Spagnoletto, Spagnoletta, Fa, La La, La La,

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

or, The Dance Behind the Mask

an examination by Messer Sion Andreas o Wynnedd

The other day I received a call from a student in Ansteorra.

"Sion," said Vashti, "We want to do the Spagnoletto at a performing arts competition. Help!"

"You mean the Spagnoletto we did at the Winefest years and years and years ago?" I asked. (Neither of us is a spring chicken, you see.)

"Yes. I need help with the documentation."

"I'll see what I can find out about the music and the dance and call you back."

Later, I returned the call.

"Well, dear heart," I said, "In the first place, the music you have isn't the Spagnoletto. It's two tarantellas from Spanish sources. The first is dated from 1660 and the second from 1673."

"Alright," said she, "We can cope with out-of-period music."

"And in the second place, that slow version we did at the Winefest, the version I taught you and told you that I had learned from Richard Powers and the Clifton Court Dancers in Cincinnatti in 1980?"

"Yes," said she.

"Well, that version is one I modified from Richard's so that it would fit the music I had."

"OK. Since I'll be modifying it even more, from a four person dance to a two person dance, I guess that we can live with modifying a modification of the original."

"But it's not. When I went back to double check what Richard was doing against the original texts, for some unknown reason he seems to have combined aspects of Caroso's La Spagnoletta and Negri's Lo Spagnoletto. So you'd be modifying a modification of a modification."

"Sion, this isn't making it any easier on me."

And no, it wasn't, but it certainly was making it more interesting.

What was so interesting was how well the two versions, separated by twenty years and two of the greatest egos of the day, could fit together. How could that be?

My first impression was that for them to do so, there must have been an earlier dance from which both the Caroso and Negri versions were derived.(1) This idea appealed to my sense of evolution in the art and practice of dance, so adopting it as my thesis, I started boldly to see what I could uncover.

The Spagna tenore, from which our Spagnoletta/Spagnoletto springs, was inspiring dances from the time of the earliest dance manuals. Each generation reinterpreted the tune in the form of a currently favored dance type. The earliest examples are several basse danses from France and Burgundy, but there are also certain Italian bassadanze which are done to the Spagna. Interestingly enough, the Spagna is also the basis of a dance in the Nuremburg manuscript, "Die Wellschen Tanzen". For La Spagna, the first dance in the collection, the steps are given as doubles throughout.

Later, the tune mutated to fit the prevailing spirit of the times. Caroso, when the tune came to him, used a quick, light, triple-time version to which he set his various spagnolette.(2) Negri, in his turn, created a four person set dance for the duple-time music he had.

In the fullness of time, the tune was assumed into certain English country dances and continued to be popular as an instrumental piece well out of SCA period.

There are certain definite differences between the Caroso and Negri dances, to be sure, and step sequences aside, the more obvious of these include:

There were in addition quite a few stylistic differences between the two dancemasters, which is to say that each master chose to have the dancers do a figure according to his own unique idea of what was proper and beautiful. To peel aside these stylistic differences is quite an undertaking, but when I did so, I found certain basic similarities which struck me as too significant to be easily passed off as coincidence. In both dances:

Theft and derivation are the two easiest explanations for these similarities, and since I find theft a rather trite and inelegant solution, not to mention an emotionally charged term, then derivation from a common source, which may amount to the same thing, remains. Does this really mean, however, that both the Spagnoletta and the Spagnoletto have a common ancestor?

Whether they do or not is something which we may never know for certain. The gaps in our ability to document dance history are cimply too great. Still, I feel that the similarities between the dances make it likely that they do have a common ancestor.

I feel satisfied that a popular dance came out of Spain in the first half of the Sixteenth Century, and that its Spanish origin was reflected in its name.(3) It was a five-movement dance, each movement of which was divided into three distinct sections, and, most importantly, it was a light, flirtatious dance with a distinctive Spanish flavour. In the course of time, professional dancemasters took this Proto-Spagnoletta, added the fancier steps of the late Italian repertoire, and by modifying the original choreography made special, novel versions of it with which to amuse the courts, hence the derivation of the surviving examples in Caroso and Negri.

Lacking good, concrete proof, however, this supposition can never be anything more than a good guess. Still, as dancemasters ourselves, we are able to observe how dances seldom, if ever, materialize out of thin air. They are always based on something the choreographer saw, or did, or heard of; in short, they draw on that which has come before. Assuming that our Renaissance counterparts found themselves faced with the same problems we do, and the same creative dynamics, my supposition looks better and better.

So, Vashti, is this any help at all?


Caroso, Fabritio. Il Ballarino. Venice: Ziletti, 1581; facsimile, New York: Broude Brothers, 1970.

Caroso, Fabritio. Nobiltà di Dame. Venice: il Muschio, 1600; facsimile, Bologna: Forni, 1970.

Engle, Ian. "Patterns in Chaos: an Examination of Recurrent Choreographic Themes of the Cascarde in Il Ballarino." Unpublished paper, 1992.

Negri, Cesare. Le Gratie d'Amore. Milan: Ponti & Piccaglia, 1602; facsimile, New York: Broude Brothers, 1970.


1 It is a far-too-common practice in some circles to say that where there exists a similarity between Caroso and Negri, Negri must have "borrowed", some would say stolen, from Caroso. Considering the amount of pride Negri took in his work, I always find this rather hard to swallow. Blatant plagiarism of this sort, while undeniably period, would seem too demeaning a practice for a successful master to engage in it, especially when the "plagiarized" original was still enjoying popular circulation, and I tend to believe that where similarities occur in the texts of the two masters they are simply describing standard occurances in a standard language.

2 Spagnoletta and Spagnoletta Nuova from Il Ballarino, and Spagnoletta Nuova al Modo di Madriglia and Spagnoletta Regolata from Nobilta di Dame. I should point out that all these dances are essentially cascarde, despite the fact that they are not credited as such in their respective manuals. It is interesting that a very similar dance in Il Ballarino, La Castellana, is called a cascarda, but any examination of the similarities between the spganolette and the cascarde must wait for another paper.

3 Spagnoletta, Spagnoletto, or Castellana, in this case. The original basse danses done to the Spagna melody include La Spagna, La Castiglia, and Casuelle la Nouvelle.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (