Stepping on Our Toes: Garb

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

How do I dance Rufty Tufty without tripping over my train?

by Janelyn of Fenmere  

Well, if you were in England in 1650 when this dance was first done, this wouldn't have been a concern. As can be seen by the woodcut on the title page of Playford's first edition, most women were not wearing gowns with trains at this time, and their hems were held away from the feet by a full under-dress. This style of clothing allowed the women's feet to move freely; thus they were able to participate in dances with complex turning and weaving patterns. The kinds of dances that were done in various periods were influenced by the clothing that was being worn by the upper classes, and often garb from other periods is somewhat incompatible with some of the dances. Sometimes in the SCA, we see that problems can arise with mixing and matching clothing and dances from different periods. Other times, we find that a dance just doesn't feel quite right unless we're wearing the right kind of clothing. What follows is a very basic discussion of the influence of clothing on dance. It's quite generalized for sake of space and clarity; if you have further interest in this topic, please pursue it further, and let me know what you find!

Many of the early references to dance describe peasant dances that are rollicking and energetic, and describe the dances of the nobles as gliding and graceful. The reasons for the difference can be seen from looking at paintings from period showing where dancing took place, and what kinds of clothing were worn. Peasants danced in the fields, where it was necessary to do high-stepping, energetic dances. The comfortable working clothes were loose enough and short enough to allow for this. The nobility in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries are described as doing dances that glided across the smoother floors on which they danced, and in which they carefully pulled their trains along behind them so as not to trip on them.

This can be seen in the gliding early Italian and Burgundian basse dances. These were done in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when gowns of the nobility tended to be very long, pooling onto the floor in front of the dancer as well as forming a long train behind. Also, the sleeves tended to be quite full, and tall headdresses were common. These factors imposed several requirements on dance at the time: the dances must be slow and gentle, so as to lessen the chance of tripping over one's skirt, and the later practices of forming arches to dance under was not a practical thing at this time (as all of us who have ever gotten tangled in someone's full sleeves while dancing underneath arched arms know quite well). One helpful influence of this period was that footwear tended to be soft, flexible slippers, which allowed for a wide range of complex foot movements. The steps of basse dances allow for the length of the skirts: in stepping down on the first count, the skirt is kicked out of the way in front, and the train is dragged behind and fully extended to be shown at its finest. On the second count, when we come up on both toes, a dancer's train pulls up close behind so it won't be stepped upon. On the third count, we bring both feet together, thus ending with the train gathered close behind the dancer, ready to begin the next step.

Branles were done in France in the late 16th century, a time in which women's dresses in general no longer had trains, but were held off the ground by numerous layers of stiff petticoats. This left the feet somewhat more free; unfortunately, the clothing was so heavy that the ladies' dancing was somewhat inhibited by this. Also, the ladies had to be careful doing certain dances to "hold her petticoat or kirtle in place lest the breeze caused by thhe movement should reveal her chemise or her naked thigh" (Arbeau). The fashionable young men during this period were wearing knee-length breeches or trunkhose that came to mid-thigh, which allowed them very free movement of their legs, and also showed off the shape of their legs quite attractively during dancing. The prime place for these young gentlemen to display their skill at dance and their athletic prowess was during the galliarde. Although women also danced the galliarde, they were not able to execute the high leaps and jumps which the men demonstrated, due to the heaviness of their clothing. Both were forced to practice good dance posture, keeping their upper bodies straight and tall, due to the tight fit of their stiff doublets and bodices.

At the time of Playford, in the mid-seventeenth century, dancers continued to wear tight, stiff upper garments; women especially wore boned corsets which did not allow for much bending or flexibility. Men wore knee-long pants or longer; women still wore very full skirts with several petticoats, but the fabric was much lighter. Because there were no longer trains to be tripped over, dancers were able to perform a lot more turning and weaving in their figures without much concern. Sleeves, in general, became much more form-fitting, and this allows for the prevalence of figures in which two dancers form an arch with their arms, and other dancers pass underneath. Large, loose boots, and shoes with heels, were becoming quite common during this time, and this probably influenced the fact that the actual steps that the foot performs were much simpler and far less specific than those done in the fifteenth century.

English country dances are often thought of as very peppy, energetic dances, and a number of people add in extra bounce. Although this is perfectly acceptable in the SCA - after all, we're here to have fun - I think it's important to realize that this is where "creative" anachronism comes in. When wearing a t-tunic and china slippers, it's easy to pep up a dance. However, it probably is not a good representation of how that dance was done in period: try doing the dances someday in full corset and petticoats and skirts with heeled shoes, and I imagine you'll have a very different view of the dance!

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (