The Early Dance Lecture 2003

But how do you know how they danced so long ago?

By David Wilson

(click photograph to enlarge)


I preface my talk with a rare example of the contemporary illustration of actual dancing , taken from an Italian dance-treatise of 1463.1  It is not indeed wholly naturalistic, for it looks curiously like a studio photograph.  In front of a blue backdrop, the three dancers are poised to cross a decorative surface that imitates a stylised flowery meadow or an elaborately patterned carpet.  A particular feature is that all three seem to have their mouths slightly open, as if they were singing as well as dancing to the accompaniment of the attendant harpist.


I have to admit that Historical Dance is not a field of study that is familiar to most of the people I meet.  If I explain that this is what I now do,

‘What on earth is that?’, they say.

I do my best not to overwhelm them with eager exposition, and if they are still there when I have done, they go on to ask the Second Question:

‘But how do you KNOW how they danced so long ago?’

At this stage I show some mercy and merely say that

‘from 1445 onwards we have written sources that provide a surprising amount of detailed technical information.’

If they want to take it on from there, they may, but I don’t insist!

The question posed is nevertheless important; in fact it is absolutely basic to the study of Historical Dance.  How do we know how they danced so long ago?  Those of us working in this field mostly don’t consider this question in general terms because we are usually preoccupied with our own little bit, and with making something of the particular sources relevant to that—but it is worth taking time for a wider view.


The Middle Ages

One way to broaden our perspective is to consider how we manage in the period before the magic date of 1445.  What do we really know about medieval dancing, and where do we get our information from?

It is convenient to examine our sources under four obvious headings:

  • §         the written word,
  • §         pictorial art,
  • §         music, and also
  • §         folk tradition.


To begin with the written word, this covers both descriptions in general literature and references in historical documents – but not, at this stage, actual dance manuals or dance notes, which only come later.

For the period before the Norman conquest we are assured by Professor Eric Stanley that nowhere in Anglo-Saxon literature do we find any certain reference to social dancing in England, nor even the vocabulary to describe it.2  This has more to do with the nature of surviving texts than with local custom.  I find it beyond belief that ordinary people did not dance together before the arrival of the Normans, but this was not something that was going to attract comment in contemporary writings.  Much of the literature reviewed by Stanley was Biblical commentary, which could yield the usual references to King David and to Salome, but was not going to say anything about life in Saxon England.  Even earlier literature, like Beowulf,was in heroic mould:  there was feasting and drinking in mead-halls, and bards singing verses in honour of their ruler, but not, as it happened, any general dancing. 

The centuries following 1066, however, have left us a larger and more varied body of surviving texts to draw upon.

We can, for example, read in romances of groups of ladies dancing together on the greensward to the sound of their own singing.  Sometimes the company was mixed, but the dancing was still communal, that is to say, without taking of partners.  Usually one person was designated the dance leader, and she or he was responsible for guiding the progress of the dance. 

Such communal dancing was very characteristic of the fine persons represented in this literary world, but it was not, it seems, universal.  In the songs of the troubadours (and in literature influenced by them) we read of knights and ladies dancing in couples.  The troubadours subscribed to the ideals of Courtly Love whereby each knight devoted himself to the service of some honoured lady:  one of his most prized rewards would be to dance with her, and her alone.

For thanne I dar wel undertake,

That whanne hir list on nyhtës wake

In chambre as to carole and daunce,

Me thenkth I mai me more avaunce,

If I mai gon upon hir hond,

Thanne if I wonne a kingës lond.

For whanne I mai hire hand beclippe,

With such gladnesse I daunce and skippe,

Me thenkth I touchë noght the flor;

The Ro, which renneth on the Mor,

Is thannë noght so lyht as I …

Thus, John Gower in 1390.3


Turning now to pictures of dancing, whether book illustrations or Old Master paintings, these display for the most part the same idealised world as the literary works.  It is not difficult to recognise the scenes of communal dancing .  The dancers hold hands in a line, their bodies turned to the left so that the left arm is held out in front and the right arm behind.  Their mouths are usually open, as they sing.

There are two versions of this scene.  In the first, the dancers proceed in follow-my-leader fashion, so the dance-leader is easily identified.  His or her task is evidently to create appropriate floor-patterns with the moving line of dancers.  Our example is taken from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s renowned fresco of ‘The Effects of Good Government in the City and Country’, which he painted in the Town Hall of Siena in 1338-9:  a line of nine exquisite youths is dancing in an open space to the vocal accompaniment of a companion with a tambourine.  There are no children throwing stones, for this scene exemplifies a well-ordered community and, in fact, no one at all pays the dancers any special attention.4

In the second version , the ends of the line have joined up to make a circle, and we can no longer tell if the dance has a leader or not.5

These and similar scenes are fictional, but they are presented as if taking place in what was then the modern world.  The more convincing we find the clothes that the dancers wear and the architectural setting in which they appear, the more trustworthy we are likely to suppose their portrayal of dancing to be.

It happens that we can also illustrate the courtly alternative, of a knight dancing with a single lady .  Appropriately enough, this and similar depictions (sometimes even with two ladies) are to be found in the Manesse codex in Heidelberg University Library. This is a well-known collection of poems of the Minnesinger, the German equivalent of the troubadours, and it is illustrated with scenes from their purported adventures.  In each picture the knight is identified by his armorial bearings as well as by his superscribed name, so we can identify the dancer in our picture as Herr Heinrich von Stretlingen.6


Our third source is, of course, the music.  Without the proper music we can do little to recreate contemporary dances.   Thanks to the efforts of a good many Early Music groups the surviving dance music of the 13th and 14th centuries is now well known (if itself sometimes controversial) and it provides the strongest incentive to reconstruct the corresponding dances.  Unfortunately, there is no way that you can reconstruct any dance from its music alone.  Half the joy of dancing is in observing and experiencing how many ways the steps and the notes can interplay and thereby make new patterns.  In detail, the phrasing and the rhythms may agree closely – and, then again, they may not.  This effectively rules out reconstruction that is anything but tentative and hypothetical.

If you think I am being too severe, just think of the Slow Foxtrot, where identical music serves two very different styles of dancing.  The night-club version, or Social Foxtrot, is essentially basic Quickstep slowed down to the speed of the music, while the ballroom version is something whose rhythms are far more subtle. The point I am making is that  different styles of dancing can use the same music;  so evidently any reconstruction based solely on the music can only be uncertain.

We do, of course, perform plausible routines to Trotto, Saltarello, Estampie and any other danceable music that comes to hand, but, if we are honest, they are no more than wishful thinking and should be recognised as such.


We should thus be at a considerable loss if it were not for our final source of information, namely folk tradition.  I use this phrase in a non-technical sense to mean styles of dancing that have been around for an awfully long time.

Their relevance lies in the supposition that such traditions are so conservative that they suffer little change over time.  This may be true up to a point, but even minimal changes from generation to generation may accrue into something quite significant over centuries.  Regional variation, which is such a feature of folk tradition, is surely the result of divergent changes over time.  It follows that we should use this line of reasoning with some care, while conceding that it may still yield valuable insights.

It is certainly tempting to compare the ring-dances seen in medieval pictures with the French regional Branles described by Arbeau in the late 16th century.7  The alternation of steps towards the left and towards the right is both well suited to a ring of people holding hands and also a deeply embedded feature of European folk dance, even for those not moving in a circle. 

Likewise with the line-dance, if I may call it that without being thought to refer to line-dancing (which we can all agree is something different) — the Farandole danced in modern Provence is a dance that might well have the same lineage as the line-dance in Fig. 2.  The dancers in well-governed Siena, and the angels performing similar manoeuvres in Fra Angelico’s ‘Last Judgment’ of c. 1432 ,8 seem to be executing figures that are known from the modern Farandole.  More boisterous lines of dancers are well known from paintings by Brueghel and others, that help to close the gap between medieval and modern and thereby to justify the use of other Farandole figures in medieval dance programmes.


Nevertheless, overall, we have to conclude that our attempts at medieval dancing may pass muster at the village fêtes where we so often find ourselves making them, but when it comes to sound technical information about steps, rhythms and style of performance, we have to admit that we still know next to nothing.


Written records in 15th-century France

All of this changes in the mid-15th century.  The year 1445 is the approximate date at which serious written documentation begins, both in Italy and in France.

It will be worth considering why this should be.  If we can work out why the details of certain dances were written down, we shall see more clearly the limits of our knowledge and define the considerable areas where we continue to have no information.

With the earliest of our French sources we are surprisingly well informed about the circumstances.9  Details of seven dances were written on the flyleaf of a book belonging to Jean of Orléans, Count of Angoulême .  This Jean was of royal blood, but had been a hostage held in England since the age of 12.  When he was released 33 years later, in 1445, he went to Nancy (in Lorraine), where his cousin, Charles VII of France, was staying with most of his court.  It is admittedly a guess, but highly probable in view of Jean’s personal history, that it was on this occasion that he chose to copy out the details of seven dances.  He had had no contact with the French court for 33 years and he needed a record of what was now current.

When we look at that record,10 we see that the steps are described in order, with the three commonest normally represented by single-letter abbreviations.  Thus, pas simple (or ‘single step’) appears as the letter spas double (or ‘double step’) as the letter d;  and reprise (a step involving some kind of backward movement) as the letter r.  Each of these three letters, in this context, develops an extra tail or flourish to make clear that it is an abbreviation.  This system of abbreviations, slightly elaborated, remained standard for describing French Basse Dance for another century.

