousette goes on to become a common ECD figure in the 1780s and 1790s. Gherardi may have been ahead of his time in describing a longways Pousette in 1768; I have a theory about this that we'll come back to.
Sancho's dance defines the 'Prussett' as
Figure 4. The 1768 Gherardi Pousette.
At this time an ECD 'Pousette' appears to imply a full two-couple rotation back to place. However, at some point in the following 30 or so years the terminology changes. Thomas Wilson writing in 1808 describes a figure called the Pousse11 which is similar to a regular rotational pousette, but the couples rotate one and a half times to change places. In c.1820 Wilson goes further and describes two variants, the Half Pousette or Draw12 and the Whole Pousette13. The half pousette is the figure we've previously identified as the Rotational Pousette, the Whole Pousette is the new figure in which the couples rotate one and a half times (see Figure 6). Wilson's use of 'Half' and 'Whole' is not the same as the terminology used in modern ballrooms, this can lead to confusion when interpreting Regency dances. Wilson's Half Pousette uses just 4 bars of music, his Whole Pousette uses 814, and they're always performed counter-clockwise.
Wilson's terminology wasn't universal during the Regency period. The anonymous American writer known as Saltator described the
Wilson didn't invent the progressive pousette, there are Country Dances published in the 1780s in which the pousette was progressional. He did however popularise the progressive pousette. He used it consistently in his dances, and he was the single most prolific publisher of Country Dance collections during the Regency era.
Other Regency era writers to comment on the Pousette include John Cherry and G.M.S. Chivers. Cherry, in his c.1813 Treatise on the Art of Dancing wrote of both
The Waltz entered the English ballrooms from the start of the 19th Century, and brought with it a new figure called the Waltz Pousette. Thomas Wilson used this figure in his 1818 dance collection called Le Sylphe16. He used such phrases as
The Pousette in Quadrille Dancing
I'm not aware of many Quadrille dances that use the Pousette, but Thomas Wilson does describe the Quadrille Pousette in his c.1818 Quadrille and Cotillion Panorama. He uses terminology that is consistent with his ECD Pousettes, and says of the Demie Poussette:
This figure appears to be the same as the Rotational Pousette described by De La Cuisse and Gherardi, but the illustration20 Wilson provides (see Figure 7) shows an important difference. Wilson has the head couples meeting, and the pousette involves the vis-a-vis partners. In other words, you take hands with your opposite, not with your partner. It's likely that this figure was used in earlier Cotillions, but no writer I'm aware of prior to Wilson makes this variant clear. The Cotillion figures described by De La Cuisse and Gherardi involve a side couple, not the opposite couple.
The Pousette Mysteries
We've seen how the term Pousette enters the English ballrooms c.1770, and enters the lexicon of English Country Dancing in the late 1770s. However, the pousette figure already existed in ECD under a different name. The anonymous A.D. writer tells us in 1764 of a Country Dancing movement called Drawing. He describes it as:
A.D. doesn't indicate if the Draw is usually performed with another couple or not, but the implication is that it can be. You may have noticed that Wilson described his c.1820 Half Pousette as a 'Draw'. I have a suspicion that the English 'Draw' could be the original source figure from which the French 'Pousette' is derived - maybe the French changed the name of 'the Draw' to 'the Push', and reused the figure. It's just a theory, but it seems to fit the evidence. A.D. does describe a couple of double length figures involving the Draw:
To Draw off round the second couple the first man and third woman must move backwards quite round the second couple, into their proper places. This is often done half round, and back again. This requires very short steps, eight is too few to get round with, and sixteen common steps bring you too soon to your places.
