Arbeau's Horse's Branle in the SCA

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Robyyan Torr d'Elandris, OL

The Horse's Branle, or Branle de Chevaux, is one of the most common dances in the Laurel Kingdoms. Found in Orchesography, it is a fairly simple mimed branle. But, for such a simple dance, it has been subject to much regional variation and difference in interpretation of the choreography. It is worthwhile to look at this deceptively straightforward dance, to see some of the difficulties in understanding our sources.

Arbeau says (Orchesography, p. 165):

"Apropos of that I have seen them dance a branle in this town called the horses branle in which they tap the feet . . . This was danced in duple time, like the common branle, and the young man held the damsel by both hands. The tune for the said branle began as you see it noted here and was danced by four doubles gauche [doubles left], and four doubles droite [doubles right]."

Arbeau gives the rest of the choreography in the tabulation as:

Two tappements droits During these taps and the turn made by the man the woman does not move.
by the man
Pied largi droit These two steps make up a single to the right.
Pieds joints
Pieds largi gauche During these four steps the man makes a
Pied droit approché turn to the left.
Pied largi gauche
Pieds joints

and repeat the above by the woman, with the man not moving.

The tabulation ends with the note:

"This done, the dancers join both hands again and repeat from the beginning."

We begin our analysis of the dance by determining in what position the dancers begin. There are many possible arrangements: a line of couples, one couple behind the next; a line of couples sideways, alternating men and women; a large circle of alternating men and women; straight lines of men facing their partners making straight lines of women, and so forth. Arbeau makes no specific mention in the tabulation for the Horse's Branle of how the dancers should be arranged, but touches on the subject in the discussion of the double branle (Orchesography, p. 130), saying ". . .and sometimes the damsel who is the last to arrive will take your left hand and it will thus become a round dance." Arbeau continues, explaining that if the dance does not become a round dance, he who started it should always be permitted to keep the front position. Another clue to the beginning position is given in the introduction to the dance, where Arbeau says ". . .the young man held the damsel by both hands . . ." suggesting the partners are facing each other.

So, following the clues we have so far, it seems the Horse's Branle should be danced in a circle, although perhaps not a closed one, with partners facing each other. Which partner should be on the inside of the circle, and which on the outside? We don't really know. A case can be made that, since the man starts the dance and the lady joins him (Orchesography, p. 130), the lady should be on the inside of the circle, facing out, but it is a tenuous argument at best.

The tabulation for the first part of the dance is clear: alternate doubles to the left with doubles to the right, until you have done four of each. But whose left? Does each couple make a small circle in place, i.e. each member of the couple going to their own left and right, or should each couple be treated as a unit within the larger circle (or arc) with the couple going left and right in relation to the circle? We don't really know. Since all the other branles have the circle as a whole going left and right, and Arbeau uniformly identifies the man as starting the dance, I suggest the couples move first to the man's left and then to the man's right, following the arc of the circle of dancers.

Music for the Horse's Bransle

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Music for the Horses Branle

Now we get to the difficult part: the miming of horses, which gives this dance its name. Two tappements droits by the man is easy -- he taps his right foot twice. The single to the right is also clear. But what about the last four steps? Arbeau's side note makes it clear the man is going to turn to his left, but how, and where to? Three possibilities that occur to me are turn in place, turn to the left with travel to the left, turn left and travel right (often described as "turn over the left shoulder and keep going"). Each of these could result in a different kind of partner exchange, or no partner exchange. Which is correct? We don't really know, but I have some suspicions. There is no suggestion in Arbeau's tabulation that people should change partners during the dance. Recall from our discussion of the original starting position that we are not necessarily dancing in a closed circle; this means, if we are changing partners, that some lady will be left without a partner, at least until the man from the other end of the arc makes his way to her. Therefore, I suggest the best choice is the one that places the man back in front of his partner, i.e. turn left with travel to his left, and leaving us without changing partners. The lady then repeats everything the man has done, and the dance starts over.

So, we now have a dance for couples, done in a (possibly incomplete) circle, with couples remaining constant throughout the dance. Other choices at other points in the reconstruction, which might be equally valid choices, could leave us with a dance done in a long line, changing partners so that one man has to run from one end of the line to the other; or a dance where the man's next partner is the lady to his current partner's left; or a dance where the man's next partner is the lady to his current partner's right, just to give a few examples. Each of these, by the way, is commonly viewed as the "right" way to do the Horse's Branle somewhere in the Laurel Kingdoms -- I've seen them all.

The moral of the story is that there are always choices to be made in any reconstruction, even the simplest of branles. Different decisions at each point will result in a different dance, and no one version is the "right" version.


Arbeau, Thoinot; Orchesography; Langres, 1589; tr. Mary Stewart Evans, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.

Arbeau, Thoinot; Orchesography; Editions Minkoff, 1972.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (