7. Conduct of a dancing master’s practice (2 of 3)

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Naturally they all competed to be the first to teach the Scottish and Irish steps and dances which were fashionable in the 1790s.

Classes and private tuition were accompanied by the master on his fiddle or ‘kit’, a rudimentary violin described in the 17th century as ‘a dog’s bone, and sounds as if it has the French disease’ – even in the hands of John Eager. A dance band was hired for pupil balls.

We get no closer to the business of dancing than in such gems as Charles Gosnold’s 1780 notice summarising his syllabus. Our knowledge is derived from the masters. We don’t know the opinion of their pupils, or who were their pupils.

Francis Lambert’s Treatise, probably inspired by Noverre ideas, gives a valuable suggestion about the thinking behind the best dance teaching. It is about good physiological movement whether aimed at the aesthetic or the correction of knock-knees. Its principles are as good today as they were in 1815.

Masters’ advertisements spoke in the fashion of the day and conveyed their aim at the ‘genteel’ and ‘expeditious’, ie fashionable and quickly achieved. Much of their notices was a form of words; all masters were ‘genteel’, and rooms were ‘commodious’ – or odious but with good intentions.

If the pupils strove to appear to be fashionable, the masters aspired to belong to a profession, to which status Pigot’s 1822 Directory raised Norwich masters formerly listed as tradesmen. Part of their aspiration was demonstrated by their employment of pupils or assistants. If they had apprentices we do not hear of them; newspaper advertisements for apprentices are for other trades. But dancing masters certainly did employ apprentices, perhaps after the fashion of Dickens’ Turveydrop apprentice, the scowling boy practising his steps in the kitchen until he can appear with sufficient skill as a ‘pupil’, rising to be an ‘assistant’.

But how did the fashionable world see the dancing master? With some ridicule, I fear. Jacobean drama used dancing as an innuendo-laden metaphor for sex in Women beware women. Marston’s dancing master, a ‘pretty little brown gentleman’ is a target for mockery. In the Restoration period the dancing master Luke Cheynell was satirised as a ‘hop merchant’. Mr Pendleton precipitated tragicomedy in the Pepys household – but we only know Samuel Pepys’ biased opinion of him. Lord Chesterfield regarded anyone with a fiddle under their chin ‘in a very frivolous, contemptible light, bringing him into a great deal of bad company’ (Letters, 14 April 1749), but he insisted that his son should take dancing lessons, therefore the dancing master was a necessity to the fashionable world – to it, not in it. Dr Johnson retorted that the Letters to Chesterfield’s illegitimate son ‘taught the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.’ The manners and modishness were only a veneer.

As is made clear in The Mirror of the Graces, a conduct manual from 1811 by ‘A Lady of Distinction’, the wife of a former ambassador. The Lady makes it clear that the dancing master gives a service for which he is paid like any other tradesman; he may call himself a professional but he is never to be regarded as an equal in the Polite World.

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Labec Steps 3A