Stepping on Our Toes

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

A column by Jane Lynn of Fenmere and Trahaearn ap Ieuan

I. Why do we dance?

Dance served a number of different purposes during the Middle Ages. As Arbeau describes:

[In] the primitive church there was a custom of dancing and swaying while chanting the hymns of our faith... Epaminondas used dances very skillfully in the clash of battle, so that his men marched as one against the enemy... kings and princes are wont to command performances of dancing and masquerades to salute, entertain and give joyous greeting to foreign nobles. We take part in such rejoycing to celebrate wedding days... [and] one can take honest pleasure without becoming tainted by vice or evil habits.

Dance was used as part of religious ceremonies throughout period. It was also used to define a sense of group identity. In Norse cultures, dance was a part of the oral tradition: dances were not written down, but were instead preserved by being taught and danced. Different towns have different traditional dances that help to define the identity of that town. Dance can also express a sense of national unity or ethnic identity. Sardana is a dance from the Sardinian region of Spain, which survives to this day probably, at least in part, because it was banned at several points in history when others tried to subdue the Sardinian culture. Dance was also used as a military training technique in the countries north and east of the Mediterranean. There are both individual and group benefits to using dance in this manner. Individual soldiers gain coordination, balance, strength, muscle memory, and agility. When performing group dances, soldiers learn to respond quickly to directions, to move together as a group, and to build a sense of group identity. Arbeau also discusses the use of drum rhythms and other instruments to help soldiers march in time with each other, so as to together "close ranks to form a solid mass, making then a string rampart difficult to force or break."

Dance was also used by others as a form of physical exercise. Playford states that dance is much commended as "excellent Recreation, after more serious studies, making the body active and strong, graceful in deportment, and a quality very much beseeming a gentleman."

Dance was used in drama throughout history. Arbeau claims that in ancient Greece, dances were included in masquerades, and they were certainly used in dramas in the early Middle Ages. Dances were an integral part of court masquerades in sixteenth-century France: Arbeau describes a ballet by the Knights of Malta "in which men and damsels, dressed in Turkish costume, danced a round bransle, comprising certain gestures and twisting movements of the body." In the mid-seventeenth century Lully brought the opera to France, and Rameau describes the skills of the professional performers, saying, "L'Etang danced with nobility and precision, while Pecourt took all kinds of parts with grace, precisions, and lightness." According to Rameau, the rise of professional dancers at first caused social dancing to achieve "the highest degree of perfection... progress increases daily owing to the rivalry aroused by the performances" of these professionals.

In theater, and in social circumstances, dancing was also used to communicate political satire. When a ballad was written that was too dangerous to print, it was often set to a tune, and passed about as a song. Dances were frequently set to these songs. Keller and Shimer state in referene to Lilli Burlero (Playford, 1690) that,

[It] is tempting to speculate that the image of the dancers taking turns leading by couples through couples was a reference to bisexual James II, his mistresses, and his courtiers. Such visual references would be impossible to prove but they cannot be discounted with this particular melody in this period of high political feeling and anti-catholic fervor.

Throughout much of the latter part of our period, dance was viewed as a skill vital to people of good birth and high station. For example, it was considered a necessary supplement to training to be a lawyer in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. In Arbeau, Capriole reports that he has just returned from studying law in Orleans, and greatly regrets that he had not "acquired skill in dancing during the hours between my serious studies, an accomplishment which would have rendered my company welcome to all." Sir William Dugdale reported in the seventeenth century, "Nor were these Exercises of Dancing meerly permitted; but thought very necessary and much conducing to the making of gentlemen more fit for their books at other times." Because of Queen Elizabeth's love for dance, dance was at a high point during her reign. It is said that Elizabeth was an excellent dancer herself and demanded high standards of her court. Wood says that Elizabeth chose some people for high office because of their skill at dancing: "... an outstanding Galliard dancer was no carpet knight; he must possess a fund of energy, coupled with patience and application to carry him through many hours of practice; a clear brain; and quick decision."

Thus, skills learned at dancing were expected of nobles, and could demonstrate to others the value and status of a person. Rameau states that if a young lady should "hold her head erect and her body upright, without affectation or boldness, it will be said, `there goes a fine lady.'" Arbeau says "dancing is practised to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb." Above all, dancing was a social activity focused on interacting with the opposite sex. Arbeau states "without a knowledge of dancing, I could not please the damsels, upon whom the entire reputation of an eligible young man depends."

Dancing was done for the sake of pomp and circumstance: Arbeau states the pavan was danced "when a maiden of good family is taken to Holy Church to be married... [and] on solemn feast days the pavan is employed by kings, princes, and great noblemen to display themselves in their fine mantles and ceremonial robes." In the mid-seventeenth century, there was a very strict protocol to such ceremonial occasions as the King's Grand Ball which Rameau describes in detail. The ball began with the King and Queen taking their places at the head of the hall, "then the company took up their station behind them, two by two, according to their rank." The King and Queen led a standard pattern of group dances: the bransle, the gavotte, and a minuet, after which they were seated, and individual couples performed dances, in order according to rank.

The rules of etiquette in all this were quite clear, and quite important. Each major noble had a dancing master on his court, and it was the dance master's responsibility to teach not only dance but all the rules of etiquette essential to the youth of the court. Specific rules of etiquette for dancing that Rameau discusses include that "should you be pressed to dance and have already refused once before, you must not dance for all that Ball... for this would slight the person that invited you first."

And certainly, you would not make such a choice that would preclude you from dancing for the rest of the evening, for that would block you from the main purpose of dancing: recreation. Perhaps the biggest reason that people have danced throughout the ages, and why we dance in the SCA is simply: because it's fun!

II. Courtesy Towards Your Partner

Asking Someone to Dance

Part of the Dream of the SCA is honor, chivalry, and courtesy in all acts. What better place to practice this than on the dance floor, where courtesy begins long before the dance begins:

Choose some comely damsel who takes your fancy, and removing your hat or bonnet with your left hand, proffer her your right to lead her out to dance. She, being sensible and well brought up, will offer you her left hand and rise to accompany you. [Arbeau, 1589]

This being the middle ages "as it should have been", there are, of course, some additional comments to add to Arbeau's description. First, ladies are equally welcome to ask lords to dance. Second, chivalry dictates that you don't seek out only the more comely partners, but also make a special effort to seek out new people or people too shy to begin dancing without a little moral support (if you are asking someone you don't know to dance, make certain you introduce yourself, and learn names as well). Also, don't limit yourself to one partner, rejecting all others; dance is meant to be social and to give you a chance to meet new people, not just focus on one person. Third, asking someone to dance is one of the best times to practice your most stylish, graceful reverences, thus honoring them by your manners.

So what do you do if someone says no to your advances? Arbeau recommends:

If you are assured of the good graces of another damsel in the company you should take her and leave the discourteous one after apologizing for having importuned her... thereby gaining the reputation for kindliness and good humor.

Note that Arbeau calls a lady discourteous for rejecting an offer. Of course, there are many good and non- discourteous reasons to refuse a dance: you're too tired to move, you need to leave, you don't want to dance this particular dance, etc. However, there are some reasons (eg, "I don't want to dance with that ugly guy") that would make me agree with Arbeau's statement that:

a well-bred damsel will never refuse him who does her the honor of asking her to dance... unless she desires to dance she should not take her place among the others.

If you do not wish to be asked to dance, stand off to the side, and, if you must refuse an offer, I recommend that you suggest "perhaps another time", and do that person the honor of seeking him/her out in the future.

When you have a partner, lead that person out onto the dance floor and into position to begin the dance. Before the dance begins, reverence to your partner again to acknowledge your appreciation.

During the Dance

Dance with your partner. I don't mean just grab hands when you're supposed to, and do the figures together when you're told to. Look at your partner, chat with your partner, flirt with your partner, enjoy being with your partner. Maintain eye contact as much as possible -- don't spend all your time looking at your feet or at other things in the room. Make your partner feel that you are honored to have had the chance to share this dance with him or her, and that for the time you are together, there is nowhere else you would rather be. Now, don't take this courtesy toward your partner so far that it becomes discourteous to others, either by making them feel awkward or ignored... all the same suggestions apply to dancing with the rest of the set. And though chatting with your partner while dancing is very nice, do it quietly during the dance itself, and (please) not at all while the dance master or mistress is teaching the dance.

Other style/courtesy notes: Don't take steps so large that your partner has to struggle to match your stride. Your partner will take cues from you, so if you make a mistake and throw your partner off, you can acknowledge this with a quick apology and help get back into step. If others make mistakes, do not criticize them or scream at them; just gently work towards getting things working smoothly again. The most important courtesy is to enjoy the dance, and to help others to enjoy it through your example.

At the End of the Dance

Taking the damsel by the hand and thanking her, he performed the reverence and returned her to the place from whence he had led her forth to dance.

Always end each dance by reverencing to your partner and thanking him or her for doing you the honor of sharing that dance. (Look into her eyes, and say it like you mean it!) Depending on the situation, you can then either guide your partner off the dance floor, or you can stand and chat while you wait for the next dance to begin. If you must rush off, excuse youself from your partner before disappearing.

As at all other times in the SCA, just try to keep these ideals of courtesy foremost in your mind, and strive to be as gracious to others as you would dream of having them be to you.

III. Why don't we do any early period dances at dance practice?

Basically because we don't know enough about early-period dances to believe that we can reconstruct them accurately enough for us to feel like we are teaching a dance as it was done in the Middle Ages. We can be much more confident about Renaissance and Elizabethan dances, because there are more detailed primary sources available from these periods, which include descriptions of period patterns of period steps set to period music. Dances from before the 14th century are impossible to reconstruct with any degree of certainty because no such detailed information is available in primary sources. We know that a variety of dances were done, from references in literature, from artwork, and from the fact that there is dance music available from earlier periods. Unfortunately, although these sources tell us that dances existed, and that there were several different names for different types of dances, they really don't tell us enough about how to do the dances for us to be able to make even an educated guess. There are four basic types of early period dance that we know about: religious, courtly, peasant, and dance as a sign of illness or curse.

Dances were done in the church as parts of religious ceremonies and festivals up through the 12th century, when the church banned them; however, they seem to have reappeared at some point, as in 1667, Paris again forbade religious dances, especially festival dances, including Maypole dances and New Year's dances. In the 9th century in France and Germany, processional dances were done through the streets of villages where the dancers would carry religious artifacts, and perform ceremonial greetings, bowing, turning, advancing, and retiring. In the 11th and 12th centuries, there were choral dances which were done during the singing of hymns during which the singers danced in a circle, moving around during the choruses and dancing in place during the verses. As part of religious devotions, from the 13th to 15th centuries in Italy, some worshippers did self- flagellation dances. The church was also active in banning dances, and in granting indulgences for dancing.

Courtly dance before the 13th century is mentioned in literature as consisting mostly of smooth, gliding, processional dances for couples. There was often a pantomimed wooing scene, gently depicted by the dancers. Peasant dances, on the other hand, were more often done in circles or lines, and were much more vigorous. They also often included pantomiming, but of a much more extreme nature. Some 13th century dances are described, including the Hoppaldei, in which the peasants rushed around "like wild bears" and "as though they wanted to fly", the Ahselrotten -- a shoulder-rolling flirtatious dance, the Gimpel-gampel filled with hopping and skipping, and the Houbetschotten which involved shaking the head and shrugging the shoulders. It was said that in some dances boys would keep leaping until blood streamed from their noses and ears.

Throughout the early Middle Ages, and especially during the Black Plague, there are incidents in the literature of danse-mania or St. Vitus' dance, which is described as groups of people being overcome with the uncontrollable urge to dance -- they would dance in grotesque, distorted fashion for hours at a time until they collapsed foaming at the mouth. Wherever this happened, the psychosis would compel others to join the dance -- the literature says that many people danced themselves to death. Another dance related to illness is the tarantella: it is believed that tarantism was caused by the bite of a spider, and would drive people into leaping and kicking fits that would last for hours until they had driven the poison out of their body. The tarantella was a dance that began in Spain as a way to "prevent" being bitten by these spiders, and has evolved throughout time into a variety of dances called tarantella.

There are also a great number of references in literature and art from throughout our period to totentanz, or danse macabre. This was interpreted in many ways throughout period, from frenzied dances in the churchyard of dancers seeking communion with the dead, to tales of the dead rising from their graves to dance, from tales of Death appearing at festivals which ended with whoever danced with Death dying shortly afterwards, to dramas in which Death called people of all stations to dance away their lives with him.

Given these latter dances from early period, it's clear why we don't attempt to re-create these. But why we don't teach the peasant or courtly dances -- because although there are many references to them available in a variety of sources, there is simply nothing detailed enough to really give us a clear idea of how they were done. The first definitive sources were complete manuals on dance written in the late 15th century which included several French and Burgundian basse dances with music, and, most importantly, description of steps. It is possible to reconstruct dances from these sources with a reasonable degree of accuracy, so we do teach a few of the dances from there, such as "Hearts and Flowers" [a colloquial name for La Danse de Cleves, #58 in the Brussels MS]. Later 16th- and 17th-century works are even more detailed and more accessible to modern scholars, thus these are what we most often teach, and what most SCA members probably think of when they think of medieval dance.

[One small correction in postscript: there is one written repertoire which somewhat predates the 15th- century. French/Burgundian basse danse, namely the work of the mid-15th-century Italians, specifically Domenico, Ebreo, and Cornazano. I hope to get some articles on this repertoire next volume -- Justin]


Orchesography, Thoinot Arbeau, 1589. translated by Mary Stewart Evans (Dover: 1967).

The English Dancing Master, John Playford, 1650. (Dance Books Limited: 1984).

The Dancing Master, Pierre Rameau, 1725. Translated by Cyril Beaumont (Beaumont: 1931).

The Playford Ball, Kate Van Winkle Keller and Genevieve Shimer. (CDSS: 1990).

Historical Dances, Melusine Wood. (Beaumont: 1952).

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (