A Caroso-Style Ball

[ This article appeared in volume 4 of the Letter of Dance. ]

By Mistress Mara Kolarova

This article describes the "period style ball" I ran as part of the Music and Dance Collegium held by the Barony-Marche of the Debatable Lands (Pittsburgh, PA) on October 29, 1994. This was a session using (approximately) the conventions implied by the descriptions in the etiquette sections of Caroso's Nobilta' di Dame. It was a very interesting experiment, and people seemed to enjoy it. I hope this description encourages other people to try it.

Brief description of event

During the day there were classes, then a break for relaxation and for those who wished to attend Vespers (the event was held in an Episcopal church), then dinner, then simultaneously a Masqued Ball (general dancing as we are accustomed to it, to live music, with brief musical performances between dance sets) and a Bardic Circle.

At my request, the autocrat scheduled the last time-slot for classes of the day for a single activity, the "16th-century formal ball", and arranged for the Baron and Baroness of Debatable Lands to act as the host and hostess of the ball. He arranged for experienced musicians (a consort called Ensemble Rigodon) to play for the ball. He also arranged printing for the handout described below, which was given out at the gate along with the site booklet, as people checked in.

A sheet of paper was folded to make a litle booklet. On the cover:

Baron Will Langdon of Greymorne and Baroness Ardis Bluemantle invite you to a ball, to be held at 3:30 pm on the 29th of October in the main hall.

The ball will end at 5 pm so that those who wish may hear Solemn Vespers before dinner.

Inside the folded sheet:

What We're Trying to Do Here

This session is an attempt to recreate the sort of ball implied by the descriptions in the etiquette sections of Caroso's Nobilta' di Dame, which is a dance manual published in Italy in 1600. I've made a few adaptations, but the object is to provide as real an experience as possible of attending an aristocratic dance party in the late 16th century.

It seems they did not expect to have everyone up on the floor dancing at once. A few dance types (pavanes, allemands, bransles, and some forms of English Country) were for everyone who wanted to join in. All the others were for one couple or one set at a time, and people took turns choosing dances. Most people spent most of the ball sitting around the edge of the dance floor (ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other), forming a knowlegable (and sometimes critical) audience.

Many thanks to Alaric for letting me run this session as part of the Music and Dance Collegium. I've been looking for an opportunity to do it for several years now. Please come talk to me after it's over, and tell me what you think about it!

Mara Kolarova, of Carolingia in the East Kingdom
Meredith Courtney, 24 Kenwood St., Boston MA 02124 [I've moved, my address is now 12 Melville Ave in Boston, same ZIP code]

How It Works

You will notice that the chairs are arranged in two concentric rings around the dance floor. By sitting in the inner ring, you declare your interest in being asked to dance. If you want to watch only, please sit in the outer ring. Feel free to move yourselves, and chairs if necessary, between locations. (This is an adaptation. Caroso says that ladies who want to watch, only, should keep their mantles on, and implies that of course all gentlemen are always willing to dance, though the eager ones crowd forward to the edge of the dance floor.)

If you're interested in dancing, please study the playlist on the facing page - this is what our musicians are prepared to play. Have a couple of choices in mind for when it's your turn to choose. You can choose something that's been done already if you want to.

When it is your turn, first tell the maestra del ballo (that's me, Mara) what piece you want. I will tell the musicians, while you go and invite one or more people to dance with you, according to whether the dance is for a couple or a set. The first person you invite is your partner, and the one who will get the next turn. (That's how they did it, so yes, ladies in period did ask gentlemen to dance.) I will then announce the dance. If you choose one of the "as many as will" dances, you need only invite your own partner, as I will ask the company at large to join in.

Once someone has danced, he or she ought not to be asked again until everyone of that gender has danced.

Please try to get into the spirit of participating in a dance by being a spectator - it's how you'll be spending most of the session!

...playlist of about 40 dances

As it happened

I ended up going for a rectangular layout of chairs rather than circular. We defined a dancing space approximately 30' x 40' with chairs along the long sides, seats for the Baron and Baroness at the head, and the musicians at the foot of the space. Behind the first (inner) row of chairs on each side, there was a good-sized gap, then another 2 or 3 rows of chairs.

The afternoon classes all got started about 20 minutes late. At 3:50, the Baron and Baroness welcomed the guests to the ball, and called for the Horses Bransle as the first dance. We were off and running.

All of the dancers and most of the spectators opted for segregated seating - men on the left as you face the head of the hall. I think we had about 15 gentlemen and 20 ladies in the dancers' seats. Of these, I think about two-thirds were comfortable only with bransles and English country dances, and these seemed to be mostly local Debatable Lands people. The others, the serious dance people who like the more elaborate dances, seemed to be mostly visitors from elsewhere. This makes sense, as most SCA groups have only one or a few serious dance people, and these are the ones most likely to travel to a Music and Dance Collegium.

The pace was considerably faster than I had anticipated (I remember thinking "frighteningly fast"). I stopped the session on schedule, and if I kept count accurately, we went through 27 dances in 70 minutes. Most but not all dancers got to choose a dance.

People in the room were treating it as an informal concert situation (a small amount of very quiet conversation), which I think was appropriate. Between that and the small numbers of dancers -- even the "as many as will" dances had only 30 or so people on the dance floor -- the room was much quieter than usual for SCA dancing. The musicians had anticipated this, and come prepared with arrangements that were more intricate and less loud than usual.

I think it was a very different sort of atmosphere from normal SCA dancing. I used to do international folk dancing, and what we do feels a lot like a folk dance session -- everybody up on the floor at once, enjoying the dances all together, and not worrying about what they look like. This was definitely a social occasion, not a theatrical one, but there was a performing aspect to it. It was like singing or storytelling at a party or bardic circle -- you expect to spend more time listening than performing yourself, and you don't think of that listening time as "sitting out" because there's no point to telling a story without an audience, and people expect to rotate through the performer role.

Afterwards, I tried to ask as many people as I could what they thought about it. The consensus seemed to be that it wouldn't replace normal SCA practice, but it would be nice to do occasionally.


Only a few, and nothing serious. This section draws heavily on feedback from Mistress Ellisif Flakkari (Monica Cellio), musician-in-charge for Ensemble Rigodon.

The musicians and I weren't used to working together, and I didn't know most of the dancers, so we missed cues occasionally. Next time I'm in that situation, I'm going to make the signalling explicit ("start playing as soon as you're ready, unless I'm holding up my hand in a 'stop' gesture").

One of the harder dances on the playlist was not in the musicians' normal repetoire (it was taught earlier in the event). Not having encountered the dance before, the musicians had rehearsed it more slowly than it needed to be. The music for uncommon dances needs to be marked up with indications of tempo and repeat structure -- in fact, doing that for all dances would probably be a good idea.

Some musicians at the event assumed that music for this would be pickup and turned up with instruments at the beginning, expecting to join in. I forgot to make the front side of the invitation advertise "music by Ensemble Rigodon"; I think that would have fixed it. I think that a consort that's been rehearsing the playlist is definitely the way to go if it is possible, but in any case, the policy for musicians wanting to join in (encouraged / accepted / some other time, please) should be clear.

People generally go for people they know when choosing a partner, of course, and the choices started with the "locals" - so for a while it looked as if the out-of-town dancers weren't going to get asked! Eventually one of them was, and then (after a very long string of requests for easy dances) we got a string of requests for the harder, showier dances. It made for an unbalanced program from a spectator's viewpoint; it wasn't terrible, it just could have been better. I'm more concerned with the social dynamics of who gets to dance than I am with the program balance, and I don't have a good answer for this one. If I'd known the local dancers, I might have quietly asked one of them to please ask that person over there, but I didn't know who would be open to that and who really needed the reassurance of a familiar partner. I was amused to realize that Caroso had pretty much the same problem - there's a passage in Nobilta' di Dame where he's discussing the etiquette of returning invitations to dance, and says something about sometimes a gentleman will notice that an important guest hasn't been dancing, and will send someone to tell his wife that she should ask that prince to dance.

Commentary and Advice

I hope other people will experiment with this format and variants of it. I advise some caution in choosing a time and place; this format is not going to appeal to everyone. Go for an audience likely to appreciate it -- an event aimed at dancers, or a dance practice, or set it up as one of several optional activities at a very large event. Don't let it run too long -- during the next few years, until more people get used to the idea, I would schedule for no more than 90 minutes -- and watch carefully for signs people are starting to lose interest, so you can cut it off cleanly.

I ran a similar but less formal affair at a Carolingian dance practice some time before this one -- taped music, most dancers in street clothes, and no non-dancing spectators. That session had relatively more people requesting harder dances (such as 15th-century Italian balli). That's partly due to the fact that Carolingia has more of that stuff in general circulation than most places, but I think a contributing factor may have been that because the dancers all knew each other, the mid-range-skilled dancers felt secure enough to ask for harder pieces. People take fewer chances among strangers.

I think it would be rather silly to set up a format like this -- as close to period practice as we can manage -- and then put blatantly out-of-period dances on the playlist.

I'd raised the idea of having simple refreshments available during the ball. It didn't happen, and on reflection I think we were better off without. It would have raised the noise level -- and besides, Caroso mentioned a number of dance floor hazards such as gentlemen too busy chatting to notice they've been invited to dance, gloves too tight to be removed quickly, and ladies having insufficient space to manuever farthingales. I think he'd have given drinking glasses at least a passing reference if he expected dancers to do something with them.

English country dances are really pretty to watch!

The ideal musicians are an experienced early-music consort accustomed to playing for dancers, who've had a few weeks with the playlist to get used to playing everything on it in random order. This will not be practical for everyone. Using a pickup dance band will probably slow the pace of your dancing, as will using taped music (unless you're one of those amazingly organized people who has each piece recorded on a separate cassette). Try to make sure pickup musicians know in advance that this format implies no setup time for them before each dance - no walkthroughs, no waiting for multiple sets to get established. Some musicians may be used to relying on walkthroughs to remind them of repeat patterns.

Was it real?

