How do you write down dance steps?

That might seem a rather odd question, and it is one that I’d never really thought about, at least until I saw a fair number of pages being placed in our storage facility at Admiral Document Storage and found that they were in fact pages of dance steps.

Of course, these days one might expect dance steps to be recorded on video, and yes, that does happen. But dance is such a personal activity, and a performed dance is such a personal expression, that it becomes hard to distinguish the interpretation of the dance from the dance itself. It is a bit like trying to learn a Bach Fugue from listening to it. Yes, if you are phenomenally proficient in Baroque music, it can be done – but not every pianist has a brain like that.

In dance, something as basic as “lower your arm” is too vague. How fast? At what angle? What pose and attitude is the dancer taking? Should one give the number of degrees of descent? And what is the dancer doing with his/her hand, fingers…

As I started to understand the problem I learned that some people have tried to explain the dance step by step, frame by frame. But then the amount of work involved becomes just too much.

But it turns out there is indeed a thing called dance notation: a combination of graphics and instruction. Movement is translated into signs with words below. It is not a perfect version, but if one also has a video of the dance, then it becomes much clearer what is in the instruction and what is in the interpretation.

Which actually makes the point that even more than most musical performances, dance never looks the same twice.

Curiously, the earliest form of dance notation that we have dates from the time of a man who liked to think he was, if not God, then at least a direct descendant thereof: Louis XIV. He wanted to regularise the dances that took place at Versailles, and so commanded that a system of dance steps be written down.

The Beauchamp-Feuillet system which followed allowed courtiers to learn the steps of each dance – and, of course, because L’état c’est moi ruled the roost, what the courtiers did, so French society followed. To dance was to dance like the King commanded.

Since then there have been many other ways of writing down dance. One that is much loved among aficionados of the dance was devised by Remy Charlip and involved drawings on cards of dancers in various positions. One is left free to dance one’s way between one position and the next, although there are also commands written in English.

It seems that all sorts of people have devised ways of writing down dance movements, and for the most part the instructions are now an additional note to the video, but somehow it seems rather reassuring that an idea first set up by an autocratic monarch, whom one can never imagine dancing at all, is still preserved in part at least.

And I’m rather proud that we’ve got some stored in the Admiral Document Storage centre.

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