The Beauchamps-Feuillet system was a method of notation for dance
that, at its peak, was a vital and assumed portion of any court member's repetoire throughout the aristocracy
of Europe. It was meant to accomidate the social dancing
of the time that formed a significant portion of courtly interaction, initiated by the strong interest of King Louis XIV
. Drawing somewhat sketchy parallels with music notation
, the system was intricate and functional for spreading new dance methods by letter through European countries from England
The system began as the brainchild of Pierre Beauchamps, ballet master of the French court some time before 1700 (it is not known exactly when). He employed it for personal training of courtesans, however it was Raoul Auger Feuillet who brought it to widespread attention with his publishing of a book on the subject. The notation system gained its name from both of their contributions. It turned out that timing could not be better, court dancing had just ascended to being a social grace absolutely indespensable for esteem in the court, moving beyond even education or beauty as the distinguishing aspect of a court member. With the establishment of the Académie Royale de la Danse in 1661, the notation was systemized and extended. Translations were devised for English and German, and collections of dance compositions from famous teachers began distribution in the system much like sheet music.
The notation relied on a central track from which all other notations sprang. This track described the movement of dancers from above along the floor, usually in symmetric or complimentary arrangements. Once the central line was done, notation for varations in step, positions of the foot, arm movements, and taking or releasing of hands were added. For example, horizontal running parallel to the track and connected indicate the use of a plié, élevé, sauté, or tombé, all common movements of the baroque dance period. These could be modified through the use of special diacretics under different circumstances. The notation system did not distinguish between moments of weight-bearing and movements in the air, assuming the courtesan could properly handle themselves to smoothly transition between the two. Likewise, intricrate movements of the arms that correlated with certain set sequences of steps were left unwritten, as any educated member would know how to perform them. The final result would be an extremely beautiful symetric linear pattern decorated with fascinating curves and waves that also carried intricate stepwork meaning for the readers.
The Beauchamps-Feuillet system remained in prominence for about one hundred years throughout Europe. It began to lose relevency as court dances shifted away from small pair or triplet minuetes to extremely intricrate many-personed theatrical dances, for which the system was inadequate. Ballet took off on its own development track, removing it beyond even the efforts of the most focused courtesan to the realm of professionals, and making the Beauchamps-Feuillet system thus somewhat obsolete. Professionals learn from choreographers, not some pretty broadsheet. The final blow to the system was, of course, the French Revolution. With no more aristocracy to consume productions of the continent's dance-masters, there really didn't seem a point. The emerging French middle class preferred the country dances of the English (similar to square dancing) for which the system was also ill-suited to notate. Anyway, when the shackles of the rich had just been thrown off, who wanted to keep around their petty insider languages? Although it was flawed, the demise of the Beauchamps-Feuillet system was unfortunate. Without written record, vital information about the development of European dance after the French Revolution was transimitted only via the oral-visual media, making it lost to the records of scholars forever. But for a brief period, the beauty of a baroque court dance could be distilled to a page for all to enjoy throughout time.
Daniles, Peter T. Bright, William ed. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.