Ballo del Fiore in due: "Dance of the Flower, for two"

by Justin du Coeur

[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]

based on a reconstruction by Dr. Ingrid Brainard

The bulk of the dances done in the SCA are from Orchesography, by Arbeau, and The English Dancing Master, by Playford. Relatively few come from other sources, and no commonly done dances come from the late-period Italian repertoire. This article presents a dance from a less-common source: Il Ballarino, by Fabritio Caroso. It is a fairly easy ballo, easier than many of our English Country dances, and well-suited to an SCA context. I include a translation of the original, and some notes scattered throughout, for those interested in reconstruction details, along with detailed instructions of how to do the dance. It requires no prior experience in doing Italian dances. Don't let yourself be daunted by the length of the instructions -- I am simply trying to be complete. I have taught this dance to novices in twenty minutes, and there is no reason that any SCAdian dancer can't pick it up pretty quickly.

I. Translation

The following comes from page 157 in Il Ballarino; it is a loose translation of the original Italian.

"In the beginning of this dance, the Man will take a flower, and will carry it in the right hand, and at the beginning of the music, will do the Riverenza grave, and two ordinary Seguiti, turned to the left; then will progress, doing four steps, and approaching close to the Lady that he will want to take, will do two Continenze, and the Riverenza, starting everything with the right foot.

"Then, taking the Lady by the usual hand, walking, they will do two ordinary Seguiti, and two Scorsi, and, the Man guiding the Lady, at the end of the last Seguito, will stop to face each other, and will do with the arm in the manner of the half moon, putting the Lady opposite, where they both will do two Continenze, and the Riverenza.

"This done, the Man leaving the Lady, they will continue to do four ordinary Seguiti, two turned to the left and two frontwards, the one going to the head, and the other to the other end of the hall; where they will do, opposite, two Continenze, and the Riverenza; afterwards, walking opposite, they will do four flanking Seguiti, with two Continenze; at the end of which, the Man will gracefully kiss the flower, which he will have in his hand, and, doing together the Riverenza, will give it to the Lady, then will turn to his place; the which, after she will have accepted it, progressing with four Seguiti, and keeping the same order, will take a different Man, and with him will do the same actions that the Man will have done with her; giving him the flower as he did in doing the last Riverenza, and returning to place.

"Afterward, the Man continues the dance; he will take a different Lady, and they will continue, hand in hand, with the same style, ending when it will please them."

II. Steps

There are four steps that you need, in order to dance Ballo del Fiore: the "double" (ordinary seguito), the "fast step" (seguito scorso), the riverenza, and the continenza. Each is described in detail here. I describe the "size" of some of the steps -- note that they are quite small. In general, try to keep all steps a little smaller than normally feels natural. Steps are described as starting on the right foot here; this dance is unusual, in that everything starts on the right. In most balli, everything would start on the left.

The "double" step --

This is actually not called a double step in the Italian; in the original, it is called the seguito ordinario, or "ordinary step". I call it a "double" here, because it corresponds to what most SCAdians think of as a double step: the main step that moves you around the floor. Besides, "double" is easier to say when you are teaching the dance. Don't get confused, though -- this is quite different from the French or English "double" steps...

The double step takes one four-count measure. You should be starting with your feet together, or with the right foot slightly behind the left, with the toes turned out slightly. On the first beat, take a small step forward with the right foot (so that the toe of the right foot is about half a palm's width ahead of the toe of the left), rising up onto the balls of the feet. You don't have to be on tip-toe, but there should be a noticable rise.

On the second beat, take a small step forward with the left foot, staying on the balls of the feet. On the third beat, take another small step with the right foot, again staying "up".

On the fourth beat, come down quickly but firmly, landing the heels gently on the floor. You shouldn't come down like a sack of potatoes, but it should be as quick as you can do gracefully. Ideally, it should take about half-a-beat to come down, so that you simply hold your place for about half-a-beat.

This particular dance starts every figure on the right foot; when multiple doubles are being done in sequence, they alternate starting feet. To do a double on the left foot, simply follow the same instructions, switching "left" and "right".

I find that this step is quickly picked up by just walking it around the room for ten or fifteen measures. It is easiest to keep track of what you are doing by having a mantra of sorts to count the steps. My chant for this step is: "Up-two-three-downhold". Thus, you go up (and forward) on the first beat, then take two more steps, then come down and hold it for a half-count. Practice the double step until you're a bit comfortable with it, then go on.

The "fast" step --

In the original, this is called the seguito scorso ("slip step" in modern Italian, but probably not in period). I call it the fast step because that is its major defining factor -- it is considerably quicker than the ordinary step, taking eight steps in a four-count measure.

