Dance Craze of the Late Eighteenth Century

A Drive in a Whiskey in 1797, Public Domain

A Drive in a Whiskey in 1797, Public Domain

At the close of the eighteenth century, after 40,000 executions and the birth of the French Directory—a period between 1795 and 1799 when a body of five directors held executive power in France that constituted the second to last stage of the French Revolution—”all the wit, the grace, and the refinement of France had disappeared.” There were no salons. Everything had been swept away “engulfed in the sanguinary frenzy of the revolutionary populace.” The scaffolding, along with the guillotine, nicknamed “Madame Guillotine,” “the national razor,” or “the widow,” was now out of fashion replaced with a lightheartedness that pervaded France and was seen in a dance craze that would last into the early 1800s.

Merveilleuse en Tunique a la Grecque, Public Domain

Merveilleuse en Tunique a la Grecque, Public Domain

People wanted to forget the Terror, and, after living constrained for so long, all Parisians could think of was living life to its fullest. So, “the art of living became the art of pleasing.” Almost before the scaffolds fell, the lightheartedness began and numerous public balls were held. “The joyous strains of violin and clarinet, of flute and tambourine, summoned the survivors of the Terror to the pleasures of the dance, they came in…thousands.” Tivoli, the site where “Farmer-General Boutin, who, with all his colleagues was executed ‘for having watered the national tobacco'” was the first to open its gates. Dancing at Tivoli was followed by dances at the Elysee National, the Jardin de Capucines, “there was Ranelagh…[and] Vauxhall…All these dancing places were open to the middle classes [too].”

The desire for dancing resulted in unusual balls being held. For instance, the old burial grounds of St. Sulpice and the graveyard of the priory of the former convent of the Carmes Dechaux were sites for balls where the “youthful dancers recked not whether they disturbed the ashes of the departed, and frolic played its gayest pranks in the abode of death.” Besides dancing “Mewing Concerts” were also arranged. A ball, known as de la Veillée, was held where “a score of cats were placed, their heads only appearing, on the keys of a harpsichord. Each of these keys had a sharp blade, which pricked a cat’s tail, and made it mew, each mew corresponded to a note, and the ensemble furnished a complete concert of discords.”

François-Antoine de Boissy d'Anglas, Courtesy of Wikipedia

François-Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Day by day the dancing craze grew stronger, and after François-Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas’s proposal passed, restoring confiscated goods to the heirs of those executed during the Revolution, there was no stopping the “whimsicalities [sic] of fashion.” Reveling in the return of their fortunes and flush with cash, people plunged head long into pleasure and founded an aristocratic ball where no one was “admitted who could not prove the possession of a father or a mother, a brother or a sister, or, at the very least, an uncle, who had perished on the Place de la Révolution, or at the Barrière du Trône.”

Of all the events, the “Bal des Victimes soon became the central point in the gaiety of Paris,” although there is some argument about whether or not this was a scandalous invention of nineteenth century writers and never really occurred. Some writers claimed attendees arrived at these balls and “bowed à la victime, with a sharp jerk of the head, in imitation of the movement of a condemned person when the executioner roll[ed] him on to the plank, and push[ed] his head through the fatal opening.” Descendants of the victims of the guillotine, also replaced their mourning garb with an idealized version of what they thought was Greek and Roman dress, with some female descendants “fasten[ing] a narrow red band about their necks, in most satisfactory imitation of the fatal knife-mark.”

Coiffure à la Titus, Public Domain

Coiffure à la Titus, Public Domain

Several other decapitation fashions representative of à la victime became popular at the balls. The coiffure à la victime was supposedly started by cavaliers who began “cropping their hair close at the back of the neck, after the fashion set by Samson for the toilette of the condemned victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal.” Not to be out done, some bold ladies also decided to crop “their hair to the roots. The coiffure à la victime, thus…spread [over] all of France, and [was] eventually…called…coiffure à la Titus, or à la Caracalla. ” Additionally, red shawls were worn by the daughters of those who lost their heads to the national razor “in memory of the cast by the executioner over the shoulders of Charlotte Corday, and Mesdames de St. Amarante, before they mounted the scaffold.”

The dancing craze continued for some time but the licentious freedom that the French had so enjoyed soon came under control in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte when he restored the Frenchman’s civil rights and “religious and intellectual traditions.” Feminine influence also worked its magic. Before she married Napoleon, Josephine de Beauharnais attended the salons of her bosom friend Madame Talliene. Also in attendance were artists, writers, and learned men, as well as other intelligent and self-educated women. It was at the salons that attendees refined their tastes, increased their knowledge, and amused themselves with stimulating conversation. Thus, if there ever was a dance craze, it was soon forgotten having been replaced with the “age of conversation.”

References:

  • Carlyle, Thomas, French Revolution, 1903
  • Fashion in Paris, 1898
  • History of the Wars of the French Revolution, 1820
  • Lee, Henry, The Life of the Emperor Napoleon, 1834

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