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

Renaissance Dance

The cultural period known as the high Renaissance, c.1550-1650, produced the manuals of several important dancing masters: Thoinot Arbeau (Jehan Tabourot; born 17 March 1520 in Dijon, France, died 21 July 1595 in Langres), Fabritio Caroso (born c.1526 or1535 in Sermoneta, Italy, died after 1605), and Cesare Negri (born c.1535 in Milan, Italy, died c.1604). All three dancing masters contributed detailed treatises on social dance that included descriptions of the most popular dances, as well as ancillary information on the appropriate music, ballroom etiquette, and révérences (bows) (See Video Clip 53); there were also rules for accessories such as the handling of swords, gloves, and fans. Each manual, enhanced by drawings, contained music for dancing.

Fashion changes from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century contributed, in no small measure, to stylistic changes in social dance. The clothing of this era was bulky and the upper bodies were confined by tight lacing for men and corsets for women. Further, head movement was restricted by the wearing of ruffs around the neck. Dance technique, therefore, focused on footwork and was characterized by an emphatic energy.

The extensive step vocabulary, which was designed for music in triple and duple meter, included walking steps, cutting steps, sliding and stamping of the feet, leaping and jumping, including tours en l'air, and hopping . Pirouettes, beats, and entrechats were described, as were various leg gestures.

Nuove inventioni di balli... Cesare Negri. Published 1604.
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The arms were infrequently mentioned but were generally held low. An exception can be found in Cesare Negri's manual, in the plates for the preparation for pirouettes and tours en l'air. Turnout from the hips was minimal during this era, and men and women performed the same steps; however, the complex turns and jumps found in some galliard variations were choreographed for men only.

Renaissance social dances fell into two broad categories. The first category consisted of simple dances that took little or no practice that included an unlimited number of participants dancing in circles, lines, or columns, such as branles and the pavan. The second category consisted of complex dances that required the services of a dancing master as well as considerable practice to perfect. Although choreographed primarily as duets, the complex dances could be set figures for up to eight performers; they were performed for a viewing audience and the figures were designed to be viewed from the front, the sides, or from above the dance floor.

Thoinot Arbeau. Published in Langres in 1588 and republished again in 1589, Thoinot Arbeau's Orchesographierepresents dance practices in France from the 1550s to the 1580s. It is the only French source for this period and also provides the foundation of information for dance practices in other northern European countries. Following a device used by earlier dance writers, Orchesographie was based on a discussion between a teacher and his eager student about social dance, style, steps, and etiquette. Sprinkled throughout the manual is historical background and a discussion of theory. The treatise provides helpful information on bows(révérences) and other ballroom etiquette including the advice that the student Capriol should keep his "head and body erect and appear spit and blow [his] nose sparingly." Arbeau's simple, but effective notation consisted of printing the music vertically on the page with the name of each step beside the note on which it should occur.

Orchesographie. Thoinot Arbeau. Published 1589.
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Arbeau's manual provided information on sixteenth-century marching and drumming techniques and has been especially important for its discussion on Renaissance drum rhythms and meter. His manual is the only source for several dances, including a men's sword dance known as "Les Bouffons," as well as the morisque and the volte; it alsosupplied early descriptions of the gavotte, allemande, and courante.

Branle. Orchesographie is the only Renaissance source for circle dances known as branles (See Video Clip 40, Video Clip 41, Video Clip 42, and Video Clip 46), danced by as many couples as desired. It describes more than twenty types, and many seem to indicate peasant roots; indeed, many are still danced today throughout Europe. Arbeau's branles are distinguished by circles of couples who always begin by stepping sideways to the left; they are danced to tunes in duple, triple, and mixed meters, with regular and irregular phrases and are noted for their repeated patterns of footwork. Branles can be divided into three types. The first type is the simple branles, which consist of sideways sequences of single or double steps, such as "Branle Simple" (See Video Clip 40), and "Branle Double." (See Video Clip 41). The second type is the mixed branles, which consist of single or double steps (See Video Clip 43, and Video Clip 44), to the side, mixed with jumps on one or both legs, and often accompanied by music in mixed meters. Arbeau included instructions for several, including "Cassandra," "Haut Barrois Branle", and "Charlotte." (See Video Clip 42). Arbeau's third type of branle required the performer to mime gestures or to add facial expressions to the steps. Included in this type are the "Maltese Branle," "Pease Branle," and "Washerwomen's Branle." (See Video Clip 46),

Galliard. Recognized as the most virtuosic dance type of the late Renaissance era, the galliard (Fr., gaillarde; It., gagliarda) was a showcase dance for male dancers. Performed in triple meter, the galliard's step pattern consists of five jumped changes of weight in six beats. Arbeau's Orchésographie gave instructions for the basic galliard (See Video Clip 29), and numerous five-step variations (See Video Clip 30), as well as galliards that link together two phrases of five steps, creating eleven-step variations. (See Video Clip 31), (For information on Italian galliards, see Fabritio Caroso's Il ballarino [1581] and his Nobiltà de dame [1600] as well as Cesare Negri's Nuvone inventioni di balli [1604].)

Pavan. (See Video Clip 39), Described as a processional dance, Arbeau notes that the pavan (Fr., pavane, pavanne; It., pavana, padovana) is danced by "walking with decorum and measured gravity." The dance, as described by Arbeau, consists of two single steps (simple) and one double step (double),forward (See Video Clip 36), or backward (See Video Clip 37); and, when the "hall is so thronged with a multitude of guests," one can make a conversion (See Video Clip 38), to reverse direction. (For description of the pavan as a ballroom dance for a solo couple, see "Pavana Matthei" described in Fabritio Caroso's Il ballarino, 1581.)

Il ballarino. Fabritio Caroso. Published 1581.
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Italian manuals. The late sixteenth-century Italian manuals are noted for their enhanced detail regarding ballroom etiquette and the increasingly difficult step vocabulary that includes descriptions of jumps and turns. Most of the dances are social, choreographed for one couple. The majority of these dances (called balli or balletti) usually begin in duple meter and change to a triple meter; some have up to four changes of meter. The step patterns for the dances are symmetrical and the floor patterns are strictly geometrical. The three manuals, Il ballarino (1581), Nobiltà de dame (1600), and Nuvone inventioni di balli (1604; originally published in 1602 as Le gratie d'amore), have similar formats for explanation, consisting of text descriptions of the step sequences with music given in Italian lute and/or mensural notation.

Fabritio Caroso. The first Italian dance manual that described steps and provided choreographies and music for popular dances of the late sixteenth century, Il ballarino, was written by dancing master Fabritio Caroso in 1581. This manual, written for the upper classes, included a theoretical section on dance, etiquette, descriptions of steps, and choreographies and music for eighty dances. In 1600, Caroso issued Nobiltà de dame, which is considered the more valuable, as terms and definitions were fine tuned and, in some cases, corrected; the musical notation and choreographic text were better described and fit together more easily. Nobiltà di dame contains descriptions for sixty-eight steps and forty-nine dances. Both of Caroso's manuals provide music written in Italian lute tablature and/or mensural notation and are copiously illustrated with copperplate engravings.

Nuove inventioni di balli... Cesare Negri. Published 1604.
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Cesare Negri. Originally published in 1602 as Le gratie d'amore, Negri's treatise was reissued in 1604 as Nuvone inventioni di balli. The manual, including the copperplate engravings, was similar in format to the works of Fabritio Caroso, however, many of the steps described by Negri were far more difficult and virtuosic. The manual was divided into three sections, and the first began with a discussion of Negri's professional life as a teacher. The second explained the galliard and galliard variations; perhaps most important for the wide range of galliard variations, Negri's manual makes a major contribution by recording the virtuosic steps then available, especially for male courtiers. One of the difficult galliard variations that often included multiple pirouettes and tours en l'air was called "Kick to the Tassel," and a series of illustrations accompanied the text. The third and final section of Negri's manual provided definitions of steps and step patterns, with forty-three choreographies and their appropriate music. As with the choreographies in Fabritio Caroso's manuals, most of the dances were for a solo couple; however Negri also included dances for three and six dancers, as well as thirteen dances for two couples. Negri's treatise was the only late Renaissance Italian source that provided choreographies for theatrical dances designed for amateurs, and his manual included four. (For further reading on Renaissance Italian and French court dances, see the bibliography.)