The Late Renaissance c1535 – c1620

The dances popular at the courts of Europe in first quarter of the sixteenth century are largely those described in the Early Renaissance article. Certainly people are still showing interest in them in the 1520s and early 1530s.

Few choreographies survive from the second quarter of the sixteenth century, and most of these are looking back towards the fifteenth century or describing the evolution of the basse dance, but from other evidence we can at least make an informed guess about what was going on. The pavan and its companion dance the galliard were gaining popularity and there are musical arrangements for the closely related passamezzo from 1536. The basse dance was still in use into the 1550s, but it was changing from the triple time dance of the fifteenth century to the duple time dance described by Arbeau in 1589. The first evidence for the almain (music and a mention by Rabelais) is in the mid 1540s. The French bransles described by Arbeau can be dated back to 1530 when the first bransle tunes appear in a collection of dance music and there is music for a coranto in the Phalèse lute book of 1549.

From the 1580s onwards we have a good set of sources that allow us to reconstruct a range of dances with a fair amount of confidence. These dances are considerably different in style to those of the Early Renaissance, their increased formality echoing comparable changes in dress.

The dancing highlight of the later sixteenth century was the galliard, a lively vigorous dance said to have gained at least one gentleman an important position at court.

A galliard from Norfolk Historical Dance

A galliard from Norfolk Historical Dance

Queen Elizabeth herself was an accomplished dancer who is reported to have ‘learnt in the Italian manner to dance high’ and to have been impatient of poor performance among her Maids in Waiting. In the courts of Italy and France, dance also played an important role. It was the formidable Catherine de’ Medici who introduced the works of the Italian dancing masters, Caroso and Negri, to France. Mary, Queen of Scots, with her close links to the French court, also played her part in introducing French, and possibly Italian, dance styles to Scotland.

The Dances

Our knowledge of popular French dance comes from Arbeau, whose book describes many dances, including regional varieties of branle, several galliard variations and a gavotte. He also included the volte (or la volta), delighted in by Queen Elizabeth, and the courante (known in England as coranto).

Nonsuch History and Dance Company perform La Volta

Nonsuch History and Dance Company perform La Volta

Italian dances are known to us through the books of several dancing masters, most notably Fabritio Caroso and Cesare Negri.

Most of their dances show a strong emphasis on symmetry, and each has its own music, presented either in notation or in lute tablature. There are several different rhythms within the dances, notably the cascarda (a lively triple rhythm) and the passamezzo (akin to the pavan). The common use of two or three of these varying rhythms in a single dance produces the effect of a short suite. Livio da Lupi wrote a treatise offering numerous variations on the galliard, tordiglione, passamezzo and canaries, showing that there was a demand for professionally designed routines to be used in personal improvisation.

The step vocabulary used in the dances of late sixteenth-century Italy had become well- codified and elaborate, though modern interpretation of the descriptions remains controversial. The interest was strongly on footwork, as the upper part of the body – for ladies and many men – was firmly encased in a corset or ‘stays’. The music is more accessible to modern ears than that of earlier periods and presents fewer problems of interpretation. There is nevertheless considerable variation in the tempi adopted by dancers and teachers today.


English dances are recorded for us in the so-called Inns of Court manuscripts, which contain a number of measures and almaines, the Quadran Pavan, several perfunctorily described galliards and a miscellany of other dances. The galliard commonly followed the solemn pavan, which, although apparently simple, exemplifies the stateliness and elegance of the period. This pavan–galliard combination had a far-reaching effect on contemporary musical development.

Our knowledge of country dancing at this time, so popular with Elizabeth in the later years of her reign, comes to us only through John Playford’s 1651 publication of The English Dancing Master. See English Country Dance.

Primary Sources

Anon., Instruction pour dancer (before 1612) (facsimile and transcription, A. Feves et al., Freiburg, 2000).

Th. Arbeau, Orchésographie (Langres, 1588; facsimiles, Genève, 1972, & Langres, 1988; translation by M. S. Evans, 1948, reprinted, New York, 1967).

F. Caroso, Il Ballarino (Venezia, 1588; facsimile, New York, 1967).

F. Caroso, Nobiltà di Dame (Milano, 1600; facsimile, Bologna, 1980).

Lutio Compasso, Ballo della Gagliarda (Firenze, 1560; facsimile, Freiburg, 1995).

C. Negri, Le Gratie d’Amore (Milano, 1602; facsimiles, New York, 1969, & Bologna, 1969).

Ercole Santucci, Mastro da Ballo (1614; facsimile with introduction by B. Sparti, Hildersheim, 2004).

The ‘Inns of Court MSS’ are transcribed by I. Payne in The Almain in Britain c.1549–c.1675 (Aldershot, 2003).

Secondary Sources

M. Lehner, A Manual of Sixteenth-Century Italian Dance Steps (Freiburg, 1997).

B. Ravelhofer, The Early Stuart Masque, Dance, Costume, and Music (Oxford.2006).

J. Sutton, Nobiltà di Dame / Fabritio Caroso (translation and introduction, Oxford, 1986); 2nd ed., Courtly Dance of the Renaissance (New York & London, 1995).

See  Learning the Dances for details of instruction-books and recorded music produced by the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society (now HDS Historical Dance Society), Gaita and by Nonsuch Productions and others.  These give interpretations of how to dance many of these dances,  along with their music.

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)