At the beginning of the fast step, rise up onto the balls of the feet (as in the double step), and take a very small step forward with the right foot. Now, take seven more little steps on the balls of the feet, each taking half of a beat. At the end of the eight little steps, come down on the left foot.

This step is every bit as easy as it sounds, but you should watch yourself, and make sure that you do it gracefully. If done right, you should basically be gliding forward, with all of the motion coming from the legs -- the upper body shouldn't be moving up and down, except at the beginning and end of the step.

Note that there are an even number of steps in the fast step. This means that successive fast steps will all start on the same foot. In this dance, the step will always begin on the right foot.

The continenza --

A continenza is a four-beat step to one side. Continenzas are generally found in pairs, with a continenza to the right followed by one to the left.

A continenza right starts with a small step to the right, moving the right foot no more than a shoulder-width to the right -- this takes up the first beat. In the second beat, bring the heel of the left foot to the instep of the right foot, leaving the feet turned out as far as is comfortable, while bending the knees somewhat. You shouldn't do a deep-knee bend -- just bend the knees enough to sink a few inches. Note that you close the feet and bend the knees simultaneously, all in the second beat. Then, take the third and fourth beats to slowly straighten your knees, so that you are standing erect at the end of the measure.

A continenza left is just the mirror-image of this. Take a small step to the left on the first beat, bring the heel of the right to the instep of the left while bending the knees on the second, and rise up on the third and fourth.

You should not bend at the waist during any of this. Think of yourself as wearing a tight corset, which would be appropriate clothing for this dance. Your upper body should stay quite straight during the continenza (and the riverenza, below).

The riverenza --

The riverenza is the "bow" for this dance. However, as said before, you don't actually bend your body during it -- the movement is made with the feet, not the torso. It takes eight counts, or two full measures.

To start the riverenza, slide the right foot slightly forward. It should only move the tiniest bit -- indeed, this part can be done without actually moving the foot at all. The important thing is that you draw yourself up as much as is possible gracefully. You are trying to look impressive here, so think big. This takes the first two beats of music.

Next, slide the right foot straight back, so that the toe of the right is even with the heel of the left. Don't rush this -- you have two full beats to bring the foot back, so do it slowly and gracefully.

Now, bend both knees, so that you sink straight down a couple of inches, taking two beats to sink. Finally, straighten the knees, so that you come straight up in two beats. As you straighten the knees, bring the right foot forward, to close the feet.

The continenza and riverenza are usually paired in this dance, with two continenzas followed by a riverenza. This is a very elegant motion, and relatively easy to do. Note the juxtaposition of the feeling of the steps: the syncopated continenzas are followed by the very square riverenza. The combined chant I use for this figure is: "right-down-up-up-left-down-up-up-forward-two-back-two-down-two-up-two". Practice this a few times, to get it smooth. This figure, plus the double steps, make up almost the entire dance.

III. Reconstruction

The dance starts out with one gentleman standing on the dance floor, holding a flower in his right hand. The rest of the gentles wishing to dance should be spread around the fringes of the floor. They may be standing or sitting, as it suits them. (In period, the ladies probably would have been sitting, but there frequently aren't enough chairs around the floor at an SCA ball.) If there is a Presence around, the gentleman on the floor should probably be facing it. The dance goes as follows:

(The numbers represent the measures taken by the figure.)

Now, let's go through that slowly --

The dance starts with a short introductory figure, which is not repeated after the first time through. The gentleman on the floor does a riverenza to the Presence, then does two double steps, right then left, making a small circle in place, turning to his left.

Now the dance proper begins. The gentleman does four double steps (right, left, right, left) to find a lady, somewhere on the fringe of the floor. After approaching her with the doubles, he does continenzas right and left, and a riverenza, basically asking her to dance. If she is seated, she should rise during his continenzas and riverenza. If she is standing, she may do the continenzas and riverenza with him, or not, as she chooses. (This is a good opportunity to flirt -- don't pass it up!)

Now that the lady is standing, the gentleman takes her by the usual hand (ie, the lady's left hand in the gentleman's right). They do two double steps "forward", where they define forward as they will. In other words, there is no constraint to dance around the room in a circle -- indeed, they ought to make use of the entire floor. After the two double steps, they do two of the fast steps forward. They finish the fast steps by facing each other, and do continenzas and a riverenza to each other.

(Style point: according to the original, you should hold your arms "in the manner of the half moon" for these continenzas and riverenza. Thus, they keep hold of their partner's hand during these, holding it up and out, making a half-moon shape with their arms.)

Now they do the "J" figure, so named because of its shape. They each do two doubles, turning in a small circle over their left shoulders. At the end of these doubles, they should be facing each other again, but slightly offset, each to their own right. Now, they do two doubles to pass each other, passing left shoulders. (See Figure 1 for an illustration of this pattern.) After this, they are facing away from each other, a bit of a distance apart. Each pivots halfway around on their left foot, to face their partner, and does continenzas and a riverenza.

[two figures]

The lady and gentleman are now a fair distance apart; they are going to come together again with four double steps. However, they are not nearly far enough to do the doubles straight forward, so they do them "flanking". The first double, on the right, is done sightly forward, but mostly to the right. At the start of the second, they turn almost 180 degrees, and do the second double slightly forward, but mostly to the left. The same follows for the last two doubles: the third is mostly to the right, and the fourth mostly to the left. (See Figure 2 for an illustration of this.) At the end of this, they should be back together again. They do a final pair of continenzas and a riverenza to each other. During the riverenza, the gentleman kisses the flower that he has been holding in his right hand, and passes it to the lady, who takes it with her left hand.

At this point, the dance starts over, with the lady taking four double steps to find a new gentleman. The gentleman who has been dancing should return to the sidelines of the floor; if you have only a single couple dancing, I recommend trying to finish the last figure somewhere near the edge of the floor, so that the gentleman doesn't have to go striding halfway across the floor to make his exit. The dance repeats as long as the musicians and dancers care to do it.

IV. Ballo del Fiore in an SCA setting

As I said at the beginning, this dance is well suited to an SCA environment. The dance acts as a "mixer", getting gentles to dance with different partners in each round, a fine thing if there is too much of a tendency for couples to dance only with each other. It would seem that the dance doesn't draw in enough people to make a good mixer, but there is a solution to that.

As described, it is intended for a single couple on the dance floor, with the rest of the company watching. However, it can be easily tweaked for a social dance setting. A substantial number of gentlemen can start on the floor at the beginning, each holding a flower. After the introduction, each takes a lady (it is recommended that the dancemaster make sure, in advance, that there are enough ladies interested in dancing). They each make their way about the floor, going where they will -- the average hall is large enough to accomodate ten to fifteen couples, before they begin to trip over one another. Even more gentles can comfortably fit onto the floor, if you constrain them to moving in the usual counter-clockwise circle about the floor. (Personally, though, I prefer not to have the floor too crowded -- the dance is much more fun if you can wander the floor as the whim takes you.)

An alternative, suggested but not yet tried, is that the dance could start out with a single gentleman holding a bouquet of flowers. At the end of the first repeat, he would hand half of the bouquet to the lady, and each of them would go find new partners. The bouquet would continue to subdivide, until each person on the floor had their own flower, at which point it would be the same as described above. There are some logistical tricks to making this work, but it could be very pretty if done well.

The dance is pretty easy to teach, once you understand it well. There are only four steps involved (only three of which take any time to learn -- the fast steps are trivial), and there is a fairly regular pattern: four doubles, two continenzas, and a riverenza. It takes most people about ten to fifteen minutes to learn the steps, and about five to ten to learn the patterns.

V. Music

Figure 3 gives a simple arrangement for Ballo del Fiore.


I am not certain of the vintage of this arrangement, but I believe it to be period. Note that the measures of the arrangement are half the time of measures as described in the bulk of the article. Thus, in this arrangement, a double step should take two full measures, rather than one, and a riverenza should take four measures. The "chant" associated with the first figure is given underneath the music, to help demonstrate the correct relationship here.

I have found one recording of the music to Ballo del Fiore that I am particularly fond of. It is on a CD called "Il Ballarino", performed by The Broadside Band, directed by Jeremy Barlow. The disc is available from Hyperion Records, Ltd (London), and is disc number CDA66244. The recording, track 16 on the disc, is well suited to this reconstruction of the dance. It is exactly long enough for two repetitions of the dance (that is, introduction, gentleman dances with a lady, lady dances with another gentleman, end). With careful looping, it can easily be adapted to run as long as you like. There is no introduction to the music, but this can easily be coped with. (Since the dance starts with the gentleman making a riverenza, he doesn't actually have to move in the first two beats.)

VI. Bibliography

Marco Fabrito Caroso. Il Ballarino (Venice: 1581). Facsimile reprint by Broude Brothers (New York: 1967).

Cesare Negri. Le gratie d'amore (Milan: 1602) Translation and Facsimile by Gustavia Yvonne Kendall, "Le Gratie D'Amore" 1602 by Cesare Negri: Translation and Commentary. PhD dissertation (Stanford University: 1985).