An Overview to Abbrevatures in Period

[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Messer Sion Andreas o Wynedd

Recently perusing several SCA dance manuals, I was struck with our modern practice of using alphabetic abbrevatures to record dances. Not just abbrevatures like D for Double and S for Simple, but also L for left, R for right, F and B for forward and back. The result can, in the extreme, make a simple bransle look like a recipe for the photosynthetic process. Still, many people in these Current Middle Ages learn their dances this way and seem to prefer it so.

I personally find this practice jarring and contrary to my sense of period aesthetic, in spite of its prominence. However, I find that abbrevature was also a period practice, and I hope in this article to present to the readership the two period alphabetical abbrevatures and their standards.

The first of these two alphabetic abbrevatures is in fact the first documented abbrevature at all for dance. It comes from the late 15th century basse danse manuals of the Burgundian school: Toulouze, Salisbury, Brussels, Moderne, and Copelande. Even Arbeau makes reference to the notation in his discussion of the basse danse in Orchesographie. In these texts the fairly limited step vocabulary was most often written under or above the music, usually the tenor but occasionally the melody, and figures were seldom discussed since these dances were almost entirely processional. The steps were represented by the following letters:

b = branle
d = double
q, 9 = continenza
r, 3 = reprise
R, = Reverance
s = simple

While there were several other steps propoer to the basse danse, they were not commonly represented by an alphabetic abbreviation.

The second alphabetic abbrevature appeared nearly a century after the first in the dance manual of Cesare Negri, Le Gratie d'Amore, from late 16th/early 17th century Milan. The steps of this period were far more varied and elaborate than those of the basse danses, and since figures had become important to these dances, the processional presumption of the basse danses was no longer appropriate. Now the abbreviations were nestled in text describing the figures and the nuances of movement and presenation; they were no longer a code, but a shorthand. By examining which steps merit the use of abbrevature, we can come to some idea as to which steps were favoured by dancers (and by choreographers) of the day. The steps which received abbrevature include:

.c. = Continenza
.D. = Doppio
.F. = Fioretto in Saltino
.P. = Passo Grave
.P. = Puntato
.R. = Ripresa
.R. = Riverenza
.S. = Seguito Ordinario
SC. = Seguito Scorso
.SF. = Seguito Finto
.SP. = Fioretto Spezzato
.T. = Trabucchetto

It is interesting that direction and figure were never committed to shorthand or abbrevature in period, at least so far as I have been able to determine. Not even in the shortest and sloppiest of the Inns of Court manuscripts have I seen figures or direction arrows scrawled in. That practice had to wait for Monsieur Feuillet to develop his elaborate notation for recording Baroque dance in the late 17th century.

So, while the use of abbrevature may in fact be period, the super-abbrevatures in curent vogue are not. A certain superior stodginess on my part would appear to be justified. Now if I could only figure out what I meant myself to understand by the abbreviation ".qx." in my notes from the Early Dance Institute at Goucher last year...


Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesography. Translated by Mary Stewart Evans with introduction and notes by Julia Sutton. New York: Dover, 1967.

Crane, Frederick. Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth Century Basse Danse. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 1968.

Negri, Cesare. Le Gratie d'Amore. Milan: Ponti & Piccaglia, 1602; Facsimile reprint, New York: Broude Brothers, 1969.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (