The Gresley Dance Collection

[ This article appeared in volume 5 of the Letter of Dance. ]

His Excellency, Messer Guiseppe Francesco da Borgia

In 1984, in the Ashforde area of Derbyshire, England, a small notebook was discovered in the Derbyshire Records Office. The notebook is a handwritten personal journal with eclectic contents, as follows.

While it is not possible to date the notebook exactly, it is believed to have been written sometime around the year 1500 (give or take 20 years either way). The notebook mentions 92 dances by name and includes the choreography for 26 dances and the music for 13, with an overlap of 8 dances having both music and choreography. This journal, since dubbed the "Gresley Manual," was first discussed in 1996 by Mr. David Fallows in an article published in the RMA Research Chronicle that described the manual's discovery, outlines its contents and discusses both the extant choreographies and music scores.

Although the original author cannot be precisely identified, it is believed that the journal was written by a man named Johnes Banys, whose name appears twice within the journal (his name is spelled once as "Banys" and once as "Banis"). However, it must be remembered that spelling at that time was not subject to the rules we have now, and even names could be spelled many different ways.

Dating the Manual is tricky. Because it was a personal journal rather than a published dance manual, the clues typically used to identify the date are not present. However, as Fallows points out in his article, several other hints help establish a relative time period. The fact that the prayers are written in Latin identifies the manual as pre-Reformation, and the style of the Latin used in the treatises is typical of the late 15th century/early 16th century. Song and dance references also help date the manual. For example, one of the dances mentioned in the manual is "Une Foys Avant Que Morir." Through other sources, the musical score can be identified as a popular song in England between approximately 1420 and 1470. Another curious reference is to the dance "Roti loly ioy." While we do not have a record of the dance's choreography or music in this manual, it is quite possible that the dance could be related, either musically or choreographically, to Dominico's "Rostiboli Gioiso" of late 15th century Italy, which appears in another form in the Toulouze manuscript of Burgundian Basse Danses from the middle of the 15th century.

The Gresley Manual inspires more questions than it provides definitive answers. Unlike many printed dance manuals, it combines dances of many cultures. Dances with English titles are included with dances with French titles, and even a possible Italian connection. It is not known whether Banys (if he was indeed the author of the journal) was a dancer, a choreographer, a musician, or a combination of all of the above, and it is not clear whether the author was an active participant in these dances or simply transcribing the choreographies. Also, the Manual was found in Derbyshire, an area that was not considered an urban center of activity during the reign of Henry VII, and is still rather rural. Why would a book containing transcriptions of what appear to be international court dances appear in a rural area of England?

On the positive side, the Gresley Manual does provide a glimpse of what could be the earliest English choreographies ever discovered.

Step Patterns

The step patterns of the Gresley dances are moderately challenging. Because the journal provides no step explanations, all interpretations are, of course, subject to error and speculation. Some of the steps are arguably similar to dance steps in other English, French or Italian dances of the time. Others are a little more difficult to determine.

For example, the term "Trace" appears frequently through the manuscript. Although it is not a dance move in and of itself, the term frequently appears shortly before actual step discussions begin. Some of the common references to "trace" include "After the Trace" and "Double-trace." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a "Trace" can be defined as "a series of steps in dancing; a measure; a dance." This definition of the word was used between from 1450 to 1577 in England, which coincides with the previously determined timeframe of the journal. If the term "trace" is meant to imply a dance or a dance choreography, what could be meant by the terms "Double-trace," or "After the trace?" Some have speculated that this implies that the written choreographies may be incomplete. Truthfully, we'll never know for sure. If this is indeed the case, however, one would have to wonder why the author would purposely exclude a piece of the dance when, presumably, he was recording them as a memory aid. It is possible that the original "trace" was either a standard set of moves not worth recording (somewhat like an Italian entrada of repeating steps used to move the dancers from point A to point B), or that it was instead some sort of an introduction to the dance. If the term "trace" were used to refer to the musical score as well as the dance, it could be argued that in the case of the term "after the trace," it implies a full play-through of the music as an introduction for the dancers. Following this logic, the term double-trace could mean that the dance is to be repeated twice, possibly in alternating sets.

Step Reconstruction

By no means are the steps written in the manuscript absolute or faultless. Rather, these are my reconstructions as I have worked them. As further research develops on the Gresley manual, some of these steps may indeed change. The author's step descriptions are as inconsistent as is his spelling; in some dances, he only mentions certain steps by a single term, whereas in other dances, he describes the steps more fully but doesn't use the term. The steps include:

Dance Reconstructions

It is interesting to note that in his original article, Mr. Fallows asserts that the Gresley choreographies are written as dances to be performed only by men, basing this assertion on the fact that the choreographies do not specifically mention women. I do not personally agree with this assertion. In some dances, there are distinct groups of people who do not work as partners, per se. However, there are some dances where mixed-gender partners would work quite well. And again, while we will not know for sure, we have some dance references in the Manual that refer to other extant dances (such as the case in "Roti loly ioy") that do indeed call for a mixed-gender couple. Further, while direct comparisons do not always give us a definitive answer, we are able to look at the dance practices of England both before and after the relative time period of the Gresley. A collection of Basse Danses in the Salisbury manuscript date from the 1400s, and was published by Robert Copelaunde in the 1500s. While the Basse Dances are considered French, it is believed they had been performed in England, and would have called for mixed-gender partners. Further, the Inns of Court dances (dating from the reign of Henry VIII) also call for a mixed-gender pairing. Thus, if these dances are examples of English dancing culture of the 15th-16th centuries, it would be odd to have mixed-gender dancing be considered popular, then go out of popularity for a short time, only to become in fashion again within a relatively short time period -- especially as court dances.

One potential argument for a group of over 90 dances all being written for men only is if they were performed as part of a larger performance such as a masque. While this is one explanation, I doubt that a collection of such quantity of dances would be found in one source without any other references to masques.

One important aspect to remember while working on the reconstruction of the Gresley Manual dances is the fact that it was not a published dance manual, but rather one man s personal journal. Thus, as with anyone's personal notes, it is subject to errors that would not necessarily appear in a more refined and edited dance manual.

Following are some reconstructions I have put together based on my research into the Gresley. All of the standard caveats apply in that they may not be the definitive choreographies as seen and/or performed by Banys.

Selected Bibliography

Banys, Johnes (?), The Gresley of Drakelow Papers.

Fallows, David, "The Gresley Dance Collection, c.1500," RMA: Research Chronicle, xxix (1996), pp. 1-20

Neville, Jennifer, "Dance in Early Tudor England: an Italian Connection?", Early Music, May 1998, 230-244.

I also owe a special thanks to Mr. David Fallows who, through many private correspondences, helped to answer some of my immediate questions about this manuscript.

Prenes a Gard:

(aka Prenses a Gard de Tribus or Prenez in Gard)

(Double Trace) for 3

After the trace:

1-3A leap, B leap, C turn
4-6C leap, B leap, A turn
7-9A leap, B turn, C leap
10-12 B does 3 singles and half turn while A & C do retrett
13 A turn; 3 leap
14-16 B cast down into place between A&C while A & C switch places
17-26A: turn, retrett, rak
B: turn, rak, retrett
C: Retrett, rak, and turn
27-28All a fleurdilice and come together


(aka Elgamowr de Tribus)

(Double Trace) for 3

At end of Trace:

1-9A goes 3 forth; then B as much; then C as much
10-12A outward on left shoulder, B as much; then C as much
13-15A outward and behind, B as much, C as much

Ly Bens Distonys

(aka Lubens Distuneus)

(no trace mentioned) for 2

1-4A does 3 singles forward and turns while B retretes
5-10Both come together and A turns in place.
11-14B does 3 singles forward while 1 retretes (both walking in same dir.)
15-20Both return and A turns in place to normal.
21-32Together, trete, retrett, and turn


(aka Temperans de Tribus

Subtitle: "Ly hartt is an old horse and may no langer drawe")

(with Trace) for 3

All trete and retrett
A & B both retrett while C goes forward; return same way
All 2 singles and half turn; that again
Trete, retrett, rak
All fleurdilice
A cast while B&C switch
A 3 singles with turn; B as much; C as much
A lepe; B lepe; C lepe
All turn

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl)