All the Decent Characters Of Female Life: Female Dancers on the London Stage

A practical realisation

Soon after the beginning of the eighteenth century, Londonaudiences were treated to a new phenomenon when the French dancer Marie-Thérèse Subligny appeared at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Leading French male dancers had been seen in Londonsince at least the 1670s, but Mlle Subligny was apparently the first leading female dancer from the Paris Opéra to cross the Channel. Her style and technique amazed those who saw her, and she influenced several English female dancers who emulated her. One of the first was Mrs Elford, who danced frequently with the French dancer and choreographer Anthony L’Abbé in the early 1700s. Other native-born female dancers in London, like Letitia Cross and Margaret Bicknell, were actresses as well as dancers, and preferred comic dancing to the elevated serious style of Mlle Subligny. Mrs Bicknell was a favourite of Sir Richard Steele, who was captivated by her expressive dancing and wrote in The Spectator in 1712 that she was able to represent ‘all the decent Characters of Female Life’. Her sister Elizabeth Younger was also very popular as both an actress and a dancer. The leading female dancer on the Londonstage in the early eighteenth century, with a style and technique to rival those of Subligny and an expressive gift to equal that of the Paris Opéra’s Françoise Prévost, was Hester Santlow, who was English and also an actress. Our understanding of the importance of these women, whose careers coincided with a period when the art of dancing was developing rapidly in London, owes much to the survival in notation of dances from their repertoires. In this session Airs & Graces will examine their impact on audiences through performances of some of those dances.

Moira Goff
David Gordon
Evelyn Nallen
Jennifer Thorp
Symposium Title: 
'So Publick an Approbation': attitudes to dance in 18th Century England – 2000