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Dressed to the IX's: Duo will dance in Baroque program with music ensemble

Luke Quinton

There's an elaborate gathering in a ballroom of the White House. Guests dressed by cutting-edge designers. As President Obama makes his entrance, music strikes the hall and he and the first lady prepare to show the world ... a new style of dance they've been working on.

As two of the planet's most accomplished dancers, the Obamas will help make these steps fashionable throughout the capitols of the Western world.

Is that scene hard to picture? Well, it was fairly common in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, of France.

King Louis was an accomplished dancer, and his display of skill helped to flaunt his leisure time. "He has time to study dance, and he's showing off his physical prowess," says baroque dancer Paige Whitley-Bauguess.

The New Jersey-based Whitley-Bauguess will perform this weekend along with chamber ensemble La Follia Austin Baroque.

Ballet as we know it owes its origins to baroque dance. Baroque steps, terminology ("plié," "pointe") and movements were all born out of the French court and culture.

When Louis famously said "L'etat c'est moi," (I am the state), it applied not just to the business of government, but to the art and culture of France. Politicians who were very poor dancers had trouble saving face.

According to Keith Womer, director of La Follia, the court of Louis XIV "was a dangerous place."

Jean-Baptiste Lully, the dominant composer, was a friend of the King, and "over time, he maneuvered his friendship with Louis to obtain a license to regulate all music making throughout France," Womer says. "He used this mercilessly to crush or marginalize would-be rivals."

When Whitley-Bauguess and partner Thomas Baird dance with La Follia, it'll be to French music, with period costumes and instruments. The political stakes will be relaxed, but the costumes, not so much.

"I'm going to be wearing a corseted dress that is going to be at least low-calf length, and my shoes are heeled," Whitley-Bauguess says. That's right, "Low-calf," as in, lower than the halfway point of the calf muscle.

To "get the feel for it, you have to dress the way they did back then. This is the way everyone, at least the upper classes, dressed," Whitley-Bauguess says. "It's initially uncomfortable, but it informs the way you carry your body."

The corset "limits the ways I can bend my torso," she says. But "it can actually be enlightening, instead of ... binding. "Once you put on that costume, it actually frees you to explore what movement is possible."

The previous period of Renaissance dancing was even more constricting, Whitley-Bauguess says, especially in Spain. "In Spain the culture was more prudish."

Street dances called "bailles" were deemed "lewd and lascivious." As were "women raising their arms too high." The more formal, social dancing style of the Renaissance was mostly tolerated.

Whitley-Bauguess and Baird have been performing baroque dance for 20 years. Which makes you wonder, how's business?

"It comes and goes with the economy and the need for a baroque dancer," Whitley-Bauguess says with a laugh. "Which, as you can imagine, is not that often."

We've moved on from the time when your social and political life may have depended on your ability to dance. Perhaps it's surprising that these traditions survived even through the early days of the United States. When George Washington was making a tour of the Southern states, a dance was held most nights, and Washington, Whitley-Bauguess says, would dance the first number with the most important woman in town, often the wife of a local dignitary.

Dancing was great fun. And its steps were complex. Most people find it much more entertaining than they thought it would be, Whitley-Bauguess says. "It's actually very clever.

"They had just as much fun as we do today, but we don't always think of that."

"The Art of Baroque Dance"