"Bourree" is a French term for a ballet step, but the word also describes a simple French country dance. In ballet, the step is more correctly called a "pas de bourree," and there is a variation called the "pas de bourree couru," but most dance instructors use the shortened form. The term also appears in classical music to describe compositions using bourree dance timings.
The Country Dance
A bourree was originally a French country dance, mainly associated with the Auvergene region. Forms of the dance also existed in Spain's Basque region, which has strong ties with France. Typically, the dancers use quick skipping steps. This is the main characteristic of the dance, and the dancers often wear clogs to emphasize the sounds made by the steps. Eventually, the bourree dance step made its way into ballet and into the stylish English country house dances of Regency England.
Bourree is one of the early ballet steps, many of which originated in traditional dances. The "pas de bourree" has some variations within ballet, but essentially it is a small, quick step that leads to a much larger movement. The step is usually performed with the dancer en pointe or demi-pointe. As the dancer steps, the knees are bent then straightened to give an up-down movement. The "pas de bourree couru" is a small quick and smooth running step performed "en pointe," with the feet in either first or fifth position.
Jane Austen fans who enjoy film and television adaptations of her novels will be familiar with dancing occasions of the Regency period. While the popular minuet dance only needed one couple, the bourree dances required multiple couples and were more energetic dances, requiring strong leg muscles. The dancers started with the right heel touching the left instep. Rising on the toes and starting with the right foot, they walked on their toes for a set number of steps then dropped into the original position, bending the knees to make it appear more graceful.
Some of the 18th century's most famous composers also favored the bourree musical timing. Typically, the bourree step follows a 3/4 beat although the country dances were often in 3/8 time. Some more stylized versions use 2/4 and 4/4 time. Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel both composed bourree movements as parts of musical suites. Handel used it in the seventh movement of "The Water Music" suite, and Bach's Bourree in E minor from his Lute Suite is a common examination piece for classical guitar.
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