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Cotillion Dancing in England, 1760s to 1810s
Contributed by Paul Cooper, Research Editor
Cotillion dances (the choreographed dance for 4 couples, not the modern débutantes ball) arrived in England in the 1760s. In this paper we'll review their introduction, characteristics, and popularity amongst social dancers. In previous papers we've investigated some of the figures used in Cotillion dancing (Allemande, Pousette, Promenade), and their subsequent adoption into English Country Dancing. We've also investigated the origins of the Quadrille dance, and how Quadrilling evolved from Cotillion dancing.
The terms Cotillon and Cotillion are used interchangeably in English sources throughout this period. Early English sources tend towards Cotillon, whereas later English sources usually use Cotillion, but both terms are used throughout. A few source works also use Cottillon, Cotilion and Coutillon, and some call them French Country Dances. We here at RegencyDances.org tend to use Cotillion, as being the more common term used in England during the Regency era.
Figure 1. The Cotillion Dance, Caldwall, 1771. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
Introduction of the Cotillion
Cotillion dances originated in France, and were absorbed into English social dancing in the mid to late 1760s. The first collections of English Cotillions were published in London c.1767. An example was advertised in The Public Advertiser (23rd December, 1767), Messrs Randall and Abell reported
An Italian Dance Master in London, Monsieur Gherardi, published his first collection of Cotillons in 1767; their success was such that a year later he reported:
But it was in 1768 that the Cotillion caught the public's awareness. There are barely any references to Cotillions in the English press prior to 1768, but dozens of references in 1768, including the following examples:
A correspondent informs us, that if the English country dances are all the mode at Paris (as mentioned in our last) we are even more with them here, for that the French country dances are now equally the 'bon ton' at London; the Cottillons, &c. being now taught in all the great boarding-schools, and danced in all the polite assemblies in this metropolis and its environs.(The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 13th February 1768)
A country dance of a new nature called a Cotillon, and which admits but of eight persons, has lately been introduced in the polite world from France, and is now in great esteem, among our people of quality.(Lloyd's Evening Post, 4th March, 1768)
An advert for an Assembly in Soho Square reports:On account of the Royal Family, Nobility, and Gentry, now universally dancing the Cotillons, which are very elegant French Country Dances, lately introduced into the gay and fashionable World, at all their Assemblies.... (The Public Advertiser, 8th March, 1768, see Figure 2)
An advert for Dancing Masters Welch and Hart reports:N.B. Mr. Welch begs leave to observe, that he, finding Cotillions, &c. an essential Requisite in this Nation, has lately been to France, where he had an Opportunity of perfecting himself in the above mentioned fashionable Dances under the most able Masters there.(The Public Advertiser, 5th May, 1768). Their advert a few months earlier didn't mention cotillions (The Public Advertiser, 26th February, 1768), so Cotillions only entered their repertoire in early 1768.
Figure 2. The Public Advertiser, 8th March, 1768. (Courtesy of NewspaperArchive.com )
Dodsley's Annual Register for 1768 reported on the King of Denmark attending a Cotillion ball at Mrs Cornelys' house in London. Mrs Cornelys hosted subscription balls for the dancing of Allemandes and Cotillions at her Society in Soho Square. Her advert in The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (13th December, 1768) reported that a new gallery had been constructed
It's likely that Cotillion dances had been danced in English assemblies throughout the 1760s, but it's in 1767 and 1768 that they became widely adopted. Cotillions are regularly mentioned in adverts for Balls, Dancing Academies, and musical publications, from 1769 forwards.
The earliest English reference I've found to the word
The image in Figure 1 shows a particularly early example of an English Cotillion. It dates either to 1771 or 1770. It subsequently reappeared on the cover of an 1820s set of Quadrilles (see Figure 9).
Form of the Cotillion
Figure 3. The Figure of the Dancing Room, Hurst, c.1779.Many writers published guides to the dancing of Cotillions in England in the late 1760s and early 1770s, including Fishar, Gallini, Gherardi, Hurst, Sancho, Siret and Villeneuve. They all describe the same basic concept, with minor differences. These key characteristics are:
Image © BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD, d.67 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
A Cotillion generally involves 8 dancers, in 4 couples. Couples usually stand in the form of an octagon, the man stands to the left of his partner. If you consider the dancers to be stood around a square, then two couples stand opposite to each other at the heads of the square, and another two stand at the sides. Figure 3 is Thomas Hurst's c.1779 description of the shape of a Cotillion.
The couple at the top of the room with their backs to the musicians are the first couple. The couple to their right are the second couple, the third couple is opposite to the first couple, and the fourth couple are on the left of the first couple (see Figure 3).
A Cotillion is made up of Changes and Figures. These are roughly equivalent to the Verse and Chorus in a song. A dance consists of a Change, followed by the Figures, followed by a Change, followed by the Figures, and so forth until the dance ends. The Figures remain the same in each iteration, but the Changes vary. Many publishers provided lists of acceptable Changes, though some lists varied slightly from one to the next. The Figures show much more variety between Cotillions, and make up the core of the dance.
A Cotillion begins with a Change, often the Grand Rond.
The figures of the dance are choreographed, the dancers learn the sequence of figures in advance.
All 8 dancers will generally participate in each figure of the dance.These characteristics are generally applicable, particularly for 18th century Cotillions, but variations did exist. For example, Longman published a Cotillion for 9 dancers in 1768, and Siret published Cotillions in a flattened format in 1770 (an example of which is Le Point du Jour); both of these anomalous examples were published in London.
Notes to MusiciansSome of the writers also provided directions to the musicians. In some cases these notes are unexpected.
Figure 4. Rehearsing a Cotilion, I. Cruikshank, 1792. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
For example, Giovanni Gallini explained c.1770 that some of the Changes in a Cotillion are 16 bars long, and others are just 8 bars long. He required the musicians to pad the music accordingly, depending on which Change was being danced.
Monsieur Gherardi made an even more unusual demand of the musicians. In his 1767 first collection of Cotillons he wrote:
Gherardi was criticised for his advice to musicians, and defended his position in his 1768 Second Book of Cotillons. He explained that
This advice is contrary to the mainstream of Cotillion dancing. Most sources are understood to have the Changes take 16 bars (though as we'll see below, this isn't entirely clear), and emphasise the responsibility of the dancers to concentrate on the timing of the dance. Gherardi's advice might introduce confusion rather than avoid it; his advice could be intended to tolerate those dancers who assume 16 bar changes, even if the band only expected 8 bar Changes. It may even be a face-saving tactic to avoid the need to tell Royalty, the Nobility or Gentry, that they have terrible timing! Perhaps the musicians were to alter the music to match whatever the most important person in the room was dancing.
Thomas Hurst in his c.1779 The Cotillons Made Plain and Easy also included directions to the musicians. His advice is to play the music at a suitable speed for the dancers.
I shall next explain the Manner of doing the Changes, and must now make a Request to the Musicians; which is, that (as the Dancers are obliged to adapt their Motions to the Time of the Music) they will be careful to play each Tune in such a moderately quick Time, as not to destroy the Sprightliness for which these Kind of Tunes are so justly admired, or so slow as to render them dull and heavy; but let them be play'd in the true 'British' Taste, as expressively as possible; which will not only be easier to themselves, but will suffer the Performers to do every Thing with more Propriety, and consequently every Figure and Change will be shewn to Advantage, which would otherwise be quite destroy'd if the Quickness of the Measures hurry the Dancers beyond their utmost Speed and Endeavours: But from a brisk Movement, with moderate Quickness, the Dances will receive a considerable Addition, and give Pleasure both to the Performers and Spectators, without fatiguing the Dancers and Musicians, as they generally are by the precipitate Manner in which the English Country-Dances are too frequently play'd, whereby the Whole is rendered a Scene of Confusion, not easily rectified.
Figure 5. Stage dancing, an advert in The Public Advertiser, 16th April, 1782. (Courtesy of NewspaperArchive.com)
Figure 4 depicts a 1792 rehearsal of a Cotillion. This may be a walk-through prior to the Cotillion being danced properly. An interesting detail is that each dancer has a set of printed instructions containing the figures for the dance. The dancers in the foreground appear to be struggling, but the dancers in the background are more successful. Someone to the rear is attempting to gain the attention of the musicians, who are in the musician's gallery.
Performance Dancing and Social DancingThere are two main categories of dancing; dance for enjoyment, and dance as performance. Cotillions can be enjoyed by both groups. Cotillions could be be danced on stage by professional ballet dancers (see, for example, Figure 5), professional or courtly dancers would perform with fancy steps and perfect timing to impress their audiences. Regular social dancers weren't expected to achieve the same degree of perfection as a professional dancer.
Several publications attempted to simplify Cotillion dancing for ordinary dancers. Thomas Hurst emphasised this necessity in the introduction to his c.1779 Cotillons Made Plain and Easy:
Note: Hurst's publication is usually dated to 1769, but I find this date to be unconvincing, it could be a later publication, perhaps from the late 1770s.
Hurst's book aimed to simplify Cotillions for ordinary dancers. His main innovation was to remove any instructions for steps from Cotillion dancing, including any references to the Rigadon and Allemande. Giovanni Gallini similarly avoided rigadons in the Changes for his c.1770 collection of Cotillions, though probably for different reasons, and they are employed elsewhere in his dances. Gallini managed the Hannover Square Assembly Rooms, and went on to manage the King's Theatre Opera House during the 1780s; it's possible that his Cotillions appeared on stage, they were almost certainly danced at his
James Fishar also adapted Cotillion dances for the general public in his 1778 Twelve new Country Dances, with Six Cotillions . Fishar had worked as a Ballet Master and principal dancer at the Covent Garden Theatre in the 1770s, and he had an ambiguous role at the King's Theatre Opera House when management of the two theatres was briefly merged in 1778 (he claimed he'd been at the King's Theatre for 10 years, but that seems unlikely). He published a collection of Cotillions in 1773 that were suitable for Stage dancing. But in 1775 he began publishing Country Dances
Figure 6. Fishar's advert in The General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, 5th March, 1778. (Courtesy of NewspaperArchive.com)
Aside: Modern dancers who recreate historic dances are always faced with a challenge: should they recreate dances with the skill and proficiency of contemporaryPerformers of the Theatres, as taught by the elite dancing masters? Or should they recreate dances as they are likely to have been performed by ordinary dancers in a social context? Some dance masters would emphasise the importance of precise foot work, and require pupils to attend for many lessons; others claimed to perfect pupils in just a few hours. Several dance masters wrote about the terrible performance of social dancers, but in so doing, they reveal that most social dancers didn't care for perfection.
As a counter-point to the above, it's worth remembering that some dancers were supremely talented. The anonymous author of the 1823 The Etiquette of the Ball-Room by A. Gentleman commented on some excellent Cotillion dancers he nostalgically remembered from the 1780s (and contrasted them to the terrible Quadrille dancers of his own day):
... I refer to the grandest assemblies ever known in England, viz. the Festinos, at the Hanover Square Concert Rooms, ... I have a perfect recollection of the figures of the Cotillons danced at those grand Balls, and have seen eight sets of the first nobility in Europe, who danced them 'perpetual', in the manner of Quadrilles.
The Festino dancers studied under Sir John Gallini, Gallini even published a popular Cotillion in 1776 called Il Festino (Hibernian Journal, 6th May 1776). The Festino dancers eventually moved their Assembly to Almack's Assembly Rooms, adding significant prestige to that venue in the process.
Examples of Cotillions being danced on stage include a production of The Genii (Leeds Intelligencer, 4th June 1776) which featured
The Norwich based dancing master T.B. Bruckfield identified the main steps in Cotillion dancing in his 1787 Eight Cotillons, Eight Country Dances, & Two Favourite Minuets; he listed them as:
Figure 7. Le bal paré, by Antoine-Jean Duclos, 1774; featuring what appears to be a French CotillionThe steps used for Cotillion dancing may have changed over time, as fashions and styles evolved; but Bruckfield's instructions are helpfully concise, and are likely to have been representative of much of the era.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The musical publishers Longman & Lukey published a set of playing cards featuring Cotillions in 1770 (Gazzetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 9th November), a selection of which are available through IMSLP. Each playing card featured a different Cotillion dance. They report:
Aside: I've been lucky enough to study the Cotillion cards from the British Museum. They're beautiful, and fascinating, but I have my doubts about their usefulness for social dancing. Some of the figures don't fit the music, and some of the music has very odd arrangements. Cotillion music is usually arranged in groups of 8 bars, but this collection features strains of 22 bars, 12 bars, 7 bars, 14 bars, 10 bars, and so forth. Such odd arrangements aren't unheard of in other sources, but they're uncommon. I suspect these cards are an advertising novelty that demonstrated the capabilities of the publisher, but weren't actually intended to be used. Curiously, the Ace of Spades was deliberately omitted from the collection.
ChangesWhat follows is a table showing the various Changes described in a variety of (mostly) English source documents. I've accessed most of the documents through the wonderful archives at the British Library. The source documents are:
Figure 8. Gherardi's 1767 Fourteen Cotillons or French Dances. One of the first Cotillion collections published in England.It's notable that Fishar-1 and Saltator are the only sources in this sample to explicitly use 16 bar Changes, and to pad them with Balance and (in the case of Fishar) Rigadon sequences. However, the music for most Cotillions published in England use repeat signs around the A strain, this hints that 16 bar changes were the norm. Hurst and Fishar-2 are the only sources to explicitly restrict themselves to 8 bar Changes, and in both cases they did so in order to simplify their Cotillions for use by the general public; in so doing, they imply that 16 bar changes are more normal amongst performance dancers. Gallini is the only writer in this sample to explicitly require the number of bars in the Changes to vary from one iteration to the next, though this convention could be implied in other sources.
And his advert in The Public Advertiser, 9th March 1770.
First Image © BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD, a.9.h.(1.) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The first change in a Cotillion is generally a Grand Rond, but thereafter the changes could be introduced in any order that's desired, though each writer encouraged a specific order to the changes. Some sources, such as Saltator and Bruckfield, indicate that all of the potential Changes would be danced in each Cotillion, resulting in perhaps 10 repetitions of the main figure in each dance. It's likely that this was a standard convention, though most of the sources don't comment on it.
Early QuadrillesDances referred to as
Quadrilleswere enjoyed in England from the mid 1770s. The Newcastle Courant for the 6th March 1773 provides an early reference, it referred to a Grand Ball at the French Ambassador's house at which
there are to be three French dances en quadrille, consisting of eight persons each. Most early Quadrilles were not the 8 person Sets that arose in the 1810s (most notable amongst which was the First Set), but rather a variation of the Cotillion usually arranged for just four dancers. The English Dance Master S.J. Gardiner wrote in his 1786 A Definition of Minuet-Dancing that Quadrilles
are Danced the same as the Cotillions, only with this difference, that instead of four Couple in the Cotillions, there are but two in the Quadrilles.
There are various references to early Quadrilles being danced at English Balls of the 1780s. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (7th February 1782) included an advert for a Cotillion Ball at the Pantheon. A footnote at the end of the advert reads:
Figure 9. Details from the cover of My Grandmother's Quadrilles, Platts, 1820.
Image © BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD, g.442.f.(12.) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
As early as 1773 Quadrilles were danced at the French Ambassador's house in London, and a dancing master called Joseph Banks (Newcastle Courant, 17th July 1773) described them as
Early quadrilles were sometimes displayed by professional ballet dancers. For example, The Public Advertiser (16th April, 1782, see Figure 5) advertised a revised version of Congreve's The Double Dealer that was being performed at Covent Garden Theatre. It reports
These early Quadrilles may have been a temporary phenomenon. References to them mostly disappear during the 1790s. A footnote in the 1793 Ambulator describes a
An important Cotillion collection in the formative history of the Quadrille was published in London in 1786. This was Longman & Broderip's 6th book of Twenty Four New Cotillions. The collection claims to be
Note: this Cotillion collection is the earliest source I know of that combines prototypical versions of the First Set Quadrilles into one collection. However, the individual dances may be older. For example, the L'Eté Cotillion also exists in Francis Werner's 1784 collection of Cotillions & Country Dances.
Later CotillionsMany dozens of Cotillion collections were published in London in the late 18th Century. They were published by the likes of Henry Bishop, Thomas Budd, John Fentum, James Longman, Thomas Straight, The Thompsons, Francis Lindley, Augustin Noverre, Francis Werner, and so forth. It's unusual for these later collections to feature an explanation of how to dance Cotillions, they presume the purchaser will already know.
Figure 10. An affray at a dance, The Hampshire Chronicle, 16th May, 1814.
Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
Cotillions were often danced at Balls and similar gatherings. For example, the St. James Chronicle or British Evening Post (22nd March, 1774) reported on the Lady Mayoress's Rout at which Cotillions were danced from 8:30pm to 12:00pm. The Hampshire Chronicle (28th March, 1774) added that
A 1792 announcement in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette (6th December) indicates that Cotillions were starting to go out of fashion in Bath:
By the turn of the 19th Century the nature of the Cotillion began to change. The Morning Post (18th June, 1803) reported that
The phrase French Country Dance was sometimes used in London to describe a Cotillion (or Cotillion variant). Dancing Master Daigueville used the term in 1773 (Hampshire Chronicle, 18th January 1773), and various examples can be seen amongst the dance collections published by Michael Kelly between 1803 and 1806. Kelly's
The Quadrille proper arrived in London in the 1810s. It can be difficult to distinguish between 19th Century Cotillions and Quadrilles. If a Cotillion appears in a printed source, there's often little to distinguish it from a Quadrille, other than the name; if Changes were intended to be danced, the choreographers didn't feel the need to mention them. For example, Frédéric Venua and André Deshayes (both of the King's Theatre) advertised a set of Six New French Country Dances in July 1816 (Morning Post 23rd July 1816); a month later what was probably the same publication was advertised as A Set of French Cotillions (Morning Post, 10th August 1816). The contents are prototypical Quadrilles, closely related to the First Set of Quadrilles, but subtly different. It's clearly a transitional work, at least from a London centric perspective. Venua's adverts from December 1816 mention both Quadrilles and Waltzes, but not Cotillions; this hints that he'd adopted the changing terminology. Examples from this collection include La Bien Amie (a Pantalon variant), La Sophie (a L'Ete variant) and Les Deshayes (a Trenis variant).
The anonymous author of the 1818 Le Maitre A Danser explained the difference between Quadrilles and Cotillions as follows:
Figure 11. A German Cotillion, Vienna, c.1825. From Scenes du Bal by Charles Henry.
Some adverts placed by early 19th Century Dance Masters continued to feature Cotillions. For example, Mr. Le Pulley in The Morning Post (10th January 1804) advertised instruction in
A humorous 1814 reference to Cotillion dancing can be found in The Hampshire Chronicle (16th May, 1814):
The dance masters of the 1810s did refer to the existence of Cotillions, but rarely wrote of them. For example, Wilson barely mentions Cotillions amongst his prolific dancing works of the 1810s and 1820s. He included a few Cotillion tunes in his 1816 Companion to the Ball Room, but no figures. He indicated in his 1819 Quadrille and Cotillion Panorama that a key feature of the Cotillion is that all 8 dancers move together, and he suggested that the Finale in a Quadrille Set should more properly be considered a Cotillion. But he only made a single passing reference to the Cotillion Changes, and that was to indicate that they're not used in Quadrille dancing. He did publish an 1817 work called L'Etoile Cotillion; it would be fascinating to review this work, but I've failed to locate a copy. A similar statement could be made for G.M.S. Chivers, his diverse dance publications of the early 1820s barely mention Cotillions.
References to Cotillions began to disappear from the English press around 1815. Dancing Master Edward Payne continued to host a
Note, several London based dance masters were experimenting with new dance formats in the late 1810s, and they sometimes appropriated older terminology to do so. For example, Thomas Wilson advertiseda variety of new Cotillionsin 1820 (Morning Chronicle, 1st July 1820). How similar such dances were to regular Cotillions is difficult to guess.
It's interesting that the last high-profile dance master to actively promote Cotillions in Regency London was Edward Payne. He was also (if his claims are to be believed) the first to start teaching the new Quadrilles in London. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. Quadrilles effectively replaced the Cotillion in the English social dancing experience. A dancing master from the King's Theatre Opera House, James Platts, published a set of Quadrilles in 1820 (The Morning Chronicle, 10th November) called My Grandmother's Quadrilles (see Figure 9). The cover reproduced the Cotillion dancing image from Figure 1. This image neatly demonstrates the generational continuity from Cotillions to Quadrilles (the cover is also an interesting discussion point for the evolution in costume and dancing styles). James Platts was also the first Englishman to register a collection of Waltzes for copyright in 1791 (London World, 26th January, 1791).
The Spirit of the English Magazines in 1825 recorded the (perhaps fictional) story of a traveller returning from 15 years in India, who visited the assembly rooms at Cheltenham.
Figure 12. An image from Engel's New Waltz Cotillion, New York, 1838.
Image Courtesy of JScholarship.
Note: this convention of treating a Cotillion as a game may have been popular in America in the 1840s, but it had predecessors in the Cotillions of the 1760s and 1770s. For example, a Cotillion for 9 dancers can be found in Longman's c.1768 XXIV New Cotillons; or French Dances. That dance is called Le Cavalier, and involves an extra gentleman stood in the centre of the Cotillion set.Sporadic references to English Cotillion dances persist throughout the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s, but never on the same scale as during the first 50 years.
That completes our investigation into the English Cotillion dance form between the 1760s and 1810s. As always, we'd welcome new information being made available. If you have access to documents or information that further amplifies the story of the Cotillion in England, do please get in touch.
If you'd like to learn more about dancing Cotillions, I can recommend volume 6 of John Gardiner-Garden's Historic Dance; Dr Moira Goff's Dance in History blog is also a great source of additional information. If you'd like to dance Cotillions, there are many examples animated here at RegencyDances.org.
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