The Baroque Dance Suite

The suite is a type of fashionable instrumental dance music that emerged during the Renaissance and was further developed during the Baroque period. It consists of several movements or short pieces in the same key and functions as dance music or dinner music during social gatherings.

The Baroque dance suite was considered a precursor of classical ballet and is known for developing the invention of a notation system in dance.

Baroque dance has gone through several evolutions, first beginning as an expression of music and then leading into a sense of rhythm and harmony. It was ultimately destroyed by the French Revolution in 1789.

King Louis XIV and Baroque Dance

Dance music was very popular during the 16th and 17th century and composers were often asked to play such pieces during social functions. As a result, musicians began collecting dance pieces in the same key; these pieces became known collectively as "suites." Masters such as Louis XIV cultivated Baroque dance at his court for various dance activities, due to the importance of formal balls, which ranked couples in a sequence of social rank. Additionally, theatrical dances were common due to the King's enthusiasm and skill for dancing, giving him the nickname "The Sun King."

The Primary Suite Movements

The baroque suite typically started with a French overture, as in ballet and opera.

A French overture is a musical form divided into two parts which are typically enclosed by double bars and repeat signs.

By the time of JS Bach, suites were composed of four main movements: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Several dance suites by Bach were known as "partitas." Optional movements included air, bourree (lively dance), gavotte (moderately fast dance), minuet, polonaise, and prelude.

Each of the four main movements is based on a dance form from another country. Thus, each movement has a characteristic sound and varies in rhythm and meter.

Additional French dances include the following movements:

  • Canarie
  • Chaconne
  • Entrée grave
  • Forlane
  • Loure
  • Musette
  • Passacaille
  • Passepied
  • Rigaudon
  • Tambourin

The Instruments Played in the Suite

Instruments used to play suites include the cello, harpsichord, lute, and violin. Suites were performed either on a solo instrument or by a group of instruments. Notable composers of suites include Bach, Handel, Couperin, and Froberger. Listen to Bach's "Cello Suite No. 1 - Prelude", courtesy of YouTube.

Table of Main Movements

The table below gives you further information on the main movements of the dance suite.

Dance Suite Movements
Type of DanceCountry / Meter / How to Play
AllemandeGermany, 4/4, Moderate
CouranteFrance, 3/4, Quick
SarabandeSpain, 3/4, Slow
GigueEngland, 6/8, Fast

 

Contemporary Dance Suite

Some modern dance teachers teach a form of baroque dance today. While this type of historical dance is outdated, various dancers reconstruct old social dances and mix them into their contemporary choreography. Today, an evolved version of the Baroque dance suite can be considered a type of country or folk dancing.

This is due to the repetitive simple dances being performed by couples in shapes like columns, squares, and circles. These type of English country dances were known as Contredanses in France.