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Bow and Curtsey

Posted by lili on Sat 11 Nov 06, 9:39 PM

A curtsey can be defined as being a traditional gesture of greeting, in which the woman bends her knees whilst bowing her head. In essence, the female equivalent of male bowing in Western cultures. In sixteenth and seventeenth century France the curtsey was used as a basic movement of female reverence, and developed a number of variations during it's use which indicated the level of reverence shown to those of senior social rank (it's flamboyance only restricted by the amount of movement the current fashion in costume allowed.)

In it's most basic form the lady slid back on the instep of the right foot pressing the instep to the ground, behind and slightly to the left of the left leg. The instep of the sliding foot took the weight and the lady gradually sank down sitting on the bent right leg (arms falling to the side with the head lowered.) The lady then rose with her weight on the left foot since this foot did not move during the entire sequence of the curtsey.

A more formal variant of this more traditional curtsey involved the woman bending the knees outwards rather than straight forward (often sweeping one foot behind her whilst holding her skirt out from the body to show still greater deference.)

On entering a room the curtsey en avant was used and on leaving the curtsey en arrière was more appropriate. A compliment in conversation might also be acknowledged with a curtsey en arrière.

In walking, however, the curtsey en passant was made since this curtsey can be repeated to many different individuals in a group or receiving line.

In England, according to Victorian dance etiquette, a woman curtsied before beginning a dance (and it is common still for female dancers to curtsey at the end of a performance to show gratitude and acknowledgement of applause from the audience.) Throughout the nineteenth century some female domestic workers also retained the curtsey for use in front of their employers. But, generally, it seems the curtsey was retained only as a show of deference to adults by young girls and by adult women towards members of the Royal family.

In recent years even this tradition has diminished. In 2003, at the request of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Female tennis players were no longer required to curtsey to the Royal family when walking onto or leaving Centre Court (although they are still required to do so if Queen Elizabeth II or Prince Charles is in the box.)

Emily Post, in 1922, was still writing of “little girls” curtseying in deference to visitors at afternoon tea and of adult ladies curtseying deeply as they are received at Court by the Queen.

Bowing, as with the curtsey, was performed as a social gesture and involved the act of lowering the head, or sometimes the entire upper body from the waist. Bowing probably originated as a gesture of deference (or subordination) since lowering the head leaves the bower vulnerable. Different cultures have placed varying degrees of importance on bowing and have used bowing in a variety of ways. In Japan, for example, the Samurai (who were near the top of a highly stratified society) are said to have retained the right to kill anyone who did not show them the proper respect by bowing.

In European cultures bowing was an exclusively male practice and in the courtly circles of Europe, males were expected to “bow and scrape” where scraping referred to the drawing back of the right leg as the bow was taken, such that the right foot scraped the floor. Typically the left hand pressed horizontally across the abdomen while the right hand was held out from the body whilst performing the bow in a display of deference to those being bowed to.

In Japan bows are called o-jigi, o-rei or rei and are the traditional greeting, but bowing is not reserved only for greeting. Different bows are used for apologies and gratitude, to express different emotions, humility, sincerity, remorse or deference.

For Japanese men and boys basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides. Girls and women bow with their hands clasped in the lap and with eyes down or closed. Japanese bows originate at the waist and generally the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion and generally speaking an inferior bows longer and more deeply (and more frequently) than a superior.

Japanese bows can be divided into three main categories: informal, formal and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle, and more formal bows at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows are deeper still. In extreme cases (in apology or thanks) a kneeling bow known as saikeirei (“most respectful bow”) may be performed, which is so deep that the forehead touches the floor.

Unlike Japan, bowing in Chinese culture is not nearly so formal and is normally reserved for occasions such as funerals or ancestral worship only. However, kneeling and bowing so low as to touch the head to the ground as an act of deep respect, known as kowtow (from the Chinese term kòu tóu) was required to come into the presence of the Emperor of China throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Current Chinese etiquette, however, does not contain any situations in which the kowtow is regularly practised, although it may still occur in rare and extreme cases, for example, where one is begging for forgiveness or offering an extreme apology.

Emily Post (1922) describes a number of different situations which require a variety of bows. From the “bow of ceremony” or standing bow (made by a gentleman when he rises at a dinner to say a few words, or as he bows to a lady or an elderly gentleman across the room at a formal dinner) to the informal bow (when acknowledging a friend on the street.) In all cases it would seem that the countenance of the person performing the bow is as important as the performance of the bow itself.

Unlike Japanese culture excessive bowing in European cultures was avoided. Under formal circumstances a lady would bow to a gentleman first. People who knew each other well would bow spontaneously, but in meeting the same person many times within an hour or so, bowing would not be performed beyond the second (or at most the third) meeting.

Curtsey en avant:

Here the lady pauses on the foot that made the last step, slides the disengaged foot into the fourth position, or to the front, and bends the knees with her weight equally distributed (and without bending the body or shaking) she then rises with the weight on the front foot.

Curtsey en arrière:

Stepping aside, the lady curtsies in the first or third position with weight on the rear foot.

Curtsey en passant:

The lady positions herself parallel to the person being greeted, makes a step on the left foot and half turns to the person, then bends her knees bringing forward the right foot and coming up with the weight on the right foot.

Bow of ceremony

This bow would include an apparent “heel clicking” motion with a quick bend from the hips and neck (remaining quite rigid in between.) The countenance should remain serious and eye contact should be maintained throughout.

An informal bow

The informal bow is a modification of the bow of ceremony, but is less rigid (“but should suggest the ease of controlled muscles”.) In this bow, however, the bow is made with a smile (or to a very intimate friend, with a broad grin) and should be accompanied by a formal salutation.


The Salacious Historian's Lair:

Redorbitnews: The curtsy bows out of Wimbledon:

Emily Post: Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at home:

Edited Mon 18 Dec 06, 6:38 AM by lili

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