Teaching dance to would-be nobles, gods and shrews: dance lessons in ballets

Dance lessons have always been popular with ballet masters as a means to include danced sequences in their ballet plots or highlight the social status of their protagonists. Under Louis XIV, polished dancing skills were a sign of noble breeding. The incapacity to dance indicated social inferiority in several comédie ballets, such as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) by Molière and Lully and a very popular ballet adaptation of this work by Pierre Gardel, La dansomanie (1800). In Eugene Scribe and Jean Aumer’s ballet Manon Lescaut (1830), the different styles of Manon and the court ladies underline their specific social status. The nymph Eucharis in Pierre Gardel’s Télémaque (1790) gives a dance lesson to the God of Love who pretends to ignore this art. In Coppélia (1870) by Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Léon, Coppelius teaches his ‘automaton’ several dances which she first performs mechanically and then more and more gracefully, like a ‘petit rat’ of the Paris Opera developing into a ballerina.  In the 20th century, choreographers continued to resort to dance lessons, sometimes to great comical effect, for instance in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella (1948) or John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew (1969).  

Iris Julia Bührle studied History of Art, Comparative Literature and International Relations in Stuttgart, Paris and Oxford. She has written numerous articles and scholarly papers on dance, and she recently contributed to the BBC documentary “The king who invented ballet: Louis XIV and the noble art of dance”. She also worked for UNESCO and the Paris Opera. Her publications include Robert Tewsley: dancing beyond borders (bilingual English/ German, Würzburg: K&N, 2011) and her Ph.D. thesis entitled “Literature and Dance: the choreographic adaptation of works of literature in Germany and France from the 18th century to the present day” (German, Würzburg: K&N, 2014). She is currently a Junior Research Fellow at New College, Oxford as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty. Her research deals with ballets based on plays by William Shakespeare.  


Iris Julia Bührle
Symposium Title: 
Teaching Dance 2016
Author affiliation: 
New College, University of Oxford