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Collection An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920

Burgundian Dance in the Late Middle Ages

Les Basses danses de Marguerite d'Autriche. Published c.1490.
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Our primary knowledge of Burgundian dance in the late Middle Ages is based on a manuscript housed in the Brussels Bibliothèque Royale, Les Basses danses de Marguerite d'Autriche, published c.1490. The manuscript, printed on black paper and with gold and silver calligraphy, contains music and a shorthand form of tablature for the description of more than fifty bassesdanses.

Popular from the fourteenth century to the second half of the sixteenth, the bassedanse (It., bassadanza) was a regal processional dance consisting of only five steps. The simplest components were single steps and double steps (notated ss and d)--these were walking steps that progressed forward or backward. The single step consisted of a step and weight change; the double was composed of three steps. Each step was punctuated by a slight rising and lowering of the body. The branle (notated b) was a sideways step performed with a slight swaying motion. The reprise or démarche (notated z, or s in other sources), was a backward step; and révérence (notated R) was the formal bow or curtsy. No floor patterns were provided in this manuscript, but the bassedanse was usually danced with one couple standing behind another, partners holding inside hands. Delicate and tranquil in style, the bassedanse was intended to be danced by an unlimited number of noble performers, and its small steps perfectly accommodated the lady's long train and the exaggerated, pointed toes of the gentleman's shoes, known as poulaines. (For a late sixteenth description of the bassedanse, see Thoinot Arbeau's 1588 treatise, Orchesographie.)

Soft, mellow musical instruments such as the vielle, (a bowed string instrument), or recorders were used for small, indoor occasions. The most popular musical accompaniment, however, consisted of an ensemble of three loud, shrill instruments: two were double-reed woodwind instruments called shawms (the forerunner of the oboe) and one was the sackbut, a brass instrument that later was developed into the trombone. One shawm played the notes of the music (tenor melody), while the other instruments improvised on the tenor. (For further reading on medieval and early Renaissance Burgundian, Italian, and French court dance, see the bibliography.)