Following the foundation of the Académie royale de danse in 1661, Louis XIV ordered academicians to invent a notational system to record dances. In response, at least four systems were in progress in the 1680s, one of which came to disseminate dances of French style across Europe by means of printing/publishing businesses.
This prevalent system is called Beauchamp-Feuillet notation today after the names of the inventor/academician, Pierre Beauchamp, and the business man/dancing-master, Raoul-Auger Feuillet. Over 350 dances are extant in this notation system in print and/or manuscript spanning the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, a period roughly matching the baroque era classified in other disciplines (those in the late 18th-century sources are re-notations of earlier publications, except Auguste F. J. Ferrère’s manuscript of theatre production from 1782). Whereas the baroque style in other art forms is characterised with the work’s grand scale, excessive ornamentation, and dramatic expressions in place of well-balanced structure, individual dances preserved in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation are invariably of miniature scale in well-proportioned structures with refined ornaments of ‘good taste’. In terms of artistic style, it is far from baroque but rather of French Classicism, which was a norm under Louis XIV’s reign. Notwithstanding, the repertoire in this notation system is customarily called ‘baroque dance’ today.
This notation was used to preserve both ballroom and theatre dances. The style of dancing at both venues was fundamentally the same: the dancers drew geometric patterns on the floor while performing various steps, small jumps and turns in accordance with the musical timing. Ballroom dances were primarily for a couple of man and woman in the noble style, whereas theatre dances can be a solo, duo, group dance of any combination of the dancers’ sex in the style noble, grotesque or demi caractère. A notable development surrounding dance of this period was that theatrical performances took place at commercial venues, such as Paris Opéra, for a paying audience. Professional dancers, both male and female, displayed demanding techniques on stage often in an irregular phrase structure. In contrast, ballroom dancing was to demonstrate the dancer’s proprieties through contained choreography set to regular phrases of music.
Some dance-types of earlier periods were still around in this period: while a series of branles customarily opened the formal balls, the pavane and gaillarde are found in the titles of some notated dances although their choreography and characteristics totally altered from those of earlier times; the courante played the principal role at formal balls in the 17th century, the position which was taken over by the minuet in the early 18th century. The gavotte also transformed from the old branle family to become one of typical duple-metre dances of the time, along with the bourrée and rigaudon. Whereas these types were danced at balls as well as theatres, many triple-metre types, such as sarabande, gigue, chaconne and passacaille, are mostly found in the theatrical repertoire often to display complex choreography.
Country dances also flourished during this period, eventually to take over the main part of balls towards the late 18th century. English country dance collections verbally instruct choreography with musical illustrations; conversely, French counterparts preserve contredanse in notation to indicate the use of a particular part of the body or specified steps at certain points of the choreography.