Tag Archives: dance rhythms

Confessions of an anxious pianist day #10: The Polonaise

Polonaise from the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine ballet "Theme and variations"

Things you can do with a polonaise if you’re Tchaikovsky, and you’ve got time to think.

About once a year, I buy a Fry’s Turkish Delight bar, a slab of faintly fragrant sugary pink jelly covered in chocolate. It has no nutritional value, no crunch, no layers, a single, slightly weird flavour, and so there’s nothing new to experience after the first bite. I’m faintly disgusted by it, yet I have a compulsion to keep trying it now and again, because I’m not quite sure whether secretly, I rather like it. I still can’t be sure. I feel the same way about the polonaise.

I dread having to play polonaises because a) my left hand doesn’t have enough strength or stamina to play the characteristic rhythm pattern more than a couple of times without seizing up, b) like the slow mazurka, if you’re improvising, it’s easy to get lost inside a six count phrase and forget where you are, and screw up the exercise for everyone, and c) it’s hard to invent the kinds of things that make polonaises interesting off the top of your head, like tricking the listener into thinking the music’s in two, then falling back into three, or cramming dozens of fast notes and dotted rhythms in between the beats as Tchaikovsky likes to do.


The polonaise from Cherevichki Act 3 No. 19 used in Cranko’s Onegin. Brilliant, but virtually unusable, because it’s just too darned clever to throw your legs up to.

Chopin polonaises are generally too fancy and pianistic to do barre exercises to, the Tchaikovsky ones (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin (the opera), Cherevichki (used in Onegin the ballet, the finale of Suite No. 3 used in Theme and Variations ) don’t go on for more than 8 bars without some change in the phrase structure that means you can’t use them. Operatic ones can be quite good, except that they tend to be faster than what you need for a grand battement exercise, and they’re not called “polonaise,” so you can’t hunt them down easily.  It seems to me that the more suitable for a grands battements exercise a polonaise is, the less interesting it is as music. There are couple of exceptions, and I’ve worn them threadbare playing them for class.

Then there’s the fact that when teachers want a polonaise for a jump, what they need is nearer to a bolero than a polonaise – though, annoyingly, boleros usually have a two bar vamp in the middle that make them unusable (like the Spanish in Swan Lake, for example). Occasionally, you get a cross between a bolero and a polonaise (a bolernaise?) that does the trick nicely – the “tempo polacca” on page 35 of this pot-pourri from Esmeralda is a good example (though it’s a bit dull, frankly).  But usually, if you play a polonaise for a jump, it’ll be too heavy, and if you play a bolero, the chances are it’ll be too fast or light. Most of the time, a triple jig works just as well, if not better, but it’s not a good idea to go there, because it sounds too different to what the teacher marked, and they’ll think you’ve misunderstood.

Oh, and then there are those awkward moments when a teacher says “Mazurka, please” and marks the exercise with a mazurka rhythm sung at polonaise speed, or “Polonaise please” and then proceeds to do the exercise on a mazurka.  If you play what they meant (and showed in their voice), rather than what they said, you risk showing them up, or making them think that you didn’t understand. To save face, I usually play the introduction in the rhythm that they asked for, and then start playing what they meant when the tune comes in, by which time it’s too late for them to start a discussion, so we’re safe. I don’t care what anyone calls it, by the way – I’m as prone to misnaming dance rhythms under pressure as any dance teacher.

The trouble with the polonaise is that it has overtones. It’s grand, it’s marchy, it’s processional, it’s sparkly. It’s an opportunity for metrical tricks and conundrums. It wasn’t designed to do ballet exercises to, and by the time you’ve trimmed off all the things that you need to to make it work, you’re left with its rather dull, boxy three-ness and not much else, like a tailor’s dummy.

But for all that, I’ve grown to rather like polonaises in the same weird way that I can’t keep away from Fry’s Turkish Delight. There’s something icky about them that make you want to keep going back and having another look. When you get an exercise that is at just the right speed to make an operatic one retain its operatic excitement, it’s exhilarating. If nothing else, they’re a refreshing change from playing wall-to-wall duple meter As Kath and Kim would say, it’s nice, it’s different, it’s unusual. 

Zorn’s ‘Grammar’ online, for all your polka mazurka needs


I got my copy of Zorn’s ‘Grammar’ 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.

Dance rhythms fight back: the 9/8 hornpipe


The Serag's Hornpipe, from 1721 (17th edition) Playford

A while back I started collecting examples of ‘dance rhythms to annoy your music teacher with’. Nothing makes me more frustrated than the term ‘dance rhythms’. There are several generations of dance teachers who’ve been told somewhere along the line that a hornpipe goes like this, a waltz goes like that, and a tango goes like that. One of the reasons that music for ballet classes is so often as terrible as it is, is because pianists try to recreate music based on these formulas, and then this music becomes the model by which the theory is ‘proved’ and exemplified. For some reason, whoever started this decided to ignore all kinds of uncomfortable truths about dances that were really danced, as opposed to being clapping exercises.

For this reason, one of my favourites pastimes is to collect examples from the real world of dances that buggers up the theory. Here’s a nice one from the 17th (1721) edition of Playford’s Dancing Master, a hornpipe in 9/8. Stick that in your hornpipe and smoke it.