Elizabeth Svarstad, calendar
calendar Compagnie Contours PhD biography norwegian


Summary of the thesis Dance was an important part of social life in Norway in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Good skills in social dancing, an elegant body posture and correct etiquette expressed good breeding and status. Wealthy families adopted the culture of European fashionable society, held extravagant parties and entertained themselves with dancing at dinners, balls and formal occasions. The need for distinction from lower social classes was expressed in learned habits and manners, and children and young members of the upper class were taught in dance and etiquette by a dancing master. This education was regarded as an essential part of the upbringing of young people and was therefore also an arena for learning correct behavior and etiquette, developing a good body posture and refined movements also outside of the dance, and learning how to bow, curtsy and speak genteelly. Dance may therefore be regarded as an element in a larger context, an educational arena where multiple aspects for regulating behavior can be taken into consideration, for example social etiquette and manners in any given situation.

Dance and correct manners were also taught at the military academy in Christiana (modern-day Oslo). Such lessons were regarded as part of a basic training to master military exercises and also as a way to transform an unsuitable, peasant-like nature into a proper way to move. The teaching of dance has consequently had a wider range than only the upper class, although the ideals of education were the same. Dance as part of the education of young people, as a way of socializing, as behavior regulation and as a physical expression of status has been the starting point for the dissertation’s examination of ballroom dance and its function as a social educational arena in Norway between 1750 and 1820.

Fifteen dance books preserved in Norwegian archives serve as the dissertation’s main sources. They principally contain descriptions of country dances, but the sources also clearly indicate that the minuet enjoyed approximately the same status as elsewhere in Europe at the same time. The qualities of the minuet – classical purity, order, precision, control and elegance, all of which were seen as fundamental to education in Europe – were also an ideal for the Norwegian dance practice. The dance books almost exclusively contain country dances, but the combination of sources shows that the minuet and the country dances were important each in their own manner. The two dance forms complement each other, and teaching in the minuet lay the foundation for the country dances to be performed with good technique, control and elegance.

The physical, outer form of education that teaching in dance offers has been the focus for the dissertation’s investigations of the educational functions of dance. Training in dance and etiquette made it possible to shape the body. The dance books promoted the era’s ideals of correct behavior, while other sources show that actual practice did not always follow the ideal. The teaching in dance and etiquette also functioned to control and regulate behavior. Thus, dance education can be understood as a form of discipline in the sense that for example Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault have argued that bodily practices are. The intellectual education of the self was expressed through the physical practice of dance, etiquette and regulated behavior.

The sources were investigated by combining three methodological approaches: hermeneutics, tacit knowledge and practice-based research. Such a combination, based on the work of theorists such as Knut Kjeldstadli, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Joann McNamara, Jaana Parviainen, Michael Polanyi and Bengt Molander, provides an opportunity to reflect on how a researcher who is skilled in dance may approach historical sources for dance and more consciously use her own experience and knowledge to investigate the dance practices of the past.

That a researcher who is also an accomplished dancer takes the liberty to enter the context of historical dance forms, not only at the writing table but also through physical performance, may shed new light on details of the period’s dance practice. One of the study’s ambitions has thus been to contribute to a wider understanding of interpretation processes and the dancer/researcher’s reflections around what interpretation activates.

The dissertation shows that sources for dance in Norway are more abundant than previously assumed, with dance books illustrating the period’s repertoire in Norway. When their content is seen in the light of international dance sources from the same time, it is obvious that the Norwegian practice was strongly tied to international trends. This shows that the upper class in Norway wanted Continental ways of socializing. An especially interesting find is Feuillet notation in one of the main sources – a manuscript containing examples of the notation of steps, exercises and turns that are special also in an international context.

NTNU,Elizabeth Svarstad