Dancing the Hornpipe in 'The Beggar's Opera'

The hornpipe was a popular entr’acte dance on the London stage for well over a hundred years, principally as a solo dance for English male dancers. Although never mentioned in any 18th-century printed text of The Beggar’s Opera, it became an integral part of performances of the work soon after its 1728 premiere and remained an expected part of the ballad opera well into the 19th century. In 1760 Nancy Dawson danced The Beggar’s Opera hornpipe so successfully that for some years after that the dance was more often performed by women than by men. Late in the century came the additional attraction of dancing the hornpipe in fetters, and by the Victorian period dancing a hornpipe in fetters became a cliché for someone labouring under difficulties. This paper will trace the history of The Beggar’s Opera hornpipe on the London stage, examine the reasons for its popularity and look briefly at the careers of some of the more interesting of the over fifty different hornpipe performers advertised for the ballad opera before 1800.

Olive Baldwin, Thelma Wilson
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