Chopin the Dancer

Chopin's music dances in various forms and moods. How does it keep and transform Chopin's experience of dance?

By The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Paweł Siechowicz (Chopin Institute)

The Grand Bal Masque at the Opera, after the drawing of Eugène Lami (1845-1847) by James-Baylie AllenThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Grand Masked Ball at the Opera

The Grand Masked Ball at the Paris Opera documented by the engraving is a metaphor of the  society of the early 19th century. It reminds us of the importance of dance in the culture of Chopin's lifetime. 

The enormous interior of the opera hall is filled with a crowd of people. Masks conceal their identity so that everyone can participate in the community of dance.

Country Dance in G flat major, beginning
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Chopin learned how to dance

Dancing was a vital part of curriculum of the Warsaw Lyceum attended by Chopin. We can assume that, as a teenage graduate, Chopin knew the steps and figures of such dances as the minuet, gavotte, country dance, quadrille, lancer, écossaise and waltz, as well as the polonaise and mazur. 

Mazurka in C major Op.7 No.5
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Chopin partied with villagers

In a letter to his family Chopin describes in detail a harvest festival when he danced waltzes, watched the villagers dancing, and even played a one-stringed bass accompanying a folk violinist.

Mazurka in B major Op.7 No.1, beginning
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Only he who does not jump does not fall

Chopin participated in balls dancing with fair maidens among the elegant society. Once, he fell painfully while dancing a mazur. He then described it in a humoristic poem ironically describing his unfortunate accident. 

Chopin got dance parties moving

As recalled by the host of such parties Dominik Borakowski, after some eating and drinking, Chopin sat at the piano and began to improvise on the melody sung by the host’s sister. 

Then the improvising dreamer turned into an eager musician, the piano thundered and sang various mazurs, waltzes and polkas until Fontana, playing nicely and fluently, relieved the tired artist, invited to dance.

Drinking Song, mm. 1-28
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There is a song composed at one such cheerful gathering. In its playful melody, one can hear the jolly atmosphere of a dance party. 

Chopin composed dances

Chopin composed dances throughout all of his life. He is most known for his mazurkas, polonaises and waltzes.

However, he also occasionally turned to other dance genres, seeking inspiration in then fashionable Spanish, Italian, French, Scottish and Ukrainian dances.

How did Chopin experience Polish national dances?

The mazur, krakowiak, kujawiak and oberek originated from folk culture and made their way into society salons. The polonaise originally was a court dance of the Polish nobility. The video presents Polish dances that resonated in Chopin's compositions. 

The Grand Bal Masque at the Opera, after the drawing of Eugène Lami (1845-1847) by James-Baylie AllenThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Polonaise in A major Op. 40 No. 1, beginning
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Dance was a meaningful sign

Chopin recognized the power of dances to carry meanings that reach beyond a mere entertainment. Mazurkas and Polonaises kept, within their rhythms and melodies, a clear reference to Poland and its culture. 

Waltz in D flat major, Op. 70 No. 3, beginning
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Waltzes carried with themselves a reference to love and romance. They also pointed clearly to the salon culture with its inherent etiquette and manners. 

Dancing in imagination

The dances composed by Chopin are not meant to accompany dancing. However, they have a dance feeling that can trigger the listener’s imagination, evoking the atmosphere of social dancing and expressing emotions spanning from dignity to flirtatiousness and melancholy. 

Waltz in D flat major Op. 64 No. 1, beginning
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From miniature to tone poem

The shortest Mazurka lasts less than a minute and one of the Waltzes is indeed popularly known as the Minute Waltz. These are the dance miniatures that truly deserve this name.

Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major Op. 61_polonaise theme
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The most poetic and inspired Polonaise-Fantasy lasts over ten minutes encompassing the idioms of mazurka and nocturne. Its musical narrative continually triggers the listeners' imagination inviting them to engage in a rich palette of moods and emotions.

In between, there is a whole universe of dancelike forms that invite listeners to dance in their imagination. 

Dance along

Listen to the Waltz in C sharp minor magnificently performed by Garrick Ohlsson. Can you feel the urge to turn, and turn, and turn? You don’t need to move. You already dance in your mind.

Credits: Story

Paweł Siechowicz (Chopin Institute)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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