2012 – Out of this world: Did the Elizabethan court society really want to dance with the planets?

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In the absence of any comprehensive writing in English that could be considered as a dance manual in Elizabethan England, the poem Orchestra by Sir John Davies is frequently used as a representation of practical dance of the period. By undertaking a close reading of the poem, penned by a student of the Inns of Court, this paper will consider how such a dance practice could link to the social and political world of Queen Elizabeth I and her court.

The word “orchestra” has a direct link to the idea of “orchesography” as a practical art of dancing, as coined in the contemporaneous French dance manual (Orchesographie, by Thoinot Arbeau) which catalogued a large number of dance forms in vogue throughout Western Europe at this time. The dance manual concludes with the instruction to the pupil that dance should be practised to partner the planets. This notion that the qualities of celestial harmony can be physically rendered in the practical art of dance is also implied in the English poem Orchestra, and appears as a major argument to combat criticism of the activity of dance as being immoral. However, the poetic frame containing this image of cosmic dance is often overlooked. By considering the tradition of the classical myth generating the poem, the narrative structure and depiction of the characters speaking the argument, along with the historical specificity generating the poem’s conception in London during the mid-1590’s, some different interpretations of these dance references can be deciphered.

The paper will bring into the arena biographical research of the life of the courtier-poet, John Davies, to consider the writer’s level of practical dance experience, and how this knowledge could underpin the images and references in the poem. To suggest what practical functions a “poem of dancing” may have had for the contemporary readers, I will consider the society of the Inns of Court, the specific historical moments surrounding the creation of this poem, and consider why amendments were subsequently made in the 1622 re-publication.

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Darren Royston