Dancing to Chopin

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1999

"There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being that produces this music," wrote one French critic about the works of Chopin. "It seems to descend from heaven—so pure, so clear, so spiritual."

Yet in his own day, according to a close friend, "Chopin would turn into a lusty musician and start thundering out mazurkas and waltzes until, tired of playing and eager to join in on the dancing himself, he would cede the piano to a humbler replacement."

Which is the true Chopin? According to Eric McKee of Penn State's School of Music, it was perhaps Chopin's tuberculosis, which would eventually claim his life, that created "the aura of otherworldliness surrounding him and his music." In reality, says McKee, "the physical aspects of the dance greatly influenced and motivated his compositional decisions."

For a book titled Dance and the Music of Chopin, McKee has studied the state of social dancing in the cities where Chopin lived: Warsaw, Vienna, and Paris. "The type of dance Chopin had most contact with while living in Warsaw," McKee writes, "was not the peasant folk dance, as many have claimed, but rather the ballroom dances of the upper classes. Despite political unrest, during the first 20 years of Chopin's life, Warsaw was a thriving cosmopolitan center well connected to the social trends of Vienna and Paris." Ballroom dancing was all the rage in the private salons of the middle and upper classes, particularly the stately and noble polonaise, the spontaneous and imaginative mazurka, and the "scandalous" waltz. As one traveler of the period wrote of this erotic dance, "The men grasped the long dress of their partners so that it would not be trodden upon, and lifted it high, holding them in this cloak, which brought both bodies under one cover, as closely as possible against them and in this way the whirling continued in the most indecent positions; the supporting hand lay firmly on the breasts, at each movement making lustful pressures; the girls went wild and looked as though they would drop."

At many dances, a single pianist—often Chopin himself—would provide the dance music. "Although Chopin received an excellent musical education at the Warsaw Conservatory," McKee notes, "it was in the salons where he perfected his ability to improvise and to compose dance music. Many first-hand accounts tell of Chopin's ability to move the feet of the dancers."

Only after he left Warsaw in 1830 did Chopin's music begin to become "undanceable." "Chopin himself states that his Opus 7 mazurkas, written around 1832, 'are not meant for dancing,'" McKee says, noting that these and others of Chopin's later works include "musical devices that disrupt the meter" (and so the dancer's feet), as well as an increasing emphasis on such musical qualities as closure, formal sophistication, contrapuntal textures, and advanced chromaticism.

And yet it's not always apparent, merely by listening, whether Chopin intended a piece as "art music" or "dance music." "Even Chopin's own sister could not always tell the difference," McKee says. Of Chopin's Mazurka in B-flat major, Op. 17, No. 1, composed in Paris, his sister Ludwika writes: "Your mazurka, the one that goes Bam Bum Bum in the third part, was performed by the full orchestra at the Variety Theater [and] played all night at the ball at the Zaoyski's, [who] were extremely pleased with it for dancing. What do you say about being profaned like that? . . . The Mazurka is more properly for listening. . . . What will you say about my being at the Lebruns one evening and having had to profane you? They had asked me if I could play your magnificent Mazurka, and . . . I played it for dancing with the approval of the dancers. My dear, tell me whether you wrote it in the spirit of a dance; perhaps we have understood you incorrectly."

To better understand Chopin's music today, McKee believes, students, performers, and listeners need to know more about the social context of 19th-century ballroom dancing and, specifically, about the "bodily rhythms" of the mazurka, polonaise, and waltz. Writes McKee, "As a fiddler in several Scottish country dance bands since 1979, I quickly learned that performing a dance tune without detailed knowledge of the choreography of the dance can result in a skewed interpretation of the music." To educate himself, McKee studied the choreographies of the mazurka and the polonaise under the tutelage of Penn State dance professor Elizabeth Hanley. And last spring he helped organize a Polish Dance workshop at Penn State, at which the Pittsburgh International Folk Theatre demonstrated and taught the mazurka, polonaise, and waltz.

Perhaps it's this lack of dancing experience that led one critic to write, "On taking up one of the works of Chopin, you are entering, as it were, a fairy land, untrodden by human footsteps." As McKee has found, not only was Chopin's musical landscape "trodden upon," it was danced across.

Eric McKee, Ph.D., is assistant professor of music theory in the School of Music, College of Arts and Architecture, 227 Music Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-2122; ejm5@psu.edu. His work is supported by the American Council of Learned Societies and Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies and College of Arts and Architecture.

Last Updated September 01, 1999