Anthony L'Abbé was born in France around 1666 or 1667. Nothing is known of his parentage and little is known of his early years until 1688 when at twenty one years old he became a dancer in the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris. In 1698, he was discovered by the manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theater, Thomas Betterton, who convinced L'Abbé to travel with him to England to dance in London’s theaters. During his earlier years in England, he was invited to dance before the king and became an immediate success. He would remain in London for a large portion of his life and earn a formidable name and reputation for himself.
L'Abbé stopped performing at the Lincoln’s Inn Field Theater in June of 1703 after Betterton failed to renew the Frenchman’s contract, possibly due to jealously, which forced L'Abbé to perform at subscription concerts for a period. January 1704 brought better luck for the dance master when he began performing at the new Queen’s Theater in the Haymarket designed by Sir John Vanbrugh (the same man who designed Castle Howard, Lady Anne Irwin’s childhood home). He also performed in dances during the celebrations of Queen Anne’s birthdays. Throughout the 1700’s he was regularly dance partners with Mrs. Elford, a celebrated English dancer. His other partners include Philippe Du Ruel and René Cherrier. L'Abbé also appears to have had a skilled brother who danced in London throughout the period of 1705 to 1713. In order to distinguish one from the other, the brother was often listed as “Mons. L'Abbé's scholar” or “young L'Abbé,” yet it was still often difficult to determine which brother was dancing where.
He participated in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish a Royal Academy of Music that would produce an Italian opera in 1719-1720. This failure, however, was overshadowed by the publication of thirteen of his dances in the mid-1720s. What the publication of A New Collection of Dances in 1725 demonstrates is that L'Abbé did not merely dance, but created dances himself. He was known to create sophisticated court ball dances, which were occasionally performed on stage and were included in this publication. Several of these dances were performed by Mrs. Elford and Hester Sanlow, who trained under René Cherrier, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Drury Lane theaters. Shortly after the ascension of George I in 1714, L'Abbé became the dancing instructor to the king’s granddaughters Amelia, Caroline, and Anne. In 1715, he dedicated his dance, The Princess Royal, to Princess Anne, which set the precedent for dedicating several of his annual court dances to various members of the royal family. These dances include “Princess Anna” performed in 1716 and “The Royal George” in 1717. He would remain the dance master of the young princesses until 1737.
|A piece of one of L'Abbé's dances|
Before becoming employed by the Hanoverians, it is likely L'Abbé taught several students privately. He is mentioned in the diary of Nicholas Blundell on 20 September 1711: “I went to Garswood and dined there with Mrs Walmesley, Mr Scarisbrick, Mr John Gelibrond &c … Sir William Gerard took physick. Mounsuer La Abbe taught Mrs Walmesley &c to Dance at Garswood, I saw them Dance” (Thorp). Garswood was the home of the prominent Catholic Sir William Gerard and since L'Abbé himself was Catholic, is seems possible that L'Abbé had connections with other Catholic families as a dance teacher. His name was not printed on the list of Roman Catholics, non-jurors and others who refused to take the oaths to His Majesty King George 1715, which could suggest that he quit teaching Catholic pupils after Hanoverian succession. Yet, this may be speculation since he was listed as a papist on the land tax returns of 1717 and 1718. It is also possible he quit teaching privately mostly due to the fact the patronage of the Hanoverians kept him busy enough.
L'Abbé’s skill and mastery did not go unnoticed by his contemporaries. John Weaver was an avid admirer of L'Abbé’s work and described him as “that great Master in every Branch of this art” (Weaver, x). John Essex stated in his preface of The dancing-masters:
“MONSIEUR L'Abbe, who came from France about the Year 1700, fucceeded [Mr. Isaac] at Court. He is an excellent Mafter, and was a great Performer when upon the Stage: Nobody gave greater Satisfaction to the Spectators than he did in his Performances. His Talent chiefly lay in the grave Movement, and he excelled all that ever appeared on the Englifh Stage in that Character; and what more eminently makes him fhine, is his excellent Inftructions of those of the Royal Family whom he hath the Honour to teach, and who by their noble Presence, eafy Deportment, and graceful Carriage proclaim the Merit of their Mafter” (Essez, xii).
During his time in London, L'Abbé appears to have had moved around a bit. He is first mentioned in the London parish books in the parish of St. Anne’s in Soho in 1700. He was part of the same parish when he lived on Gerrard Street between 1702 and 1709. By 1710 he was back in Soho living in a fashionable home in King’s Square Court until 1719. During the finals years he spent in London, L'Abbé lived on Broad Street until he returned to France in 1737/1738. It is unclear whether L'Abbé ever married or raised a family. There is a record of a marriage of an Anthony L'Abbé and Martha Turner on 6 November 1726 in a Lincoln’s Inn Chapel but it is not certain this is the same L'Abbé. There is record of L'Abbé in Paris in 1753 but the exact date of death and burial location of the dance master is another mystery.
Essex, J. The dancing master. 1728. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/musdi:@field%28DOCID+@lit%28M1433%29%29:.
Goff, Moira. Dancing-Masters in Early Eighteenth-Century London. Historical Dance 3.3 (1994): 17–23. http://www.dhds.org.uk/jnl/pdf/hd3n3p17.pdf.
Goff, Moira, David Gordon, Evelyn Nallen, Jennifer Thorp. “All the Decent Characters of Female Life: Female Dancers on the London Stage.” http://www.new.ox.ac.uk/all-decent-characters-female-life-female-dancers-london-stage. ]
Hilton, Wendy. Dance and Music of Court and Theater. Pendragon Press, 1981. https://books.google.com/books?id=7uUAq_lZUX4C&dq=The+dancing+master+essex&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
Ralph, Richard. "L'abbé, Anthony." In The International Encyclopedia of Dance. : Oxford University Press, 1998. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195173697.001.0001/acref-9780195173697-e-0984.
Thorp, Jennifer. “L'Abbé, Anthony (b. 1666/7, d. in or after 1753).” Jennifer Thorp In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, January 2008. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/74437 (accessed May 24, 2015).
Weaver, John. Anatomical and mechanical lectures upon dancing. London: Printed for J. Brotherton, 1721. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001063319.