Polonaise ‒ The Royal Dance Every Polish Teenager Has to Master
small, Polonaise ‒ The Royal Dance Every Polish Teenager Has to Master, polonez_chopin_forum.jpg, Still from the film Pan Tadeusz by Andrzej Wajda, 1998, photo: Piotr Bujnowicz/ FabrykaObrazu.com / Forum
Once a favourite among the gentry, the Polonaise has a long and fascinating history, and it is still an indispensable ritual of the studniówka, a ball for graduating high school students.
Dancing the Polonaise is somewhat similar to walking, hence its designation as a walking dance. Far from a hurried morning walk to the office or a swaying stroll to the bar for another pint, the Polonaise is purposefully moderate in tempo and very dignified, almost processional. It also includes a number of figures such as bows and turns which pedestrians typically don’t perform. The dance is in 3/4 time and is performed by a procession of mixed pairs moving along trajectories, curved or straight, proposed by the dance-leader. Apart from the above-mentioned bows and turns, the choreography revolves around a pivot, the temporary separation of partners, and then a circle by the male partner around the female dancer. In the first figure the pairs form lines that move towards each other and eventually cross. The female dancers form a line in the middle and the male dancers face them. After this is done, the pairs re-form. Then all the pairs in line except for the one in the front raise their joined hands forming a ‘tunnel’. The pair at the front of the line turns around and enters the passage, bending forward slightly. They are followed by the next pair at the front and so on. After a pair passes through the ‘tunnel’ they turn around at the end of it and raise their joined hands to add a segment to the passage.
The Polonaise needs to be danced to appropriate music. Many of the compositions that are suited for this dance are called polonaises, but not all of them. Among the canonical musical polonaises are pieces by Wacław Ogiński, especially his Polonaise in A minor 'Farewell to the Homeland', and by Fryderyk Chopin. Franz Schubert and Pyotr Tchaikovsky also composed celebrated polonaises. Beethoven’s Rondo ala polacca from the Triple Concerto meets all the necessary requirements for the dance even though it isn’t called a polonaise. Some of the earliest known polonaises were written by the Polish violinist Bazyli Bohdanowicz in the second half of the 18th century.
So why does such a Polish dance have a French name? The short answer is that it came to Poland from abroad, but the full story is more complicated. Before the dance arrived to Poland in the 18th century an early version spread around the courts of Europe. It wasn’t yet called the Polonaise, but taniec polski (‘Polish dance’ in Polish), or chorea polonica or danza polacca etc., was incredibly popular with the gentry at the Jagiellonian Royal Court of Poland. These were times when Poland was a very powerful state and its culture influenced other European countries. It was initially a sung dance, meaning that there was no accompanying music other than the dancers themselves singing. It was similar to the Polonaise but less dynamic, so much so that some critics called it ‘a stroll rather than a dance’. Nevertheless the taniec polski had the dignity and processional character that can be witnessed in later form.
Towards the end of the 17th century the taniec polski started to be accompanied by live music. It then rapidly spread to Scandinavia. To this day, one of the most popular traditional dances in Sweden, Denmark and Norway is called ‘Polska’ (in Polish this word means ‘Poland’).
In the 18th century, after having undergone evolution in foreign countries, the Polish Dance returned to its homeland under the name Polonaise, French being the lingua franca of the era. The elected Saxon Kings of Poland as well as the German states were reputed to be incredibly fond of it. The last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski also loved it. It might also be worth addressing a widespread myth. The idea that the Polonaise is an elevated form of folk dancing is false. It was spread by literary works of the 19th century rooted in Romanticism. Actually it was the other way around. The commoners appropriated the Polonaise and adapted it to their own tastes, creating dances like chodzony (the ‘walked’), which was a simpler variation.
The dance lost its popularity at the beginning of the 19th century. Presently it is almost exclusively encountered at the Polish equivalent of senior proms. However, in recent years groups of young enthusiasts of traditional dances have appeared in Poland, offering dance-lovers a fantastic opportunity to witness and even try dancing a Polonaise. In view of its long history and bygone popularity, the Polonaise is often called the most traditional Polish dance.
Author: Marek Kępa, April 2016