Bringing History to Life Through Music
How to Dance a Cotillion
18th-century dance is a complex subject. Dance technique throughout the period changed frequently as new fashions and fads swept across the land. Usually described as “the latest,” “with the newest methods,” or “the most fashionable,” dancing was an expression of social values. Among the upper classes it functioned as the presentation and ritualization of their status through grace of body and display of fine clothing and jewels. Among the lower, it could become competitive, enhancing ones reputation in the community. Personal ability, sophistication of taste, and availability of new material as well as social standing, region, and environment all affected dance interpretation and performance.
The dances most frequently performed in 18th-century America were the country dance, the cotillion, the minuet and the reel. The jig, gavotte, and allemande were show-off solo or duo dances that were tailored to specific dancers.
March 13, 1783 in Albany, New York: "I was introduced to a Miss Nancy DePoister. . . she danced well & I made but few mistakes . . . the Ball was opned with a Minuet & a Country Dance immediately called they succeeded each other till supper, which was a good one but plain; a few Cotelons were then danced, with one or two reels & the whole closed with a sett of Country dances." Simeon Baldwin, Life and Letters (New Haven: ), 133–134.
There were many variations of the minuet step, dozens of versions of setting or show-off steps, and several ways to “cast off one couple.” Dancers would dance differently depending on where they were, who they were, who was watching and also probably how much liquor they had consumed. In a tavern, dancing would be unconventional and free; in a ballroom, refinement and grace would be the rule.
Cotillions were introduced into England in about 1768 by French dancing masters. They came to America in about 1772. Cotillions have two parts: a set of standard verses or “CHANGES” that are danced with every cotillion and a special chorus or “FIGURE” that is danced between the verses. The figure gives the cotillion its name.
“Marlbrouk” is known today by its 20th-century lyrics: “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”
Form a square-dance set, four couples standing on sides of square, women on partner’s right. (See diagram below.)
Dance CHANGE 1, then the FIGURE, then CHANGE 2, then the FIGURE, etc.
To shorten the dance, some changes may be left out but Changes 1 and 9 always open and close the dance.
The rigadoon, balance, and beaten steps are interchangeable, depending on how energetic the dancers are.
To balance, plié on left foot on upbeat, step right onto ball of right foot (legs straight) on downbeat, and close, lowering heels to ground, then repeat to left (4 counts).
To rigadoon: The rigadoon is a complex step. Briefly described: hop on upbeat and land on 1st beat on left foot, extending right to side with legs straight, keeping it close to floor. On "1&" bring right to first position and extend left to side. On 2nd beat, bring left to first position (no hop). On "2&" plié then hop. On 1st beat of next measure, land on both feet in first position. Hold position (straight legs) for 2nd beat, and on "2&" plié for repeat of step on other foot. Step may begin on either foot.
For beginners it is best to use the "beaten step" which gives a similar effect. To do the beaten step, hop four times on one foot, extending the other to the side, bringing it to the calf, to the side, to the calf again, in the manner of a Highland fling.
* In French dances, the circle goes to the right first, rather than to the left.
This dance was adapted by Kate Keller and George A. Fogg from James E. Morrison’s Twenty Four Early American Country Dances, Cotillions & Reels for the Year 1976. For details of eighteenth-century dance steps, see Hendrickson's books in Sales.