Colin Hume in his Pousette essay22 identifies a number of older English dances of the Playford era that feature Pousette like figures, but don't use the term 'Pousette'. Some of them do use the term 'Draw' however. For example, he identifies a 1697 dance called Mad Moll23 in which
The essay goes on to question whether the figure known in modern dance halls as the Draw Pousette has a historical basis. Modern Callers use this term to describe a figure in which the couples wheel around while pousetting, such that they reach the progressed position improper (the man on the ladies side). I've not found any significant evidence for the existence of this figure in the greater Regency era; in the 18th century the terms 'Draw' and 'Pousette' appear to have been synonyms. Wilson did refer to a 'Draw Poussette' in his c.1818 description of the Tiroir Quadrille figure24, and featured the term in some of his later Country Dances such as the 1819 Elfrida, but he didn't explain what he meant by the phrase. A modern draw pousette would be useful for
A related anomaly is a figure used by the American writer Asa Wilcox in her 1793 version of the Colledge Hornpipe. She instructs
Other semi-mythical pousette figures that appear in modern dance halls are the Half Pousette and the Split Pousette. The half pousette in this context is the same figure we saw from Mad Moll; it did exist, but I've not found clear evidence of its use in Regency era dances (other than as Wilson's Half Pousette, but that's a regular Pousette in double time to everyone else!). Wilson does hint at a four bar progressive Pousette existing, but it's a full one-and-a-half progressions:
The split pousette is often used by modern Callers as a way to convert a triple minor dance into a three couple set. In this variant the top two couples dance half of a pousette, then the bottom two dance the other half, resulting in a double progression.
There's another mystery in Mr. Gray's 1803 Edinburgh Races dance. He introduces a figure called
Our Policy for Pousette Figures
Here at RegencyDances.org we generally use the modern Pousette terminology. We use Half Pousette for a progressive figure in four bars; Pousette or Full Pousette for two half pousettes in 8 bars (the dancers return to where they started); and One and a Half Pousette for a progressive pousette in 8 bars.
You may have noticed that there are many different spellings for 'Pousette'. It's also known as Poussette (or Poußette), Pousse, Poussett, Poucette, Prussett, Poussée, Pousset, Pausette, Pousét and probably other variations I've missed. We usually use 'Pousette', though you may find other variations around the site.
We do occasionally animate questionable Pousette variations, several of which have been mentioned in this article. Feel free to substitute our suggestions with something else, if you want to dance a variation.
Finally, if you're reading this and know about some clues that we've missed, please do get in touch. We'd love for further evidence to be found!
1. Cruikshank, 1813, Longitude and Latitude of St Petersburgh
2. Anonymous, 1817, Asking to Dance
3. Rowlandson, c.1795, Caricature of a longways country dance
4. De La Cuisse, 1762, Le répertoire des bals
5. De La Cuisse, 1762, Le répertoire des bals
6. Gallini, 1770, A New Collection of 44 Cotillons
7. Bishop, 1790, Bruce Castle Cotillon
8. Gardiner-Garden, 2013, Historic Dance, Volume VI
9. Sancho, 1779, Ruffs and Rhees
10. Wikipedia, Ignatius Sancho
11. Wilson, 1808, An Anlysis of Country Dancing
12. Wilson, c.1820, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, Half Pousette
13. Wilson, c.1820, The Complete System of English Country Dancing, Whole Pousette
14. Wilson, c.1820, The Complete System of English Country Dancing
15. Saltator, 1807, quoted by Ralph Page in The History of Square Dancing
16. Wilson, 1818, Le Sylphe
17. Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary, Poussette
18. Wheatstone, 1820, No 1 of Spanish Dances
19. Wilson, c.1818, The Quadrille and Cotillion Panorama
20. Wilson, c.1818, The Quadrille and Cotillion Panorama
21. A.D., 1764, Country-Dancing made Plain and Easy
22. Colin Hume, Poussette Essay
23. Playford, 1697, Mad Moll
24. Wilson, c.1818, The Quadrille and Cotillion Panorama
25. Wilcox, 1793, Book of Figures
26. Gallini, 1770, L'Impromptu Cotillion
27. Wilson, 1808, An Anlysis of Country Dancing
28. Gray, 1803, Edinburgh Races
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