Stepping on Our Toes: Performance Tips

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

Some Tips on Dance Performance: Choosing a Dance to Perform

by Janelyn of Fenmere

A number of factors may enter into the selection of a dance to perform. The theme of the event you will perform at, the clothing performers have available, or performers' persona interests may all provide guidance in the period and style of dance to be done. You may wish to choose a dance likely to be familiar to your audience, or you may prefer to do something completely new and different.

If you wish to perform solo, you will want a flashy dance with fairly complex steps; the primary choice through most of the SCA period would have been a galliard, an ideal opportunity for display of skill and athletic ability in a dancer. Embellishments and improvisations to the basic galliarde step were highly regarded; Arbeau says there "should be a feeling that you might surprise the spectators at any moment with an unexpected - and brilliant - variation on a well-known step."

The best choice for a couple performance is likely to be an Italian or Burgundian basse dance which combines complex but graceful steps with some simple patterns, and allows for stylish and elegant performances.

With larger groups, you will have more variation in the agility and skills of each individual dancer, so it may be preferable to choose a dance with steps that are less challenging so that all may look equally graceful. To gain complexity and flashiness with a group, choose a dance with a complicated pattern of interweaving dancers. Examples include Buffens, balli such as Verceppe or Geloxia, or almost any of the more complicated English Country Dances. The primary goal to keep in mind when choosing a dance is to find something that's challenging and flashy enough to keep the audience's attention, while still being within the skill range of all your dancers. A simple dance done to perfection will impress much more than a complex dance with mistakes.

There are many sources available for learning dances to perform, some more accessible to new dancers than others. For more ideas on specific dances to perform, where to obtain directions and music, etc., contact Trahaearn or me, or your local dance person.

Posture and Deportment

Remember the context in which most period dances we have documentation for were done, and consider the impact of that context on your overall style. Dance was central to courtly societies, and was considered a serious art form as well as entertainment. It was also a skill that all persons of any station were expected to excel in; thus a dance performance was not a flashy showing-off of a unique skill as much as a proud and stylish assertion of one's mastery of a common art. Esquivel, in 1642, described the ultimate style as "descuido cuidadoso" - a studied carelessness, a seemingly casual brilliance.

To some degree, deportment will vary depending on the dance being performed: galliardes should be somewhat showy with an air of arrogant style to them; courtly dances should be gracious and gentle; English country dances may be more merry. But they should all look effortless.

General hints for dance performance are: Stand up straight! Attempt to walk as lightly and gracefully as possible, with most of your weight on the balls of your feet. Don't watch your feet, but look up at others and smile: if you look like you're enjoying yourself, others will enjoy watching you.


Wearing clothing that is as authentic as possible for the dance you have chosen to perform is an important factor. Performing dance in full Elizabethans might feel less comfortable than dancing barefoot in tourney clothes; however, it will look right to outsiders, and it also will give a more authentic feel to the performance style of the dance. Having properly constructed garments with the right undergarments is more essential to this feel than having beautifully embroidered garments or extravagant brocades. Spending time constructing a corset, or cartridge pleating your skirt or trunkhose is well worth the effort for the benefit you gain. It will certainly help your posture! It will also have a significant impact on your dancing: women may feel weighed down and feel that much of their dancing skill is covered up by their garb; men may find they must be much more conscious of the fine style points of various steps as they are more clearly displayed in tights than in mundane trousers; thus, you will want to rehearse ahead of time in the clothes you plan to wear for the performance. (So you know the important aspects of the outfit, like knowing your codpiece will stay tied on for the full dance.)

If you have limited time and/or money to invest in clothing, at least focus on getting hold of a good pair of shoes which are comfortable to dance in, reasonably attractive and period-looking, and don't make overly obnoxious amounts of noise when you move around in them. For ideas on what kind of garb is appropriate to each style of dance, there are several sources you may consult in addition to costuming books. Many period dance manuals contain illustrations of appropriate clothing for dancers; also refer to general art works from a period, particularly those depicting dance or other courtly scenes.

Space Restrictions

Dancing often takes up more space in a hall than any other form of performance is likely to, so you will often need to make special arrangements to get the space you need, or else be able to adapt to smaller spaces. Be aware of this issue in picking patterned dances, to ensure that they can fit into a fairly small space. In performing dances meant to be done as a processional, there is a period way of coping when you run out of space down the center of the hall and need to turn around and go the other way. This step is called a conversion: at a time when the dance choreography calls for both dancers to be moving forward together, instead, the man will perform his steps backward while the woman continues forward; the couple pivoting around their center point to face the opposite direction.

Another important thing to remember is that most of these dances weren't meant to cover a lot of ground - do not stride out energetically, but rather take small, delicate steps, emphasizing the other aspects of the dance rather than mere forward motion.

Extra Details

Some extra details can go a long ways toward making a dance into a performance. The most essential of these is the reverence: every dance should begin with first a reverence to the presence, and then to one's partner, and end with these honours as well. You can also add a little show with appropriate accessories: when asking a lady to dance, it is appropriate for the gentleman to first remove his gloves, pretend to kiss his hand, then take her hand and gently raise it to his lips, then replace his gloves. Also, the gentleman should remove his hat while reverencing. There are many more details on this etiquette in period dance manuals.

Also, if the dance choreography seems to call for certain theatrics, like the Jealousy in Geloxia, adding these in can make the dance more enjoyable to watch, although it's important they be subtle and not interfere with the feel of the dance itself. (Unless, of course, your goal is comedic farce...)

One final note: a performance is not merely the dance itself, but also the time from when the dance is announced till when it has completed and the performers have returned to their seats. People will be watching you throughout this time, so be aware of your appearance. Musicians may occasionally need to tune up on stage, but a dancer should be fully prepared: do warmups ahead of time, have the music cued up and taken care of, and everything else ready to go. Proper preparation and rehearsal can allow for a very stylish performance of the art of period dance.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (