Early Dance at a Glance

Early dance – or historical dance, as it is also known – covers all dancing for which there are surviving records, ranging from the mediaeval period to the end of the 20th century and, ultimately, beyond.

Mediaeval Dance

The earliest detailed descriptions of individual dances date from the mid-fifteenth century. However, authentic dance music goes back a further two centuries before that. Several researchers and a number of practitioners have made credible new choreographies to suit this music. Those records we do have are, for the most part, pictorial or literary.

Renaissance Dance

The Renaissance period of dance covers at least two centuries and, for historical dancers, falls into two distinct parts. The Early Renaissance covers the later 15th and early 16th centuries, while the Late Renaissance covers the rest of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. This division is made on the basis of available documentary sources and the changing styles of dance that they record. Despite the chronological limits given above, the Early Renaissance period of dance is commonly referred to by dancers as ‘15th century’ and the Late Renaissance period of dance as ‘16th century’. In the UK, we find Tudor dance, Elizabethan dance and Jacobean dance developing during these centuries.

  • Early Renaissance (‘15th century’) Dance

The earliest original source of complete (realisable) choreographies is an Italian manuscript of c.1455. The dance descriptions contained are purely verbal, detailing a sequence of steps with minimal directional instruction. From this and a number of later sources, both Italian and Burgundian, we are able to reconstruct dances with a reasonable degree of confidence as to their accuracy. The Italian dances are quite varied. Some may use up to four distinct rhythms in a single piece, and some are composed to illustrate a particular theme or scenario. In England, only the Gresley manuscript of c.1500 survives from this period.

  • Late Renaissance (‘16th century’) Dance

The sources for this period include English texts, often referred to as the ‘Inns of Court manuscripts’, the dance manuals of the Italian dancing masters Caroso and Negri and other continental sources, among them Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesography, 1589. These examples of historical dance are still described verbally but in considerably greater detail than was usual in the Early Renaissance. The step-vocabulary has become more elaborate, placing the interest strongly on the footwork, while many floor-patterns are based on symmetrical figures.

English Country Dance

For the most part, the development of historical dance styles in the 17th century is obscure. Sources for the first quarter-century are often difficult to understand; by the last quarter, the Baroque style has already come into being. In England, however, the publication of Playford’s English Dancing Master in 1651 provides our first major source for the country dance, which soon achieved lasting popularity in the ballroom and even now remains England’s principal contribution to the international repertoire of social dance. In the 18th century this English style led to the development of Scottish country dance as we know it today.

Baroque Dance

Baroque dance evolved during the middle of the 17th century, although our knowledge of it comes primarily from texts published in the last decade of the century and in the first thirty-five years of the 18th century. Now, for the first time, the dance steps are accompanied by highly codified diagrams showing the use of the hands and arms. Baroque dance notation is no longer verbal, and it is necessary to study the relevant dance manuals in order to understand the diagrams. The elegant minuet dance for a couple swept the ballrooms of Europe with its carefully choreographed elegance.

The emergence of ballet and its subsequent history is a well-established field of study, with its own resources, that it would be pointless to attempt to duplicate.

Regency and Victorian Dance

Industrial development, the move to the towns and the political upheavals of the 19th century produced changes in social structure that also affected the world of dance. With the advent of the waltz and polka, couple dances which permitted many people to take the floor simultaneously became the prevalent style. But both of these were initially regarded as scandalous because of the close proximity, as well as contact, of man and woman and because of the exhilaration of constant spinning. As quadrilles gained in popularity, so the steps were gradually simplified until, by the end of the century, they were virtually walked. By then, however, more modern fashions were beginning to be seen, as the tango and ragtime moved into Europe from the Americas.

20th century Dance

Dance of the 20th century dancing is now being studied using the same methods that have been applied to earlier periods. The written sources are, in principle, far more abundant and detailed (not only instruction manuals, but newspapers, magazines, posters, and programmes), but, in practice, they are still frustratingly difficult to locate. We have recorded music (on wax, shellac, vinyl, magnetic tape, CD, and digital media), but it is the invention of moving pictures, captured on photographic film or video, that has revolutionised our ability to study the actual movements of many dancers in the 20th century. Nevertheless, even these are not universally available and do not always give the complete picture, so established methods of historical research are still required.

New dance styles keep emerging but, as a counter-balance, interest in the dances of the past is also strong. There has been a considerable revival of interest in ballroom dancing, hugely popular throughout much of the 20th century and the natural descendant of earlier forms of social dancing. The considerable development of interest in early music over the last 150 years has brought with it some growth of interest in early dance, as people are coming to realise its huge influence, but there is scope for much more pleasure to be found in historical dance.

General Books on Historical or Early Dance

M. Dolmetsch, Dances of England and France from 1450 to 1600 (London, 1949; reprinted, New York, 1976)
M. Dolmetsch, Dances of Spain and Italy from 1400 to 1600 (London, 1954; reprinted, New York, 1975)
B. Quirey, May I have the Pleasure? The story of popular dancing (London, 1976; reprinted, 1987)
B. Quirey & M. Holmes, Apology for History (London, 1993)
C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (English version, New York, 1937; reprinted, 1963)
J. Wildeblood, The Polite World (London, 1965; revised ed., 1973)
M. Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (London, 1952; reprinted, 1982)
M. Wood, More Historical Dances (London, 1956)
M. Wood, Advanced Historical Dances (London, 1960)