[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]
by Mistress Lizbeth Ravensholm
Arbeau's basse dance seems somewhat of an anomaly in the dance repertoire contained in his Orchesography, for the basse dance was most popular in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
As Arbeau wished to revive a dance that was no longer performed, he may be considered the first dance reconstructor that we know about. Some scholars speculate that Arbeau may have never seen a basse dance performed, or if he did, he would have been a very young man, for he says,
... the basse dance has been out of date some forty or fifty years... (1)
Arbeau probably relied on verbal and written descriptions in order to write a description of a dance that may have been out of date for some time, in order that
... wise and dignified matrons will restore it to fashion. (2)
My reconstruction, using Arbeau's description, is based on a mid-to-late 16th-century performance style. I teach singles and doubles as he describes for the basse dance, rather than the step-units and body movements reconstructors teach for 15th-century basse danses. I do not use ombriggiare, the shading of the upper body so important to 15th- century dance, since Arbeau does not mention such movement. People were wearing Elizabethan clothing and couldn't undulate much in the corsets, in any case.
The dance is done in a line of couples around the room, though I have also rehearsed with a single line of ladies as well as the following figure when more gentlemen than ladies were present:
G L ----------> G G G line of direction L L ----------> (G = gentleman, L = Lady)
I use no figures, as Arbeau does not mention them.
Dancers perform four basic step-units in the basse dance -- single, double, bransle, reprise -- in various predictable patterns. These step-units, along with the opening reverence and a congé, are the step-units which are used in the dance. (See below for a full description of the step-units and the Memorandum of the basse dance.) Unlike the movements for most of the other dances which Arbeau describes, however, some of the step descriptions are somewhat problematic to interpret. The most problematic is the reprise, for Arbeau gives two descriptions of the step-unit, but neither truly explains how to perform it. He states that the dancer should move the knees gently from side to side, or the feet, or the toes only,
... as if your feet were trembling.
He further states that the toes of the right foot should move on the first and second bar, then the left on the third, then the right again on the fourth. (3)
To derive a workable reprise I have had to interpret more than I would like. I have tried to stick with Arbeau's own vocabulary, but his imprecise descriptions can yield a variety of interpretations that look like nothing else known from the period repertoire. Consequently, to reconstruct the step-unit, I have also relied upon descriptions from a dancing master writing about the French basse danse in the early 16th century, Antonius Arena, and from one of Arbeau's Italian contemporaries, Fabritio Caroso.(4)
Arena describes the reprise as moving the feet sideways "on the right side making your legs caper,"(5) with three movements taken with the right foot and only one movement made with the left foot. Othet hints include secretly touching the lady's foot on the last step, and touching shoulders with one's lady but "be careful not to bump into her."(6)
In my reconstruction dancers perform the step-unit using 16th-century riprese as described by Caroso in Il Ballarino, but performed as described by Arena as an asymmetrical step-unit to the right. Men and women both move sideways (performing riprese described by Caroso) in the pattern Arena describes: R R L R. That is one of Arbeau's reprise (the small r in the tablature). It fits nicely into four measures of music, the dancers are on the correct feet to begin the step-unit, and to step out to perform the following step-unit, a double left.
Arena's description of sideways movements (two to the right, one left, and one right) do not contradict Arbeau's instructions to move the toes, feet, or knees to the right twice, then left, then right again. This reprise has the advantage of looking quite nice when performed, and looks period to the 16th century -- Arbeau's period. The upwards and sideward movements of the individual steps to the side give the general impression of the line of dancers undulating sideways, perhaps even trembling.
Abbreviations: R -- Reverence; ss -- two singles; d -- double; r -- reprise; b -- bransle; c -- congé.
|A||R b ss d|
|A||r d r b|
|B||ss d d d|
|A||r d r b|
|A'||ss d r b c|
Memorandum of the movements for the Retour of the Basse Dance
|B||b d r b|
|A'||ss d d d|
|A||r d r b c|
The correlation of the music with the step-units is taken from p. 67-74 of Arbeau.
[There are two distinct phrases of music, A and B, each sixteen measures long. A' is similar to A, but slightly ornamented. -- Justin] [More precisely, B is an eight-measure phrase played twice - Ed]
Reverence: (4 measures) Note that Arbeau requests that the reverence should be performed with the right foot (ie moving the right foot), even though Arena (earlier) and the contemporary and later Italian masters move the left foot. Arbeau does not actually describe how to do the reverence, so this description comes from those of the Italian masters. Do it with whichever foot you prefer (I usually move the left).
Begin with both feet together, or one foot slightly ahead of the other.
|1st measure||Hold still or, alternatively, lift the knee slightly forward as a preparation.|
|2nd measure||Bring that front or lifted foot back behind you a short distance (about 2 inches) while|
|bending both knees and shifting the weight mostly onto the back foot. Do not bend|
|3rd measure||Begin to straighten your knees.|
|4th measure||Finish Straightening your knees and bring your back foot to join the stationary foot.|
Bransle: (4 measures) Keep the heels together, move the upper body only.
|1st measure||Turn the body gently to the outside (left for gentlemen, right for ladies).|
|2nd measure||Turn the body gently to the inside "glancing modestly the while at the spectators."|
|3rd measure||Turn again to the outside.|
|4th measure||Turn to the inside again "with a discreetly tender sidelong glance at the damsel" (or|
Note that if you are dancing without a partner, make sure to look both ways.
Two Simples (singles, always done in pairs): (4 measures)
|1st measure||Step forward with the left foot.|
|2nd measure||Bring the right foot to join it (optionally rising onto both toes slightly and lowering to flat.)|
|(This is one simple.)|
|3rd measure||Step forward with the right foot.|
|4th measure||Bring the left foot to close beside the right (optionally rising onto both toes slightly and|
|lowering to flat.) (This is the second simple.)|
"And you must be careful not to take strides that suggest you wish to measure the length of the hall, as the damsel who is your partner cannot with decency take such long steps."
Double: (4 measures)
|1st measure||Step forward with the left foot.|
|2nd measure||Step forward with the right foot.|
|3rd measure||Step forward with the left.|
|4th measure||Bring the right foot forward to meet the left to close (optionally rising onto both toes|
|slightly and lowering to flat).|
Start a second double with the right foot, and a third with the left foot.
Reprise: (4 measures)
|1st measure||Rise on your toes, step sideways to the right with your right foot, bring your left foot|
|to join the right, then lower both feet.|
|2nd measure||Repeat to the right.|
|3rd measure||Repeat to the left.|
|4th measure||Repeat to the right.|
For those familiar with the Caroso/Negri step-unit vocabulary, this is a set of four riprese gravi: two right, one left, and one right.
Congé: (about 4 measures) Arbeau states that before starting the second part of the dance the gentleman takes his partner back to the place from whence they began the dance,(7) while Arena describes the congé, problematically, as swaying the body without moving the feet, but ending with the weight on the right leg.(8) As the musicians usually limit the time between the sections to four measures or less, I request the dancers to do a Reverence in place of the congé.
Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesography (1588). Translated by Mary Stewart Evens, edited by Julia Sutton. NY: Dover, 1967. Description of the dance and step-units p. 51-56. Music & tabulation p. 67-74.
Arena, Antonius. "Rules of Dancing" (c. 1529-31). Translated by John Guthrie and Marino Zorzi. Dance Research 4(2), Autumn, 1986, 3-53. Description of the reprise p. 17-18.
Caroso, Fabritio. Il Ballarino (1581). NY: Broude Brothers, 1967. Description of the ripresa grave fol. 9a.
La Danse a la cour des Ducs de Bourgogne/Dance at the Court of the Dukes of Burgundy (15e-16e s). La Maurache, instruments medievaux et voix. Arion 68052, 1988. "Jouyssance Vous Donnerai," Track 5 (2'04).
Renaissance. Ensemble Vocal Phillippe Caillard, Berry Hayward Consort BNL 112764, 1989. "Basse Danse," Track 1.2 (2'00).
I wish to thank Master Sir Richard de la Croix, Baroness Alarice Beatrix von Thal, and Lord Aladric of Litchfield for their advice and help in working out this interpretation of the reprise.
1. Arbeau, p. 216, 51
2. Ibid, p.51
3. Ibid, p.56
4. I begin by assuming that it is reasonable to use an earlier source primarily and a contemporary source secondarily to illuminate Arbeau's description. The rationale is based on two assumptions. My first assumption is that Arbeau knew Arena's work, for he mentions how Arena describes the reverence (Arbeau, p. 54). Arena's Leges Dansandi (Rules of Dancing) is a section of a larger, untitled poem usually called Ad Suos Compagnones Studiantes written in the late 1520s. The second assumption is that Arbeau might have been vaguely familiar with the Italian style of dancing, thus may have known something of a ripresa step-unit through oral (pedal?) tradition, manuscript notes, or possibly (but not likely) a published work. (The ripresa grave is described on f9a in Il Ballarino, published 1581 in Venice, Italy; Orchesography was published 1589 in Langres, France.)
5. The translators note that "it has not been possible to establish any exact meaning for fringando gambas." (Arena p. 50) Thus the translation of "legs caper" must be interpreted cautiously.
6. Arena p. 17-18
7. p. 53-54
8. p. 18
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (email@example.com)