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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Art of Power: How Louis XIV Ruled France ... With Ballet

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By Gretchen Schmid

In 1692, a young French aristocrat visiting King Louis XIV’s royal court was asked if he knew how to dance. The aristocrat, who went by Montbron, replied with characteristic overconfidence, gloating enough to attract the attention of other courtiers. Rookie mistake. It wasn’t long before the room of nobles asked him to prove it.

It was a truth universally acknowledged that a man pining for a political career in 17th century France needed a dance teacher. The ability to dance was both a social nicety and a political necessity, the birthmark of an aristocratic upbringing. “Good breeding demands that pleasing and easy manner which can only be gained by dancing,” the famed dance teacher Pierre Rameau wrote in 1725. Dancing badly in court wasn’t just humiliating, it was also a potential career killer—and Montbron was all talk and no game.

The aristocrat took to the floor and immediately lost his balance. The audience doubled in laughter. Embarrassed, he tried deflecting attention from his legs with “affected attitudes,” waving his arms and making faces. The move backfired. Everyone laughed louder—including the most important man in the room, King Louis XIV.

“There were reportedly more than two hundred dancing schools in Paris in the 1660s, all devoted to training young noblemen to avoid similar dread breaches of etiquette,” writes Jennifer Homans in Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. The young aristocrat didn’t show his face in court for a long time after his grand flop.

King Louis XIV, a lifelong ballet dancer, would have it no other way. To him, ballet was more than an art. It was the political currency that kept his country together.

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When Louis XIV was 10, he was chased out of France by a band of angry aristocrats who wanted to keep royal powers in check. He had sat atop the throne for four years, but the country was run by adult advisors. The vacuum of power was a symptom of a series of aristocratic uprisings called Frondes.

At first, the rebels of the Fronde didn’t want to overthrow the government; they simply wanted to avoid absolute rule by royals. The government had raised taxes to recover funds from the Thirty Years’ War, and the nobility was opposed to the increase. But when civil war erupted, some factions tried taking control of the crown. By the time the young king returned in 1652 at age 14, his worldview had changed. He returned to Paris forever skeptical of his underlings.

For the rest of his life, Louis would be hell-bent on squashing the nobility’s thirst for power. He believed that God had granted him direct authority, and he fashioned himself after Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Louis called himself the “Sun King”—the star at the center of France’s universe—and ensured everybody knew it. He formed his own army and stripped aristocrats of their former military duties. As an absolute monarch, he declared: “I am the state.”

Louis did everything in his power to elevate his status. He practiced fencing and vaulting, and trained for hours daily with his personal dancing master, Pierre Beauchamp. It was more than mere exercise: According to the period’s political theory, the state of France was literally embodied by its ruler. Sculpting his muscles and ensuring that his body was perfectly developed and proportioned was a way to demonstrate he was the ultimate source of power, ruling by divine right.

To ensure that the aristocracy didn’t rise up and attempt to seize power from him again, Louis kept the patricians at Versailles within his sights—and perpetually busy. He turned Versailles into a gilded prison, calling in nobles from their far-away estates and forcing them to stay at court, where he could keep a close eye on them.

In a way, life at Versailles—which Louis had built into a palace—took the form of an intricately choreographed dance. Noblemen and women were restricted as to where they could stand, how they were allowed to enter or exit a room, and what type of chair they could sit on. The house was divided into elaborate wings, and inhabitants moved between them via sedan chairs, which functioned as indoor taxicabs. (Only the royal family had their own taxi-chairs. Everybody else had to flag them down.)

Louis XIV’s theory was that nobles couldn’t overthrow the government if they were too busy attending to trifling matters of etiquette. If nobles spent all of their energy trying to maintain their status, they wouldn’t have time or ability to rise up against the monarchy. And dance was one of the many ways Louis was able to keep the nobility in their place.

Dance had been intricately bound up with court etiquette for decades. But under Louis’s watch, it became one of the most important social functions of the court. Nobles learned about two to four new ballroom dances a year, performing the social dances before dinner. “At Louis’s court, a courtier probably had to keep some twelve dances at the ready, a considerable feat of memory in view of their diversity and complexity,” writes Wendy Hilton in Dance and Music of Court and Theater.

Louis XIV’s stage debut at age 15, Le Ballet de la Nuit, was a perfect example of the power games he would come to play. The performance, which consisted of 43 mini-ballets, lasted 12 hours and stretched overnight into dawn, with an elaborate set including chariots crossing the skies, winged horses dipping in and out of clouds, and monsters arising from waves. At the end of the performance, the Sun (played by Louis, encrusted in jewels and topped with ostrich feathers) comes to vanquish the Night. Louis would repeat the performance six more times over one month.

As Louis grew older, he staged elaborate, lengthy ballets—called ballets de cour—as masculine displays of athleticism and virility. (Women weren’t allowed to dance; feminine roles were usually performed by cross-dressing men.) The king, of course, danced the lead roles dressed in intricate costumes, gilded with expensive jewels. His favorite getup? Roman emperor.

It was a far cry from royal dances of the past. When ballet first emerged in Italy in the 15th century, it resembled a staged display of slow, elegant walking. Catherine de Medici brought the artform to France when she married King Henri II in 1533, but Louis XIV pushed the craft to become highly technical and distinctively French.

The ballets de cour were an extension of everyday court etiquette, all designed to keep the aristocracy perpetually nervous and literally on their toes. Pushing ballet forward was more than a power move at home—it was a way to show the rest of Europe that France was the center of high culture. Louis wanted world leaders to admire France’s artistic achievements as much as they admired the country’s military might.

And it worked. Royal French fashion, etiquette, and taste became extremely popular in the courts of other countries. The king of Sweden even sent an ambassador to France just to observe artistic developments and report back.

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Thanks to his enormous appetite, Louis XIV’s dancing career didn’t last. His sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, wrote of a meal in which the king wolfed down “four bowls of different soups, a pheasant, a partridge, a large bowl of salad, two slices of ham, a slice of mutton and a dish of pastries, finished with fruit and boiled eggs.” According to a ballet myth, when the overweight king couldn’t execute the complicated entrechat-quatre jump—a move that requires a dancer to leap and beat his legs twice before landing—his dancing master invented a one-and-a-half beat jump as a cheat. Today, the jump is called the royale.

In 1701, Louis stood for a new royal portrait. The painter, Hyacinthe Rigaud, had a talent for rendering faces in exact, photographic detail—a skill that had previously caught the eye of various aristocrats. In fact, Rigaud was so popular among aristocrats that he often didn’t have the time to finish most of his paintings. Like a 17th century James Patterson, he had to hire a stable of aides. Fueled by hot chocolate and gimblette cookies, they were in charge of filling in background details.

Over the years, Rigaud had practically cataloged all the French nobility, and his work won praise because it depicted nobles as they wanted to be seen: grandiose, powerful, and wealthy. Louis, who was still determined to elevate his status, knew that Rigaud was the perfect portraitist for the job.

There’s a lot to giggle about in Rigaud’s final product: the French king’s disdainful expression, the glam-metal hair, his arm perched saucily on his hip, the heeled shoes, with jeweled buckles to boot! But, to Louis, the painting commanded respect. When Rigaud painted his subject, the 63-year-old King was a stout 5 feet, 4 inches. Rigaud portrayed him in a flattering light, tweaking the perspective so the viewer gazed up at the King, creating the appearance of a taller man—an effect heightened by mounting the portrait on a wall. Louis’s chunky dancing heels added a few inches of height, while coronation robes and ermine fur concealed his large body.

With the exception of his legs.

Louis was proud of his legs. Sculpted from years of ballet, they were signs of a cultured and athletic past, and while Louis had relinquished his danseur star status decades earlier, he never let his courtiers forget the power dance held in his government. Rigaud’s portrait was an intimidating display of the king’s strength and wealth, and whenever Louis was away from court, nobles were forbidden from turning their backs to the painting.

By that point, showing off his gams was the king’s way of showing off his legacy as a trailblazer. By the time Louis hung his portrait on the wall, he’d created the Royal Academy of Dance, precursor to the prestigious Paris Opera, been instrumental in codifying the five main foot positions used in ballet today, and helped make French the art form’s official language (consider terms like pirouette and plié). Were it not for Louis XIV, ballet might forever have remained a social dinner dance for bored Italian aristocrats.

If he were still alive, Louis would be appalled by the modern stereotypes of ballet as dainty. Nothing could be further from the truth: Ballet was a powerful political tool, a means of maintaining a country’s stability and keeping the status quo. It’s a stark reminder of how much the power games of politics have changed. While modern politicians polish their reputations with slick social media managers and a pinch of pandering, Louis did it with art.

Maybe it’s time for us to bring that tactic back. Can you imagine two opposing members of Congress debating the merits of immigration policy while performing a pas de deux in silken white tights?

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How Michael Jackson's Dancing Defied the Laws of Biomechanics
Phil Walter, Getty Images
Phil Walter, Getty Images

From the time he debuted the moonwalk on broadcast television in 1983, Michael Jackson transcended the label of "dancer." His moves seemed to defy gravity as well as the normal limits of human flexibility and endurance.

Now we have some scientific evidence for that. Three neurosurgeons from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, recently published a short paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine that examines just how remarkable one of Jackson's signature moves really was.

In the 1988 video for "Smooth Criminal" and subsequent live performances, Jackson is seen taking a break from his constant motion to stand in place and lean 45 degrees forward. Both he and his dancers keep their backs straight. Biomechanically, it's not really possible for a human to do. And even though he had a little help, the neurosurgeons found it to be a pretty impressive feat.

An illustration of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' dance move.
Courtesy of 'Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.' Copyright Manjul Tripathi, MCh.

Study co-author Manjul Tripathi told CNN that humans can't lean forward much more than 25 or 30 degrees before they risk landing on their faces. (He knows, because he tried it.) Normally, bending involves using the hip as a fulcrum, and erector spinae muscles to support our trunk. When Jackson leaned over, he transferred the fulcrum to the ankle, with the calf and Achilles tendon under strain. Since that part of the body is not equipped to support leaning that far forward without bending, the "Smooth Criminal" move was really a biomechanical illusion. The act was made possible by Jackson's patented shoe, which had a "catch" built under the heel that allowed him to grasp a protruding support on the stage. Secured to the floor, he was able to achieve a 45-degree lean without falling over.

But the neurosurgeons are quick to point out that the shoes are only part of the equation. To achieve the full 45-degree lean, Jackson would have had to have significant core strength as well as a strong Achilles tendon. An average person equipped with the shoe would be unable to do the move.

How does this apply to spinal biomechanics research? The authors point out that many dancers inspired by Jackson are continuing to push the limits of what's possible, leading to injury. In one 2010 paper, researchers surveyed 312 hip-hop dancers and found that 232 of them—almost 75 percent of the cohort—reported a total of 738 injuries over a six-month period. That prevalence could mean neurosurgeons are facing increasingly complex or unique spinal issues. The surgeons hope that awareness of potential risks could help mitigate problems down the road.

[h/t CNN]

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Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

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