Louis XIV and his Marvelous Legs

Hyacinth Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701

Hyacinth Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701

By Christine Jones (Regular Contributor)

If you pay attention to portraits of Louis XIV and compare them to those of his descendants you’ll notice a striking feature of his poses: his legs in tights are often visible. And this is no accident. Gifted with a capacity to learn complicated movements that set him apart from most in the 1680s, Louis used the ability to be steady, strong, and graceful on his feet to his advantage. Dance helped him craft the identity that he sought to project to his people as their absolute monarch.

Most importantly, as with everything else he did, the Sun King documented his dancing. Not only did his official dance master, Pierre Beauchamps, codify the kinds of steps he designed for the king on stage, he also named the five basic positions—“first position,” “second position,” etc.—and charted their succession in primitive notations on paper. In 1700, a student of Beauchamp’s named Raoul-Auger Feuillet made history by publishing a book that contained the steps to some of the court’s most famous ballroom dances. He called this conceptualization “chorégraphie”: Choreography, or the art of describing dance steps in characters, figures, and symbols. Modern dance notation, and with it the ballet, was born.




  1. says

     A minor thing: the notation example at the top of the article is from 1702, from Feuillet’s collection of ballroom dances for the year 1703.  It’s very similar to the dances that were bound with his manual Chorégraphie in 1700 though.

    The final sentence “Modern dance notation, and with it the ballet, was born” is misleading.  The Beauchamp-Feuillet dance notation published in 1700 was barely used only 50 years later, and was essentially extinct by 1800, when theatrical dance started to look like ballet as we know it today.  There are modern forms of dance notation – Benesh and Laban notations – but they did not come from Beauchamp-Feuillet notation, and by the time of their invention classical ballet was a mature form.

    The French theatrical and ballroom dance from around 1700 (called “Baroque dance” today) is better viewed as a precursor of classical ballet, although the theatrical dance was what people of that time meant when they talked about “ballet”. It’s probably best to call the theatrical dance of the period “Baroque ballet”, to avoid producing misleading images of ballerinas and tutus in people’s minds. Baroque dance looks quite different from, but clearly related to, present-day ballet.  By 1700 Baroque dance/ballet was already a complete, rich, living art form with a history.  (There had been a few dance notation systems developed around the 1680s, and Beauchamp-Feuillet notation probably dates from that time – invented by Beauchamp, but only later published by Feuillet, prompting a legal challenge from Beauchamp.)

    I also don’t know why you mention Louis XIV dancing better than most in the 1680s – his last performance in a court ballet was in 1670, although he continued to dance socially long after that. While there are lots of descriptions saying he danced very well, people were hardly likely to say otherwise, so it’s difficult to know for sure.  However, it’s reasonable to believe he danced well, having both an interest in dance and the best teachers.

    • Christine A. Jones says

      Thank you for this longer history lesson that contextualizes the brief statements in the post within a broader history of ballet. Although he was not personally dancing in the 1680s, I credit Louis XIV with inspiring the opera-ballets born of the collaboration of Lully, Benserade, and Beauchamp that took off in the 1680s–but your point is well taken. Readers might also be interested in the language of the 1661 *Lettres Patentes* for the Academie de danse, formed the year Louis XIV began his personal reighn, which suggests that “ballet” gives the body an ideal disposition to acquire noble character. You can read it in French at: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k76291j. Thanks again!

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