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Dance Research 24.2 (2006) 117-137

Mr. Isaac, Dancing-Master
Jennifer Thorp

This article discusses various aspects of the career of Mr. Isaac, the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century dancing-master who produced dances of such quality that they still pose remarkable challenges to dancers working on them today. Firstly, it discusses his career in London, with particular reference to new information which has emerged concerning his status as dancing-master to Lord Delamere's young cousin, Katherine Booth; secondly,it considers the extant dances by Mr. Isaac, for their unique choreographicstyle and their dissemination through the publications of Weaver, Walsh and Pemberton; and thirdly, it explores the possible identity of Mr. Isaac by reviewing the available biographical evidence.1

Mr. Isaac's Activities in London

As many dance historians know, details about Mr. Isaac's career are tantalisingly slight. The earliest references to him as a performer in London connect him with the Stuart Court, for in April 1673 a dancer named Isaac was one of several dancers (along with Mr. Priest) who performed as Venetians, a Spaniard, a Conjuror, Devils, and Shepherds, in a masquerade for King Charles II's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth (see Fig. 1). Mr. Isaac received 'A Rich flowerd Venetian suite with all furnitures' costing £28 17s 6d, and 'A Spanish habitt' costing £8 6s 2d, and either he or another Mr. Isaac and three others (Messrs Priest, Hazzard and Laine) each received a 'bask habitt', at 11 guineas per outfit.2 Two years later, in February 1675, Mr. Isaac was paid for his part in the Whitehall production of the masque Calisto, in which members of the royal family and the court performed alongside French and English professional dancers.3 Although he never held an official post at Court, it is known that he taught Princess Anne,4 and in later years some of his dances were published to commemorate royal birthdays during her reign as Queen Anne. Although most of his extant dances were designed for the ballroom, several of them were also performed in the theatre. The music for many of them was attributed to the French composer-musician Jacques (James) Paisible, who had worked with Mr. Isaac in Calisto and maintained close links with both court and theatre in London throughout the reign of Queen Anne.5 Mr. Isaac was also called in to teach deportment to new Maids of Honour – for example to Anne South, appointed [End Page 117]

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Figure 1
Bill for costumes provided for Mr. Isaac and others, dancers in the Duke of Monmouth's masque, April 1673 (Bodl. Rawl. MS c.421, fol. 155r. By permission ofthe Bodleian Library, Oxford).
[End Page 118]

in the early 1690s and so lacking in any sense of deportment that she required a month's tuition from Mr. Isaac in 'how to come into a Roome, for at present she cannot stand still without totering'.6

The vivacious correspondence of one of Mr. Isaac's pupils, Katherine Booth, despite its atrocious grammar and spelling, provides some important insights both to Court life and to the social circles in which she and Mr. Isaac were moving in London during the early 1690s.7 According to her later autobiography, she began to dance in 1683, when she was eleven and staying with her Delamere cousins at Dunham Massey: the occasion was a visit by the Duke of Monmouth (a fine dancer himself), who danced with her and commented on her talent. When she arrived in London in 1689 she came to the notice of King William III, who invited her to dance at his birthnight ball. This was perhaps the immediate reason why she started to take lessons from Mr. Isaac; but another motive was at work, for Katherine and her mother hoped that he might use his influence at Court to get her appointed as a Maid of Honour.

Katherine's debut duly took place at the King's birthnight ball at Whitehall on 4 November 1689, and according to her cousin Lord...


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