(First in a series of posts discussing and analyzing the Swedish dances.)
I’ve recently spent some time focusing on a trio of early sources for the unusual form of country dance known as “Swedish Dances,” which originated in the very late 1810s or early 1820s and after their early burst of popularity continued to turn up occasionally in dance manuals throughout the nineteenth century. Their distinguishing feature is that instead of the usual long column of couples, the dancers form a column of trios with either one lady between two gentlemen, one gentleman between two ladies, or a mixture of the two. The Swedish dances were created in the wake of the quadrille’s introduction into the London ballroom in the mid-1810s, which spurred a great deal of choreographic innovation as dancing masters adopted figures and formations from the quadrille and merged them into the old-fashioned country dances, which had become increasingly formulaic. Along with the Swedish dances, this burst of creativity resulted in, most notably, the Spanish dances, Mescolanzes, and Circassian circles.
Unlike most kinds of dance, we can be fairly confident of the origin of the Swedish dances. Their earliest appearances appear to be in a trio of dance manuals from around 1820, all written by the London dancing master G. M. S. Chivers:
An Instructor to the Swedish Country Dances (c1820)
The Dancers’ Guide (c1820)
The Modern Dancing Master (1822)
Only the last of the three is actually dated. The other two are slightly earlier, and the first must precede the second, where it is referred to in a footnote. The Swedish dances thus qualify -- just barely -- as Regency-era dances. Rival dancing master Thomas Wilson mentions the Swedish dances in a lengthy complaint on pages 318-321 of his Complete System of English Country Dancing (London, c1820) about the low quality of instruction offered by certain ill-qualified professors of dancing and notes that the carefully nameless instructor he uses as an example advertises himself as their inventor, a claim made prominently by Chivers on the covers of his manuals. Wilson and Chivers had an ongoing feud, and I have no doubt that Chivers is the instructor referred to so disparagingly by Wilson. He nonetheless does not dispute Chivers’ claim.
Chivers is refreshingly straightforward about the fact that the dances have no particular connection to Sweden and the name is arbitrary:
Many may say, I have never even heard of these Dances in Sweden, which is very likely, for their name merely originated as follows: viz. I had shown part of the M.S. of this petit work to several of my pupils for their opinion, (and being highly approved of, induced me to publish it,) when one remarked having seen something similar in Scotland, and also in Sweden, as reels, therefore having Scotch Dances, I thought it more applicable to entitle them Swedish Country Dances, conceiving the name to be immaterial, to such a desirable species of DANCING...
-- An Instructor to the Swedish Country Dances
The name “Swedish country dances” appears to have been rapidly shortened to the simpler “Swedish dances” and so appears in the other two manuals.
Although the Swedish connection is dubious, the link to Scotland might well be valid. As discussed in my reconstruction of the later Highland Reel country dance, reels for six are documented in Scotland early in the nineteenth century and appear as new “Scotch reels” in various of Wilson’s manuals in the 1800s-1810s. The Swedish dances frequently incorporate heys, the English term for the classic reel for three or four so characteristic of Scottish dancing. While Chivers’ modest disclaimer about his students’ “inducing” him to publish is probably a bit of theater, his being inspired by Scottish dancing as well as quadrilles seems a reasonable guess.
With a trio of closely dated manuals by the inventor of the dances, it becomes feasible to analyze Chivers’ Swedish dances as a group, and over the course of a series of posts, I will be examining and reconstructing Chivers’ figures and, eventually, discussing what became of the Swedish dances in England and America later in the nineteenth century when, as also occurred with the Spanish dances, they were reduced from a genre to a single surviving dance.
Formations and Progressions
Chivers was precise about the formations and the progression of the Swedish dances and helpfully provided diagrams in each of his manuals. The dances were advertised as being “adapted to Parties having a Majority of either Sex” and could be danced by an imbalanced party formed as in the diagram below:
Both diagrams are from The Dancers’ Guide; click on each to enlarge it.
In both cases, the dance would begin with only the top two trios and progress down the set until all trios are dancing, winding down as each trio returns to its original place:
Every person has their face towards the top excepting the top three (or line) who face the bottom, which each line takes in succession.
Each Dance begins with the two top lines, and when there are two lines clear, they commence again at top, and so they continue until all have been own it. The number of persons is unlimited.
In The Modern Dancing Master, Chivers provided yet another formation for an equal number of dancers, in which the two types of trios line up on opposite sides and the dance is begun from the center of the set:
Types of Swedish dance
Chivers is quite firm about the distinct types of Swedish dances and distinct kinds of figures for each type:
This species of Dancing may be performed by a majority of either sex, or an equal number of ladies and gentlemen; and each Figure specifies which it is best adapted for, which, if not adhered to, the effect will be totally lost.
In the two earlier manuals, he labels each dance as being suited to either (1) a group with a majority of one gender or (2) a group with either a majority or equal numbers. He does not further explain what distinguishes each kind of dance, but in looking over the entire set of dances, it quickly becomes obvious that certain figures are restricted to certain types of Swedish dance, and that the key to the difference involves to whom dancers “set”, or dance in place facing. In dances suited only to groups with a majority of one gender, the center person often sets both to one of his or her partners and to one of the end dancers diagonally across the set. In a “majority” group, both of these dancers would always be of the opposite sex. This figure never appears in dances labeled suited to a group with equal numbers. In those dances, there is a parallel figure in which the center dancer sets only to his or her own partners. These figures will be discussed in detail in a later post.
The classification of some figures as suitable for a group with either a majority or equal numbers seems odd given how determined Chivers is to separate the two types of Swedish dance, but in fact it is a practical necessity. While his diagrams for groups of equal numbers show neat formations with lines of two ladies/one gentleman alternating with two gentlemen/one lady, in practice, as the dance progresses, there will rapidly come a point (in a top-down start, after only two iterations) at which two trios of the same configuration are dancing together, which will be the case for at least some lines throughout most of the rest of the dance.
There is a one figure which appears exclusively in the latest manual, The Modern Dancing Master, in a set of dances which Chivers labeled as suited only to an equal number of ladies and gentlemen, which, as noted, is a situation that simply does not obtain for any length of time, regardless of the starting configuration. The figure is cross over giving right hands, back with left, a name which is a bit misleading. The first half is further glossed by Chivers as:
The two lines exchange places, and in passing they give right hands and set, still holding the hand.
Making the reasonable assumption that “back with left” means repeating the same thing in reverse, the figure would be taking right hands with the dancer opposite and turning halfway (two bars), then setting (two bars). Drop right hands and take left hands with the same person, again turning halfway (two bars) back to original places and setting (two bars) before dropping hands for the next figure.
In the dance with balanced numbers of ladies and gentlemen, the dancers will initially be performing this figure with someone of the opposite sex, but this will quickly change as the dance progresses and identically-configured trios end up dancing together.
Two men or women setting to each other is not unheard of in early nineteenth century dancing, however. Thomas Wilson describes “Set, and change places” as two ladies setting to each other and then changing places while their partners do the same, as diagrammed in The Complete System of English Country Dancing. Nor are two ladies or two gentlemen turning each other imconceivable, as Wilson diagrams in a different figure in the same manual. I suspect that either Chivers did not fully think through his progression when including this figure in his dances or that he made a mistake by listing this group of dances as solely for equal numbers when he should have meant for either equal numbers or a majority of either gender.
In his Instructor to the Swedish Dances, Chivers, ever commercially minded, helpfully noted that his creations “can also be danced by ladies only, which is a style of dancing much wanted in seminaries.”
Recycling tunes and figures
My initial survey of the dances included in Chivers’ three manuals gave me a count of twenty-five different dances done to a mix of sixteen different tunes, several of which were reused two or three times. A closer look revealed that five of the dances were duplicates, including two from the same manual, for a final count of twenty distinct sets of figures done to sixteen tunes.
Of the actual tunes, not one is unique to the Swedish dances. Some, like “Le Pantalon”, are borrowed from popular quadrilles, while others are tunes he also uses for country dances of various kinds. Most are in 6/8 time, but there are two in 2/4, one each in 3/4 and 4/4.
So how does one name a dance when the same figures appear under two different names? How does one select a set of figures when different figures appear under the same name? And what about the country dances and quadrille figures associated with those tunes?
The underlying issue is that, counter to modern custom, the names associated with the “dances”, the sets of figures, are actually those of suggested tunes, and the sets of figures, far from being historical examples of careful choreography, are basically interchangeable and can be attached to any tune of the right length and repeat structure. Chivers is quite explicit about this while discussing country dances, organizing his sets of figures (“dances”) by the number of parts precisely so that dancers can more easily select their favorite tunes of the appropriate length.
So while during this series of posts I will offer several sets of Chivers’ figure as examples of Swedish dances, I won’t be giving them names or specific tunes with them.
Here’s a list of all sixteen tunes used by Chivers, for reference:
La Belle Sergent
The Carnival of Venice
The Cypress Wreath
Di Tanti Palpiti
Le Garçon Volage
The Little Nymph
Mr. Chivers’ Fancy
Mr. Chivers’ Whim
The National Waltz
The Young Prince
Length of dances
The most common length for a Swedish dance is thirty-two bars, which accounts for nine of the twenty distinct dances in the three manuals. Two of them are repeated. Next most common is forty bars, accounting for six dances, with one repeated. Three dances are only twenty-four bars long; these short dances appear only in the last of the three sources. And two of the dances are a full forty-eight bars in length, with one of them repeated twice.
Thoughts on steps
In none of his manuals does Chivers give any hint of what steps are employed in the Swedish dances. As with other sorts of country dances, my best guess would be either (1) a combination of chassé (modern “skip-change”) steps for traveling with the pas de basque (discussed in a previous post) for setting, or (2) the full chassé-jeté-assemblé sequence used in quadrilles, with most figures requiring either one or three chassé steps, and a few longer sequences perhaps employing seven, and the pas de basque for setting. Wilson noted the latter sequence in a couple of his manuals, but given that country dances were supposed to have a different repertoire of steps than quadrilles, I’m not confident that this was not just Wilson’s personal idiosyncrasy, with more elaborate sequences than most dancers actually used.
Errors and inconsistencies in sources
While overall Chivers is fairly consistent in his dance sequences and descriptions of the figures, there are some problems. “Hey contrary sides” is described as being performed with the persons to the right of the center dancer in the latest manual but diagrammed in the earliest as being performed with the persons to the left. There are similar minor differences in a few other figures. This might be simply that the later descriptions are incomplete, or it might be that Chivers refined his style somewhat over time. There are also a few outright errors -- in The Modern Dancing Master, Chivers states that the dance “begins with the centre eight”, having perhaps copied the text carelessly from his description of the four-facing-four Mescolanzes. One figure appears in dances as both a four-bar and eight-bar figure; in the latter case, it seems more likely that Chivers left off the second part of it than that the figure was sometimes done at half-speed. These discrepancies and errors will be addressed in future posts as the relevant figures and dances come up for discussion.
(The following posts in this series will discuss the specific reconstruction of each figure used in Chivers’ Swedish dances.)