French, Creole, Basque: The Quadrille, Common Ground for Multiple Identities
When a Senegalese-born girl is adopted by a French marshal’s wife in late 18th-century Paris – the plot of Ourika, a short 1823 novel by Claire de Duras – one dance illustrates the type of aristocratic education she receives: the quadrille. At the age of 15, the character, Ourika, successfully represents “Africa” in a “quadrille from the four corners of the world” during a ball organized by her guardian.
The young girl’s successful performance ended up foreshadowing the destiny of the quadrille . Two centuries after this description of a Black body performing a “white” dance, the quadrille has become one of the Caribbean’s traditional social dances. Its reappropriation first by slaves of African descent who were deported there, then by their descendants, has even turned it into one of the hallmarks of the Creole identity. At the same time, it has virtually disappeared in mainland France, except in the Basque Country, a region whose cultural identity is as strongly affirmed as that of Caribbean French citizens.
The French quadrille was still very popular when Claire de Duras wrote Ourika: it was both “performed” – as described in the novel – and, in a more general sense, a form of entertainment. Influenced by English contredanses, the French “belle danse” as well as stage dance, it acquired a fixed structure at the turn of the 19th century, in the form of a sequence of five figures: le Pantalon (“Trousers”), l’Été (“Summer”), la Poule (“the Hen”), la Pastourelle or la Trénis, and the Finale. Each figure was performed in a rectangular formation made up of four pairs of dancers, or occasionally in line, to a quick or steady rhythm. All were inspired by the vocabulary of contredanses (circles, chains, allemandes, etc.). While the quadrille was initially taught in urban higher society, the “quadrille craze” soon took over France and Europe (by way of the Napoleonic Wars, in part), as well as overseas colonies.
Landowners and sugar cane planters in San Domingo, Martinique and Guadeloupe were eager to reproduce the codes of proper behavior inherited from mainland France, and regularly partook in the complex patterns of the quadrille. Mastering them even came to symbolize, for some, their supposedly natural superiority over a servile population whose own dances, the legacy they deemed “improper.”
However, slaves soon made this social and choreographic practice their own, first by imitating their masters – with a level of skill described half-admiringly, half-patronizingly by 18th- and 19th-century observers like the Dominican priest Jean-Baptiste Labat or the journalist Geoffroy Granier de Cassagnac. They then started to “sway” the steps as well as the music; in the process, they accentuated what the Martinique writer Moreau de Saint-Méry had already deemed the “denaturation” of the dance by the local white population, a process he attributed to the “harmful” climate of the islands.
Creole quadrilles swiftly became part of the Caribbean identity. Even today, they are an important part of social and festive life for locals, especially the older generations. Many regional variants exist under different names (they have been studied by the ethnomusicologists Dominique Cyrille and David Khatile, as well as the author): the commandment quadrille in Grande-Terre (Guadeloupe), the alarepriz quadrille in Basse-Terre, Martinique’s haute-taille, Guyane’s boulangère… These forms have also inspired contemporary choreographers including the Guadeloupe native Chantal Loïal, who created Cercle égal demi cercle au carré (2019).
The Basque country is also deeply attached to its social and cultural history, and the quadrille remained a popular (albeit marginal) practice there up until after the second world war. The Basque version is danced mainly in line, with couples facing each other (square quadrilles are much more rare there). According to the choreographer and Maritzuli Company founder Claude Iruretagoyena, however, Basque social dance has “integrated” the various elements of the traditional quadrille “without losing its own identity.” The brokel dantza (or shield dance) cycle, baton or mast dances, and even the “cavalcades” performed during village celebrations all employ the type of trajectories seen in quadrilles and contredanses. These variants have also inspired contemporary dance makers, some of whom have collected and reinterpreted them.
This unlikely kinship between the Basque country and the Caribbean was explored by the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz and the Biarritz festival Le Temps d’Aimer la Danse in a conference in September. Both territories found something similar in the quadrille, with its complex steps and patterns and the freedom it affords performers to combine them: a dance that could adapt to local customs, and became a defining feature of very different cultures.