On July 14, 1880, the Republican politicians in power believe they have found an effective way to unite the French people around their ideals and the tricolor: organize a great popular ball anchored in the memory of the storming of the Bastille. The first National Day ball was born.

At the time, the Third Republic was not unanimous. In the capital, one half of the city is adorned with tricolor flags, the other plays with the shutters closed. This grand ball of 1880, both a propaganda operation and a founding political ritual, will it succeed in uniting the French people?

Yann Coquart, author and director of this fascinating documentary, had the good idea to tell the story of French society through the evolutions of the ball. Public, private, associative, spontaneous, free, forbidden balls, there is something for everyone.

Depending on the times and regional locations, these festive gatherings, which make a few people dance, an entire village or hundreds of guests, have taken on different meanings. Illustrated by filmed archives from the period, most of them unpublished, this trip through France is a treat.

Since time immemorial, long before the Republic, we have got into the habit of gathering and dancing, especially in peasant France where it is often the only leisure. United and equal in the round as in the work. In Auvergne, we dance the bourrée. In the Basque Country, the fandango. In Brittany, the gavotte. At the end of the 19th century, the polka and the waltz appeared here and there.

“Devil’s Dance”

First an elite leisure activity, the ball became a public leisure activity, then, as time passed, a mass leisure activity. The history of balls in France is linked to the great upheavals of society: wars, exoduses, immigration, revolts. It recounts the evolution of mores, the way in which the fashions of the Parisian salons reach the heart of the regions.

Shortly before 1914 in the bourgeois salons, the tango made its appearance, and the couple of dancers got closer. For the clergy, it is the “devil’s dance”. On July 14, 1919, the dangerous tango left the social salons for the streets. After the horrors of the war, the whole of France is starting to hustle again, more and more glued-tight.

Arrived en masse in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, the Auvergnats make people dance in the bougnats to the sound of the cabrette. Later, it was the Italians who introduced the accordion, “the poor man’s piano”, a major instrument at balls for half a century. In one evening, a peasant accordionist could earn as much in salary as in a month in the fields.

In the interwar period, the bourgeoisie discovered jazz, and the ball became a dance hall. The Parisian populo goes to the guinguettes on the banks of the Marne, and we guinche even more. Even under the Vichy regime, the people bypassed the ban on dancing, and in the countryside, many clandestine balls were organized.

Time passes, and the structure of gatherings changes. At the end of the 1970s, there were 4,000 discotheques in France, four times more than today. This does not prevent the return to grace of folk dances in certain regions such as Brittany.

Despite wars, morality, epidemics, the need to come together to dance seems stronger than anything. And this documentary is, in fact, a fascinating lesson in the history of France.