Dancing in the Athens of the North

New research continues to add detail to our understanding of the role played by dancing in the historical musical life of Scotland’s capital city.  While dance is, to some extent, a discrete and separate activity from new musical composition, dancing evidently needs music, and new music to accommodate new fashions and give these a local home.  The popularity of dancing in social elites also promoted the publication of dance music anthologies which preserve a record of traditional dance melodies as these responded to changing fashions, and which also serve to make this historical repertoire available to subsequent revivals.  This article surveys some recent resources on dancing in Edinburgh which shine a light on the importance of dance to Scottish cultural identity in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Historical dance practitioners – the Historical Dance Society and Early Dance Circle – have a particular interest in reconstructing pre-modern dance practices, and their writing features strongly in this post.

It is clear from the early missiles launched by John Knox at the ‘excessive dancing’ in the court of Mary Queen of Scots (Carpenter, 2003) that the elite classes in Scotland’s capital have long valued social dancing: “in fiddling and fynging … [she] was more exercised then in reading or hearing of Goddis most blessed work”. Dancing in royal Renaissance courts expressed the power and glamour of monarchy, and although Mary’s performance was ill-attuned to her subjects’ tastes, her displays were comparatively modest alongside the visual spectacle of most royal households in other parts of Europe in this period.  The choreographies known to the queen, moreover, would more likely have been those from her formative years in France, rather than, primarily, indigenous dances.

As we know, Mary’s dancing court was short-lived, and the Kirk continued to check public displays of dancing most of the later 16th and 17th centuries although social dancing was doubtless still experienced in private houses. The arrival north of James Duke of York with his Italian wife, Mary of Modena, in 1679 and 1682 saw Holyrood once again hosting lavish dancing entertainments. With royalty in residence, recollections of these show that wealthy folk were very happy to attend and participate in these, despite the strictures of local Ministers.  According to William Tytler, writing a century after the event: ‘balls, plays, and masquerades, were introduced … the fanaticism of the times could not bear such ungodly innovations’, and after Duke returned to London, these public displays gave way to ‘private balls and concerts of music’ (Tytler, p.500).

By the 18th century, however, the ever-expanding merchant classes were clearly hungry for more regular dancing, and articles from the National Trust for Scotland, the Historical Dance Society and the Early Dance Circle describe how dancing lessons in Edinburgh fed into a growing infrastructure for social dancing.  These now clearly placed Scottish dances alongside a wider repertoire of European contemporary dance fashions.

Dr Alena Shmakova, writing for the Georgian House (NTS), frames her comments by explaining ‘dancing and music are important parts of Scottish modern culture’. This has, she argues, its roots in the evident popularity of dancing in 18th century Edinburgh.  Edinburgh supported relatively well-paid dancing teachers, drawn from lower classes but working for the city’s expanding wealthier population.  Her website article discusses one of these, David (Davie) Strange, who ran a dancing school in Todrick’s Wynd in Edinburgh’s Old Town from 1764, and whose balls were advertised in the Edinburgh press and recorded in diaries of the time.  Dancing teachers were also entrepreneurs, and organised the balls which allowed their pupils to put their skills into practice.  The Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, opening in 1787, became Strange’s main event venue.  This prestigious complex of entertainment spaces, augmented a few years later by the Leith Assembly Rooms down the road, became the new centre of gravity for the social life of Edinburgh’s wealthier classes.  Nathaniel Gow, son of the famous Neil, from 1791 was leader of one of the main dance bands employed by the Assembly Rooms, running balls in that venue from 1797 with the support of both the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and the Caledonian Hunt Society.  Books of dance music arranged by Gow appeared on the back of these events, containing strathspeys, reels, and jigs, and demonstrating the period’s love of native country dancing.  Their reach took the revived interest in Scottish dance into other venues throughout the British isles.

Anne McKee Stapleton’s book Pointed Encounters: Dance in Post-Culloden Scottish Literature (2014) suggests that dancing was one way – and possibly the single strongest way – in which Scottish cultural identity survived the debacle of Culloden in 1746.  Dance, she suggests, is “an outwardly conforming, yet covertly subversive, expression of Scottish identity’ (Stapleton, p.11).  By the time of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, it was clear that dance was part of the triumphantly resurgent identity of Scotland’s capital city.  Alena Shmakova explains in an essay written for the Early Dance Circle that entertainments for the royal visit included balls hosted by the Peers and by the Caledonian Hunt Society.  These aristocratic events were the vehicles used by Scotland’s elite to demonstrate both their loyalty to the King, and their own status in the land (Shmakova, September 2022).  Shmakova’s article describe the layout of the ballrooms and dress of the dancers, and includes accounts of the dances for these events which included perennial Scottish favourites: strathspeys and reels, as well as fashionable quadrilles.

The 2022 edition of the Historical Dance Journal Vol.4 (4) includes a piece by Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson on the women involved in 18th century dancing in Edinburgh.  ‘Mistresses of Dancing Schools in Edinburgh, 1755 to 1814’ sets these in the wider context of social dancing schools springing up in towns throughout the British isles in this period.  Dancing lessons were mostly led by men, who were more easily able to travel alone between different teaching venues and pupils in households spread across local regions.  However, Edinburgh and Bath both had several schools run by women in fixed locations, attesting to the popularity of social dance in those particular places.  The women featured in this essay all had strongly theatrical backgrounds.  ‘Rope-dancer Madame Violante’ ran a school in the capital in the 1730s; the Englishwoman Bridget Davenport held classes in the 1750s; and later in the century and into the early years of the next, the Italians Felice Marcoucci and Teresa Rossignoli continued this tradition.  The article drills down into the biographies of these entrepreneurial ladies, demonstrating how they moved into spaces prevoiusly dominated by men, and in turn influenced the men who worked around and after them.  Bridget Davenport took over a venue in Carrubers Close that had been previously run by a Mr Downing.  Mrs Davenport had acted and danced in plays and pantomimes: her business advertisements for her dance school noted her background on the stage in various London theatres.  She seems to have started to teach dancing in Edinburgh as a widow, when she was probably too old to be able to rely on stage work.  Madame Marcoucci enjoyed an early career in Spain, France and Italy before arriving in Edinburgh, where she danced in the old Canongate theatre, renamed the Theatre Royal, in the late 1760s and early 70s.  She then took over a school formally run by a Mr Lamotte in James’s Court in 1784.  Her exploits were recorded by James Boswell, who was for a while her neighbour: she taught his daughters, and his diary mentions balls which she organised ‘for young ladies.’  These events allowed young girls to dance their steps in a decorous environment before their mothers and doting family members, before they ventured into more public venues.  The third woman featured, Teresa Rossignoli, arrived in the city in the mid-1780s, from Europe by way of Dublin’s Smock Alley. Rossignoli may have taken over the Carruber’s Close premises previously used by Mrs Davenport, and was fortunate enough also to be the private teacher of the daughters of the Buccleuch family, a leading family in Edinburgh’s social elite.  Through this connection she also attracted other leading families, such as the Duke of Gordon’s daughters who came to Edinburgh to finish their education.  At the end of Rossignoli’s career, the 3rd Buccleuch daughter, now Lady Caroline Douglas, Marchioness of Queensberry, gave her patronage to a public ball for the benefit of her former teacher, in the prestigious space of the new Assembly Rooms in George Street.  The final years of her life (1814-1831) saw Rossignoli continuing to teach dance on an occasional basis in the Merchant Maidens Hospital.  This lively article gives an insight into the competitive and often gossipy world of Edinburgh dancing classes. None of these women are native Scots: they would have taught the current fashionable dances from Europe.  However, newspaper advertisements from the time from other teachers working under their international influence boasted that the dance teaching in Edinburgh saw French dance steps becoming incorporated ‘into Scotch Reels and Country Dances’ (p.21), and that by 1802 Scottish dances also contributed ‘new steps for Scotch Reels and Country Dances now danced at Court’.  As with chamber music in the 18th century, what emerged was a hybrid style, combining traditional Scottish ‘country’ dancing with fashionable gestures from the European mainstream.

16th century pavanes and galliards; 18th century minuets; 19th century quadrilles; from the 18th century to the present day, these have been danced by the same people who led the strathspeys, reels, and jigs: : Edinburgh clearly has a long history of happy feet.  A subsequent post in early 2023 will look at how fashions and tastes in dance changed in Edinburgh in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Featured Image: By Simon Johnston, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13663457

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