Stepping on Our Toes: Some Background on Branles

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

by Janelyn of Fenmere

Q: During what period were branles performed?

A: The branle, whose name derives from the French verb branier (to sway from side to side), was mentioned by Arena in 1536, but it was not until Arbeau's work of 1589 that we gain a clear picture of the ways these branles were performed. Branles remained in fashion for a very long period of time. In 1662, Pepys(1) described in detail a ball given by King Charles II which began with the dancing of a branle. And in 1725, Rameau(2) stated that the branle was still the opening dance of any great ball.

Q: Were they always performed in the manner Arbeau describes, or did they change over time?

A: It is hard for us to know how much they changed. We do know that there were some changes in the 34 years which separate Arbeau and De Lauze(3). Although De Lauze uses many of the same names, and although his branles do bear some strong similarities to Arbeau's branles, they are sufficiently changed that they cannot truly be called the same dances. Of later period branles, we know much less. Branles are mentioned frequently in texts from later period; however, they are never again described in great detail, because the manner of their dancing was assumed to be known to later readers.

Q: What do we know about who danced branles, and in what circumstances they were danced?

A: We know from Rameau and Pepys that all levels of the nobility, including Kings and Queens, danced branles in their Courts. Arbeau tells us that the dance is "proper to youth, agreeable to the old and suitable to all."(4) We assume that in general, Arbeau is referring to people of the upper class, although he does state that some vigourous branles are danced by manservants and chambermaids.

Q: It seems that some of the dances are more demanding than others, and perhaps might have been difficult for some to perform.

Q: Arbeau says that the order in which the dances were performed takes these differences into account. He says that "Musicians are all accustomed to beginning the dances at a feast" with a certain Suite of branles, which are performed by various groups. "The elderly solemnly dance the double and single branles; the young married dance the gay branle; and the youngest of all lightly dance the Burgundy branle."

Q: Was the gathering of branles into suites common?

A: Yes, suites very similar to this first one described by Arbeau are included in other sources. De Lauze(5) describes a suite of five branles: Bransle Simple, Bransle Gay, Bransle de Poitou, Bransle Double de Poitou, and a fifth branle which he does not name. Mersenne(6) describes a suite which includes Bransle Simple, Bransle Gay, Bransle-a-Mener or de Poitou, Bransle Double de Poitou, and Bransle de Montirande. And Arbeau also says that Cassandra and Pinagay are the first and second dances in a suite of mixed branles, and that the Scottish branle we dance contains the first two dances in a suite of Scottish branles.

Q: Did the dancing at a feast usually begin with branles?

A: Yes. Mersenne writes, in describing his suite: "There are six kinds [of branles] which are danced now-a-days at the opening of a Ball, one after the other, by as many persons as wish; for the entire company, joining hands, perform with one accord a continual branle..."(7)

Q: When a whole company joined hands to dance, what formation did they take?

A: Arbeau says "When you begin a branle, several others join hands with you, as many young men as damsels, and sometimes she who is the last to arrive at the dance takes your left hand, and thus makes a round dance."

Q: So branles were done either as a line, or as a circle. If they were danced as a line, the person at the far left end would, in effect, be the leader of the line.

A: It appears to have been an honor to lead the dance, as Arbeau says once a couple has taken the lead, it was considered rude for anyone save a renowned nobleman to take the lead from him. There do seem to have been accepted methods for changing leaders, though. Rameau describes the dancing at a Grand Ball: "At the conclusion of the strain, the King and Queen went to the end of the line, then the next couple led the Branle in their turn, after which they took up their positions behind their Majesties. This continued thus until all the couples had danced and the King and Queen were at the head again."(8)

Q: If one wished to join into a dance after it had begun, how was this accomplished?

A: Generally, he placed himself and his lady at the end of the line, although they may have joined in elsewhere if others were agreeable.

Q: Were the dancers always paired as couples?

A: Arbeau's references to this issue seem to all imply that this was the case. (Although, since we rarely find our genders balanced at dance practice or events, we only require partners where truly necessary.)

Q: What positions do members of a couple take in relation to each other?

A: Arbeau shows, both through illustrations and text, that the lady is on the gentleman's right, her left hand resting palm down upon his right hand.

Q: How many repititions are done of each dance? Are branles always repeated?

A: Out of the 23 branles included in Orchesographie, Arbeau only specifically states in eight of the tabulations that the dance repeats from the beginning. However, there are frequent references within the text to repeats in six additional dances, so I believe that it is fairly safe to assume that after the dancers completed the full pattern of the dance one time through, the musicians would continue playing the branle from the beginning, repeating it as many times as they chose to.

Q: And were the repeats always identical to the first time through the dance?

A: In most cases, they were. Montarde varied, as the leader of the line does not weave down during the first time through the dance, but does in all other repeats. Trihory is the same each time through, except that on the last repeat, there is a unique ending to the dance. And in Arbeau's Maltese and in Clog Branle different gestures are done on each repeat of the dance.

There is another common variation I have heard many musicians follow: with each repetition, the music gradually speeds up faster and faster until either the musicians or the dancers can no longer keep up. I do not know whether this was done in Arbeau's time, but it is certainly an enjoyable addition.


1 Pepys' Diaries. Account of a ball at Whitehall in 1662.

2 Rameau, P. Le Maitre a Danser. (1725) Translated by C.W. Beaumont.

3 De Lauze, F. Apologie de la Danse. (1623)

4 Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesography. Translated by Mary Stewart Evans. (NY: Dover, 1967) Page 16.

5 De Lauze, F. Apologie de la Danse (1623)

6 Mersenne, Marin. Harmonie Universelle. (1636)

7 As quoted by Wildeblood, in her notes to Apologie de la Danse. (London: Fredeick Muller, 1952) Page 193.

8 Rameau, P. Le Maitre a Danser. (1725) Translated by C.W. Beaumont.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (