Book Review: Orchesography

Reviewed by Guillaume di San Marino

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

When I first began dancing in the SCA, I was told that most of the dances we SCAdians do come from Arbeau's Orchesography, written in the late 1580's. Being very enthusiastic about dance, I went out and bought the 1948 translation by Mary Stewart Evans, reprinted by Dover [edited, and with notes by, Dr. Julia Sutton] in 1967 and 1986. (ISBN #0-486-21745-0, Library of Congress #65-26021) After reading it I found that we in the SCA, at least where I live, only do a few of his dances. I think this is a shame. Orchesography covers a wide array of dance styles. There is something for everyone in this $9.00 book. For the serious, courtly gentle, there are basse dances, pavanes, and allemands. For the more "rustic" minded, there are the bransles. For the very energetic, there are the galliards and tourdions (I would dare any fan of Trenchmore or Strip the Willow to keep up with a galliard dancer, if I thought they could!). For the dedicated stick-jock, Arbeau even has a sword dance, called Bouffons.

Arbeau's style of instruction is remarkably easy to understand and follow. Each dance has a text description, explaining the timing and giving a brief description of its style and origin. What follows is the information which makes the book such a useful reference:

With this information it is almost impossible not to understand the instructions given. Where Arbeau's instructions are less clear, the translator of the book has written extensive endnotes to help the modern reader. This process was duplicated by the editor, so that there are two full sets of help notes in the Dover edition.

When I used the book to do the dances, I noticed something interesting: I had many fewer difficulties figuring out dances by working with Orchesography itself, rather than with SCA dance manuals. This is probably because most SCAdian dance-manual writers have tried to "reinvent the wheel" by attempting to explain Arbeau's clear simple instructions in their own words.

Another advantage to Arbeau's dances is that there is a plethora of different good commercial recordings available for them. My small-town public library has five different albums of Arbeau's music. I borrowed them and found the ones I liked. I then went to my local record store and ordered them from the distributors. Imagine, good fresh tapes for dancing. No more "I got it from somebody, who got a copy from someone, who got a copy from someone else" ad nauseum. The one I would recommend most [as would I -- Justin] is an album by the New York Renaissance Band, on Arabesque Records, called Washerwoman, War and Pease. Arabesque's address is: c/o CAEDMON, 1995 Broadway, New York, NY 10023. [Note that this album is available in one or two other editions, under different names, as well.] The recordings on this album are all danceable. They are played with the correct number of repeats and at an ideal speed. (At least all the ones I tried are, and that is most of them.)

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