This is indeed the first document to give us step-sequences for the Basse Dance.  Some of the steps are interestingly different from what we encounter later, being made backwards (reculés), or to the side (à costé droit), and including hops or leaps (saulz);  but they nevertheless conform to the basic Basse Dance format of being organised in conventionally arranged measures that normally went alternately up and down the room.  This going back and forth was seen as being typical of the Basse Dance as early as 1416, when Alain Chartier observed:11

Amour compasse                                   ‘Love disposes

Ses faiz comme la dance basse:             His actions like the Basse Dance:

Puis va avant et puis rappasse,             Now he advances, and then passes back again,

Puis retourne, puis oultrepasse.            Then returns, then passes beyond.’

No other floor pattern is known or recorded for this type of dance for as long as it existed.

I shall stay in the French sphere of influence for the time being, so as to follow this story into the early 16th century, before then returning to the mid-15th century in Italy.

It is actually another fifty years before we encounter any further record of the Basse Dance, but then we have two nearly contemporary versions of the same treatise.  I call it a ‘treatise’, but it was quite explicitly a Teach Yourself manual, concerned with ‘the art and instruction of dancing well’.

This figure   shows the first page of the earliest known printed book on dancing in Europe, issued by Michel Toulouze in Paris in 1495 or thereabouts.12  There are five small pages of text explaining the structure of the Basse Dance and also how to do the various types of step.  It is a pity that for only one of these do we have an account that is clear, detailed and not contradicted by the parallel source.  This is for the pas double

‘you should raise your body and advance lightly three steps forward [using alternate feet].’

The remainder of the book is taken up with the tunes and step-sequences of 48 individual dances .  This supplement will have been the main selling-point of the book.  As explained in the text, you had to know the number of steps in each dance, otherwise what you did would not fit the music.  By implication, it was up to the man to put together a sequence of the right length made up of measures composed in accordance with the current conventions.  The reader of this manual need not panic, however, as appropriate step-sequences for 48 dances were collected in the back of the book.  That is what we see here.  What passes for a tune is printed above – a sequence of equal notes that is now thought to represent the tenor part.  Below is the name of the dance, the number of notes to which the steps have to correspond, and the number of measures into which the suggested step-sequence has been divided, followed by the actual steps, using the standard abbreviations.  (The letter b indicates the step called branle that ends each measure.)  You will not be surprised to learn that printers’ errors in these step-sequences are fairly common.

Let us now compare the second copy of this treatise.  This was a very different production, handwritten in gold and silver ink on black-dyed parchment .  It was apparently commissioned by Françoise of Luxembourg to grace the library of her friend Marguerite of Austria, probably between 1497 and 1501.13  It contains a nearly identical text, and details of 58 dances, 15 of which are not in the Toulouze print .  More intriguingly, there are 11 dances for which the two sources give the same tune, but quite different sequences of steps.  The conventions for showing tunes and step-sequences are nevertheless similar, though better presented here because of the landscape format.

This same treatise makes a further appearance, but in English translation, in a book published in London by Robert Coplande in 1521 .14  I only mention it here because it is the only contemporary publication of the details of Basse Dances that sets out the steps in separate measures, each taking a separate line.  To my mind, this is the only way that you can make these lists of steps remotely comprehensible.



Before crossing the Alps to Italy, I want make just one call south of the Pyrenees into Catalunya in the kingdom of Aragon.  This is to look at a remarkable survival in Cervera, dated by circumstantial evidence to about 1496.  Two sheets of scrap paper used in a lawyer’s office escaped oblivion by being slipped between the pages of what is described as a notarial manual.  Shown here is one of those pages .

Between them, these pages carry details of 6 Baixas (the dance equivalent to the Basse Dance) and of 4 Ioyosos (the customary after-dance for the Baixa in the Iberian peninsula).  These two pages comprise the first document from Spanish lands to give detailed information about more than just a single dance, and it is notorious for using symbolic notation to designate most of the steps.15 

Some of these symbols represent in a schematic way the motions made in executing individual types of step.  Thus, two parallel lines in the direction of dance indicate two singles or passos (left and right);  three similar lines denote one double or seguit (which is itself composed of three steps, as already noted);  and two parallel lines across the line of dance represent two continencies to left and right, equivalent to the French branle.  Nevertheless, this is not a notational system recording, even schematically, how dancers were required to move.  The symbols for reverence and reprise do not imitate movement on the floor, and those for the other steps do not do so in a coherent or consistent way.  In particular, we should not conclude that the writer of this page made his double with constituent steps that were short, long and short, whereas the different writer of the other page (whose symbols had different proportions) made his doubles long, short and long. 

This notational system was apparently a Catalan invention, seen here for the first time but used thereafter for centuries;16  it did not, however, do anything at this stage that the French system of alphabetical abbreviations did not do equally well.


Written records in 15th-century Italy

It is time at last to journey into Italy, where our information about 15th-century dancing comes mainly from versions of three treatises associated with the names of two dancing masters, Domenico of Piacenza and Guglielmo Ebreo (William the Jew) of Pesaro, and of the courtier Antonio Cornazano.17  The earliest of these treatises is that of Domenico.  It is in fact undated, but is thought to be not much later than c.1452. 

Domenico worked in the household of the Este of Ferrara and may have been an official who found himself responsible for court entertainment.  As far as Cornazano and Guglielmo were concerned, he was the originator of the Lombard style of dancing that they also practised.  This presumably means that he (Domenico) took the existing modes of dancing and linked them together into a coherent system, as described in his treatise .  There he distinguished four styles of dancing, defined by their rhythm (duple or triple), tempo (measured or brisk) and characteristic steps.  This treatise was intended to show that Dancing should be ranked as one of the arts, governed (like Music) by harmony and proportion.  As we can see in the illustration, there were the obligatory references to Aristotle on the first page (picked out by side-notes), but there was actually little practical information about steps and other details of how to dance.  There was nevertheless a substantial appendix containing descriptions of 22 dances composed by Domenico, plus one other of uncertain provenance.18

When the dances are of the type called Ballo, they are preceded by their tune, given as a single line of music;  this is followed by a detailed description of the dance in continuous prose.  It is curious that music is not given for Basse Danze (the Italian equivalent of French Basses Dances) and even more curious (in the light of that) that there is no explicit note of the number of steps to be matched by the musical accompaniment that had to be provided.  Italian Basse Danze differed from French Basses Dances also in featuring figured floor patterns for two, three or even four dancers.

The various versions of Guglielmo’s treatise have a broadly similar structure, with two books of theory followed by a practical appendix containing dance-descriptions.  The selection of dances in the appendix was updated in each successive copy, to achieve a cumulative total of 101 known dances.  All copies were handwritten.  Most were handsome volumes presented to the rulers of the various city-states in the hope of patronage, but two examples from the early 16th century were presumably for private use, being written in cursive and correspondingly more difficult to decipher.



Finally, we have a document of the last decades of the 15th century from England.  This was recognised in a family archive in Derbyshire Record Office as recently as 1995.  A small notebook (the size of a passport) contains amongst other substantial entries a good deal of information about dances.  The names of 92 dances are listed , with descriptions of 26 of them, and single-line tunes for 13.  All except two dances are for two or three dancers.  Those that are described feature floor patterns that partly resemble those of contemporary Italian dances, but mostly have a character of their own.19

Although written in English, the dance descriptions are not all that simple to understand.  In my experience, South Derbyshire English is more difficult than contemporary Italian but easier than Catalan!  Faithful reconstruction is hindered by the fact that the writer often described the tracks of the dancers without specifying their steps.  To find out how much music was available for each sequence, you have to analyse the structure of the dance and that of the music in the hope you are lucky enough to find a match – or clever enough to contrive one.  On top of all that, some of the steps have names that we don’t even understand.  This source is nevertheless of great importance for showing that in fifteenth-century England we performed other dances than the French Basse Dance, and for making us wonder if broadly similar dances could eventually come to light in France and Spain also.


Summary of fifteenth-century sources

To summarise what we have seen so far, it is truly remarkable how much information we have for the 75 years following 1445.  (I have presented in detail only about one-third of what is there.)  It is appropriate to take stock of just how much we know by this means, and how much else is still mysterious.

In Italy, in England, and to some extent in Spain, we find narrative descriptions of individual dances, setting out their floor patterns, the relationships between dancers, and usually the sequence of steps – but no account of how the individual types of step were to be made.  In France and Burgundy we know of little but the Basse Dance, which seems not to have had any floor pattern worth writing down, but which paid special attention to step-sequences.  And we are told how to do different types of step, even if the details are mostly unsatisfactory.

There is nowhere any graphical method of showing the actual track of the dancers or the placing of their feet.

The Italian treatises were devoted to dances for noble families and courtiers, though many such dances did remain in use for social dancing amongst the bourgeoisie into the sixteenth century.  The French Basse Dance in its turn was a grave and stately dance that required an excellent carriage;  to dance it well was a sign of good breeding.  In the later 15th century it was a commonplace of plays and satirical monologues that members of the bourgeoisie with social ambition needed to acquire proficiency in the Basse Dance.  As one character remarked: 20

he who does not have the Basse Dance to an adequate degree is never worth anything.’ 

The social status of the Derbyshire dances is less easy to perceive, as we know little about John Banys who wrote them down.  He was certainly acquainted with the principal land-owning families of south Derbyshire, perhaps as some kind of agent.

What we have to remember is that all the known dances were, by definition, recorded by people who could read and write.  Such people would not be concerned to make a record of the dances of the peasantry, nor would they have had the need to write down traditional dances that might have been performed at all levels of society, as these were known to all and did not change (like fashionable dances) from season to season.  There are, of course, pictures that appear to show French or Burgundian persons of quality engaged in round dances in the 15th century;21 but, as the scenes are fictional, it is difficult to say if they show contemporary life, or if they (like the texts they illustrate) are updated versions of a scene in a long-established format.

It is fair to say that we know little of social dancing in the lower levels of society, except in so far as it imitated what was done by their betters.  And you will have noticed that nowhere have I had anything to say about German-speaking countries.  Dancing was of tremendous importance in the social life of German towns.  Some of them had great dance-houses (Tanzhäuser) with dancing halls on two or three floors, and it was a measure of your social status whether you were invited to take part in municipal dancing on festive occasions.  But we have as yet no information about what kind of dancing was actually being done at these events.22



1     The Paris copy of Guglielmo’s treatise:  Barbara Sparti, Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro:  De pratica seu arte tripudii / On the practice or art of dancing (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1993).

2     Eric Stanley, ‘Dance, dancers and dancing in Anglo-Saxon England’, Dance Research, 9(2) (Autumn 1991), 18-31.

3     John Gower, Confessio Amantis (1390), Liber Quartus, lines 2777-2787.

4     See, for example, Giulietta Chelazzi Dine et al., Sienese Painting from Duccio to the Birth of the Baroque (New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), 157-60.

5     Guillaume de Marchaut, Remède de fortune (Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français, 1586), miniature reproduced in Melusine Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (1952;  reprinted, Dance Books Ltd, London, 1982), figure iii.

6     Ingo F. Walther, (ed.) Sämtliche Miniaturen der Manesse-Liederhandschrift (Aachen:  Verlag Dr. Rudolf Georgi, 1985), Taf. 30.

7     Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie (Langres, 1589), fol. 68v-92v;  facsimile of 1506 printing, Minkoff Reprint, Genève, 1972;  English translation by Mary Stewart Evans, edited by Julia Sutton, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1967.

8     See, for example, Elsa Morante & Umberto Baldini, L’opera completa dell’Angelico (Milano:  Rizzoli Editore, 1970), Tav. iv.

9     David R. Wilson, ‘A further look at the Nancy Basse Dances’, Historical Dance, 3(3) (1994) [1995], 24-8;  David Wilson & Véronique Daniels, The Basse Dance Handbook (forthcoming).

10    Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français 5699, fol. 1v.

11    J. C. Laidlaw, (ed.) The Poetical Works of Alain Chartier (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1974), Le Livre de quatre dames, lines 2399-402.

12    Sensuit lart et instruction de bien dancer (sole copy in London, Royal College of Physicians).  Facsimile:  Victor Scholderer (ed.), (London, 1936;  reprinted, edited by R. Rastall & A. E. Lequet, Wakefield, Yorks./ New York, 1971).  Transcript and edition: Wilson & Daniels, op. cit. (note 9).

  • 13      Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Albert 1er, MS 9085.  Facsimile:  Musica Manuscripta, 5 (Graz, 1988).  Transcript and edition:  Wilson & Daniels, op. cit. (note 9).

14    Alexander Barcley, The introductory to wryte & to pronounce Frenche (sole surviving copy inOxford, Bodleian Library, Douce B.507).  Coplande’s translation of the French manual takes up spare space on the final leaf of the book.

15    Frederick Crane, Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth Century Basse Danse (Musicological Studies, 16, New York, 1968), 44, 46-9, 54, 73;  Wilson & Daniels, op. cit. (note 9).

16    Carles Mas I Gracia, ‘Baixa Dansa in the kingdom of Catalonia and Aragon in the 15th century’, Historical Dance, 3(1) (1992) [1993], 15-23.

17    For the 15th-century Italian sources, see A. William Smith, Fifteenth-Century Dance & Music (2 vols, Dance & Music, 4, Stuyvesant, NY, 1995);  Barbara Sparti, ‘Rôti bouilli: take two, «El gioioso fiorito»’, Studi musicali, 24 (1995) [1996], 231-61.

18    D. R. Wilson, Domenico of Piacenza (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS ital. 972) (Sources for Early Dance, series 1, 1, Cambridge, 1988).

19    David Fallows, ‘The Gresley dance collection, c.1500’, Royal Musicological Association Research Chronicle, 29 (1996), 1-20;  Jennifer Nevile, ‘Dance steps and music in the Gresley manuscript’, Historical Dance, 3(6) (1999) [2000], 2-19.

20    G. Cohen, (ed.) Recueil de farces françoises inédites du XVe siecle (Cambridge, MA, 1949), 337.

21    Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS fr. 6185, fol. 117:  see, for example, Edmund A. Bowles, La pratique musicale au Moyen Age / Musical Performance in the Late Middle Ages (Iconographie musicale, Editions Minkoff & Lattès, 1983), 121.

22.   Cf. Keith Polk, German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs, Cambridge, 1992), 118-20.

Innovations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

I have lingered in the 15th century because there is so much material, and it is so various, and most items are in some way the first known examples of their kind.  Now that we are more familiar with the range of source-material, we can proceed with greater expedition, concentrating single-mindedly on those sources that present the evidence for dancing in new (and usually better) ways.

First to attract our attention is a group of Italian dance-manuals of the later 16th and the opening years of the 17th centuries.  These are alike in containing a substantial introductory section devoted to detailed descriptions of the types of step currently in use and in making use of illustrations .  On the other hand, they are also alike in following the contemporary precepts of good literary style, which made it unthinkable, when a passage was exactly repeated in a dance, to describe it a second time in the same words as previously used.  This leaves the diligent reader uncertain if the repeated passage really is the same as before, or not.

The first in this series of manuals was Il Ballarino (The Dancer) by Fabritio Caroso (1581).  Nineteen years later he issued a drastically revised edition under the name Nobiltà di dame (1600), in which he altered the names of many of the steps to agree more closely with musical terminology and revised some dances to achieve greater formal symmetry. Caroso endears himself to us by telling not only how to do the steps, but also in some cases how not to do them.  For example, when making the step known as trabuchetto, the dancer should not copy those who end with their feet apart, looking for all the world as if they were getting ready to urinate, which is not at all nice to see.   But it was Cesare Negri in Le Gratie d’Amore (1602) who made the greatest use of illustration:  not only did he show the starting formation of each dance (often with pictures as ambiguous as his own words—the example shown in this figure shows the formation ‘in quadrangolo’), but he also demonstrated how to learn to do certain steps.  Thus, in order to practise the various forms of the caper , the dancer should support himself by pushing down onto two substantial pieces of furniture.  There is no second picture with the arms straight and the legs in motion, but this is easily supplied in imagination.

Meanwhile, in France Thoinot Arbeau had also learnt the value of illustration.  His woodcuts show steps actually being made.  Arbeau was the nom de plume of a French clergyman of mature years, and his book, called Orchésographie was published in 1589. His other special contribution was to find a way of correlating the steps with the corresponding music.  It is awkward to read the names of the steps unless they are set out horizontally, so he (or his printer) turned the music through 90°, to run down (instead of across) the page .

Not everybody was convinced of the value of illustration.  The very first words of Apologie de la danse by François de Lauze (1623) may be translated as follows:

Those who believe that to teach dancing properly from a book necessitates numerous illustrations, in order to describe more plainly the movements that should be observed in dancing, are in virtual agreement with that Orator of old, who, having to harangue in open Senate on an atrocious deed, committed this clumsy fault of setting up a picture before the eyes of the Judges, trusting more in the dumb strokes of a dead painting than to the energy of living eloquence.

The reason for mentioning de Lauze is that he chose to divide his book into two parts:  the Method for Gentlemen and the Method for Ladies.  As he remarked,

there is a difference between the steps and actions of a Gentleman and those that a Lady must make, and also there would be some confusion by instructing both together.

This is quite an innovation, as it had previously been the custom in French treatises to address the man alone, leaving it uncertain if the woman exactly copied him or not.  De Lauze’s method introduces a new kind of uncertainty, however.  He describes, for example, a basic Courante step for the man that always begins on the right foot.  For the woman he describes a basic Courante step that begins on right and left feet alternately.  Are these steps in some sense alternatives, or does he really mean the couple to traverse the room together making steps each in their own manner?  To the modern eye, the latter procedure does not look like elegant variation so much as apparent female incompetence!  It is mainly de Lauze’s arrangement of his material that leaves the reader in such uncertainty, though I suspect that he could have managed that in a variety of different ways, had he chosen to do so.

The earliest known dance treatise from Spain wasn’t published till 1642.  This was Discursos sobre el arte del dançado… by Juan de Esquivel Navarro.  It contained just one illustration, to show the difference between two kinds of reverencia .  The treatise was directed at dancing-masters rather than students and this explains the cross at the top, which indicates the position of the master, whereas the footprints are those of his pupil.  The upper prints show the natural stance.  The right foot remains in place, but there are alternative tracks for the left foot :  reverencia galana moves the foot in a straight line, whereas reverencia cierta takes it in a curve.  This is the earliest use of footprints for dance illustration that I know of and is presumably borrowed from fencing manuals, where it appeared first in France in 1573.23  You will note that we are not only given the positions of the feet by means of footprints, but also their track by means of a continuous line capable of showing changes of direction.  This is something we shall see again before the end of the century, but first we should look at a dance manual that is more widely known than most and was indeed honoured by a two-day conference two years ago.24

This is John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, first published in 1651 .  It is the earliest publication to give details of the English Country Dance.  Over 100 dances are described, each with its tune and a diagram of its basic formation.  The layout of the text reflects the generic structure of the dance .  Ordinarily, the same tune is repeated throughout the dance as many times as needed, while different figures are successively danced to it.  The various figures are presented as far as possible below the strain of music to which they are performed, internal repeats in the music being marked in the descriptions by hierarchical punctuation composed of one, two, three or four dots.  When the tune begins again, a horizontal line in the dance description marks off a new set of figures.  ‘Graies Inn Maske’ is unusual in having as many as six distinct sections in its music, but is saved from confusion by a choreography that is identical at each playing, apart from a standard variation of the introduction.   Most dances are more complex than this, and there are times when the layout has gone wrong at the printers, but in principle the design of the book is well matched to its content.

I should here add a comment about the dances, lest you suppose that rustic dancing has at last found a place here in the printed record.  The very name of ‘Country Dance’ expresses an urban viewpoint.  In Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, Country Dances are only performed in an urban setting;  when dancing takes place in the country, it is always a Morris dance.  Wherever Country Dances originally came from, they had had a place in London society for at least 85 years before Playford published, and by 1651 would have been thoroughly gentrified by a succession of dancing masters.  Country Dances as we know them are as much a feature of the court and upper levels of society as any other that we know from written records.

Baroque dancing and Beauchamp-Feuillet notation

The latter part of the 17th century saw the flowering of the so-called Baroque style of dancing under the supervision of the Académie Royale de Danse (founded in 1661 by Louis XIV).  In the late 1670s Louis commissioned Pierre Beauchamp to devise a notational system to aid the publication and teaching of dances in this Baroque style.  This notation was not actually made public until the year 1700 when Raoul Feuillet devoted a book to it25 and began a programme of publishing notated dances. 

The principal features of this new notation are these .  The track of each dancer is shown as a continuous line, divided into musical bars in correspondence with the music at the top of the plate.  On either side of this track are the schematic individual tracks of individual steps.  A variety of subsidiary marks indicate sinking, rising, sliding, turning and other features of the step, carefully placed at the point in the step where they are supposed to take place.  As seen on the present plate26 this system appears simple and straightforward.  If we move to the next plate in the same dance , we see the first problem:  when a dancer advances and retreats along the same track, the signs for all his steps cannot do the same, if they are to remain legible.  The standard solution is to offset the second sequence of steps, while connecting them to what has gone before with a little dotted line.   In a relatively simple figure like this one, this is comprehensible, though it inevitably distorts the geometry of the floor-track to some extent.  In a more complex pattern, or with more than two dancers, especially when moving in circular figures , it becomes very difficult to comprehend the floor pattern intuitively and to perceive that here (for example) the two dancers take hands and go round in the same small circle approximately 1½ times before dropping hands and continuing together to the bottom of the plate.27

Although these examples are typical in showing only the movement of the feet, leaving the movement of the arms to convention and the discretion of the dancers themselves, it is nevertheless possible to show arm and head movements, as well as the use of castanets.  Some of these extra indications are obviously present in plates from ‘Chacoon for a Harlequin’ .28

At the same time, we can look at engravings of dancers portrayed as exhibiting good style, some of whom actually dance along a line of the standard notation .29

The Beauchamp-Feuillet notation is not a universal system;  it is designed specifically for the style of dancing current in France in the late 17th and early 18th century.  Within that style, and subject to its conventions, it does as much as any notation can be expected to do in recording and explaining how dances were to be performed.   Dozens and dozens of dances were published in this format.  That does not mean, of course, that there is no controversy or that we are necessarily perfectly informed.  Some dances were notated more than once, by different practitioners.  When the versions are compared and found to be different, what does that mean?  Has the dance been revised, either by the choreographer, or less explicitly by being modified in performance?  Is it more a difference of style in notational practice?  Or has the second notator himself made alterations to ‘improve’ the dance or make it conform to his own ideals?  It may or may not be possible to suggest answers to these questions.  My purpose is simply to point out that such questions are there.  As always, the more we know, the more we are aware of what we still don’t know, – but our focus is definitely narrowing.

There is a simpler version of this notation that was used for Contredanses (the French adaptation of the English longways Country Dance).  It was assumed that, unless otherwise specified, the dancers would move with fleurets or pas de bourrée.  This allowed the track of the dancers to be shown without any distracting features other than a little ‘v’ at end of each step .30  This ‘v’ represents the dancer’s turned-out feet, thereby showing not only the length of each step, but whether he is going forward, backwards or sideways.  Only when other types of step are used, is the full notation given ;  thus, in the fourth figure of ‘Micarême’ the partners in each couple make a pas de rigaudon to each other before moving to progressed positions.

A later method of showing the figures of a later type of Contredanse 31 is more compact because all reference to individual steps has been abandoned and the diagram is concerned solely with the tracks of the eight dancers.  The number of steps for each of the 15 figures is, however, given in the bottom right corner.  This square Contradanse is well on the way to becoming a set of Quadrilles.

The later-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

As we continue through the 18th and into the 19th century, there are few major developments in the presentation of dances on the printed page. 

The special Baroque notation died with the dances it was designed to record, and no comparable system was devised to replace it.

Illustration in one form or another is certainly more prevalent,

  • §        whether it is to show particular steps or convolutions , as in the twelve figures (or tableaux) of the Allemande in Simon Guillaume’s Almanach of 1770, or in Thomas Wilson’s plate showing nine dancing couples in different positions in his Description of German and French Waltzing (1816),
  • §        or more generally to show the form of the dance , as in a print of a quadrille from the 1820s.32 

The 19th century saw the appearance of a new type of publication, the Ball Room Guide.  This typically included sections on etiquette, descriptions of all types of dance then current, with some emphasis on the latest introductions, and a glossary of French terms.  There is no description of the actual steps, that being the province of the dancing class.  Some of these Guides are small enough to go in a lady’s evening bag or a gentleman’s waistcoat pocket, but there would hardly have been an opportunity for surreptitious consultation in the ballroom, even under cover of a fan, and the contents are clearly not designed with that in mind.  One example in my collection is from a major publisher, is described as ‘new and revised’ but has no date of publication;  it is one of Warne’s Bijou Books.  A second example is Madame Soutten’s Manual of the Ball Room (a New Edition with Corrections to the Present Time), issued in 1855.  It is respectfully dedicated to her pupils and should be seen as an adjunct to her Cours de Danse (held ‘on Tuesday and Friday afternoons from half-past Two to half-past Four’).  Systematic study of Ball Room Guides, even if hampered by a partial lack of dates, reveals much about changing fashions in the 19th-century ballroom.

New technology eventually brings us the photograph.  I am particularly fond of some of the plates in Edward Scott’s book of 1894 called simply Dancing (which was one of the ‘All-England Series’ of handbooks of athletic games).  These plates are quite obviously studio pictures, but like the illustrations in Figs. 37-9 they are there to guide and instruct the novice.  There are four in particular that make up a set devoted to questions of style: the first of them shows ‘Low Class Style’;  on the opposite page for contrast we see ‘High Class Style–Recommended’;  a few pages later we encounter a plate called ‘No Style’;  and finally, after another 60 pages, in the chapter on the Waltz we see ‘Very Bad Style’.  Like Fabritio Caroso, Edward Scott is not afraid to show us how not to do it.

At the end of the century there is a new technological advance:  the pictures begin to move, and it becomes possible to capture the actual movement of dancers on film.  At this point it is more than time for me to call a halt.  It must be obvious to all that the nearer I come to the present day, the less I actually know, thereby neatly reversing the perspective of my original hypothetical enquirer.  For the purposes of this talk it is the earlier centuries that are the most instructive, but I wish to assert that the lessons learnt there should not be forgotten even when dealing with the twenty-first century. 


23.   Henri de Sainct Didier, Traicté contenant les secrets … (Paris, 1573):  see Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven & London, 2000), figs. 47-8.

24    David Parsons, (ed.) John Playford and The English Dancing Master 1651 (Proceedings of the third DHDS Conference, 2001).

  • 25       Chorégraphie ou l’art de décrire la dance … (Paris, 1700).

26    Louis Pécour, Recueil de dances (Paris, 1700), 1.

27    Ibid., 23.

28    F. le Roussau, A Chacoon for a Harlequin (London, n.d.).

29    Kellom Tomlinson, The Art of Dancing (London, 1735).

30    John Essex, An Essay for the Further Improvement of Dancing (London, 1715).

  • 31       Mr. Jullien, Le Bon Ménage.  Contre-Dance Française (n.d.):  see Carol McD. Wallace et al., (eds.) Dance:  a very social history (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986), fig. 2-21.

32    Dance (see note 31), fig. 2-14.