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A curtsey (also spelled curtsy or even incorrectly courtsey) is a traditional gesture of greeting, in which a girl or woman bends her knees while bowing her head. It is the female equivalent of male bowing in Western cultures. Miss Manners characterizes its knee bend as deriving from a "traditional gesture of an inferior to a superior." The word "curtsy" is a phonological change from "courtesy" known in linguistics as syncope.
According to Desmond Morris, the motions involved in the curtsey and the bow were similar until the 17th century, and the gender differentiation between the actions developed afterwards. The earlier, combined version is still performed by Restoration comedy actors.
In more formal variants of the curtsey, the girl/woman bends the knees outward (rather than straight ahead), often sweeping one foot behind her. She may also use her hands to hold her skirt out from her body. In the Victorian era, when women wore floor-length, hooped skirts, they curtsied using the plié movement borrowed from second-position in classical ballet in which the knees are bent while the back is held straight. Both feet and knees point out so the torso lowers straight down. This way, the lady lowers herself evenly, not to one side.
Traditionally, women and girls curtsey for those of senior social rank just as men and boys bow. Today this practice has become less common. In many European cultures it is traditional for women to curtsey in front of royalty. It may then be referred to as a court curtsey and is often especially deep and elaborate. Further, some female domestic workers curtsey for their employers.
Female dancers often curtsey at the end of a performance to show gratitude or acknowledge any applause from the audience. At the end of a ballet class, students will also curtsey or bow to the teacher and the pianist to show gratitude. According to Victorian dance etiquette, a woman curtseys before beginning a dance. Female Scottish highland dancers performing the national dances and the Irish Jig also curtsey (at both the beginning and end for the national dances and at the end for the Irish Jig). Some female ballroom dancers will curtsey to their partners before beginning the Viennese Waltz.
It is customary for female figure skaters to curtsey at the end of their programs at figure skating competitions or shows.
It is also acceptable in some cultures for the female to bow if wearing trousers.
The "Texas Dip" is an extreme curtsey performed by a Texan debutante. The young woman slowly lowers her forehead to the floor by crossing her ankles, then bending her knees and sinking. The escort's hand is held during the dip. When the debutante's head nears the floor, she turns her head sideways, averting the risk of soiling her dress with lipstick.
- Judith Martin (2005). Miss Manners' guide to excruciatingly correct behavior. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 692. ISBN 978-0-393-05874-1.
- Desmond Morris (2007). The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body. Macmillan. p. 247. ISBN 978-0-312-33853-4.
- Elizabeth the Queen: The Power Behind the Throne by Bessie Beddell Smith.
- Vendela Vida (2000). Girls on the Verge. Macmillan. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-312-26328-7.
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