The French sarabande is typically characterized as one of the most serious and noble baroque dances in the instrumental suite. New research synthesizing eyewitness accounts, literary sources, and musical analysis reveals the sarabande’s rich history as a theatrical dance regularly performed by female dancers in French court ballets. The groups of girls and solo young women who danced it between 1651 and 1669 invite us to reshape our narrative of the sarabande in France.

Both literary references and the theatrical context reveal how the sarabande resonated with layers of culturally inscribed meanings at a time when danced and non-danced sarabandes coexisted side by side. The same individuals moved easily between dancing, watching danced sarabandes in ballets, and playing sarabandes on the keyboard or lute. Spectators and listeners likewise encountered and interpreted sarabandes in multiple settings; knowledge gained through dancing or accompanying dancing did not simply disappear from one performance context to the next. While such embodied knowledge is no longer common cultural currency, examining the historically embodied presence of the sarabande and its ties to female dancers permits a better understanding of its cultural resonances and its appeal in the seventeenth century and opens up a wider range of interpretations of this multi-faceted, multivalent dance type.

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