[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]
Arbeau's Bransles, an Example of the Moribund,
an opinion stuffily expressed by Messer Sion Andreas o Wynedd
In my region of the Midrealm, Indiana/Illinois, English Country Dances are done as the social dance of choice. That is just the way it is. We have our sprinkling of pavanes, gagliards, and bransles, but they are the spice to the cake. In other regions in the Midrealm, I have noticed, the dancemasters have enforced an earlier period, if only by some fifty years, and dances like Arbeau's bransles are de rigeur. Without getting into the Country Dance versus the World argument, which it seems will never be won or abandoned, I would like to look at the bransles described in Arbeau's Orchesography, since these bransles are most often used to wean regions away from dreaded country dances, and perhaps make a point about these bransels and the way that they are used.
In their defense, the bransles do bear the greatest resemblance to the dances represented in medieval iconography. These presumed caroles are linear, but open to forming a circle. They can move free-form on occasion. They can be either slow or lively, and they seem to have a tradition of mockery or mummery to them. From a long, long voyage through the Early English Text Society publications, I believe that these qualities are common to both the carole and the bransle, so if one is searching for a dance to look mediaeval, then the bransle is probably better suited than any other dance of our repertoire.
On the other hand, most of these bransles are boring. Not intrinsically, mind you, but in application. We seem always to limit ourselves when we do bransles. We do the Simple, the Burgundian, the Horse, the Maltese, and the Official. When bored with those we attempt the mixed bransles and do the Cassandra, and the dread Pinagay until we are quite tired out and can brawl no more, but there you have it. There are only the twenty-six bransles documentable in Arbeau, and several of these are horridly specific to the sixteenth century.
Still, pray consider an observation. The stories we hear back about the unbelievable way they dance the -- well, it is usually the Horse Bransle -- in such and such a place is so much a mainstay of our current dance circles that it rivals the fighters' Pennsic War no-shit-there-I-was stories. Few people keep the same variant of the dance for very long at all without a watchdog.
What we would seem to have forgotten, and what we as dancemasters simply cannot afford to do, is that all period dances were created by someone. What was donce once can be done again today, and is being done today whether we like it or not.
When the period dancemasters were as sick of the Double bransle as I am, then they threw in a variation. Put a kick here, and we get the Burgundian. Add some extraneous kicks and we get the mixed bransles. Mime it up and we et the most popular bransles. That has to be where the majority of the twenty-six bransles from Arbeau came from in the first place.
My point, and you knew there had to be one in here eventually, is to go ahead and use the bransles to take dance in your area back to the mid 1500s (or earlier) if that is what you want to do, but don't let the strict attention to the period dances strangle you. Be dancemasters. Much as it may frighten, part of your job is to create new dances, on the spot if need be, and don't worry when they are not remembered. First get your discipline together, and then, when you know the rules, start breaking them, or at least bending them. Improvise, and be damned the failures. These will be forotten, but the dances that speak to the people will survive, and trust me, there is nothing quite so pleasing as being taught your dance by someone far down the line of transmission.
We are not professional reconstructionists, most of us. We have an option that they do not. When acting as period dancemasters, which is our goal, we justify the SCA; we bring life to an ancient art. So down with the Pinagay and up with the Whatever Bransle, and a long career to you all.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (firstname.lastname@example.org)