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The History of French Dance

By Linda Harris ; Updated September 15, 2017
Contrary to popular belief, ballet originated in Italy and not France.

France has long been associated with the arts, as the country has produced many famous artists and composers. As such, the French influence on dances such as ballet has been felt around the world.

History

France has been the cultural centre of Europe since Medieval times. Under the reign of Louis XIV, ballet flourished, and the "French" style of ballet was born. Dancing was a popular pastime for the court, therefore ballroom and square dances also became popular during this period. As time went on, dance moved out of the court and into music halls and venues where the audience would often participate, such as with the bal-musette or the can-can.

The Baroque Period

The gavotte was a popular dance in the Baroque era, so named as it originated in the Pays de Gap region amongst the Gavot people. It consisted of a step pattern where feet were crossed twice after each step, and then a hop would follow. It was of moderate tempo, and there would often be someone leading the dance. This dance was popular in the court of Louis XIV, and typical instruments were violins and bagpipes. The gavotte compositions by Bach are possibly the best known. The Rigaudon is another lively dance, performed by couples. Also fashionable in the court during the Baroque period, it remained popular in music halls until the 19th century. The courante is a lively dance performed in both France and Italy. The name literally means "running" due to its fast steps.

Ballet

Despite its long association with French culture, ballet actually originated in 15th century Italy. Ballet greatly developed in France during the time of Louis XIV and beyond, as it was a favourite pastime of the King. Ballet and elements of comedy would combine to form dramatic ballets for entertainment at weddings or other celebrations. Dancers tended to be courtiers, until Louis XIV opened the first ever ballet school in 1661, and it became possible to train professionally. The French style of ballet today is synonymous with elegance and precise movements.

The 19th Century Onwards

When the can-can first appeared in Paris around 1830 it was a dance for couples. The energetic dance had performers doing high-kicks, therefore earning it its name, which literally means "scandal". There were attempts to repress this dance for a while, and occasionally groups of men performing the can-can would be arrested. It later became a popular form of entertainment, however, it was still performed by couples or individuals. Can-can featuring chorus-lines first appeared in the UK and U.S. rather than in France, and this style was later imported to France for the benefit of American and British tourists. Bal-musettes were usually performed in small music venues, and were characterized by fast, small steps. The music typically consisted of an accordion and bagpipes, and later on it was influenced by the waltz, polka and pasodoble styles.

Other Dances

There are many folk dances particular to different regions of France. While much French folk music has been revived in the last few years due to interest from tourists, remote areas such as Auvergne and nationalistic regions such as the Basque area have kept folk dances alive. The Bearnaise and Breton dances are just a couple of the most famous ones. Some of these dances have Celtic influences, hence the use of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdys as musical accompaniment.