The court polonaise, according to the New Grove entry, "was played by musicians in the galleries
of the great reception halls while the assembly, dressed in great splendour, danced it below in processional
figures [...] In this form it was transformed into the most
highbred expression of the Polish national spirit and became in the process the most representative of Polish dances throughout Europe."
The dance has been used in formal contexts and during public ceremonies and festivities, particularly at weddings, or, recently, as the first dance of a formal ball. Dancing the polonaise requires a straight, upright posture with no movement of hips, smooth and elegant hand gestures, and the head held high, with pride, as it were. According to Ada Dziewanowska, "the man should display dignity and polite attentiveness not only to his partner, but to others around. The woman should carry herself with grace and a certain timidity" (Dziewanowska, Polish Folk Dances and Songs, p. 478).
There are also options for the couples to move backward, turn, move sideways or dance in place - these variants are useful when the whole procession, directed by the leading couple, has to criss-cross its own path. The cadences of the music are marked with formal bows, each lasting for two measures of the accompaniment. The dance includes special figures to be danced by individual couples, with shifting hands, turns, etc. The group figures include the parting of the couples, promenades, and passing under the elevated hands of the couple at the front of the line.
There are many variations in the way the polonaise may be danced. Throughout, it has to maintain its noble, "upright" image, full of dignity and pride.
Because this dance has become known as one of the "gentry" or "nobility," the most appropriate costumes are those from 17th-century Poland which did not yet follow international fashions in clothing, but featured different costumes for members of each social class. The noblemen wore large satin-and-silk ornamental belts (pas słucki), high boots, long overcoats with slit-sleeves lined with fur (kontusz) and fur hats with feathers and jewels. They also shaved their heads, leaving a top bunch of hair, and wore long mustaches.
Another choice of costume for the polonaise dates back to the Napoleonic wars and the French/military fashions of the Duchy of Warsaw (a short-lived French protectorate created by Napoleon, 1811-1815). The men wear the uniforms of the Polish legion: tight navy pants with red stripes at the sides, short jackets with decorative button-fastenings and epaulettes, and high square hats with the national emblem on the front.
The image of the polonaise by Zofia Stryjeńska reproduced above opts for yet another type of the costume; her interpretation dresses the female dancer in the wide-hooped skirt and low-cut shirt with wide sleeves of the pre-revolutionary French court. Notice the woman's French-style fan and the absence of an elaborate French wig. The man presents a colorful version of a nobleman's costume. Thus, the artist indicates that the women of the nobility were more likely to follow foreign fashions than the men; apparently in the period before the partitions (late 18th century) Poland was a scene of controversies between the traditionalists and fashionable internationalists who detested both each other costumes and the ideology that these costumes represented. Interestingly, Stryjeńska's interpretation of the national costume merges the national tradition with international sophistication.
Since the polonaise has folk roots and is widespread throughout the whole country, it is possible to dance it in folk costumes, e.g. from the Kraków area (Polskie Iskry Dance Ensemble), and Beskidy (Podhale Folk Dance Company). These regional versions of the polonaise should have appropriate music. Polish American folk dance groups have used recordings of the polonaises as danced and played by the State Folk Ensembles, Mazowsze and Śląsk.
As the polonaise ceased to be essentially a dance with sung accompaniment, becoming chiefly instrumental, it underwent stylistic and formal changes. In particular, melodies became wider in range and more ornamental. The polonaise was also sometimes performed with a contrasting middle section (a "trio" - borrowed from the formal design of the courtly minuet; the trio first appeared in the polonaises by Michał Kleofas Ogiński), or following the outline of the rondo, with a recurring refrain and contrasting episodes.
Among the first examples to have all the characteristics of the classic polonaise in non-Polish art music (moderate tempo, triple metre, phrases without upbeat, a repeated rhythmic figure and the closing rhythm) are those of Johann Sebastian Bach (French Suite no. 6; Orchestral Suite no. 2). The Germans, for whom the polonaise represented "Polish taste and Polish style," frequently included the polonaise as a movement in their extended compositions, dance suites, and sonatas (e.g. Georg Telemann, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Johann Schobert, and Mozart). After 1800, the instrumental polonaise began to be cultivated in Poland by composers, including Michał Kleofas Ogiński (20 polonaises), Wojciech Żywny, Józef Elsner, Józef Kozłowski, and Karol Kurpiński. The popularity of polonaises by some of these men contributed greatly to the spread of the genre throughout Europe, especially in its salon variants (e.g. polonaises composed by German virtuosa pianist, Clara Schumann).
The greatest composer of polonaises in classical music was Fryderyk Chopin, whose works for piano made this dance the musical symbol of Poland and Polishness. Polonaises also appeared in chamber music, concertos and opera, often with the title Polacca. It is interesting to note that during the period of the partitions when Russia occupied one-third of Poland, Russian composers were attracted to the form of the polonaise, which acquired a meaning of "dignity" and "royalty" and was often associated with the appearance of the Tsar, or in general, the rulers. It also appeared in Russian operas as a symbol of the Polish gentry (Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky's Onegin). Moreover, the nostalgic polonaises of Michał Kleofas Ogiński, especially his "Farewell to the Homeland," became extremely popular in Russia and have been arranged for a variety of instrumental settings.
The attribution should not be a surprise: the Polish national dance was supposed to have been created by the Polish national hero (the leader of the Kościuszko Insurrection (1794), unsuccessfully trying to prevent the final division of the country between Prussia, Austria and Russia), and a hero of the American Revolutionary War. A small image of the main part of this polonaise is included above; you may find a full version, with the contrasting Trio, by following the link to the Kosciuszko Polonaise.
While the politically charged mis-attribution of the Kościuszko Polonaise belongs to the history of Polish American music (rather than to the main thread of the history of this dance in Poland), it suggests a particular context for the polonaise. This dance's elevated political symbolism and its association with the most highly regarded national causes, as well as its own noble and stately character, assured its reception as the primary national dance of Poland.
SOURCES OF MATERIAL
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Text and design: Maja Trochimczyk. Editorial assistance: Michał Jankowski,
Ewa Grzegrzułka, Błażej Wajszczuk. Updated in August 2000.
Polish Dance Project funded by ZRIF Award
and Southern California Studies Center at USC.