Using the Pieces-Parts to make the Chicken: or Just What Should Dancemasters be Teaching?

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

a question posed by Messer Sion Andreas o Wynedd

In January 1992, I had a phone conversation with Mistress Rosanore of Redthorn in preparation for the Northshield Dance Seminar. After the meat of the business was concluded, she asked, "What fifteen dances should every person in the SCA know?"

I rattled off the names of a dozen dances, and then added to the list:

These were disqualified and stricken from the list, but they form the center of an interesting question. Just what are we supposed to be teaching as dancemasters?

Teach dance?

Now, that is an easy answer. Perhaps if I rephrased the question. Is it more important for a dancemaster to teach dance or dances?

Stumped you with that one, eh?

What I mean by this question is, is it more important for the dancemaster to concentrate on teaching dances, one after another, always approaching each dance as a new and unique creation, or ought he to teach dancers the way to learn dances?

I believe the latter. Once one gets through to the student that there was a limit to the choreographic ingenuity of the period dance master, and that there were rules to the composition of dances, then the limits of what the student can achieve are greatly expanded.

We already do something like this for English country dances. If one hasn't heard about the formula for Playford dances -- Forward and back, Siding, Arming -- then one has been living under a rock. [For those less familiar with ECD, I'll toss in a quick aside that this formula is just a rule of thumb -- it doesn't apply to all ECD, just a large fraction -- Justin] The use of formulae need not stop with country dances.

The late 16th-century Italian dances are generally considered the most difficult of the SCA period dances. They were an elitist form of dance due to the precision required in the steps and attitude. More practice is necessary to perform these dances correctly, and the manuals in which the steps and dances are found are not really translated into English (I am ready and willing to take on anyone on the subject of Sutton's Nobiltá).

Still, once one has about a dozen steps:

one has the steps necessary to do most of the dances from the late 16th-century Italian manuals, and the steps tend to fall in predictable patterns.

Choreographically, there are rather few figures which are used over and over again in different combinations:

Used in different combinations, perhaps, but in fairly predictable patterns to create this allegedly unapproachable thing we call 16th-century Italian dance. Looked at in this light, it now not only becomes approachable, but almost friendly.

So, again, what is our purpose? To teach people dances? Or to teach people how to learn dances? I think that if you try the second, you will see that eventually your students will be saying things like, "But that's just like the saltarello from Innuendo d'Amore!" (sorry, Phelan) and picking up dances faster than ever.

Can you think of anything more gratifying?

Letter (response)

[This is excerpted from a longer letter written by Mistress Lizbeth Ravensholm -- Dani]

...Chicken parts (Sion's question) oooooh. What a neat question! I agree. Teaching the way to learn dances, actually, should be the way to go. However, the flip side of the coin is "Who are we teaching?" Realistically, I don't think that we are teaching very many dancers (who are interested in the bits, pieces, and how dances are constructed), but rather people who like to dance (who would rather learn dances). Actually, I've had quite a lot of resistance from a few people who are not really interested in learning step-units and combinations but would rather just get on with learning the dance. Sigh. This may be an unfair generalization against people who come into Renaissance dance from other forms (such as international folk dance, contra, English Country, etc) who learn the formulas for those forms, but I think it holds true for many people who dance only in the SCA, at least here in Caid.

This issue is something for dance teachers to think about, since I think many of us have gone with the flow and teach dances rather than look at the larger picture. One of the things I'm emphasizing in my galliard workshop will be improvisation rather than memorizing combinations. Not sure how it will work, though. Maybe I'm elitist or negative, but I'm not sure that I agree that everyone in the SCA should know 15 dances (or 10 or 5 or 300 like Scottish country dancers are reputed to know). If you claim to "like dancing" or "be interested in dancing" maybe, but what if you're not? I'm not particularly interested in spinning , for example (except as a salto tondo or whatever Negri calls it) so I don't particularly think that I need to know the difference between all the different twists of wool and types of weaves. It seems as if we are getting too many "shoulds" into the SCA and it's getting too much like my 20th century attempts at self-improvement and/or foisting my own interests off onto someone else.

Back to dancing and dancers, though. Anyone who claims to be a dancing master/mistress or who wants to choreograph in period style should jolly well know how dances are formed structurally and what patterns tend to occur. But with the [late] Italian material it really does take some time to see the patterns (or to teach people). I'm always making ABCs and little circles, spirals, and triangles for people to deal with these issues. I don't think it's as intuitively easy as ECD, or even, in some sense, as some of the 15th-century material.

I'd add a few more step-units to Sion's list. He forgot the obvious: passi, puntate, and dopii. And to be a nit-picking quibbler, I would not have included the Trango. I've only come across it in a few dances (in Spagnoletta for one, which is why it may be on Sion's mind). The real reason is probably that I'm not really comfortable in how we are doing it. How does everyone else do it?

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (