Apart from fiddle tune books (see tip #3), another great source of music for class is quadrilles. There are just hundreds of them out there for free on the net, and they’re all in eight bar phrases, so you can use them straight off the shelf. In fact, it’s probably the tradition of quadrilles that shaped a lot of ballet class musical culture in the first place. Those endless glissé exercises in fastish 6/8s? Straight from the quadrille. Many variations in ballets are fashioned on quadrille rhythms, and ragtime evolved from quadrille, which explains why both rags and quadrilles work for class.
Each quadrille usually contains five different dances, all in a similar tempo range. Conventionally, they alternate between 2/4 and 6/8, with a galoppy thing at the end, so you can joint a quadrille like a musical chicken and use it for barre, turns and petit allegro. Less commonly, there are also ‘waltz quadrilles’ and ‘mazurka quadrilles’, and quadrilles based on operas or popular classics of the day. If you thought ‘hooked on classics’ was so 1970s, think again, quadrille writers were merciless when it came to carving up other people’s music to dance to.
With some notable exceptions (like the ones by the Strauss family, for example) many of them are just so much musical pulp, but it doesn’t matter. They’re jolly and rhythmic and in 8 bar phrases, and they work well. Any online digital library will have plenty of them but two huge resources are:
I got my copy of this via Abe Books a few years ago, but it occurred to me that it must surely be out of copyright, and digitised by now? And sure enough, here it is, Grammar of the Art of Dancing from the Internet Archive in several formats including Kindle. The online book version is worth trying too, for the very sophisticated searching opportunities it provides.
Friedrich Zorn’s Grammar of the Art of Dancing is one the most concise but exhaustive accounts of dozens of 19th century dances and their music. In 938 short, numbered paragraphs with musical examples and Zorn’s own dance notation, he can tell you all about different types of waltzes, what a Varsovienne, a Redowa and a Polka Mazurka are, and how musicians should improvise changes in their playing to fit the two-step or three-step waltz. The book is full of all kinds of fascinating details, like a comparison between the difference in tempo that people waltzed in different cities in Europe (Russians were the fastest, if I remember correctly), or that the first polka was danced at around 88 b.p.m which was soon considered too dull for social dancing, so it sped up.
As a ballet pianist teacher, you’re left – even in the beginning of the 21st century – with a legacy of these dances, whose rhythms still haunt music everywhere. To try to stratify them for yourself from the repertoire you know, which is what I did for years, is a slow and ineffective process. Why is it that we seem to be so much better acquainted with dances from the distant Baroque than from those only just over our shoulder? From the moment you start reading Zorn, you have a pair of metrical spectacles with which to view the vast repertoire of dance music of the 19th century, and begin to recognise the shapes and patterns of those dances in music all around you.