The Case of the Gavotte

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

or, On the Continuity of Dance Forms stuffily pursued

by Messer Sion Andreas o Wynedd

I wish to consider a dance called the Gavotte. There are several references, in Arbeau's Orchesographie 1588 and 1596, in Luare's Apologie de la danse 1623, and in numerous Baroque dancing books.

Arbeau mentions that the Gavotte is a Bransle-like dance which is danced after a suite of Bransles. It consists of doubles with the petits sauts of the Branlse de Haut Barrois done to the left and right, but these doubles are divided by passages borrowed at will from the Galliarde. After some time of dancing like this, one couple or another would detach itself from the others, the lord then kissing all the other ladies and the lady kissing all the other lords. After some more dancing, a second couple would come out and likewise kiss the other lords and ladies. In some cases, the privilege of kissing would be entirely assumed by the host and hostess.

Arbeau also gives as examples two doubles, one left and one right, demonstrating with these two how these adorned doubles might appear, but Arbeau tells Capriole that he may vary the given divisions at his will. The music for the dance is in duple time, and as a dance it appears to have been quite a maleable, game dance. It became more and more popular in the early 17th century. It became so popular, in fact, that Laure mentions it in the most offhand and infuriating way.

Laure notes that the Gavotte was danced at the end of the Bransles, but that the steps were so common and so well known that it would have been uesless to write of them in detail. Happily, Laure also notes that the Gavotte was danced differently in different parts of France.

The music Laure gives for the Gavotte is in duple time, as was Arbeau's, but the feel of the music is naturally much more Baroque than was Arbeau's. The end of this examination comes from the true Baroque Gavotte, a rather popular dance form in the French courts of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Wendy Hilton, in her Dance of Court and Theater: The French Noble Style 1690-1725, gives several examples of Gavottes in inscruitable and inescapable Feulliet notation. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Gavotte was still danced to duple-time music, but had in other ways changed greatly. The step sequence is no longer doubles, but rather the sequence: contretemps de gavotte, pas de bourree, contretemps de gavotte, pas assemble.

Rameau noted that the Gavotte of his day came from Lyonnois and Dauphiny, so it is likely that what we are dealing with in the Baroque Gavotte is a regional variant which has by luck managed to become the dominant form. Hilton also points out several itneresting features of the Gavotte. There is a conflicting emphasis between the step units and the musical units. She notes that it may be difficult for the beginner to know whether the movements are being done on the correct beat, and an outside eye may be necessary to confirm when the movements are being done correctly. From the floor patterns which Hilton gives, it is also clear that the Baroque Gavotte bears little resemblance to the dance from which the name derives. It is intricately choreographed both in terms of step execution and floor pattern.

So what's the point?

The point is to demonstrate that over time a dance can change drastically, while retaining the same name. If this change in the Gavotte, from Bransle variant to elaborate Baroque dance, can occur in the space of a single century, what differences might we expect in similar circumstance?

By way of example I point out that the Midrealm is in the process of banishing the reel, Strip the Willow, by promoting another reel, Trenchmore. Trenchmore is first described in Playford in the 1720's, but the name Trenchmore is mentioned well into the Elizabethan period. What evidence do we have that the dance we have been teaching is in any way period? None.

The same caveat applies to steps. In an earlier issue of The Letter of Dance, for example, Arbeau's basse danse was reconstructed with a represe derived from Negri. What proof is there that Arbeau's reprise bore any resemblance to Negri's? None. Since Arbeau was intending the reader to develop an appreciation for the very late basse danse as described in Arena and Copeland, one might be tempted to ask, and rightly so, why one should use a step that is from another country nearly a century later than the dance itself.

The point, gentle reader, is that in our enthusiasm to present danceable dances, we might do well to be a little more concerned with the purities. The world of professional dancers and dance historians has developed a wary view of us over the decades. Incidents of outright theft of materials aside, our scholarship has often been questioned. It would do others' perception of us no end of good if SCA dancemasters kept opinions phrased as opinions, used the phrase "may have been" more liberally, and respected the amazing lack of incontrovertable evidence by respecting alternate reconstructions.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (