Medieval Europe 814-1450: Dance

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Dancing in Medieval Life

Court and Countryside

Throughout the Carolingian era (eighth to tenth centuries) and the later Middle Ages, dancing was a part of all types of celebrations, both formal and informal. It could involve a solo dancer, couples, or groups of any size, and was accompanied by music that was either sung or played on instruments of all types. The dances themselves could be simple or complex, sedate or energetic, and contributed to the social life of every level of society. Dancing filled a variety of needs: it could be a way of expressing happiness, a casual relief from the toils of daily labors, an occasion for amorous flirtation, or a vehicle for displaying elegance and wealth. It took place in castles and manor houses, in town streets and squares, and in neighboring fields. Typical instances of dancing—on joyous occasions outside of churches or churchyards—occurred in a variety of private and public locations and involved a number of different formations and steps, most of which we know from images and descriptions recorded after 1300.

Conventional Versus Choreographed Dance

Broadly speaking, there are two basic divisions that can be applied to a discussion of medieval dance: conventional dances, in which a single set of steps is repeated over and over until the music stops; and choreographed dances, in which each dance has a unique sequence of steps. The two types are quite different in terms of their origins and purpose, although there are many similarities in steps, social function, and level of importance in the cultural lives of the people of the period. The story of conventional dances begins long before recorded history, continuing to the present day, and although it is not documented in full detail, there is sufficient evidence to provide a clear outline of the various forms it took and the functions it filled between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. Choreographed dance, on the other hand, was an invention of the late Middle Ages, and a number of treatises have survived that provide a fairly accurate picture of how it was performed and what it was intended to achieve.

Occasions for Dancing

Most circumstances in which dancing takes place have not changed much over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, as now, people danced at weddings, on holidays, and at political or cultural gatherings, as well as for simple evening entertainment. There are two occasions in the Middle Ages, however, that would seem to be unusual, both of which involve the church and the clergy: sacred dance, in which life is celebrated, and its opposite, the dance of death. These examples, in particular, demonstrate how widespread dance was as a means of expression in medieval society.

Sacred and Symbolic Dance

Liturgical Dance

There is ample evidence from as early as the fourth century that dance was a frequent occurrence in church, serving as a component of liturgical services on special occasions, especially Easter and Christmas. That the tradition continued throughout the Middle Ages is attested to by a twelfth-century description of girls dancing during the Easter celebrations in London and references to thirteenth-century clerics in Gournay (near Rouen, France) dancing as a part of the feasts of the Innocents and of St. Madeline. The troubadour Pierre de Corbiac wrote in his Tesaur around the year 1250 that he knew how “to dance the Sanctus and the Agnus and the Cunctipotens,” which refers to three prayers chanted during the celebration of the Mass. In 1313, members of the congregation of St. Bartholomew in Tauste, Spain, were taught by Rabbi Hacén ben Salomo to perform choral dances around the altar. All of this is clear evidence that throughout the period, dancing continued to be associated with sacred occasions, including the celebration of the Mass, and that laymen as well as clerics took part.

Prohibitions

At the same time, there are also frequent warnings throughout the period against dance, beginning as early as the late sixth century, when the rather austere English monk, St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604), wrote that “it is better to dig and plough on festival days than to dance,” a sentiment echoed a century later by the theologian and English historian the Venerable Bede (673–735). A number of church writings indicate that dancing was frowned upon because it was considered to have pagan as well as erotic overtones. In the first decade of the thirteenth century both the bishop of Paris and the Council of Avignon forbade dancing the carol in processions or during the vigil ceremonies on saints’ days, and in 1325 the General Chapter of the Church in Paris threatened excommunication for clerics who danced on any occasion, with the exception of sacred dancing on Christmas and the feasts of St. Nicholas and St. Catherine. An extremely negative view of dancing is found in the fourteenth-century preacher’s handbook Fasciculus morum, which describes a scene in which the devil gathers up his followers by sending one of his daughters to lead a round dance. The same source also connects dancing to gluttony and lechery in the midst of a discussion of the sin of Sloth:

Notice that it is absurd to say that such worldly joy as is generated by dancing and singing and the like on holy day—activities which rouse people rather to gluttony, lechery, and similar wretched deeds than to the praise of God and his saints—can possibly please God; and yet they think they please him the more they devote themselves to such unwarranted activities.

A legend circulating in England and western France, found in a collection of stories known as Marvels of the East (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 614), told the story of seven women dancing in a circle on a Sunday. As a punishment, they were cursed by the priest and turned into stones. A number of megalithic stone circles in Brittany and England have been identified as these women, including the stone circle in Cornwall known as the “Merry Maidens.” In spite of such prohibitions, however, there is ample evidence that dancing on sacred occasions continued throughout the late Middle Ages and beyond. Documents recording the presence of dance at sacred ceremonies, as well as those forbidding it, can be found into the seventeenth century. The objections to dancing were mostly aimed at clerics taking part in secular dances. The reasons for this strong prohibition included the lascivious nature of the texts of some of the secular dance songs. Also, secular dancing usually involved the participation of women, a temptation seen as best avoided by the celibate clergy.

Sacred Dance Songs

Although there are no detailed descriptions of what steps may have been danced on these occasions, the music that has survived provides a few clues, which, when matched with the iconography (mostly images from manuscript illuminations), establishes a fairly reliable picture. The largest repertory of sacred dance songs with music can be found at the very end of a copy of the Magnus liber organi (Great Book of Organum), a book that contains music for the liturgy that originated in Paris in the twelfth century, located today in Florence, Italy. The section containing the dance songs has an illumination depicting five men standing in a semicircle. From their garb and the fact that all have been tonsured (that is, they have a shaved patch on the crowns of their heads), it is obvious that they are clerics. Their mouths are open, indicating that they are singing, and they appear to be holding hands, a standard way of symbolizing dance. There are sixty short dance songs in this collection, nearly all of them in a verse and refrain format known as rondeau, meaning round (see Round, below). Some of the texts specifically mention dance: “Let the joyful company this day resound in a joyful dance,” and “With a vocal dance this assembly sings.”

The Danse Macabre

In sharp contrast to the joyful celebration of church feasts is the dance that was often associated with hysteria of various kinds, a type dating back to ancient times. Stories of wild dancing, often ending in complete exhaustion or even death, are a standard part of the tales and myths of the Middle Ages. The Dance of Death (Danse Macabre), one of the more bizarre preoccupations of late medieval literature and iconography, always involves humans and skeletons, and was frequently referred to in sermons as a reminder of mortality. Literary origins of the tradition have been traced back before 1280 in the Dit des trois morts et des trois vifs (Story of Three Dead and Three Living) by Baudouin de Condé. Another account, dating from late fourteenth-century Spain, is a poem of 79 stanzas, the Dança general de la Muerte (Common Dance of Death), in which Death summons two maidens, Beauty and Pride, and then invites clergy and laymen to dance with them, using their excuses as a forum for social criticism.

St. Vitus’S Dance

The literary versions of hysterical dancing are nearly all symbolic, but there are also accounts of actual events taking place, sometimes called “St. Vitus’s dance,” described as happening in a church graveyard and associated with a desire to communicate with the dead. These events usually involved large numbers of people and went on for hours or even days. The narratives of such dances usually describe them as spontaneous and uncontrollable, provoked by something akin to mass hysteria. In the mid-fourteenth century in particular, mass hysterical dancing was recorded as a reaction to the Black Death, the plague that resulted in the deaths of nearly one-third of the population of Europe. In modern times St. Vitus’s dance has been identified as Sydenham’s Chorea, a tremor of the nerves and body caused by eating rotten grain containing ergot, a parasitic fungus.

Conventional Dance Formations and Steps

Common Elements

Dances that require continuous repetition of a small set of steps have a tradition that precedes written history. Movement to a steady rhythm springs from an essential human desire that includes the need for exercise as well as for self-expression, and it is often associated with mating rituals. From the surviving evidence, we can see that many of the basic dance movements and formations remained more or less unchanged over many centuries. A variety of different formations were employed in dancing, the choice often having to do with the occasion and the space available. The formations, in turn, required different kinds of steps, and each dance was performed to a particular type of musical composition that matched the dance step and its speed. Changes in the dance movements coincided with changes in the phrases of the music. Although our information is incomplete, from the descriptions and the iconography, the following formations and steps seem to have been the most popular.

Round Dances

The round dance formation, which is associated with the dance of the same name, involves a group of people holding hands in the form of a circle, usually with a leader in the center. The dance steps require the circle to move first in one direction and then the other, reversing its direction at the beginning of each new verse. The leader sings the verses and the entire group joins in the chorus.

Line Dances

The most popular dance of the period was called a carol; it is the most frequently depicted formation in medieval art and is described in a number of the literary sources. The principle arrangement calls for dancers to join in a line holding hands, fingers, or a scarf, while they move along, often through the streets, following the leader. One French literary source mentions a line dance “nearly a quarter league long” (Philippe de Remi, in La Manekine, c. 1270), which may be an exaggeration, but it does suggest that any number of people could join this kind of formation. A passage from Le Roman du Comte d’Anjou, written in 1316 by Jean Maillart, vividly portrays this kind of dance:

Then the napery was taken up, and when they had washed their hands, the carols began. Those ladies who had sweet voices sang loudly; everyone answered them joyfully, anyone who knew how to sing, sang along.

The iconographic and literary descriptions of this dance often indicate that it could break into other formations, including a round or “under the bridge.” The mid-fourteenth-century fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto, in the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, shows both a line dance of three people and a round dance of four. The steps in a line dance vary depending on the direction the line is traveling—forward, to the side, or in one of the other formations described here.

Under the Bridge

This formation involves dancers in pairs with the first of the couples joining their hands to form a bridge while others take their turn first ducking under the bridge and then emerging on the other end to form a part of the bridge, thus providing an endless series. The early fourteenth-century Siena fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good Government, depicts this formation together with the round. In both this painting and that by Bonaiuto (above) there is only a single dance leader (playing a tambourine and singing), which suggests that in the round, in line, and “under the bridge” all were possible variations of a carol.

Procession

In many paintings couples are seen moving forward side by side, often holding hands, such as in the “under the bridge” formation, above, or in a more stately procession, such as that in both the Buonconsiglio and Adimari paintings. It is possible that in the processional-type dances, the steps used are a version of the “simple” and “double” steps employed in the choreographed processional basse danse and bassadanza (see Choreographed Dances, below). Additional support for this suggestion comes from the Renaissance processional dance the “Pavan,” which also used those steps. They survive today as the steps of the bridal party during a wedding procession.

Solo Dancing

There are a number of paintings that show a single man or woman dancing while others watch. The gestures of the solo dancer usually indicate a very active, athletic dance, but exactly which of the jumping or twisting dances is being depicted is never stated. The contexts of a large number of the illustrations of solo dancing suggest that they are intended to condemn wild or immoral living. A number of them are found in Psalters and books of hours or sacred manuscripts in conjunction with passages about morality. One illustration, for example, shows a woman of loose morals (skirt up showing legs, arms raised above her head) dancing for a monk who is absurdly trying to play a musical instrument using a crozier (a bishop’s staff) as a bow. Depictions such as these must be considered to be symbolic exaggerations rather than typical scenes. On the other hand, there are also pictures of apparently athletic solo dancing in settings that are quite realistic.

Other Dance Movements

Many kinds of steps are mentioned in literature in conjunction with dance—walk, slide, glide, hop, jump, strut, sway, etc.—although it is rarely clear which dance is being referred to. It is possible to connect some, but not all, of these movements with the named dances below, but the information that has survived is insufficient to show how many of these movements would be employed in any particular dance. As literary narrative tells us, even when specific steps are stated, it was always the dancer’s prerogative to ornament and personalize a step by spontaneously introducing other movements.

Popular Dances

General Characteristics

Literary sources, including music treatises, provide the names of several dances and a few descriptions, although some of the references are so incomplete that little can be deduced from them. Medieval literature includes far more dance names than are described in the treatises, leaving an impression of a society that enjoyed a wide variety of dances, only a few of which are known in any detail. The Catalan treatise written by Jofre Goixà, the Doctrina de compondre dictatz(Treatise for Composing Poetry), from about 1300, for example, gives instructions on how one may write a dansa, a dance name that is not found elsewhere. According to the treatise, the dansa should have three stanzas, a refrain, and one or two envoys (“sendoff” stanzas, used for summing up or offering a dedication), the text should be about love, it should have a nice melody, and it is to be sung with an instrumental accompaniment. That description, unfortunately, could apply to nearly all dance songs, and perhaps that is really what is intended: a general characterization of the contents of dance songs rather than instructions for a particular dance called dansa.

Sources of Information

The most detailed of the early descriptions are found in the treatise De musica, written in Paris around the year 1300 by Johannes de Grocheio. In this work, Grocheio defines both vocal and instrumental dances. By combining Grocheio’s statements with poetry treatises and other, less specific literary references, as well as the evidence of the music itself, it is possible to obtain an idea of some of the dances. The dances described in the rather dry and academic accounts of the treatises take on more human and real presence in Simone Prodenzani’s Il Sapporitto, and Guillaume de Lorris’s The Romance of the Rose. These poems capture the spirit of the occasions and supply us with vivid glimpses of a very lively dance culture in which everyone took part. The dance music discussed below provides additional details about the nature and spirit of the dance steps and formations.

The Round Dance / Rondeau

The round and the carol must have been the two most popular dances in the Middle Ages. They are the two most often mentioned in literature and depicted in manuscripts and paintings. The description by Grocheio tells us that the music has a refrain and that the melody of the refrain is exactly the same as that of the verse. A good example of what he is describing can be seen in the round “with a vocal dance” (Vocis tripudio), a sacred dance found in the Magnus liber organi, which demonstrates how the text is to be sung and also suggests the kind of dancing that would accompany the song. To perform this song, a soloist (the dance leader) would sing the first phrase, “With a vocal dance,” and the rest of the dancers (the chorus) would respond with the half refrain, “This assembly sings,” using the same melody. The soloist would then sing the next phrase, “With a vocal dance but with a temperate mind,” and the chorus would answer with the full refrain, “This assembly sings of Paschaltide,” again using the same melody supplied by the soloist. All of the following verses would proceed in the same way with the soloist singing the new words of each verse, followed by the chorus singing the same half and full refrain. The name of this type of verse and refrain song, rondeau (round dance), implies that the dance was done in the formation of a circle, perhaps with the leader actually standing in the center of the circle rather than as a part of it. (For practical reasons of size and perspective, manuscript illuminations would often only suggest the formation, but the raised hands of participants would indicate that they were to be joined in a circle.) The usual steps for this kind of dance are leg over leg to the side, going around in a circle, reversing direction at the beginning of each new verse. As Grocheio explains, this kind of song is sung by young men and women on all festive occasions.

The Carol

Along with the round, the carol is the other most frequently mentioned and depicted dance from this period. The two dances are closely related in that the round is one of the possible formations for the carol. But unlike most other dance formations, the carol was quite flexible, giving rise to Grocheio’s name for it, ductia, meaning “leader’s dance,” signifying that the carol could take on a number of different formations depending on the whim of the leader. It would begin as a line dance for as many as wanted to join, with all the participants holding hands, and could change into round or under-the-bridge formations as the leader wished. According to Grocheio’s description, the steps of a carol were lively and light-hearted, with a relatively quick tempo. He notes that the dance excites the dancers to move ornately, which suggests that a part of the carol dancing tradition included some active improvisation on the part of individual dancers. Grocheio’s rather sober description is augmented by the more fanciful scene depicted in The Romance of the Rose, written in the mid-thirteenth century, where we receive a similar impression of light-hearted gaiety with a variety of activities. The surviving repertory, in addition to the surviving English carols, is quite small and consists of three French instrumental compositions calleddanse and danse real. These pieces all have very short phrases, with light, simple, and lively melodies.

The Estampie

The estampie is mentioned in literature from France and Italy, and Grocheio discusses both a vocal and an instrumental form. The word itself probably derives from the Latin stante pedes (stationary feet), referring to the fact that the dance steps remain close to the ground, in contrast to those dances that employ jumps or kicks. Grocheio describes this dance as suitable for people of all ages, which probably means that it is a less energetic dance, as is suggested by the “low” steps, and in contrast to the round and carol that he recommends for “young men and women.” According to the 1328 Lays d’amors of Guillaume Molinier, a set of rules for composing troubadour poetry, the estampie poem has a text based on love and homage. At the end it can have an envoy stanza that serves as a summary or dedication, or it can possibly repeat the opening or closing couplet.

The “Kalenda Maya” Estampie

This description is confirmed by all of the existing twenty troubadour estampie poems, and especially by the single example that survives with both text and music, “Kalenda Maya,” by the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras. (There are minor variants in the construction of all of the texts, such as number of stanzas, which suggests that there was some leeway allowed). The text of “Kalenda Maya” is about both love and homage. It is in five stanzas, with a refrain but without an envoy. From the music of “Kalenda Maya” it can be seen how the individual musical phrases were repeated in pairs, with the refrain at the end of each stanza. This construction suggests that the performance format could have been similar to that of the round, with verses sung by a soloist and a refrain for all to sing. With its dramatic portrayal of a lover who must implore his elevated lady to take pity on him, the text of “Kalenda Maya” is typical of courtly love lyrics in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries.

Regional Variations in the Estampie

In addition to “Kalenda Maya,” the surviving repertory of estampies consists of one additional vocal dance, “Souvent souspire,” which is a new text set to the “Kalenda Maya” music, and 21 instrumental pieces—three from England, eight from France (called estampie royal), and ten from Italy (called istanpitta), many of which have fanciful titles such as “Chominciamento di gioia” (Beginning of Joy), and “Tre fontane” (Three Fountains). The music indicates that the estampie did not take on the same character in all of these regions. In the English and French sources the phrases are all quite short, with simple and lively melodies. The Italian estampies, however, have relatively long phrases with more rhapsodic melodies and are more than ten times the length of the English and French dances. Although the phrases in all of the dances are of irregular lengths, which suggests that all estampies had steps that did not require a specific sequence, the differing characters of the melodic lines hint at a lively dance in England and France, and a more subdued one in Italy.

Additional Dance Types

Nota

The nota is an instrumental dance that is neither discussed in any detail nor identified by name in any musical source. It receives a passing reference in Grocheio’s treatise, where he points out that it has formal elements of both the carol and the estampie. Jean Maillart, in his Le Roman du Comte d’Anjou of 1316, briefly mentions it in a manner that makes it clear that the nota is a distinct dance type: “Some sang pastourelles about Robichon and Amelot, others played on vielles chansons royal and estampies, dances and notas.” Four instrumental dances have been tentatively identified as possible notas on the basis of their formal construction; all are in English sources, but nothing at all is known about their formation or steps.

Saltarello

Although no description survives of the saltarello as an independent dance, the name (from the Italian saltare, to jump) indicates a very lively dance step, a fact confirmed by the way the saltarello step is described in the later bassadanza dance manuals. Only four examples of the medieval saltarello are known; all are instrumental and are found in a single Italian manuscript where they are labeled “salterello.” The melodies are lively, with repeated phrases, and the fact that their phrases are of different lengths suggests that the saltarello step was relatively simple, something that could be repeated over and over until the music stopped.

Moresca

The name moresca usually refers to a special dance in which the dancers all blackened their faces in imitation of Moors, and dressed in what were thought to be “Moorish” costumes with bells attached to their legs. (The term Moors originally referred to the people of Morocco, but Europeans often used the word to mean anyone from North Africa.) The dance sometimes depicts a fight between Moors and Christians, a reference to recent Spanish history, and sometimes includes a fool as part of the cast of characters. A moresca is recorded as one of the dances performed in 1465 in Siena in honor of the dancer Ippolita Sforza. The cast on that occasion included twelve men and women dressed in “Moorish” costumes and one woman dressed as a nun, all dancing to a song with the text “I don’t want to be a nun.” Morescas were often danced during large celebrations such as carnival processions, and by the late fifteenth century they were transformed into theater pieces and inserted into banquets and plays for light relief. The later English “morris dance” is related to the moresca. The word moresca also had the more general meaning of any unchoreographed or unsophisticated dance.

Rigoletto

Rigoletto is best known as the name of the jester in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 opera by that name, which begins at a ball in sixteenth-century Mantua. In Prodenzani’s description, the dance includes forward and backward jumps and some type of “waving” motion. Another bit of information about this dance comes from the text of a mid-fifteenth century lauda(sacred song) with the title “Chi vuol ballare a righoletto”: “Whoever wants to dance the rigoletto, move with the step to the organetto; make your steps to the sweet sound, executing the changes and matching your foot to the tune … Anyone who has weak legs or arms, do not embarrass yourself to enter in, since it changes briskly from leaps to level steps.” The term rigoletto also was used in a looser context where it carried the meaning “wasting time,” as for example, the early fifteenth-century criticism leveled at the executives of the Florentine government who were “dancing the rigoletto” instead of getting down to business. That is, they engaged in much motion but did not get anywhere. Although there is no more detailed description of the rigoletto dance steps, from these vague statements, as well as its use as a political criticism, we could speculate that the forward and backward jumps may not have progressed from the original position, thereby giving the impression of motion that accomplishes little.

Tarantella

One theory is that the tarantella dance receives its name from the tarantula spider, a reference to the rapid leg motion the spider makes in order to mesmerize its victim before killing it. Another possibility is that the name of the dance comes from its place of origin, the city of Taranto in southern Italy. From all accounts it would seem to involve rapid foot and leg motion while the dancer remains in one spot.

When mentioned in accounts during the late Middle Ages it is usually set in southern Italy, and it is sometimes associated with hysterical dancing.

Dance Pairs

There are a number of references to dances in pairs, generally referred to as dance and after-dance, although few details are ever given. Three musical examples exist, all from late fourteenth-century Italy. In each pair, the first dance has a fanciful name, while the after-dance is given a label: “Lamento di Tristano”/ “La Rotta;” “La Manfredina”/”La Rotta della Manfredina;” and “Dança Amorosa”/”Trotto.” Tristan (Tristano) and Manfred are characters in medieval romances, and Amorous Dance (Dança Amorosa) probably also would be recognized at the time as a literary reference. The melodic phrases of these dances resemble those in an estampie, and so it is possible to relate these dances to both the Italian estampie and the later bassadanza repertory that also featured fanciful names (see The Bassadanza below). Since the word rotta refers to something that moves very quickly and trotto means “to trot,” it is likely that both words refer to the fact that the after-dance is quick and lively. All of this agrees with literary and theoretical descriptions that speak of pairs as consisting of a slow, sedate dance followed by a quick one. In all of the Italian examples the melodies of the paired dances are closely related, which associates the idea itself with the most popular Renaissance dance pairs, known as “pavan and galliard,” in which a sedate processional dance is paired with a leaping dance, both based on the same melody. The concept of organizing dances in sets of contrasting tempos and movements became standardized as dance suites in the late Renaissance, and remained the basic organization of most instrumental music until well into the nineteenth century.

Other Dance Names and Music

There are many more names of dances found in literary sources, such as espringale, reien, hovetantz, tresche, piva, andfarandole. Some of these names appear as particular steps in later dance choreographies (see Origins of Ballet below), but outside of that nothing else is known of their steps, formations, or music. At the same time, there are also a few musical compositions that are identified as dances or thought to be dances, but which do not fit easily into the known descriptions. Some are possibly tenors (basic melodies for choreographed dances) but others simply defy all efforts to identify their types.

Choreographed Dancing

The Shift to a New Art Form

All of the dances described so far come under the heading “conventional”—that is, they consist of a single set of steps and movements which are to be repeated over and over throughout the length of the dance. Although there were many different types of dances, which resulted in a rich variety of steps and movements, a dancer needed only to learn a single set of steps for any one type; once the basic steps were learned, they could be applied to any and all dances of that type (for example, a saltarello step could be danced to any and all saltarello compositions). This is not to imply that the dancing was static; as the descriptions from “Il sapporitto” and Roman de la Rose suggest, the dancers were free to add variations, as well as other body motions, to all of the basic steps, bringing an element of creativity to each occasion. All of these conventional dances continued to be practiced throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, but sometime in the mid-to late fourteenth century a new level of dancing appeared, one that would blossom into a separate art form in the centuries to come: choreographed dance, the direct ancestor of classical ballet. The very concept of choreographed dancing sets it aside from the conventional type in a number of significant ways. On the technical level, it replaces the spontaneous repetitions of a small number of dance steps with a studied and rehearsed individual sequence. Further, rather than simply being a particular kind of dance (a carol, or an estampie, for example) each choreographed dance was unique; it carried its own order of steps that was not shared by any other dance.

Difficulty and Execution

On the social level, choreographed dances separated the nobles from the lower classes. This was a sophisticated artistic elaboration that was restricted to courtly circles where the nobles had the time to rehearse and the funds to employ a dancing master (a choreographer) who designed the dances and instructed the dancers. The choreographed dances were complicated and required serious concentration on the part of the performers, who had to memorize a complex series of steps as well as arm and body motions and floor patterns that were particular to each dance. In addition to mastering all of the motions, the most difficult chore for each dancer was to be able to execute the movements with grace and elegance, and at all times to make the task appear to be effortless. Hours of weekly practice were necessary for the dancers to execute the steps properly and stay physically agile. Much of this was done under the guidance of a dance teacher.

Social Display

The most notable difference between the choreographed dances and the other repertory, however, was its function. The choreographed dances were not something that everyone in the room performed at once; they were danced by two, three, or, in Italy, up to twelve dancers, depending on the particular dance, while everyone else watched. In reality, therefore, these were performances not far removed from theater. The noble members of the court placed themselves on display in front of their equals, demonstrating their personal grace and elegance. Not the least of the display was the costume, since attention was brought not only to how the dancers moved in the dance, but to their elegant clothes and jewelry, which were chosen to reinforce the image of wealth and taste. (The majority of accounts of dancing from this period, in fact, dwell on what the dancers wore and how elegantly—or inelegantly—they presented themselves, while unfortunately failing to report details of the dance steps.) The courtly choreographed dance, therefore, functioned as a demonstration of social and political power; it was one of the many tools employed by the wealthy and powerful to establish, maintain, and publicize their position.

Dancing Masters

Burgundian Origins and Italian Splendor

Choreographed dances brought into existence a new type of artistic impresario, the dancing master, who invented the dances and taught them to the members of the court. The earliest known of these worked in Italian courts from the beginning of the fifteenth century, although their manuals show a well-developed set of step protocols and dance behavior that suggests that the idea had begun in the previous century, and possibly not in Italy. The name of one of the Italian choreographed dances, bassadanza, is first seen in its French form basse danse in a poem by the Provençal troubadour Raimon de Cornet (c. 1340): “A jongleur would rapidly learn stanzas and many little verses, cansos, and basses danses.” It is clear that by the fifteenth century the basse danse was choreographed, but since the name simply means “low dance,” contrasting its conservative steps with the more flamboyant jumps, hops, and leaps of other dances, there is no way to know whether the history of choreographed dances goes back as early as 1300 or whether the application of specific choreographies to this dance step was developed later. The earliest French collection of basse danse music and choreographies is associated with the court of Burgundy, an area now in eastern France that was once a powerful independent duchy. Although the manuscript itself, a spectacularly beautiful one with silver and gold musical notation on black parchment, dates from approximately 1470, it is clearly a retrospective collection going back at least to the beginning of the century. Given what is known about the splendor of all of the arts at the Burgundian court beginning with the reign of Philip the Bold in 1364, it would not be surprising to learn that the tradition began under his supervision and encouragement.

Ceremonies and Celebrations

It is clear that the role of the Italian dancing masters extended far beyond the mere teaching of dance. Often, these men also planned the elaborate ceremonies that accompanied a feast, including the plays, parades, processions, jousts, banquets, wild animal hunts, and games that were a part of the celebrations, as well as the decoration of the city streets and performance venues. Celebrations of this kind were arranged for engagements, weddings, receptions of important guests, and other special occasions that could provide the powerful noble families with an opportunity to show off their wealth, artistic superiority, and social importance. At the end of one of the later copies of his treatise, Guglielmo Ebreo adds a list of thirty events in which he participated. There is no doubt that this is only a partial account, but it probably contains those occasions that seemed to him most memorable. His comments (not reported in chronological order) provide an interesting glimpse of the nature of festive events in the fifteenth century:

Event 6 [1454]: I was present [in Bologna] at the nuptials of Messer Sante del Bentivoglio, when we accompanied Lady Ginevra [daughter of Alessandro Sforza] and the festivities lasted three days; and I never saw finer repasts or finer refreshments or greater ceremony. And the platters of boiled meat, that is, the capons, were in the form of his coat of arms. And moreover, around the tables there were peacocks whose feathers and spread tails seemed like curtains in that hall.

Event 10 [1450]: I was present when Duke Francesco Sforza made his entry into Milan and was made Duke. And the jousts and the dancing and the great festivities lasted a month. And I saw two hundred knights dubbed. And I understand Giovanni of Castel Nova and Giovanni Chiapa to say to the lord Messer Alessandro Sforza that ten thousand people sat down to table when the trumpet sounded and all of them were in court.

Local Patronage

As a special feature on some of these occasions, the dancing masters invented new choreographies that were directly related to their patrons, naming the dance after a local person or place: Domenico’s balli (dances in the ballo form) called “Belriguardo” and “Belfiore” refer to the Este family residences in Ferrara; those called “Lioncello” and “Marchesana” refer to Marchese Leonello d’Este. These special choreographies would be premiered in front of all of the invited guests, featuring the patrons themselves as the dancers. Some dance teachers, such as Domenico da Piacenza and Antonio Cornazano, were permanent members of the household staff, with duties in addition to dance instruction, while others were hired for particular occasions; the letter from Filippus Bussus to Lorenzo de’ Medici shows one such itinerant teacher extolling his own talents while seeking employment in Florence.

Italian Authors

Three of the fifteenth-century Italian dancing masters left treatises that include not only specific dance patterns for bassadanze and balli, but also essays on etiquette, costume, and dance techniques. The earliest of the treatises is from 1445, De la arte di ballare et Danzare (On the Art of Dancing and Choreography), by Domenico da Piacenza; the second, Libro dell’arte del danzare (Book on the Art of Dancing), from 1455, is by Antonio Cornazano; and the third—the first of seven versions of Guglielmo Ebreo’s treatise De pratica seu arte tripudii (On the Practice or Art of Dancing)—was written in 1463. We know from various sources, including choreography attributions and statements in the surviving treatises, that there were many other dancing masters in Italy during the fifteenth century, including Giuseppe Ebreo (Guglielmo’s brother), Pietro Paolo (Guglielmo’s son), Moise Ebreo, and Filippus Bussus. However, their writings have not survived, and little is known of these dancing masters or their lives.

Humanistic Influences

The Italian dance manuals contain more than just instructions for recreating specific dances; they begin with a section of poems, highly complimentary dedicatory material addressed to their patrons, and essays on a number of different topics. It is clear that the authors were all formally educated, since the subject matter of some of this material is a reflection of the humanist movement, relating dance to philosophy, history, and world thought. On a more practical level, there are also discussions of the basic elements of dance: measure and rhythm, accurate memory, artistic use of the dance area, graceful movement of the body, considerations when wearing long or short gowns and capes, and special instructions to women on the subject of modesty when dancing.

The Basse Danse and the Bassadanza

Basse Danse

Each of the choreographed dances—basse danse, bassadanza, and ballo—has a distinct sequence of steps that are appropriate for only that dance, and all of them also have in common a small number of main steps, although they differ in how they are executed. The Burgundian basse danse is an elegant processional dance, consisting of five basic steps that are arranged in a unique sequence for each composition. The steps themselves are not complicated, and all require that the feet stay close to the floor, in keeping with the name basse (low). Basse danse steps include the following movements:

Branle: A swaying motion with the body turning first to one side and then to the other. Since the partners are holding hands, the first turn is away from each other, the second towards the partner. This is always the first step to follow thereverence.

Double: Three equal steps forward while raising the body.

Reprise: (also called demarche) A small step backward with the right foot, followed by placing the left foot behind the right. The right then moves forward again, thus allowing the dancer to end with the right foot in the place where it began.

Reverence: A bow, executed with one foot behind the other and the knees bent. It was always the first step in each basse danse.

Simple: A single step forward with one foot. This step is always called for in pairs and always begins on the left foot.

This constitutes the complete repertory of steps for all fifteenth-century basses danses. The choreographed versions varied from one another only in the sequence and number of movements. Each basse danse had a specific number of steps that were matched in the music accompanying it by a similar number of units of measure, meaning that the dance and its music were inseparable. Although the descriptions suggest that the steps are not difficult, the exact step sequence for each dance was crucial, and when arm, head, and body motions were added, any one choreographed dance became quite complex, compelling the nobles to spend many hours in dance practice.

The Bassadanza

The Italian bassadanza is similar to the basse danse in that it too is basically a processional dance, moving at a single steady tempo and organized around a number of relatively simple basic steps. In fact, four of the basic bassadanza steps (called “natural steps”) are quite similar to those of the basse danse. The bassadanza and basse danse differ, however, in a number of details of construction and execution, and especially in their tone and the amount of freedom taken by the choreographers and expected of the dancers. Bassadanza and ballo “natural steps” include the following:

Continenza: A small step to the side with knees bending, usually executed in pairs. It is somewhat similar to the branle.

Doppio: Three equal steps forward, similar to the double.

Mezza volta: A half turn, meaning that the dancer ends up facing in the opposite direction. It is sometimes executed by using other steps (one doppio, or two continenze, or two sempii, or two riprese).

Represa: A large step to the side with one foot, which is then joined by the other.

Riverenza: (two types) The normal bow with one foot behind the other and the knees bent, and riverenza in terra, in which the knee of the back leg touches the floor.

Salto: A jump with several possible executions: on one foot or two, or from one foot to the other.

Sempio: A single step forward, similar to the simple.

Volta tondo: A full turn, executed by using the same steps as the mezza volta, but requiring twice as many steps and taking twice as long to execute.

Ornamental steps (sometimes called “accidental steps”) could be interpolated into a performance by the dancers themselves. None of these steps is clearly explained; the descriptions are those suggested by the words themselves:

Escambiamento: A change; perhaps performing the motion or step with the other foot.

Frappamento: A shaking motion, perhaps meaning the foot.

Scorsa: Dragging the foot.

Formality Versus Flamboyance

As can be seen by comparing the steps in both dances, the basse danse, with its limited number of steps executed in a fairly standard sequence, creates an air of sedate and highly controlled formality and elegance, whereas the bassadanza, with its larger repertory of basic steps, numerous variations, and looser tradition of step sequences, results in a far more flamboyant dance. Unlike the two-or three-person formation of the basse danse, which is confined to processional movements with a more or less rigid sequence of the basic steps, all of which are low, the bassadanza allows as many as eight dancers in formations which can be single file, all dancers abreast, or even circular, and there is far more variety in the sequence of the basic steps. The processional aspect of the dance is interrupted by numerous half-turns and even a jumping step, and the bassadanza choreographies include the addition of “accidental” steps to be placed before or after the basic patterns, as well as variations on the basic steps, ornamental movements, and steps borrowed from other dance types. The bassadanza is still a very formal dance, but the greater variety of steps and formations, including larger motions such as full- and half-turns, lend a far more theatrical air. The Italian bassadanza, therefore, although stemming from the same processional idea as its Burgundian counterpart, was a more extravagant product.

Matching Notes and Steps

As can be seen in the transcription of a Burgundian basse danse called “La Haulte Bourgongne” (The High Burgundian), the written music for the bassadanza and basse danse, known as a “tenor,” is expressed only as a series of long notes, each representing one measure of time. The word tenor, from the Latin tenere (to hold), refers to the fact that the notes were sustained. Each bassadanza and basse danse has its own music, which contains exactly the correct number of notes to match the choreography. Some of the melodies of these dances are adapted from known songs, although many of them probably were composed specifically for a particular dance choreography. Since there is no change in the pace of the music, it was also possible to compose a new bassadanza or basse danse to an existing tune; all that was required was that the number of dance steps must correspond with the units of measure in the melody.

Dance Notation and Instrumentation

Although the music for both low dances looks the same, the way in which the treatises associate the steps with the music differs in that the bassadanza steps are described only in prose, whereas the French developed a shorthand in which letters designating the steps are placed beneath the appropriate notes of the dance tune, showing at a glance which steps go with which notes. In performance, the music would be more complex than the single line that was written. In addition to the long notes of the monophonic (single-line) tenor, one or two other parts would be improvised, resulting in a polyphonic (multi-part) composition full of harmony and ornate inter-weaving melodic lines. Instrumental musicians were quite skilled at this type of improvisation and would easily fill out the harmonies and melodies around the sparse written outline of the tenor. The most common dance ensemble of the period was a trio consisting of a slide trumpet (predecessor of the trombone), and two or three shawms (double-reed instruments, similar to the oboe). In performance, one shawm would play the written melody and the other instruments would improvise faster-moving accompaniment parts above and below the melody. A similar kind of improvised accompaniment would also be added when the music was performed by a single musician playing harp or lute. Other instruments frequently shown in the company of dancers are tambourines, bagpipes, recorders, and fiddles.

The Ballo

Origins of Ballet

The ballo enters more fully into the area of what we would think of as theatrical dance or ballet. Although the ballo employs the same basic steps as the bassadanza, it is quite different in its overall format and in the number of step variations. Instead of being danced at a single steady tempo and measure, as are the bassadanza and the basse danse, the ballo is made up of an irregular series of up to four different tempos (called misura), each having a different kind of rhythmic organization and speed. The tempos, from slowest to fastest, were bassadanza, quaternaria, saltarello, andpiva. The changes of tempo result in a large variation in the natural steps. For example, a saltarello doppio, which involves a small hop as well as a stepping motion, moves quite a bit faster than a bassadanza doppio because the saltarello tempo itself is faster. There is also, of course, a quaternaria doppio and a piva doppio, and to complicate matters, some of the choreographies call for the execution of one kind of step variation in a different tempo: a saltarello doppio, for example, in a bassadanza tempo. The result of the changing tempos and wide variation of steps was a dance form capable of enormous expression. In the hands of the creative Italian dancing masters, such dances were organized into pantomimes and mini-dramas that were highly entertaining. The ballo “Gelosia” (jealousy), for example, involves three couples who flirt with one another while executing a wide variety of dance steps and floor patterns, ending with an exchange of partners. It would be difficult to exaggerate the enormous amount of time and effort required to present these dances with the flair and elegance they required. Throughout the sixteenth century, the ballo continued to be one of the favorite forms of entertainment, attracting professional dancers by the beginning of the seventeenth century, and eventually—as the name would suggest—becoming the basis of modern ballet.

Musical Complexity

Ballo musical lines are far more complex than those for the bassadanza and basse danse, each having a unique set of sections that vary in style and meter, as well as in the number of times each section is to be repeated. Because of this, each ballo is inseparable from its music. Similar to the music for the other choreographed dances, in performance the ballo music was filled out by the musicians, who extemporized additional musical lines to what was written. The ballo music, however, was based on a melody with a variety of rhythms (as opposed to a basse danse and bassadanza sustained-note “tenor”), which required the musicians to fill in only harmonic lines. The instruments used in these performances were the same as for the bassadanza; the two types of dances were usually combined during the elaborate feasts in which they were performed.

Novelty and Tradition

The arrival of choreographed dances brought not only a new repertory and style to the activity of dance, but also a new function in which dance took on unprecedented political and social importance as political leaders used it as a measure of culture, elegance, and taste. The political implications, however, could have been important only to relatively few, meaning that for the majority of those who attended the entertainments of the royal court it was simply a new and sophisticated way to enjoy dancing, though certainly one that required far more preparation than anything they had previously experienced. Rather than replace the older style of conventional dances, the new form merely augmented the repertory for the nobility, while the conventional dances continued to be performed by all the citizens, including the nobles. The low steps of the new basse danse and bassadanza forms were derived from earlier estampie steps, and the line dances of the earlier centuries continued on as well, acquiring new names and step variants but remaining essentially the same. New dances and styles continued to reflect the ever-changing social and political lives of all Europeans, but regardless of the changes, dancing retained its central place in the recreational activities of late medieval society.