Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Increase English cultural vocabulary learning the origins of baroque dance names used in early Bach symphonies.

With a fleeting nod to Terpsichore, Greek muse of dance, we quickstep forward with the etymology of a few named dancing modes from the baroque era, like pavane and gavotte, not listed alphabetically nor comprehensively but rather in a brief scroll of delight, judged by how pleasing to the ear and to the soul I found the terms.

Speaking of delight, the very name of the Greek muse Τερψιχόρη Terpsichore (terp-SIC-oree) means approximately ‘she delights in dancing’ from τέρπειν terpein ‘to delight in’ and χoρός choros ‘dance.’

In Frank Sinatra’s swinging 1959 recording of “Come Dance with Me,” the name of the muse is memorably mispronounced as "TERP-si-cor." The error was either lyricist Sammy Cahn’s Hollywood ignorance (my bet) or Frank Sinatra’s dick-wagging bravura stance which stated hoods like Frank could mispronounce academic words because, like Sinatra, they are major-league studs. In any case the precise causa erroris is now lost in time, a mere reverberant historical echo in some Capitol recording studio of the past. But—damn!—Billy May’s big band bounce still puts the wax on my dance floor.




My interest in the names of these Baroque dances began while listening to J. S. Bach’s four orchestral suites and finding I was ignorant of some baroque dances which comprise Bach’s and coeval suites, for example: allemande, bourrée, sarabande, gigue, réjouissance and gavotte. I did vaguely remember an Ascot Gavotte from the musical “My Fair Lady.” And through the orthographical veils of the French gigue, I could discern our English jig — although apparently jig may not be derived from French. In any case, when the word is used to name the last movement of a Baroque suite, as French gigue or Italian giga, it’s a snappy dance-tune in lively triple rhythm (usually 6–8 or 12–8).

The European Renaissance bestowed upon us this stately courtiers’ processional dance for couples. Pavane is one of my favourite words — British pronunciation please: peh-VAN or — the snottier Oxfordian version that I prefer — peh-VAWN (to rhyme with lawn).

From the savoury plosiveness of its initial letter, pavane flows forth from pronouncing lips like forest water slipping over stones in a summer stream, each aqueous rill delayed by filaments of moss whose wavering tendrils subdue the water’s rush.

The sedate dignity of the pavane’s leisurely steps appears to have evolved from a fifteenth-century northern Italian dance, probably danza padovana ‘dance typical of the Italian city of Padua.’ The word’s first printed use was in 1535 CE.

Having appeared variably as pavan, paven, pavin, pavian, pavine or pavyn, the eventual modern English form was borrowed from Middle French pavane, itself from Italian dialect pavana, feminine of pavano ‘of Padua,’ from a dialect version of the city’s name Pava; compare the name of the city in Tuscan dialect Padova.

A False Source

An alternate, more colourful, and quite probably spurious origin is pavón, the Spanish word for ‘peacock,’ from Latin pavo, pavonis ‘peacock.’ Choreographic historians do believe that the decorously sweeping pavane, to music in 2/ 2 or 4/ 4 time, grew popular in part because it permitted lushly gowned and bewigged aristocracy to show off their gaudy raiment, much as a male peacock flaunts his startling tail. Says one writer, “Until about 1650 the pavane opened ceremonial balls and was used as a display of elegant dress.”

Encyclopedia Britannica says, “The pavane’s basic movement. . . consisted of forward and backward steps; the dancers rose onto the balls of their feet and swayed from side to side. A column of couples circled the ballroom, and the dancers occasionally sang. By about 1600, livelier steps like the fleuret (a brief lift of each foot before a step) made the dance less pompous. The pavane was customarily followed by its afterdance, the vigorous galliard.”

Several notable later composers wrote instrumental works using the stately measures, such as Fauré’s “Pavane for Orchestra” and Ravel’s 1899 solo piano piece “Pavane pour une infante défunte” ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess.’

In the southern French province of Provence, a town name for a citizen who dwells high up in the Alps is un gavot. In the language of Provençal gavoto names a mountain dance of the Gavots. The gavotte is a minuet-like dance but in quicker time. Un gavot may derive from a pre-Roman Gallic form like *gava or *gaba that meant goitre, one of the afflictions of mountain people removed from any convenient source of iodine.

Allemande does mean “a German dance” from French allemand ‘German.’ It has devolved into an American square dance call, for example allemande left and is mistakenly believed to stem from French à la main. Allemande named a Baroque courtly step in which the couple’s arms were interlaced.

This was a rustic dance of the French Baroque period originally a lively country two-step in common time, two beats to a bar, first seen in the Auvergne, once a province of south-central France and now a larger administrative region. Un pas de bourrée is, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a sideways step in dancing in which one foot crosses behind or in front of the other.”

One source claims the name stems from eighteenth-century French bourrée ‘a bundle of sticks chopped for firewood.’ It is said the vivid rural two-step was first danced around the perimeter of a small rural bonfire.


Dancing in wooden clogs, accompanied by accordion and clarinet, a French country couple in the Auvergne region perform a merry bourrée.

It means 'rejoicing, merrymaking or celebration' in French. In baroque orchestral suites, it named a spirited and lively dance tune which might accompany such revels.

This stately Spanish Baroque court dance resembles the minuet and was perhaps first encountered during the Crusades by Christians from Spain watching a Saracen dance, noting that sarraceno was a Spanish word of the time for an Arab or Muslim. Saracen was picked up from Hellenistic Greek and Latin as a dismissive name for nomadic tribes who fought the Romans, then by racist extension it named any Arab or Muslim.

Written in slow triple time, its Spanish and Italian form is sarabanda or zarabanda, probably from a Persian word سربند serbend ‘a song.’ Other possible Persian sources include a dance named after an old region of Iran called Saravand, or a Persian place name Saravana ‘clump of reeds,’ or even a Persian word imported or acquired in India, where one of the native names for the month of August is Sravana. One might then perhaps posit a dusty-footed sun dance to invoke rain during a dry spell. Remember too that when dance modes were taken up by the elite of court, the faraway magic of a foreign name added to the exotic delight of a new dance.

Although not in Bach’s orchestral suites, this dance-word’s elemental husk is tantalizingly ancient. Its root in Proto-Indo-European is *wel ‘to turn,’ mother of a thousand words or reflexes in later languages. Walzen in early German means ‘to turn, to turn together, to spin round, to roll, to revolve, and then finally to dance the waltz. One thinks of our English borrowings from the cognate Latin verb voluere ‘to turn’ such as involve, revolve and convolve and of the French pickup from German, la valse. Most apt is Walzer to name the twirling, whirling ecstasy of waltz-time. Best Waltz title? Robert Stolz may be proud of his operetta Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt ‘Two hearts in three-quarters time.”


La Danse (the dance) was commissioned in 1869 for the Opera Garnier in Paris. The sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827–1875) formed several nude figures in a wild and boisterous dance, criticized at the time as an offence to common decency. Mais oui! A few blocks away, little children starved to death; but, after all, to the fat French bourgeoisie of the Second Empire, such infants were mere street garbage. Why, their frantic pleading for food scraps sometimes held up the timely passage of milady’s gilded carriage.

Yeah, Zeke, But What Makes ‘em Do that there High-Steppin’?
A terminal note about the psychological impetus to dance may not be out of place. The old myth about dance being a socially acceptable form of intercourse used to be mocked. But – heavens to Freud! – it may be true! Some shrinks and neurologists who have done preliminary studies of dancing suggest that dance first was body signals as part of natural selection during extended courtship rituals. The more risk-taking gestures and leaps of male dancers are said to have attracted women seeking sturdy mates. Darwin thought this, but he also knew the sheer joy of traipsing around the campfire in time to rhythmic thumps on a hollow log was part of dance’s hold on humans. Videos of men watching women dance, and men watching women dance, seem to confirm this mate-evaluating origin of dance.

 Say, Bobby-Sue, I ever show yah muh two-step?

Bill Casselman, May 09, 2017

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman