Chapter 5

Key Concepts

Chapter 5


Dance in the Middle Ages expanded in a variety of ways. In the church dance was part of the mystery, miracle, and morality plays. Knights, ladies, and peasants all danced to celebrate both religious and secular events. Dance became an accomplishment of nobility and an amusement of the court. The dancing master emerged, who taught dance instruction and etiquette as the standard of training for gentle men and women.

In the Renaissance, dance was part of social gatherings, court functions, and entertainments. Choral and couple folk and court dances continued to be popular. As part of the growing number of dances, the two-part suite of the pavane and galliard presented a contrast between basse and haute dances. During this period, couple dance gained in popularity over choral dances. At court, dance sections became part of the lavish banquets, masked entertainments, and interludes in a variety of entertainment.

Chapter 5

Activities and Assignments

Activity 1. Dance Themes of the Middle Ages

Divide the class into small groups either with the same interest or by assignment. Have the group compile their research into a one-page summary. The group presents the commentary and performs the dance for classmates.

Part I: Research and choreograph a one-minute dance selected from the following themes:

Part II: Ask students in the audience to observe a dance and write a one-page response. The response should include the following:

Part III: Students compare and contrast their choreographic work to the one they selected to write about in a one-page comparison using the prompts in the previous list.

Activity 2. Comparing Dances and Dance Designs

Divide the class into groups. Each group learns two dances from the list under the heading The Dances. The groups that perform the two dances should discuss and write a group report that addresses the topics listed under the headings Writing About the Dances and Writing About the Dancers. Sources for each of the dances are available from Internet sources listed in chapter 5 and these additional Internet sources.

Teaching Tip: The Library of Congress Dance Manuals include video clips of bows and dance steps. Not all of these dances are found at the Library of Congress; some are found at SCA dance database: carole, farandole, basse danse, branle, pavane, galliard, estampie, saltarello.

Music Sources

Search engine with MP3s of a variety of dances.

  • SCA Dance Database: Eric’s SCA Dance and Music Page

  • Renaissance Dance Sources


    The Dances

    Carole and farondole. See pages 78-79 in chapter 5.

    Teaching Tip: A farandole is a fun and easy dance to stage and works well for a class. In a large indoor space or outdoors, this follow-the-leader dance takes the group through the various figures listed in the chapter. The dance can be continued or repeated with a new leader after the group goes through the arch figure. Consider using it as an introductory activity before going on to the more sedate carole.

    This is a reconstructed version of a carole called a carole royale:


    Basse dance and the branle. See pages 80-81 in chapter 5.

    Basse Danse Steps

    Go to the next page on Renaissance dance, which includes video clips.


    Pavane and Galliard. See pages 81-82 in chapter 5.



    How to Perform the Galliard


    Writing About the Dances

    Using the dance classifications from chapter 5 as a starting place, compare and contrast the two dances in the sequence you have selected.

    Writing About the Dancers

    Activity 3. Prerequisites for Dancers

    Domenico’s treatise De Arte saltandi et choreas ducendi divides dance into components that focus on movements of the body, steps, and qualities.

    A student of Domenico of Piacenza, Ebreo, expanded the meaning of the six prerequisites and wrote about dance to make a clear distinction between folk dance and art with an aesthetic.

    The following are the six prerequisites for dancers:

    1. Keep time with the music.
    2. Remember the steps.
    3. Have a sense of space and the floor pattern.
    4. Sway (or keep the body lifted).
    5. Have body coordination.
    6. Move gracefully.

    In a one-page journal entry or response paper, analyze how important these prerequisites are for dancers today. Then write your own list of six prerequisites as they relate to postmodern dance or modern ballet.

    Chapter 5

    Vocabulary Terms

    A traditional harvest dance that is said to have been performed since 1550. It was the precursor of the modern sword dance. The dance has many names and spellings; in Austria it is called the perschten, or winter dance. It was performed by 9 to 11 male dancers who carried swords and performed various geometrical figures to a chant sung by five women.
    Dance pantomimes, usually with a courtship motif, were performed by three women and two men. They included circling and changing places.
    A dance composed by a dance master for aristocrats to perform.
    Developed from church festivals and were part of the court entertainment for important occasions such as weddings, tournaments, visiting royalty, or coronations. Using Greek mythology themes, these spectacles featured singing, dancing, and dramatic interludes. Banquets were held in castles, outdoors, or at landmarks, such as the entrance to town.
    basse danse
    A ceremonial dance to display the nobles’ grace and etiquette. The age of the basse danse lasted from the 1300s to the 1550s. Earlier versions of it were similar to the carole. It began with a bow and a short pantomime that was followed by two contrasting dances: a slow processional dance called the basse danse majeur and a shorter dance, or basse danse mineur. Later it had three distinct parts: the basse danse, retour, and tordion. The retour was a shortened version of the first basse danse; the steps were the same but were arranged in a different sequence. The tordion followed the retour and contrasted the basse danse.
    Of all the dances, the basse danse was the one most associated with aristocratic society during the Renaissance. A slow, dignified, gliding dance done without springing from the floor, it is considered a low dance. Any number of people could participate, either as a chain or a walking processional dance in couples, trios (two men and one woman, or vice versa), or groups of four. The gentlemen held the ladies’ fingertips loosely or, as in Spain, their hands did not touch. This simple walking dance allowed time for socializing and displaying etiquette while moving gracefully to music.
    A revised form of the medieval berger mascara was a dance performed at Noel or New Year’s festivals throughout Western Europe as part of miracle plays. In England it was called the shepherd’s hey and in Germany the Schafer-tanz. In some versions the dance mimes the shepherds; in Germany it was a 2/4 time country dance performed by two couples or in large groups.
    A choral couple dance derived from the carole. It was performed in a circle with swaying movements, hence the name branle, which means “sway” in French. In England it was called a brawl, in Italy a brando, and in Spain a bran. The branle appeared in France around the 12th or 13th century in Poitou. It remained a popular French folk dance during the Renaissance. The circle dance moved clockwise to the left and then in smaller steps to the right. The man’s partner was on his right, and the dancers held hands or hooked fingers. Some branles included mimed sections, similar to singing games. The Branle des Lavandières included pantomime of washing clothes. Quite often the dances were named for the province or town of origin, such as the Branle de Bourgoyne. The dance had at least 23 varieties, varying time signatures, and sung accompaniment. In the courts, branles expanded into a suite of six dances that evolved into couple dances and became incorporated into court masques.
    Originally a hymn and processional dance that was performed on church holy days and other festivals such as New Year’s, May Day, and midsummer. Caroles had both religious and secular connections and existed before secular music emerged around the 10th century. The leader sang a verse and the other members sang the chorus. In their secular form, performed as a ring or circle dance and still accompanied by song, caroles became popular throughout Europe. The leader and dancers held hands, walking on the beat of the music while turning their bodies right to left. The choral leader carried a flower, May branch, or burning torch. Sometimes carolers circled the leader, or the chorus accompanied its song by clapping the rhythm. In 1260 a carole that was performed at a Swedish prince’s wedding was said to replicate what the prince had seen at Our Lady of the Carol church in Paris.
    Knightly decorum and ritual that included virtue, courtly love, and honor.
    commedia dell’arte
    Family troupes of commedia dell’arte players, with roots in Byzantine mimes who fled Constantinople when it fell, began to be seen in Italy. Touring troupes spread this popular form of entertainment throughout Europe between 1550 and 1650. The form survived until about 1750.
    Commedia troupes performed improvised plays in which stock characters enacted a sketchy plot, which they posted on the side of their wagons. They created spontaneous comic dialogue, incorporated set mimed sequences (lazzi), and used movement that included physical jokes. The plays included two types of characters: straight characters such as young lovers, heroes and heroines, and old men and women and exaggerated characters who were either overly stupid or clever, such as Capitano (the captain), Pantalone, Dottore (doctor of law or medicine), and Zanni (a servant or jester).
    court dances
    A broad term that applied to three types of dances performed in medieval Italy and France. The first was an entry dance where nobles took part in a procession by rank to enter the great hall, to acknowledge the king or other noble, and to show off their fine clothing worn for this prestigious occasion. The second type of dancing was the basse dances, which took place in the center of the great hall and were ceremonial dances to display the noble’s grace and etiquette. The last type was a spectacle, a ball or balleto that entertained the nobility on auspicious occasions. Renaissance court dances were distinguished as low dances (those gliding along the floor) and high dances (those using hops, jumps, or leaps or elevated from the floor). By the 17th century, courtiers took a dance lesson every day. The emphasis of the lesson was on deportment, manners, and practicing dance sequences that involved intricate floor patterns, couple relationships, and the changing arm movements that accompanied the simple steps. Before that, dance was a serious pastime and amusement for the court and a release from everyday tedium for peasants.
    Court of Love
    Evolved as a poetry competition for troubadours or intense discussions on questions about love, passion, and marriage, presided over by the lady of the manor. The ladies debated the questions in relation to the 31 absolute laws in the Code of Love. When Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen of France, she brought the Court of Love to France. Eleanor and her ladies held court as judges for poetry competitions for troubadours. The winner was crowned and celebrated at a banquet and ball. During the 13th century the Court of Love became the subject of literary and visual works and found its way into libretti of Italian and French opera and ballets and English masques. All this poetry and discussion centered on a chaste love in which women were worshipped through poetry and song.
    cushion or kissing dance
    Also known as Joan or John Sanderson, it was a round dance that was a favorite in the 16th century and was still being performed in the 19th century. The dance began with either a man or woman holding a cushion and dancing around the circle. When the music ended, the person sang that the dance would not continue. The musician asks why not. The singer laid the cushion before a person of the opposite sex, who picked it up and began dancing as he or she sang.
    dance mania or dance epidemics
    Took various forms as a mass psychosis resulting from people’s response to war, plague, famine, religious persecution, and the fear that the world was going to end. People would suddenly begin to dance—in their homes, in the streets, and in marketplaces—and were unable to stop. Some performed grotesque, hysterical dancing, as if they were carried away by ecstasy, accompanied by wild shouting. The fits continued for days until the victims reached a point of exhaustion or death. The Children’s Crusades and the Pied Piper, St. Vitus’ Dance, and the tarantella are among the most famous dance epidemics.
    dance of death
    Death was a theme throughout medieval arts, appearing in sculptures such as gargoyles on churches and on woodcuts. Medieval churchyards with their tombs and graves became the scene for the dance of death. Europeans believed that the dead were ill natured and wanted to injure the living. Hans Holbein’s book Dance of Death is illustrated with woodcuts that depict skeletons grabbing people and dragging them into the earth. Prevalent in Germanic, Slavic, and later romantic literature is the Grim Reaper, depicted as a skeleton who drags man off into limbo. The dances were performed to ward off death while symbolizing oblivion and death.
    Dark Ages
    The early period of the Middle Ages. It was a brutal time. Ancient urban civilizations were replaced by small villages. From the death of Justinian, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, in 565 BC until the crowning of Charlemagne in AD 800, Europe had no important cities. The Catholic Church, the only church in Europe, provided respite from the barbarian tribes of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals that plundered and ravished the land and people. The Catholic Church became the focal point of life, a sanctuary for peace in a violent world that teemed with ignorance and barbarism. It was the repository of education, a source of morals, and the guide to the afterlife.
    Ebreo, Guglielmo
    Italian dance master (ca. 1440–1484) who formed a nucleus of theory by the middle of the 15th century. A student of Domenico of Piacenza, Ebreo built on the theories of his teacher. Ebreo wrote about dance to make a clear distinction between folk dance and art with an aesthetic.
    Elizabeth I of England
    Queen who reigned from 1558 to 1603. During her reign, the Renaissance reached its height in England and was also known as the Elizabethan period. She liked dancing and it became an important part of her court.
    A dance that emerged around the 12th or 13th century and remained popular until the 16th century in England. Before that, it was the oldest type of medieval instrumental dance music, mostly written in triple time. The dance’s origin is murky, though some believed it evolved from the troubadours, the estampida coming from Provence, France, and the estampita from Italy. Accompanied by fiddlers, the couple moved forward and then back, performing a trotting step, a stamping walk, or vigorous jumps or leaps.
    One of the many chain dances popular throughout Europe. The dance’s name varied with the country: choros (Greek), kolo (Serbo-Croatian), and farandole (French). Throughout the Middle Ages the farandole was an important part of social life for courtiers and peasants. In this choral line dance accompanied by song, the leader sang the verse and everyone sang the refrain. People held hands and sang as they walked, ran, or skipped to duple- or triple-metered music. Generally performing outdoors, the dancers snaked through villages, going in and out of houses and around trees to drive out winter and welcome spring and circling wells to ensure water for the village. Indoors, it took the form of a round dance with steps. In German castles it was a dance with steps; for peasants, who danced it outdoors, it included springing steps. After the 14th century the dance was accompanied by a piper, fiddler, and drummer, whose playing alternated with the singing. In this vigorous dance, the leader directed a single line of dancers holding hands through various routes, creating several figures or line patterns.
    Threading the needle began with the second dancer breaking the line and forming a single-arm arch with the leader. The third dancer led the remaining dancers under the arch. Then the first two dancers joined the end of the line. This arch figure could repeat throughout the line.
    In the “many arches” figure the dancers began in a straight line, turned sideways in the line, and lifted their arms in arches. The leader, followed by the second dancer and the rest of the group, traveled through the arches in succession, and the line was re-formed.
    Other figures include
    In Germany, often the nobility and peasants danced the farandole together. In England, the dance rivaled the popular carole.
    Feast of Fools
    Medieval cathedrals and smaller churches celebrated the Feast of Fools on the Feast of Circumcision or on various saints’ days. Begun in France, the revel was a burlesque of the church service in which lower clergy and choir members took the roles of the bishop and a dean of fools. The masked players shouted the service, danced in the choir, and sang wanton songs; nude participants ran and leaped through the church. These feasts were popular with the lower clergy and congregants. The Feast of Fools began near the end of the 12th century in France and continued until the 15th century, when Charles VII issued a law to terminate it.
    feudal system
    A political and economic system in which powerful landowners built fortified castles, with knights to fight their wars for more land and power or to secure their domain, and serfs to till their soil in exchange for protection. Feudal lords took lands, gained power, and extended their authority through frequent wars.
    Followed the pavane in the two-part suite. It was a gay, vigorous dance in various triple time signatures, performed by couples. The couples held hands while dancing around or up and down the hall several times. Then the man performed a solo for his partner. The dance had three forms and a dozen or more different steps (kicks, leaps, and jumps, but no glides) that could be combined. The dance was popular in the court from the last quarter of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century.
    gleeman and gleemaiden
    Professional entertainers and singers in Saxon England. Accompanied by what Chaucer called tomblesters or tombesteres (tumblers), they performed acrobatic feats, tumbling, gymnastics, balancing feats, and circuslike variety acts.
    Gothic architecture
    From the 12th through 16th centuries, architecture was characterized by pointed vaults, steeples that soared, buttresses, and later flying buttresses that supported large open interior spaces. The stability of Gothic cathedrals was a complex structure, a combination of oblique and vertical forces. The spire served as a symbol of the religious aspirations of the times. The invention of painted glass provided a medium for transparent art in the form of painted windows.
    By the mid-17th century, Arlecchino (Harlequin) had become the most popular character. His suit was made of patches, and he wore a cape and a mask. A mischievous, sly magician, he danced and mimed his role. Wrapping his cape around him while turning, he transformed himself into different characters during the play. Over two centuries, as commedia dell’arte developed, so did the role of Harlequin, which continued on through the 18th century in ballet.
    A circle or ring dance. Little is known about it other than that it was more intricate than the roundel. The dance appears in Chaucer’s writings and in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost as the reye. It may have been a version of a castanet dance known as the canary, which is said to have originated in Spain and came to England in the 15th century as part of a mascarade. Similar to the later gigue, its meters were 3/8 or 6/8. In the 17th century, canaries appeared in France. Partners stood at opposite sides of the room, dancing toward each other performing improvised, often strange steps.
    The entertainment between acts of plays or courses at a banquet. They were composed of songs, dances, and entertainments.
    Entertainers first noted around the ninth century. They may have descended from the Roman mimi. Part of noble households, French jongleurs became known as ménestrels; they played instruments such as harps, lutes, and small organs.
    Soldiers in the social status were beneath priests who served the feudal lord. Knights practiced chivalrous etiquette and elaborate courtesies to ladies.
    Performed in open spaces and included lavish tournaments and processions with decorated wagons.
    May dances
    May Day, or St. George’s Day, was one of the five feast days declared by Pope Gregory. A spring dance with its roots in fertility festivals, May Day and maypole dances were universal throughout Europe. In Bavaria, young unmarried girls were auctioned as partners for dancing in the next year’s festival. In England a girl was selected as Queen of the May. Maypoles were prominent features in villages and even in London. In northern countries, maypoles were fir or birch trees; later poles were used. Dancers circled the trees, weaving intricate patterns with streamers attached to the tree.
    Middle Ages
    A term coined by 15th-century Italian humanists to designate the period between ancient times and the modern period of Western European culture.

    Teacher’s Note: High Middle Ages

    The High Middle Ages began with the Norman Conquest in AD 1066 and applies to those parts of the world that had cultures with feudal characteristics.

    midsummer or St. John’s Eve
    The festival of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was chosen by the church as St. John’s Day. During the festival people danced around fires or leapt over or through a large bonfire, often while swinging burning brooms or throwing burning discs into the air. Although prohibited by the church, the dances were still performed into the late 15th century. King Frederick III of Germany danced around a midsummer fire in Regensburg.
    Wandered from castle to castle and town to town throughout Western Europe, bringing the latest news, fashions, dances, and music to taverns, guildhalls, or barons’ keeps. In nobles’ castles, their presence was indispensable at betrothals, weddings, baptisms, knight-dubbing ceremonies, treaty signings, and tournaments. The number of minstrels increased with the prestige of the festival or occasion. Paid by their host in jewels, clothing, and room and board, they were "licensed vagabonds, with free right of entry into the presence-chambers of the land, known by their gaudy coats of many colors and by instruments on their backs."
    Morris dance
    There are various theories about the origin of the Morris dance. Some speculate that Morris dances appeared in England around the time of Chaucer (1343–1400) and that they were a continuation of the sword dance that came to England during the same period. Some believe the dance recounted the conflict between the Europeans and the Moors. The name Morris is the English version of moresque or moresca, the Spanish name for a Moor who stayed in Spain and became Christian after the country was reconquered by the Spaniards. Whatever its origin, the Morris dance is still performed in England today. “Country Gardens” was one song that accompanied the dance.
    The six men in a Morris dance wore masks or blackface, tall hats, white shirts, and breeches decorated with ribbons, rosettes, flowers, and greenery. They had bells attached to their legs. They carried white handkerchiefs and clapped intricate rhythms. Several costumed characters, such as Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Little John, Friar Tuck, and a fool, mimed scenes.
    Relates to both the sword dance and the Morris dance. As early as the 12th century in England, around New Year’s, Easter, and Whitsun, people attended feasts and plays and joined in dances. Wearing masks and fancy costumes, they portrayed sword dancers and stock characters such as the king, queen, fool, or doctor.
    mystery, miracle, and morality plays
    Three types of drama that emerged within the church during the Dark Ages. Mystery plays educated the masses about church teachings. Miracle plays told the lives of the saints and martyrs. Morality plays illustrated moral truths, such as virtue over vice.
    The pavane and the galliard made up a two-part suite. These two dances were performed in succession without a pause. One of the earliest court dances, the pavane was a ceremonial dance performed by the nobility to display their attire. The name of the dance comes from Latin, meaning “peacock.” Some sources claim the dance originated in Spain; others say it started in Italy. The pavane was performed to music in 4/4 time, played in a slow, dignified tempo. Couples executed the steps, which were based on simply walking forward and back, as they moved in a procession around the hall. The pavane was danced in the court from 1530 to 1676.
    The pavane took the place of the basse danse as the formal entrance dance. Known as measures in England, the dance, which circled the room several times, was a precursor to the grand march of the 19th-century ballroom.
    Means rebirth. In Europe the Renaissance began in Italy and spread through Europe (ca. 1420–1580).
    Romanesque architecture
    Developed in Western European countries that had been under Roman rule. From the 9th through the 12th centuries, the small and dark stone buildings developed on the model of the Roman basilica or model for early Christian churches that were built in the shape of the cross. Stout walls and arched ceilings and domes were the basis for new construction theories. A rose window placed over the west door of the church remained the central ornamentation. The ornamental detail related to the location of the church.
