[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]
I was reading through Issue #16 more closely last night and found Miklos's letter on the Set and turn simple, and the question of whether partners ought to face for it.
In my usual way, I will answer you both yes, and no.
First off, I will admit that I am not certain of how we derived the way that we do the set and turn simple. (My guess would be from Sharp.) Furthermore, all the similarities aside, I don't know if, for a certainty, ECD derives from Italian court dance, or whether they both borrowed from a common source. What I do know is that there are two step sequences/figures which are very similar to what we call and teach as the Set and turn simple. They are usually found in Caroso's cascarde and spagnolette.
The first (what I will call the Spagnoletta sequence) is the ubiquitous:
"Due Riprese, cominciando col piè sinistro, due Trabucchetti, & un Seguito Ordinario volto alla sinistra."
The second (which I will call the Cascarda sequence) is the equally common:
"Due Seguiti Spezzati fiancheggiati innanzi comminciando col piè sinistro & un Seguito Ordinario volto alla sinistra."
There are many predictable variations on these. The Riprese and Trabucchetti of the Spagnoletta sequence are immutable, but the Spezzati of the Cascarda sequence can be Tranghi, or they can be Puntate, or they can even be Saffice. The turn of either one can be done with the Ordinario, or it can be a Semidoppio, or a Doppio, or, flashiest of all and my favorite, a Spezzato to a Cadenza.
Variations aside, the common theme is, essentially, two steps done to the sides, alternatingly, and slightly forward, with a turn. If you were to ask me how I imagine two Riprese as constituting one step, I would refer you to the step unit called Continenze in the previous century. The two Riprese form such a unit, as do the two Trabucchetti.
These are not, as you will have noted, our uncomplicated sideways left and right and turn around with a double, although the Spagnoletta sequence is remarkably similar. The Cascarda sequence, on the other hand, is for all intents and purposes the Set and turn simple that I learned for 18th century ECD: Set towards your partner and turn back to place.
Does one have to face one's partner to do this set and turn simple, however? That annoying - because I have ignored it thus far - second part of the question. Well, when using the above two step sequences, the Italians certainly did, although most of their dances that used this step sequence were already blocked to have the partners facing. On the other hand, I must go ahead and admit that if one were really keen to equate the Set and turn simple with any variant of the Spagnoletta sequence, these sequences could conceivably be done either facing or side by side and have been so reconstructed.
Very little is ever said concerning this, but I have to look at it from a practical point of view.
Sixteenth-century social dance is primarily interactive. The Cascarda sequence, if it is used, is a very interactive step sequence. This step sequence, if it is done solo, is a courtship ritual approach, and Arbeau clearly notes the sovereign courting aspect of dance. Done together, insieme, this step sequence constitutes a consummation of a courtship ritual (and if you can coneive of a courtship ritual that doesn't involve looking at one another, I don't want to know about it).
If the dancemaster wants to interpret a Set and turn simple anywhere as not being done facing, the dancers must still interact! If they do not know how to flirt on the sly, show them!
If I were to find myself any more in a position where I must teach a Set and turn simple, I would prefer to use the Cascarda sequence's Italianate/18th century advancing/approaching version and definitely have partners look at one another. I know I won't be able to do this in all cases, and it may be that the step was no more universally set in stone than we can reconstruct it today.
I can justify my preference for the Cascarda sequence, facing, but were you to ask me to prove its correctness, I would have to answer that I could not. No more so can it be disproven to my knowledge, and in this oft-used refuge I cower.
The matter is open - must remain open - for interpretation by the dancemaster. It would be nice if we had a clean, specific direction, but then it would be nice to flap my arms and fly, too. Until the day I sprout feathers, I will have to content myself with dreams. Until a lost note emerges from the pages of history, I fear those who want the specific poop on the Set and turn simple will have to be content as well with their imaginations.
In service to the Muse and her children dicto et scripto et sum magister Sion Andreas o Wynedd.
9 Sept. CE 1993 AoS 28, 2o Dag Rx & Ilsa Rga sua
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (firstname.lastname@example.org)