The Social Etiquette & Politics of Dance (excerpt)

By Sarah Hixon

Dance during the last half of the 17th century reached an unprecedented role of importance both socially and politically.  The French court under Louis XIV became the paradigm of elegance and civil behavior, emulated by the other courts of Europe.  Dancing masters, who were employed throughout Europe, not only taught dance technique but the rules of social etiquette.  A crucial emphasis was placed on image in the court, and dance was the most visual display of aristocratic “mystique”.  Through stringent social standards, King Louis XIV used dance as a political tool to ensure his absolute authority.


Though social dance had been an integral part of court life for centuries, never before had it held so predominant a role as during the reign of Louis XIV.  Born on September 5, 1638, Louis’s birth was celebrated by the Ballet de la Félicité (Au 18).  Ascending the throne by the age of five, his mother Anne of Austria ruled as regent under the guidance of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the First Minister and godfather to the young king (Shennan 8).  With a child on the throne and a foreign minister ruling the country with a foreign queen, many nobles began to stir up civil unrest with seditious activity.  Blood princes of the crown and the parliament of Paris were reluctant to allow the regents to make legislative decisions without being consulted.  In such a time of national weakness, 

several nobles who had distant claims to the throne also saw this as an opportune moment to try to claim power for themselves (Shennan 10).  These uprising, occurring between 1648 and 1653, were known as the Frondes (Franko 109).  With threats to both his throne and his life, Louis and his mother were forced to escape from Paris on numerous occasions.  (Nicolson 20).    Because of these rebellions, citizens began to lose faith in the court government of France.  Mazarin, wishing to re-establish the court’s power, used Louis and his talent for dancing to create an aura of divinity around the personage of the king (Hilton 5).


When Louis gained absolute power in 1661, he was determined to keep control of the nobility who had so treacherously rebelled against him[1].  He never forgot the fear and danger caused by the rebellions, and he knew that several of the perfidious men still remained in positions of power.  After Mazarin’s death that year, he did not appoint a new First Minister to his High Council.  Social and political attacks levied against Mazarin during the Frondes showed Louis how much the position could weaken his monarchical authority (Shennan 13).  Mistrusting any group in his government that could potentially divide the kingdom, he augmented the army to 400,000 soldiers, and eventually moved the entire court to his opulent palace at Versailles (Lee 66).  More than anything, Louis wanted order in all his affairs.  This was seen most clearly in the social hierarchy and rules governing his court.  To keep strict reign over the nobles, he initiated a stringent protocol of behavior through etiquette.  Courtiers were kept busy with trifling matters, and lived around the king’s schedule so as to divert their attention.


Fully adhering to the traditional belief in the Divine Right of Kings, Louis enhanced the ceremonial customs held around the monarchy in France.  In 1656 he took the Sun as his official signia and began to develop an aura of power and divinity around himself (Kirstein 75).  This move was part of his “le métier du roi” or craft of kingship.  The image of the sun-face began to appear in the art and architecture all over Versailles.  Louis referred to his throne room as the “Salon of Apollo” and his favorite role in the court ballets was that of Apollo the sun god (Blitzer 74).  The king’s bed was placed at the exact center axis of the entire Versailles compound (Cohen 82).  His choice of symbol has obvious implications.  Since the ancient Egyptians, the sun has symbolized a necessary or inevitable power.  The sun gives energy, life, and light (which in itself implies moral goodness and truth).  The movement of the sun largely governs human society, and the concept of a solar system revolving around the sun (instead of the Earth) was relatively new.  However, Louis XIV’s use of the sun symbol was not merely a metaphor, but was heightened to achieve a physical fulfillment of cosmic order (Cohen 88).  Louis was morphing his image into the “king-god” (Kirstein 86).  Even material objects associated with the king became sacred because they represented him.  In court, it was seen as an offense to turn one’s back on a portrait of the king, or to not genuflect when entering his unoccupied bedchamber.  Even when waiting for the king to arrive at his own table for a meal, one had to wear a hat (Burke 90).  Portraits of the king were often used to stand in for him at council meetings when he was away, a constant reminder of his austere presence (Cohen 15).


The lives of the courtiers revolved around the king’s daily schedule, not an accidental living analogy with the sun’s centrality in life.  The day began at 8 in the morning, when the king’s Valet-de-Chambre woke him, and the First Physician and First Surgeon attended to him.  At a quarter past, the Great Chamberlain was admitted to the room with the members of the court who had the grandes entrées privilege.  The Great Chamberalin would draw the bed curtains and offer the king holy water.  The king said prayers, and the rest of the court was then admitted to the room.  He dressed himself, and was shaved every other day.  When this was concluded, he retired to his study with certain members of the court who were also permitted to do so, and the king would announce his schedule for the day.  The court would then wait in the Gallery while the king finished private business with family members, and all would attend Mass.  This was followed by meetings with the council, and concluded the morning lever (Saint-Simon 165).


Diner began when the king was served in his bedchamber and the principal courtiers attended.  Everyone stood throughout the meal, with the exception of the king’s brother who had the honor of handing the king his napkin, and would occasionally be invited to sit.  Women were never present at this meal.  The meal was followed by some private time in his study, and then an outdoor activity such as hunting or walking through the gardens.  There would often be another council meeting in the afternoon, or leisurely card games.  Souper began at 10 at night with the entire royal family in attendance and the court looking on.  This was followed by some leisurely time with the family in his bedchamber.  When he wished to retire (coucher), he said more prayers, undressed, and bowed to indicate “good night” and the court would retire (Saint-Simon 166).


It is paradoxical that the king should gain such a status of near divinity in his court by being so fully seen throughout the day carrying on normal human activities.  Every action of Louis XIV was carefully staged and often symbolic.  As Philippe Erlanger stated, “He was magical, but not mysterious; he rose and set like the sun… [dwelling in] Versailles, temple of the sun” (Kirstein 86).  This idea of “performing identity” became an integral part of court life.  According to Méré, the “character best suited to a role to be enacted and that best fits the person who plays it, is the principal impetus of decorum” (Cohen 16).  A great portion of being aristocratic involved careful presentation of self, abilities, and education.  How one dressed, spoke, comported oneself and performed were all visible signs of breeding and class.  Courtiers spent much of their “spare” time working on all of these things, as they were on permanent display for the king and each other (Cohen 4).  The Duc de La Rochefoucauld astutely pointed out that “in all professions, every person affects a look and a countenance to appear as he would like to be perceived; thus one can say that the world is composed of nothing but outward appearances” (Cohen 5).  With so much thought, time, and energy being spent on promoting this “mystique of nobility” Louis was occupying his courtier’s time, even without being present.  By constantly being in their sight, they were perpetually in his, and by this he kept his friends close and his potential enemies closer.


The king saw the ideological and political potential of dance, as well as taking personal delight in the art.  According to court chronicler DuBois, “The king danced a ballet before a great crowd.  He amuses himself by dancing and watching others dance…He studies in the morning after saying his prayers, then he takes dancing lessons, does exercises with weapons…then takes lunch, usually with his ten violins playing very prettily” (Kirstein 78).  The ornate court ballets gave prestige to France.  And, by making dance one of the most important social functions at court, Louis was able to control the nobles by controlling the dance, thus keeping the country stable.  Having centralized control of dance, the king robbed the nobles of a vehicle for petty competition amongst themselves.  In doing so, he was able to maintain unity and control.


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Works Cited


Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.


Blitzer, Charles. Age of Kings. New York: Time Incorporated, 1967.


Burke, Peter.  The Fabrication of Louis XIV.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.


Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Ballet: An Illustrated History. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.


Cohen, Sarah R.  Art, Dance, and the Body in French Culture of the Ancient Régime.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


Franko, Mary. Dance as Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Guest, Ivor. The Ballet of the Englightenment. London: Dance Books, 1996.


Hilton, Wendy. Dance and Music of Court and Theater. New York: Pendragon Press, 1981.


Kirstein, Lincoln.  Four Centuries of Ballet: 50 Masterworks.  New York: Dover Publications, 1984.


Lee, Carol. Ballet in Western Culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.


Mitford, Nancy.  The Sun King.  London: Penguin Books, 1966.


Nicolson, Harold. The Age of Reason. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1961.


Rameau, Pierre. The Dancing Master. Trans: Cyril W. Beaumont. New York: Dance Horizons      Republications, 1970.


Saint-Simon.  Memoirs.  Trans: Desmond Flower.  New York: Heritage press, 1959.


Schwartz, Judith L., and Christena L. Schlundt. French Court Dance and Dance Music. New York: Pendragon Press, 1987.


Shennan, J. H.  Louix XIV.  London: Routledge, 1986.


Wynne, Shirley.  “Complaisance, An Eighteenth-Century Cool.”  Dance Scope. 5.1 (1970): 22-35.