    Also called a rondelay, it was a circular dance accompanied by a song, or roundelay. A country dance, it could be performed as a ring dance in which all participants joined hands, moving one direction and then the other using different steps; or in follow-the-leader fashion, with the leader calling out the change of steps.
    Performed predominantly in Italy and Germany, where it was called the trotto and Springdantze, respectively. This round dance used three steps and a hop or schottische step, or in some forms more lively hops and leaps, while moving to the left and then back to right. By the 15th century the saltarello contained slow rises (relevés) rather than leaps. The basse danse and saltarello have a musical connection, since the latter is a variation on the basse danse; the music was transposed and played twice as fast.
    During the Renaissance the saltarello was replaced by the tourdion, and the pavane replaced or preceded the basse danse.
    sword dances
    Sword dances from ancient times continued in the Middle Ages, either as solos or group dances. At least 20 varieties of ceremonial sword dances have been found throughout Europe and England. The English dances often began with a “calling on” song. In Scotland the sword dance was considered a test of skill and agility. The dancers performed quick, difficult steps between sharpened swords arranged on the ground.
    Only men performed sword dances. The five, six, or eight dancers, each carrying a sword, performed intricate, sinuous figures while doing a smooth, running step in a circle or around a garlanded maypole. Each man held the handle of his sword in his right hand and clasped the tip of sword of the person in front of him to complete the circle. During their circling, the men twisted and turned, passing under the swords and leaping or performing somersaults over them. With their swords, the group created designs such as the rose, lock, or knot. In the lock, the swords were placed over each dancer’s head as a mock crowning or around the neck as a mock decapitation.
    Additional characters accompanied the dancers in both the sword and Morris dances. Couple characters (such as a king and queen, lord and lady, or fool and Maid Marian, but more frequently Tom and Bessy) provided comic, often grotesque relief.
    The most famous dance associated with dance mania. Supposedly someone bitten by a tarantula would dance until exhausted as a way to rid the body of the poison. Dancing the tarantella was also supposed to combat St. Vitus’ Dance. The true origin and purpose of the tarantella is unclear. Some say it was named after Taranto, a town in southern Italy where it was supposed to have originated. Others say that performing the tarantella was a cure for a spider bite.
    Several variations of the tarantella developed. In the Neapolitan version, women danced and swirled their petticoats, accompanying themselves with snapping fingers, tambourines, and song. Another version is a dramatic couple dance of wooing, rejection, and return. The dancers would stamp out rhythmic patterns, turning and changing places. Sometimes it is described as a dance for three (two women and a man), or at least three women, because it was considered unlucky to dance the tarantella alone.

    Teacher’s Note: Therapeutae

    In the first century AD, Therapeutae, a Christian cult, performed circle dances while singing hymns on Sundays and holy days

    Entertainers who performed dance songs that included verses that were sung or played, after which they joined hands and danced. This sequence was repeated throughout the song.
    two-part suite
    The pavane and the galliard made up the two-part suite. These two dances were performed in succession or immediately following one another without a pause.
    A first-century Roman architect who wrote De Architecturea, which became the impetus for Sebastiano Serlio, a Renaissance architect and scenic designer, to create either a tragic or comic mood within the stage space.
    Perhaps the most controversial yet popular dance in France and England among young dancers was the volta, la volta, or volte. Originally from Provence and considered a relative of the galliard, it was a close couple dance performed in triple time. The dancers continually turned in this lively dance. To make it even more risqué, the gentleman grabbed the wooden point of the lady’s corset, the busk, and boosted her into the air with his thigh under her backside, making a half-turn before setting her down. This movement revealed knees and left both partners giddy and breathless from the continuous turning and lifting.