My objective was "to provide as real an experience as possible of attending an aristocratic dance party in the late 16th century". In some ways that worked and in other ways it didn't. I think we got the feeling right -- dancing in a sort of bardic circle setting, with dancers showing off for each other, the audience an essential part of things, more formal manners than we usually use, dances in quick succession, and musicians able to give more attention to sounding nice. In other ways, of course it wasn't real. I doubt that a real Renaissance party would have advertised a playlist or employed a female maestro del ballo, the room didn't look like a room in a Renaissance palace, the playlist we had covered dances from 3 countries and 3 centuries, and people were wearing the usual SCA variety of clothing, most of it pre-dating the earliest dances. Ellisif pointed out that the musicians were working from modern sheet music, and that diminished the reality for the musicians even if nobody else noticed.

I think it was an honorable attempt, and enough more real than other experiences for me to learn some interesting things.

What I learned

I'm going to use the term "court dances" as shorthand for the non-bransle, non-Inns of Court, non-English Country dances that were intended to be danced one couple or one set at a time.

Dancers in the real Renaissance were looking to get different emotional payback from dancing than our SCA dancers. For them, a big part of dancing was an opportunity to be the center of attention, to get out on the floor and show off a bit for friends and rivals. (Yes, I know they also enjoyed bransles, etc. This is a discussion of what I learned from my "Caroso-style ball" experiences, not a complete treatise on dancing in general.) For us, most dancers are looking for the warm communal buzz you get from sharing movement with other people dancing at the same time, and a feeling of comfortable anonymity -- that it's OK to make mistakes because nobody's looking at you. One of the reasons SCA dancemasters have such trouble getting the court dances into general use is that they're intended to be showpieces, not communal exeriences. SCA casual dancers can be educated to like the court dances -- I have experimental evidence of that -- but I think most SCA dancemasters don't realize the magnitude of the education effort needed. A lot of the ECD were also intended for one set at a time, but they work as communal experiences, which is one of the reasons why they're popular.

For years I've thought that regardless of whatever else we in the SCA do badly with Renaissance dances, at least we use them as social dances, which is what they were originally intended for. Well, I now think we're using the wrong sort of social occasion. The court dances, like some kinds of songs, are meant to be enjoyed by performing them for an appreciative, actively participating audience. I'm not going to stop enjoying them in the folk-dance-style context of normal SCA dancing, but I can't think "this part is real" any more.

For years I've been telling people that many of these dances were intended to be danced by one couple at a time, and now the implications of that have finally sunk in to where the knowlege can do something useful, like affect some of the choices I make when working on a reconstruction.

It used to annoy me a bit that court dances are so short for their complexity -- having invested the effort in learning an intricate pattern, I wanted more repeats. Now this structure makes sense to me.

I came to Renaissance dancing from international folk dancing. Knowing that the court dances were social dances rather than theatrical, whenever I had a choice in a reconstruction between what felt better to me as a dancer and what would look better to a spectator, I always favored the dancer. In the future, I'm going to have to think a lot harder, because now I understand that the audience interaction is an essential part of these social dances.


I've taken to referring to this format as a "Caroso style ball". I'm not thrilled with this designation, but I need a shorthand to indicate that it's a ball but not what SCA people normally mean by that. Anybody got other suggestions?

The Musicians' Perspective

By Mistress Ellisif Flakkari

I thought I would add a few things (from the musical perspective) to Mara's excellent set of notes from the Caroso-style ball she ran. The musicians had a lot of fun with it, and I hope to get the opportunity to participate in another one sometime soon.

Because we knew that dances were going to happen in quick succession, we had to do some advance work. In addition to having the group rehearse all the pieces and make sure we were comfortable with them, I drew up a list with a one-line summary of part assignments for each piece. (We have a versatile group, and assignments would not have been obvious otherwise.) I arranged it in columns by musicians (rather than by S/A/T/B), so each person knew exactly where to look. Then all the musician had to do was turn to that page in the music (organized alphabetically, of course) and pick up the correct instrument. (Some instrument changes were a little slower; such as those involving the virginal.)

Most of the musicians (4 of the 5) have played for dancing extensively, and so were familiar with many of the pieces, their repeat patterns, and their tempi. (So sorting this out in rehearsal was pretty straightforward.) As Mara mentioned, there was one piece we thought we knew the proper pace for, but we were wrong by half. I should not have made the assumption; I should have asked. (The particular culprit turned out to be, in part, a notational issue.)

Cues are essential, as Mara said. Locally, we're used to the dancemaster indicating that the dancers are ready and the musicians may start, but we didn't think to ask Mara what kind of cues she would be using.

One thing we have changed in our group since this ball, and that is a definite improvement, is to have most of the musicians standing rather than sitting. It's much easier to move people around when there aren't chairs in the way, and it's much easier for 3 musicians to share a music stand this way.

Because the dances proceed so quickly, the musicians must know going in what they're going to play on each piece when/if it comes up. If the music isn't being provided by a pre-arranged group, I think at minimum the musicians need to meet for an hour or two before the ball, go through the music, and mark who'll play what.

It was a lot of fun to be more of a part of the dancing than happens in the typical SCA ball. The performance aspect applied to the musicians as much as to the dancers. We got to do some showing off in the process.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (lindahl@pbm.com)