polish national dances


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The polonaise (Fr. polonaise, la polonaise, also known as the Polish dance) is a dance, characterized by a three-measure metre, moderate tempo and quaver rhytm with a double semiquaver bounce on the first beat; it is danced by pairs walking in a dignified manner in a procession along curved and straight lines selected by the dance leader. Since the early 19th century, the polonaise has been commonly considered as the oldest Polish national dance, its form cultivated among the upper classes as an elevated version of dances traditionally performed in Poland. In the national ideology, the polonaise acts as the dance emblem of Polish culture, expressing the Sarmatian chivalric ethos and social norms (in particular with respect to intergenerational and feminine-masculine relationships).

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The earliest accounts of walking to the accompaniment of music (or the so-called “chodzony”, i.e. a walking dance) in Poland date back to the second half of the 16th century[1]. The term “chodzony” first denoted the walking dance in an early 17th century Shrove Tuesday poem by Kasper Miaskowski[2]. In the 16th and 17th century Polish literature, walking dances were also referred to as gęsi, świeczkowy, polski, and wielki, also suggesting their four-measure rhytm[3]. Still, no descriptions of the above dances have survived to corroborate these assumptions. Numerous authors also suggest that throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early Baroque, Polish nobility may have performed such walking dances as poduszkowy i chmielowy (first mentioned in the 18th century)[4], or such peasant dances as łażony[5], wolny and obchodny[6] (first described in the 19th century). No known sources exist chich would confirm such a hypothesis.

The earliest descriptions of Polish walking dances (none mentioned by name) come from the 17th century accounts by courtiers and diplomats from Western and Southern Europe, including Jean Le Laboureur[7], Galeazzo Maroscetti[8], Gaspard de Tende[9] and Bernard O’Connor[10]. They described dances that were solemn, involved bows and dignified walking in pairs, mostly male and female, arranged interchangeably in a procession, where dancers of senior rank or age would customarily lead the parade. The sole figure mentioned in the aforementioned sources was what is currently known as the so-called “tunnel”, i.e. the gradual passage of dancers underneath an arch formed by other pairs. Often, the dance gradually accelerated in transition from the walking form to other, livelier dances. The descriptions also include suggestions that the characteristically dignified dances performed in Poland were akin to the then popular branles and courantes.

The early 18th century saw the crystallization of the polonaise as a three-measure form, featuring the so-called “Polish step” (which resembled the present-day mazur dance step,  although it was much slower and devoid of the characteristic jump), and using numerous figures improvised by the dance leader. During the Wettin rule of Poland, the polonaise became widely known and practices in Europe (chiefly in Germany), both as a ceremonial dance at courts, and among composers (including François Couperin, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg). It soon became known as polonaise and polacca. Owing to the language preferences of Polish upper classes, the former term firmly established itself as a lasting denotation of the genre in Poland[11]. In 1755, Christoph Gottlieb Hänsel‘s dance handbook was published in Saxony, featuring the first extensive and precise description of the polonaise[12]. Thanks to its author, we now know that the then polonaise was founded on the characteristic “Polish step” (Polnischen Pas), danced forward and backward with ornamental elements, including a hop step with a passé, ballonné, batterie and “a clicking of the right and left heel with a battément” i.e. the so-calle “hołubiec”[13]. Danced throughout two bars, the polonaise side steps were similar to the pas de bourrée[14]. In terms of the dance’s figures, the procession of dancers was most often led clockwise along a circle (to the left or right), or along straight lines forward, backward, and sideways. Typically, male dancers would continuously hold their female partners’ hands while also using individualized ways to change the hold. When changing the hold, headgear was passed on from one hand to another or hung on the hilt of the saber while resting the outer side of one’s wrist against the belt[15].

The peak of the dance’s popularity lasted throughout the Saxon period, all the way to the end of the Napoleonic era. The polonaise craze was sustained by its dignified and inclusive character which permitted borrowings from other popular dances (e.g. certain solutions and gestures were transplanted from the anglaise and écossaise, respectively). Dance teachers continue to come up with sophisticated forms of the polonaise, implementing French and German trends and teaching them in convent schools, cadet corps, and boarding schools[16]. Students presented the theatrical form of the now most important Polish dance at almost every occasion, including annual balls (provided that such were organized at a given school). At balls, the polonaise would be danced uninterruptedly for as long as half an hour, often repeatedly during a single event[17]. It was customary for persons over forty years of age to restrict themselves solely to this dance[18]. The polonaise was immensely popular with the Wettins and Stanisław August Poniatowski (considered as one of its earliest performers[19]), also finding favour with tsar Aleksander I.

Around 1815, the polonaise began to rapidly diminish in importance, which led to its eventual marginalization among nobles in the mid-19th century, when its role was reduced to that of the ceremonial opening of balls [20]. Its prominence among composers also dwindled[21], although traditional polonaises have been written until today. The dismissal of the polonaise was such that in 1904 Mieczysław Rościszewski concluded that “it is not strictly a dance but rather a triumphal march and an introduction to proper dancing”[22], while its figures “are usually avoided on account of the youth which much prefers the waltz”[23]. The bigger the decline of the polonaise as a social dance, the more ideologized it became as a token of nationalism and an object of investigations on Polishness. Apart from Kazimierz Brodziński, who has already been quoted above, other prominent 19th century studies on the polonaise included texts by Łukasz Gołębiowski[24], Karol Czerniawski[25], Marian Gorzkowski[26], Arkadiusz Kleczewski[27], Karol Mestenhauser[28], Walery Gostomski[29], and Otto Mieczysław Żukowski[30]. Subsequent texts were predominantly educational (e.g. Zygmunt Kłośnik[31]), and before the outbreak of World War II resulted in attempts to codify the polonaise in the grain of the contemporaneous social circumstances (cf. Jan Ostrowski-Naumoff[32], Józef Waxman[33] and Zofia Kwaśnicowa[34]). The postwar period featured studies which on the one hand continued to restore the polonaise in contemporary dance practice[35], while also striving for new stage solutions [36].

At present, the most frequently encountered form of the polonaise is the one codified in 1987-1989 by the Council of Experts on Folklore appointed by the Ministry of Culture and Art and written down by Czesław Sroka[37]. It determines five positions of pairs, three types of steps, two types of bows, and ten figures.

[1] J. Kochanowski, Proporzec albo Hołd Pruski Jana Kochanowskiego [A Banner or Prussian Homage], in: idem, Dzieła polskie [Polish Works], vol. I, ed. J. Lorentowicz, Lviv 1919, pp. 198-199; O.M. Żukowski, O polonezie. Przyczynek do dziejów choreografii i muzyki polskiej [On the Polonaise: A Contribution to the History of Polish Choreography and Music], Lviv 1899, p. 5.

[2] K. Miaskowski, Mięsopust Polski. Zbiór rytmów Kaspra Miaskowskiego (wedle wydania z r. 1622 w Poznaniu w drukarni Jana Rossowskiego) [The Polish Carnival: A Collection of Rhymes by Kasper Miaskowski (Based on the 1622 Edition, Published by Jan Rossowski’s Printing House in Poznań], published by. J. Turowski, Cracow 1861, p. 295.

[3] Karol Badecki, Literatura mieszczańska w Polsce XVII wieku [Bourgeois Literature in the 17th Century Poland], Lviv 1925, pp. 236, 240, 245 et al.; Z. Stęszewska, Z zagadnień staropolskiej muzyki tanecznej [On the Problems of Old-Polish Dance Music], in: Z dziejów polskiej kultury muzycznej, I. Kultura staropolska [From the History of Polish Musical Culture. I: Old-Polish Culture], ed. Z.M. Szweykowski, Cracow 1958, p. 241

[4] ”Kurier Warszawski” 1825 no. 158, as quoted by: Jan Prosnak, Kultura muzyczna Warszawy XVIII wieku [The Musical Culture of the 18th Century Warsaw], Cracow 1955, p. 65.

[5] O. Kolberg, Lud, jego zwyczaje, sposób życia, mowa, podania, przysłowia, obrzędy, gusła, zabawy, pieśni, muzyka i tańce, Seria IV, Kujawy, Część druga, [The people, their customs, way of life, speech, legends, proverbs, rites, pagan ceremonies, games, songs, music and dance, Series IV, Kujavia, Vol. II], Warsaw 1867, p. 204.

[6] O. Kolberg, Lud…, Seria XVIII, The Area of Kielce, Część pierwsza [The People..., Series XVIII, Kieleckie, Vol. I], Cracow 1885, p. 68; idem, Lud…, The Area of Radom, Część pierwsza [The People..., Radomskie, Vol. I], Cracow 1887, pp. II-III.

[7] J. Le Laboureur de Bleranval, Relation du voyage de la Royne de Pologne, et du retour de Madame la Mareschalle de Guebriant, Ambassadrice Extraordinaire, et Sur-Intendante de sa conduitte. Par la Hongrie, l'Austriche, Styrie, Carinthie, le Frioul, et l'Italie. Avec un discours historique de toutes les Villes et Estats, par ou elle a passe. Et un Traitte particulier du Royaume de Pologne, de son Gouvernement Ancien et Moderne, de ses Provinces et de ses Princes, avec plusieurs tables Genealogiques de Souverains. Dedié a son Altesse, Madame la Princesse Douairiere de Conde. Par Iean Le Laboureur. S. de Bleranval, l'un des Gentils-hommes Servans du Roy, Paris 1647, p. 214; partial transl. W. Łoziński, Życie polskie w dawnych wiekach [Life in Poland in Previoius Centuries], Lviv 1921, p. 197.

[8] G. Maroscetti, Opisanie szlubu króla Michała z Eleonorą Arcy-Xiężni. Rakuską, córką cesarza Ferdynanda III odbytego w Częstochowie w r. 1670 [A Description of the Wedding of King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki and Arch-Duchess Eleanor of Austria, Daughter of Emperor Ferdinand III, in Częstochowa in 1670), in: J.U. Niemcewicz, Zbiór pamiętników historycznych o dawnej Polszcze z rękopisów, tudzież dzieł w różnych językach o Polszcze wydanych, oraz z listami oryginalnemi królów i znakomitych ludzi w kraju naszym. Tom 4 [A Collection of Historical Diaries on Old Poland based on Manuscripts or Works in Various Languages on Poland, Published with Original Letters of Kings and Distinguished People in Our Country. Vol. 4], Leipzig 1839, p. 238.

[9] S. de Hauteville [G. de Tende], Relation historique de la Pologne, contenant le pouvoir de ses rois, leur élection, & leur couronnement, les privileges de la noblesse, la religion, la justice, les mœurs & les inclinations des polonois; avec plusiers actions remarquables, par le Sieur de Hauteville, Paris 1687 p. 271 [II Paris 1697, p. 314], transl. Tomasz Nowak.

[10] B. O’Connor, Wyjątek z pamiętników Bernarda O’Conora [An Excerpt from Bernard O’Connor’s Diaries], in: J.U. Niemcewicz, Zbiór pamiętników historycznych… [A Collection of Historical Diaries...], op. cit., p. 314.

[11] A. Żórawska-Witkowska, Űber die vermutlich polnischen Elemente im drama per musica „Ottone, re di Germania” (London 1722/23) von Georg Friedrich Händel, „Händel-Jahrbuch” (56) 2010, pp. 49-76; idem, Wiek XVIII – apogeum i schyłek muzyki staropolskiej [The 18th Century: The Peak and Decline of Old-Polish Music], in: Zmierzch kultury staropolskiej. Ciągłość i kryzysy (wieki XVII i XIX) [The Decline of Old-Polish Culture: Continuity and Crises (17th and 18th c.)], eds. U. Augustyniak and A. Karpiński, Warsaw 1997, p. 70.

[12] C.G. Hänsel, Allerneueste Anweisung zur Aeusserlichen Moral. Worinnen im Anhange die so genannten Pfuscher entdecket, Und überhaupt der Misbrauch der edlen Tanzkunst einem ieden vor Augen geleget wird, Leipzig 1755, p. 138. The handbook has been recently discovered by Szymon Paczkowski, who has kindly rendered it available to me for the purpose of this study.

[13] ibid., pp. 138-142, 144-149.

[14] ibid., pp. 142-144.

[15] ibid., pp. 150-156.

[16] H. Sypniewska, Wychowanie fizyczne w Collegium Nobilium Stanisława Konarskiego, [Physical Education at Stanisław Konarski’s Collegium Nobilium], “Kultura Fizyczna” 1965 (year XVIII) no. 1, pp. 9-11; A. Reglińska-Jemioł, Formy taneczne w polskim teatrze jezuickim XVIII wieku [Dance Forms in the 18th century Polish Jesuit Theatre], Poznań 2012, pp. 144-147; A. Haliczowa, Wychowanie fizyczne w polskich szkołach rycerskich w XVIII wieku [Physical Education in Polish Knight Schools], “Wychowanie Fizyczne i Sport” IX/2, Warsaw 1965, pp. 244-247.

[17] W. Coxe, Podróż po Polsce 1778 (original title: Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark. Interspersed with historical relations and political inquiries, London 1784), transl. E. Suchodolska, in: Polska Stanisławowska w oczach cudzoziemców [Poland During the Reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski in the Eyes of Foreigners], vol. I, ed. W. Zawadzki, Warsaw 1963, p. 692; K. Wierzbicka-Michalska, Muzyka na dworze Stanisława Augusta w latach 1764-1781 [Music at the Court of Stanisław August Poniatowski in 1764-1781], in: K. Wierzbicka-Michalska, Sześć studiów o teatrze stanisławowskim [Six Studies on Theatre during the Reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski], Studia z dziejów teatru w Polsce [Studies on the History of Polish Theatre], ed. T. Sivert, vol. V], Wrocław-Warsaw-Cracow 1967, p. 126.

[18] N.W. Wraxall, Wspomnienia z Polski 1778 (original title: Memoires of the Courts of Berlin, Dresden and Vienna in the Years 1777-9, ed. 2, London 1800), transl. H. Krahelska, in: Polska Stanisławowska w oczach cudzoziemców [Poland During the Reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski in the Eyes of Foreigners], vol. I, op. cit., p. 529.

[19] J. Bernoulli, Podróż po Polsce 1778 (original title: Reisen durch Brandenburg, Pommern, Preussen, Curland, Russland und Polen in der Jahren 1777 und 1778, Leipzig 1779-1780, t. VI), transl. W. Zawadzki, in: Polska Stanisławowska w oczach cudzoziemców [Poland During the Reign of Stanisław August Poniatowski in the Eyes of Foreigners], vol. II, op. cit., p. 416.

[20] K. Brodziński, Wyjątek z pisma o tańcach przez Kazimierza Brodzińskiego [An Excerpt from Kazimierz Brodziński’s Texts on Dances], in: ”Melitele” no. 1, 1829, p. 90.

[21] W. Tomaszewski, Warszawskie edytorstwo muzyczne w latach 1772-1865 [Musi Editing in Warsaw in 1772-1865], Warsaw 1992, pp. 167-171.

[22] M. Rościszewski, Tańce salonowe. Praktyczny przewodnik dla tancerzy i wodzirejów uwzględniający tańce najnowsze i najmodniejsze z illustracyami [Ballroom Dances: A Practical Guide for Dancers and Dance Leaders, Including the Latest and Most Fashionable Dances, with Illustrations], Warsaw 1904, s. 42.

[23] M. Rościszewski, Tańce salonowe. Praktyczny przewodnik dla tancerzy i wodzirejów uwzględniający tańce najnowsze i najmodniejsze z illustracyami [Ballroom Dances: A Practical Guide for Dancers and Dance Leaders, Including the Latest and Most Fashionable Dances, with Illustrations], Warsaw 1904, p. 45.

[24] Ł. Gołębiowski, Lud Polski, jego zwyczaje, zabobony [The People of Poland, their Customs and Superstitions], Warsaw 1830; idem, Gry i zabawy różnych stanów w kraju całym, lub w niektórych tylko prowincyach [Games and Plays of Various Social Classes in the Country or its Selected Provinces], Warsaw 1831, pp. 306-307.

[25] K. Czerniawski, Charakterystyka tańców przez Karola Czerniawskiego [A Typology of Dances by Karol Czerniawski], Warsaw 1847, pp. 41-43; idem, O tańcach narodowych naszych z poglądem historycznym i estetycznym na tańce różnych narodów, a w szczególności na tańce polskie [On Our National Dances with Historical and Aesthetic Insight into Dances of Various Nations, with Particular Emphasis on Polish Dances], Warsaw 1860, pp. 61-66.

[26] M. Gorzkowski, Xopoimania. Historyczne poszukiwania o tańcach, tak starożytnych pogańskich jak również społecznych i obyczajowych we względzie symbolicznego znaczenia. Napisał Marian Gorzkowski [Xopoimania. Historical survey of dances, from ancient pagan to social and customary, in terms of their symbolic meaning], Warsaw 1869, pp. 73-81.

[27] A. Kleczewski, Tańce salonowe [Ballroom Dances], Lviv 1879, pp. 11-15.

[28] Karol Mestenhauser, Szkoła tańca Karola Mestenhausera w trzech częściach, Część II, Tańce kołowe: Galop – Polka – Polka Mazurka z Troteską – Walce – Oberek, Tańce figurowe: Kontredans – Lansjer – Imperjal – Polonez – Krakowiak – Kotiljon [Karol Mestenhauser’s School in 3 Volumes. Volume 2: Circle Dances: the gallop, the polka, the polka mazurka with trotting, the waltz, the oberek, figurative dances: the contredanse, the lancers, the imperial, the polonaise, the krakowiak, and the cotillon], Warsaw 1888, pp. 159-181 (II 1901, III 1904, s. 173-196)

[29] W. Gostomski, Polonez i menuet. Szkic estetyczno-obyczajowy [The Polonaise and the Minuet: An Essay in Aesthetics and Customs], Cracow 1891.

[30] O.M. Żukowski, O polonezie: przyczynek do dziejów choreografii i muzyki polskiej [On the Polonaise: A Contribution to the History of Polish Choreography and Music], in: ”Wiadomości Artystyczne” 1899.

[31] Z. Kłośnik, O tańcach narodowych polskich [On Polish National Dances], Lviv 1907.

[32] J. Ostrowski-Naumoff, Polskie tańce narodowe [Polish National Dances], in: “Teatr w Szkole” 1936/1937, no. 3, pp. 54-61.

[33] J. Waxman, Tańce narodowe [National Dances], Poznań 1936 (II ed. – 1936, III ed. – 1937, pp. 16-24, 68-69, IV ed. – 1946).

[34] Z. Kwaśnicowa, Zbiór pląsów II [Caper Collection II], Warsaw 1938, pp. 206-251.

[35] J. Hryniewiecka, Polskie tańce narodowe w formie towarzyskiej [Polish National Dances as Social Dances], Warsaw 1967 (ed. 2 – 1971; ed. 3 – 1973),

[36] J. Hryniewiecka, Sześć scenicznych układów polskich tańców ludowych [Six Stage Arrangements of Polish Folk Dances], Warsaw 1961 (ed. 2 – 1962); idem, Tańce Harnama: polonez, mazur, oberek, kujawiak [Harnam’s Dances: the polonaise, the mazurka, the oberek, the kujawiak], Warsaw 1961; idem, Pięć tańców polskich [Five Polish Dances], Warsaw 1970; idem, 5 tańców polskich [Five Polish Dances], Warsaw 1990; Różne formy tańców polskich [Various Forms of Polish Dances], ed. I. Ostrowska, Warsaw 1980.

[37] C. Sroka, Polskie tańce narodowe – systematyka [Polish National Dances: A Typology], Warsaw 1990, pp. 6-12.