The minuet was the most fashionable dance in the late 18th century ballroom. It was danced in the baroque or 'noble' style, which developed initially at the court of Louis XIV and was introduced to Britain by Charles II. Most baroque music was dance music, and so terms such as minuet, sarabande, gigue, bourée and gavotte refer both to a type of baroque music, and to the dances that were performed to them. The 'noble' style was danced both socially, by ladies and gentlemen in the ballroom, and professionally, by actors and dancers in the theatre.
Baroque dance is distinctively rhythmic, with a gentle rising and falling movement in each bar of music. It is danced lightly on the balls of the feet, with the heels only just off the floor and the feet turned out slightly, and each step sequence is accompanied by low, rounded arm movements, in opposition to the movements of the legs. Some dances involve complex and quick footwork, in a series of low springs and hops. Others are slow and stately.
A focal point of all baroque dances is the intricate serpentine patterns that the dancers trace as they move across the floor. These show the symmetry, order and harmony found everywhere in 18th century art forms. You can see some of these beautiful curving patterns in the plates from The Art of Dancing at the bottom of the page.
An 18th century ball began with these formal dances, but later in the evening everyone let their hair down and danced country dances (also called contradanses). These were simple and lively, and had a reputation for being danced with careless abandon and even amorousness!
If the formal dances were your chance to show off your dancing skills, the country dances were your chance to socialise. Where the formal dances were choreographed for a fixed number of dancers, the country dances were generally for 'as many as will'. Fashionable new minuets were choreographed constantly, but the country dances were usually old favourites that everyone knew.
How do we know?
Our knowledge of baroque dance comes largely from treatises and manuals written by 18th century dancing masters. Raoul Auger Feuillet's book Chorégraphie, published in 1700, contained a system of dance notation for recording choreography. The convention was that each line of music was printed on the top of a new page, with the steps and pattern to be danced to it given underneath. Many dancing masters used this notation to record their creations. Others wrote instruction manuals, such as Pierre Rameau's Le Maître à Danser (1725), which contained detailed descriptions of each step alongside helpful illustrations and notes on etiquette.
The plates below are from Kellom Tomlinson's manual The Art of Dancing (1735), which combines Feuillet's method of notation with charming illustrations of a couple performing a minuet. Click on an image to see it full size.