Polonaise vs Mazurka
By Nina Pinzarrone
Polonaise or mazurka? It can be hard to know which to use for an exercise. These Polish national dances have similarities: both are in triple meter (3/4 time), use six-count (two-bar) melodic phrases, and accent each bar’s second beat.
They also have differences. Take polonaises at a slower (andante to moderato) tempo for musical clarity, since each beat subdivides, in both melody and accompaniment, into eighth or eighth and sixteenth notes. Mazurkas, with their simple, waltz-like “oom pah pah” accompaniment, can be taken at a quicker tempo (moderato to allegro).
Full-textured polonaises suit large movements (grand battement, grand jeté, grand pas de basque). Lighter-textured mazurkas suit medium jumps and pointe work.
The polonaise (or polacca) began as an aristocratic processional dance, the mazurka as a lively folk dance. A processional polonaise opens The Sleeping Beauty’s Act 3. Mazurkas in ballets are often “character” divertissements, as in Swan Lake, Act 3.
Try these pointers for using polonaises and mazurkas in class:
- Polonaises have a “1&a 2& 3&” rhythm. Listen to Swan Lake’s Act 1 polacca, second theme; its melody and accompaniment seem to say, “This-is-a / po-lo- / na-ise.” A grand battement to this rhythm divides neatly into three—working leg in the air on 1, tendu on 2, closed in fifth on 3—and gives students time to focus on leg positioning. Excellent for walks or révérence in character or children’s class.
- Mazurkas have a “1e&a 2 3” rhythm (beat 1 is a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth). You can also sing it as “1 &2 3”—memorize the opening melody of Coppélia’s Act 1 mazurka to help you set this rhythm confidently. With a natural hold on beat 2, mazurkas are perfect for pointe work. In relevés, for example, relevé on 1, hold through 2, plié on 3.
Nina Pinzarrone, pianist at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Illinois and has recorded seven CDs for ballet class.