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  • Social Dancing in Peter the Great’s Russia
  • Claudia R. Jensen
Social Dancing in Peter the Great’s Russia. By Elizabeth Clara Sander. (Terpsichore, Band 6.) Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2007. [xi, 143 p. ISBN 9783487134253. €29.80.] Appendices, bibliography.

“I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both . . .” [says Mr. Henry Tilney to his dance partner, Catherine Morland]. “But they are such very different things! [replies Catherine] . . . . People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.” “And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing.” (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)

Social dance is always more about society than about dance, as Jane Austen (and her readers) well knew. Elizabeth Sander, in her Social Dancing in Peter the Great’s Russia, points to the same essential element of dance in society, noting that although “the social meaning of dancing in Russia was in some respects quite different from that in [End Page 279] Western Europe, the raw material was much the same: the playing out of human relationships was at the heart of the matter” (p. 118). Although Sander’s focus is on dance, her work has much to offer the music historian, for her study encompasses the era’s new musical contexts and performing ensembles and raises important questions about Petrine culture and society as a whole. And in her generous presentation of first-hand accounts and descriptions, Sander gives us a taste of the spirit of the times: boisterous, uncertain, at the whim of the ever-mercurial Tsar Peter the Great.

There are divergent views of the Petrine era among historians, who focus variously on the degree to which early eighteenth-century Russian culture represented a true break with the past, spearheaded by its hyperenergetic Tsar and Emperor, or represented instead a less abrupt transition, with elements of the old Muscovite culture playing vital and significantly influential roles throughout this period. The many excellent recent studies of the performing arts in this period (for example Liudmila Starikova’s several works on early Russian theater) make important contributions to this larger debate, for they illuminate the activities of a broad swath of Russian society, from the aristocratic amateur participants to the salaried ranks of servant-class professionals. Sander, too, provides a careful evaluation of performance opportunities for the amateur dancers and the professional musicians as well as the element of forced performance for both groups, based on close study of a small, highly focused slice of primary source material.

Her amiable guide is the young Holsteiner Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholz (1699–1771), who had lifelong ties to Russia through his father (who served in the Russian military) and through the complex political associations that bound the interests of the Duchy of Holstein and the Russian state. Bergholz’s diary, written during his second stay in Russia, records his duties and activities between 1721 and 1725, when he was a member of the retinue of Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein (the diary is incomplete, for entries for the two additional years of Bergholz’s stay are missing). Sander lays out the details of the diary’s transmission and preservation; it has not otherwise been translated into English, so her generous citations here serve to introduce this important source to a wide audience. Bergholz’s stay occurred at a crucial and fascinating time, after Peter’s trips abroad and in the early years of the newly-built St. Petersburg; and the diarist, young and enthusiastic, jumped into the many activities of both Russians and foreigners with gusto. His youthful stamina proved important, as the dancing and the inevitably accompanying alcoholic excesses were not only unavoidable, but even dangerous. Sander relates, for example, the terrible story of the forced drinking at a wedding (particularly excessive on the part of the female participants on this occasion, in order to make up for their lax participation at an earlier event), resulting in a pregnant guest’s miscarriage on the following day (p. 92).

Sander’s study revolves around two particularly important topics: assemblies and...


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