Stepping on Our Toes: Reconstruction

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

by Janelyn of Fenmere and Trahaearn ap Ieuan

How do we know that the way we teach a dance is the proper period way to do that dance?

We don't know, we guess.

Hopefully, our guesses are reasonably accurate, educated guesses. But to be honest, dance reconstruction is not an exact science. Just as with all other arts in the SCA, we do not truly know exactly how dance was done in our period. But we do combine all the information available to us through a variety of sources to make what we teach as historically accurate as possible, and yet workable within the context of the SCA and modern times.

Sometimes, the job of reconstructing a dance is fairly easy. Some period sources are very explicit -- you will note that bransles are usually taught the exact same way no matter where you go. That is because they are from a 1589 source called Orchesography by Thoinot Arbeau, which is a dance treatise written in the form of a dialogue between a dancemaster and a beginning dancer that includes full descriptions of each dance, and of each step, and even drawings of people doing the step. The modern translation of Arbeau that we use makes it especially easy to reconstruct these, and anyone would be able to do fairly accurate reconstructions based on just this one source.

From this, period dance sources degenerate in their level of clarity -- one of the most commonly used, but quite vague sources is John Playford's English Dancing Master from 1650. One of the reasons it is so unclear is that it was written as a book of dance tunes for musicians -- the dance reconstructions are only there as secondary information, and were written by a musician, not a dance master. [I'll cut in for a moment just to say that this isn't entirely certain; I've seen various speculations about Playford's exact market -- Justin]

Playford contains a number of apparent errors and inconsistencies, but one can't simply assume that everything that one doesn't understand must be one of Playford's mistakes. When Playford is combined with research from other English Country sources from 1650 - 1715, you get a little closer to understanding how English country may have been done just past the end of our period. Combining this with knowledge of dances from earlier periods, and with later sources, modern written reconstructions (both mundane and SCA work) of Playford, and learning dances from other modern teachers we are able to further define our understanding of a dance. And, beyond that, there are still further clues to be found in paintings and drawings of dancers, and in references to dancing found in period writings -- one source of information is a personal journal in which the author tells about a party he attended and the dances that were done there. But, of course, the more sources you combine, the more complex it gets, and the more likely that each dance master you run across is likely to know a slightly different version that the one you may have learned, depending on which sources they had available, and how they interpreted those sources.

For an example of Playford's ambiguity, the dance "Dargason" [discussed in more detail in issue #9] is described in Playford as:

First man and Wo. sides once set and turne S. . Passe forward each to the next sides set and turn S. :
Armes all as you sided, till you come to your owne places
Hey all handing.

The first thing you have to figure out is what each of the step descriptions mean. The only step Playford describes is a "Set and turne S. -- a set to the one hand and then to the other, and a turne single" -- leaving you to wonder what a "set" is, what a "turn single" is, or even worse, what is meant by "siding" and "arming", etc.

Most of these steps have achieved fairly standard definitions amongst modern dancers; however, the one that seems the most open to debate is "siding". We have seen five radically different versions of siding taught by dancemasters just within the Kingdom of An Tir! The one we use is based on a French source from the early 1700's, because that is the closest to period version that we're found. Other versions we've seen come from 19th c. contredanses, from a 1925 reconstruction, and from modern square dancing. (So, a word to the wise: when you dance in other groups in the known world, always listen to the dancemaster describe siding, or watch how others are doing it, and have the courtesy to your fellow dancers of using their version of the step.)

Once you have decided what the steps mean, the next barrier is to determine what the patterns mean. To figure this out, you combine the description of the dance you're reconstructing with a knowledge of other period dances, with trying to figure out how the music lines up (i.e., how much time you have to do any given figure), and so on. When you have as much information as possible, you are ready to make up your best educated guess about how a dance was done in period. Usually what Trahaearn and I do at this point is sit on the floor with little scraps of paper labeled Man 1, Wo 1, etc., and put the music on (assuming we have a recording of it) and dance the scraps around till it seems to be working! And, even after we've got our best possible guess at a dance, we reserve the right to rework our reconstruction whenever we find additional information that shows a flaw in it.

So, to any of you who are feeling completely overwhelmed by this, let's move on to bassedanses -- try reconstructing the dance "Beaulte de Castille" from there directions from a 16th century source: "R b ss ddd zzz b ss dzdzdb..."

But seriously -- if you are feeling overwhelmed by this, realize that developing reconstructions from period sources is one of the most advanced aspects of dancing. You can be an absolutely fabulous SCA dancer without ever having to even think about all this. Even most dancemasters I know don't know much about dance reconstruction: they just go to events and dance practices, and learn the dance, and pass it on as they remember it. Just like if you want to make your first set of garb, your first step can be asking someone who's made on before to help you learn to make one (and that person may have never done the research themselves, but may have learned from those who have). Then, someday, if you choose to, you can do research yourself to make your work more historically accurate.

While it would be convenient if there were a definitive book of every period dance known, with music arranged for our minstrels, and clear and unambiguous directions, that would take away a lot of the fun scholarship that Janelyn and I put into preparing dances for dance practice. We enjoy putting together the different pieces of the logic puzzles that many of the dances represent, so we all can have fun doing new dances every month.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (