Much obliged for the quadrilles, which I am grown to think pretty enough, though of course they are very inferior to the cotillions of my own day.
--- Jane Austen, letter of February 20, 1816, to her niece Fanny
A formal announcement has at last been made: I will be spending the next year (June 1, 2013-May 31, 2014) as one of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium research fellows. I'm very excited and honored to have received a research grant which more typically goes to those with a conventional academic career path. And I'm thrilled that this will enable me to devote months of intense research time to the complicated topic of cotillions, which I've been looking into off and on over the past year or so.
I generally have to ration out my research time carefully, since much as I'd love to spend weeks on end camped in libraries, any time I spend doing new research is time when I am not teaching or acquiring new gigs, and thus not earning money to pay the bills. A few days here and there at irregular intervals are not conducive to really working on a topic as complicated as cotillions, where I am starting almost from scratch. This fellowship will enable me to concentrate on research for weeks on end without worrying about the financial impact. I expect to spend rather more than the minimum eight weeks' time at multiple New England sites, starting today with two weeks delving into the music collection at the Watkinson Library at Trinity College before proceeding on to the Connecticut Historical Society and Harvard's Houghton Library later this year. I'll still be teaching my classes and doing most of my usual gigs, but I expect by the end of my fellowship year I'll have made substantial strides in understanding cotillions and how they varied over time and by place.
Why cotillions (French: cotillons)? Well, people do keep asking me about them, and I've gradually become intrigued. Curiosity is my besetting sin; new dance puzzles eventually become irresistible. And as I was told by my mentor Patri Pugliese, to really understand one period's dance, look to the previous one. I've spent many years immersed in nineteenth-century quadrilles. Now it's time to delve fully into their eighteenth-century predecessors and explore the period of transition.
I'm not the first to do so, of course. The definitive work on cotillions in France, La Contredanse, was published by Jean-Michel Guilcher in 1969 (reprint edition 2003). Guilcher, understandably, concentrated on France, rather than on developments in England and America. Kate Van Winkle Keller has done quite a bit of work on American cotillions, but most of it has filtered out only in dance manuals aimed more at practical application, rather than as a comprehensive survey, and she is more focused on the eighteenth century than on the further evolution in the nineteenth. And Ellis Rogers in England has examined the cotillion as part of his work on quadrilles. But there really seems to be a void in the published scholarship in the four decades since Guilcher's work, during which many new sources have been discovered, and in general in the development of the dance outside France.
Dance historians have a good general grasp of the cotillion format: a square of four couples dancing ten "changes" alternating with a figure, the changes being fairly standard across cotillions and the figure unique to each. Many dancers could tell you as much. I've taught those basics to my students, and they've had fun doing some easy cotillions. But the common understanding is an extreme simplication of a complex topic. The changes are not as standardized as advertised. The formation is not always a square. The figures can be varied; that variation is what led to the quadrille. And Americans seem to have spent a couple of decades confusing either the dances or the terminology or both in their interchangeable use of the terms "cotillion" and "quadrille", leading eventually to confusion with the German cotillion, which is another interesting problem in and of itself.
So I have a long list of questions to work on. Even scratching the surface of the topic has turned up some small surprises, and I am sure there are more to come. For the amusement of dancers and other researchers, here's a selection, in no particular order:
- Steps for quadrilles in France vs. England vs. America. Regional variation? Variation over time?
- Same question with figures: are there substantive choreographic differences between cotillons in the three countries, or over time?
- How long did the cotillion fashion last in each country? When did they arrive in England and America? When did they fade away?
- Early cotillons in different formations in France; when did these die out? There's at least one oddball formation survivor in American sources; does it match any formation found in France?
- How standardized were the changes (number, specific changes, details of execution)? Regional variation across France/England/America/parts of America? Always 16 bars or sometimes shorter?
- Many figures only have verbal descriptions; can the terminology be matched up to other sources which have diagrams? How much is the terminology standardized?
- Why do cotillions circle to the right by default and quadrilles to the left?
- Allemandes in cotillions; are these all the link-elbow style or are there other options?
- The potpourri cotillions (mixing several figures with changes): origin, importing to America, popularity, how long did they last? Does the first set of quadrilles have its roots as a potpourri?
- The classic Lancers figure: how does it connect to cotillons? How far back can it be traced?
- Cotillion figures that use fewer than eight dancers: done only once or repeated (heads/sides or four pairs)? Or repeated differently after each change; is this another transitional possibility?
- English books of "French country dances" that are square figures that look a lot like sets of quadrilles. Single cotillion figures or potpourris or early quadrilles? Repeats are an issue here as well.
- The American use of the term "cotillions" for what look like quadrilles: are all these simply terminology confusion or are some of these sets actually potpourri cotillions?
- The "promiscuous figures": are some of these leftover cotillions?
- Is it the dances or the tunes that have the names? Different in different countries? How much tune recycling between country dances and cotillions?
I already have some theories on many of these topics, and some nicely contradictory data from various sources. My fellowship will give me time to gather evidence and do the choreographic analysis and data-crunching needed to draw some conclusions.
I hope my readers here and my students everywhere will look forward to seeing the results!