(Note: since this post was written, I've expanded my research on this figure and written a follow-up post, Revisiting Chassé Out, which discusses further sources and slightly alters my conclusion about the performance of the chassé out figure.)
Recently my English friend and fellow dance teacher/reconstructor Colin Hume asked on the English Country Dance mailing list for help on some American dances he plans to teach later this month at a festival. He posted his notes (the final version is now up here) and asked for advice, since he's not a specialist on historical American dance. I do a lot with quadrilles (French, American, English, Spanish, etc.) so I pounced on the challenge of the 1858 set he proposed to use, the Belle Brandon Set. This five-figure quadrille is drawn from Howe's Ball-Room Handbook (Boston, 1858) by Massachusetts dancing master and music publisher Elias Howe.
The first four figures were fairly straightforward, with the first three being pretty much the usual figures of the "First Set" of quadrilles that had been popular for nearly half a century when the manual was published. Interestingly, they were a more old-fashioned version than those which were popular in the mid-century and which Howe prints elsewhere in the same manual. Tell-tales include the use of "balance and turn partners" instead of a long balance figure and, in Figure 3, two people crossing back and forth and forming a line rather than four crossing back and forth and going into a basket formation. It had been common practice from the 1810s onward to use three of the standard figures and then vary the last two, so this set is well within the quadrille tradition. But the fifth figure proved a real challenge to reconstruct.
The original text of the figure, which you may view here in its original context, is as follows:
No. 5. (3 strains.) First four lead to the right and form a line — right and left from lines — ladies chain, from lines — all forward and back, and turn partners to places — side couples same.
In Howe's notational style, this meant that there are four sub-figures in Figure 5, each taking eight bars; the dashes separate the individual figures. But there are two problems in the first section, "First four lead to the right and form a line." First, there doesn't seem to be nearly enough to do in the figure to fill a full eight bars. Second, there is no indication of how the dancers get into a line or lines and where those lines might be formed.
Colin's original solution was to have each head couple approach the side couple to their right, take hands four, and circle clockwise. The head gentleman in the circle would then drop hands with the side lady as they circled and draw the other dancers into lines along the sides like so:
That flows gracefully and certainly satisfies the description, but I found it problematic three different ways:
- It still didn't seem to occupy a full eight bars of music unless they circled around more than once or the leads took ridiculously tiny steps in advancing to the right.
- Partners are side by side rather than opposite; the "parallel lines" figures I am familiar with in the 19th century put the partners across from each other (as in the Lancers).
- I've never seen this circle-into-lines figure in any 19th-century quadrille; when couples circle like this, they break back to their original places or move to the next place to add another couple to the circle, as in the old mazurka figure, or possibly move on to perform a different figure with the next couple.
It felt wrong to me, but it took me some time to come up with a solution of my own. The first one I thought of, that the head couple might split and step to either side of the side couple, was even worse. It left the partners separated awkwardly and put the ladies to the left of the gentlemen, which would make doing the following figures, especially the ladies chain, awkward in the extreme.
After some thought, I remembered where I had seen a "form lines" figure before: in a "promiscuous" quadrille figure called the Gavotte. Promiscuous figures are single figures that can be dropped in as a replacement for figures (usually the second or fifth) in a standard quadrille. I studied the Gavotte figure and the kindred Minuet figure for awhile, wrote them up for Kickery, and cheerfully posted my solution on the ECD list, phrased roughly as follows:
The head couples turn to the right while side couples turn to the left, forming diagonal lines. The lines go forward and back, then each dancer turns the opposite person back to the lady's place, giving everyone a new partner and leaving original partners opposite each other.
This likewise fulfilled the necessary requirements: gentlemen were to the left of ladies, partners were opposite each other, it filled the eight bars nicely, and it had the virtue of being a genuine historical figure with a long 19th-century pedigree. There's a diagram of it in the full post on this figure.
But Colin was politely skeptical about this solution, and I was a little twitchy about it myself. I don't find short calls for long figures inherently problematic; there are a number of quadrille calls that mean sequences of several figures. My problem was that this figure had a specific shorthand name: "sides four." That term is used only ambiguously in Howe's 1858 manual (in a set of waltz quadrilles), but in the next edition, in 1862, the term is clearly used in a "Social Quadrille" to mean the move described in the Gavotte figure.
But the 1858 Belle Brandon figure wasn't called "sides four", and that was just odd enough to make me worry a little. Combined with Colin's skepticism (which I appreciated; being challenged pushes me to better research), this oddity sent me back for a long, hard look at Howe and his terminology. Once I found his manuals had used the term elsewhere, I became very uncomfortable with my solution and eventually convinced that it couldn't be right. That was kind of embarrassing, but my mentor taught me that short-term embarrassment was better than propagating mistakes in the long term. I would have to find a new solution. But what?
I took another hard look at all the quadrilles in the 1858 edition of Howe. Discarding all the figures that involved advancing to the sides and doing something other than forming lines, I began to notice a pattern. There were several figures that included some minor variation on "first four lead to the right and form lines." Along with Belle Brandon, this phrasing appears in the Leonora, Fairy, Pic-nic, Princess Royal, Pantomime, and Almack sets. That wasn't very helpful; they were all equally ambiguous and too short for the eight bars given. I meditated briefly on whether the figure could actually be meant to be only four bars long. But that would have made the music uneven and Howe's notation internally inconsistent in an unlikely way. It seemed more likely that Howe simply left things out. But what?
Some quadrille figures boasted a particular, lengthier variation of the move: "First four lead to the right, chassee [sic] out form lines across the hall." This formulation appears in a long list of sets in Howe: White Lady, Bunker Hill, Lucia, Rocky Point, St Louis, Cinderella, Swiss Boy, La Sonambula, The Cheat, Fra Diavalo, and Cleopatra. This was reminiscent of an old mazurka figure and seemed to solve one issue by specifying that the lines were across the hall. And it put partners across from each other. It seemed likely that the chassee out was what had been left out of the shorter version of the call. But it was still problematic two ways: it wasn't much to do in eight bars of music (eight steps to approach the side couple and eight to chassee out?) and it again left the dancers improperly placed with the ladies on the left of the gentlemen:
M4 W2 M1 W3
W4 M2 W1 M3
Finally, there was an even longer variation which appeared in two sets, Harmony Grove and May Queen: "the first four lead to right and balance, chassee out and form lines." That solved part of the length problem by adding setting; now I could rationally fill up at least six bars. But it still left the dancers improper, and it still didn't quite fill the music.
I temporarily gave up on Howe; clearly, I wasn't going to find the solution there. Since the Belle Brandon Set in particular had the earmarks of an earlier style of quadrille, I started looking backward in time, to the dancing masters of the first quarter of the century and their very helpful manuals that broke individual figures down into step sequences.
Early 19th-century dance teacher Alexander Strathy, in his Elements of the Art of Dancing (Edinburgh, 1822) described a likely figure, which translates roughly as "dance to the right on the sides", that being the movement for the head couples to perform:
Figurer à Droite sur les Côtés.
To perform this figure, two Gentlemen opposite receive in their right hand the left band of their Ladies, and advance to the couple on their right, performing the Temps Levé, Chassé, Jeté, and Assemblé before. Then all do the Sissone Dessous and Assemblé before with the left foot; also the Sissone Dessous and Assemblé before with the right foot.
This is performed to four bars of music.
Then, to perform what is called Chassé Ouvert, and performed by eight.--The Gentlemen, and the Ladies who are before them, join both hands, and all do the Chassé, (the Ladies to the right, and the Gentlemen to the left); each Gentleman makes a half turn with the Lady who goes along with him, and places her on his right, the whole forming two lines opposite each other.
This also requires four bars of music.
The figure is immediately followed by En Avant Les Huit, which involves moving forward and back in lines (though Strathy's step sequence is more like moving forward and setting) and then turning two hands with partners to places. This seemed remarkably like Howe's figure in its lengthier versions: the head couples advance to the side, all set, and chassé out. It also finally solved the problem of the dancers ending up improper by adding that helpful half turn. But it left the second half of the figure ambiguous; surely the chassé out with a half turn didn't take four entire bars? Could it be two bars to chassé out and two to turn? Strathy inconveniently stopped giving details at the worst possible moment!
Fortunately, an explanation of the figure is also found in an American dance manual, Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing by "J. H. G." (known to be one J. H. Gourdoux-Daux) translated from the original French to English (with some notable additions and subtractions) by dancing professor "V. G." (Philadelphia, 1817). "V. G." spells "sisone" with one 's' instead of two, but otherwise his instructions are remarkably similar:
TRAIT TO GO THE SIDE COUPLES.
For the performance of this trait, two gentlemen of the opposite couples will receive the left hand of their partner with their right hand, and leading towards the couple on the right hand side, they will, all together, do the temps levé, the chassé, the jeté and the assemblé, Then, facing the side couples, they will do the sisone under with the left foot and assemblé with it above the right foot, the sisone under with the right foot, and the assemblé with it above the left in the third position.
This trait is performed during four bars of the music.
To perform what is called chassé ouvert, which is generally called, in English, chassé out, the gentlemen and ladies, facing each other, will give both hands, and beginning together with the right foot, will perform the temps levé, the chassé, the jeté and the assemblé. Each gentleman will, at the same time, cause the lady, whose hands he holds, to turn around with him, and place her on his right hand side. This motion will bring the four gentlemen and four ladies upon two straight lines, and each gentleman opposite to his partner. In that situation, they will all do the sisone under with the left foot, and assemblé above the right; sisone under with the right foot and assemblé above the left in the third position.
Note the specific translation of "chassé ouvert" into "chassé out", matching Howe's usage (other than his "chassee" for "chassé"). "V. G." is also more explicit about the steps for the turn in the chassé ouvert and spells out a final bit of setting that nicely fills the second half of the music. And, happily, finding this in an American source is definite evidence that the figure crossed the Atlantic. I wasn't really in doubt about this, but it's always nice to have direct confirmation.
I finally had my solution. "Lead to the sides" included some setting; "form lines" included the chassé out and more setting. The head couples would lead to the right-hand side couples (two bars), all would set (two bars), they would chassé out with a half-turn (two bars), and all would set again (two bars) in lines arranged thusly:
W2 M4 W3 M1
M2 W4 M3 W1
The partners were opposite each other, gentlemen were to the left of ladies, the music was nicely filled up, and all with a documented 19th-century figure. It being the 1850s rather than the 1810s, they would dance it without the original fancy steps, but the basic sequence of moves would be the same as in the earlier figure. My only reservation was that it seemed awkward to turn to places at the end of the figure with the side couples inside the head couples. I took the figure off to New York and convinced my students there to test it for me. They were able to make it work without too much trouble; all that was needed was for each man to move very strongly forward toward his partner at the start of the turn to places, and then drop one hand a little early to move leftward, pulling his partner gently after him along the side of the quadrille into their original places.
I sent a quick description of the figure off to Colin with the promise of following up here with the full writeup by way of demonstrating the pitfalls of researching apparently-simple quadrille figures.
Special thanks to the students of The Elegant Arts Society who donated some of their class time to dance-test this reconstruction and to Colin Hume for providing such an interesting little research project for me!