Walking to music gracefully: a quick course in SCA dance

-Maestro Lyev Davidovitch 


“And if you desire to marry you must realize that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing, because ladies do not like to be present at fencing or tennis, lest a splintered sword or a blow from a tennis ball should cause them injury.”

-- Thoinot Arbeau, 1589


Who danced? Royalty, nobility and peasants danced, although not all on the same dance floor. Probably Vikings weren’t in the same tournament lists as Samurai and Normans either. The SCA allows us to cross national boundaries and enjoy all the Current Middle Ages has to offer. Dancing was done as part of religious celebrations, at wedding feast, tournaments, and state receptions. It is a fun activity that both young and old partook in! Also there was less distinction back then between performance dance and social dance.


“Dancing, or saltation, is both a pleasant and a profitable art which confers and preserves health; proper to youth, agreeable to the old and suitable to all provided fitness of time and place are observed and it is not abused.” – Arbeau


Most important rule of dancing


Have fun


There’s no scowling dancingmaster with a ruler commenting that your steps are too big[1], no set of judges deciding to give you an 8.0 or 8.5, and no pressure when you step on the wrong foot (we *all* do!) So have fun! Smile! You’re dancing with someone who thinks enough of you to be giving of their time to share a dance with you. You’ll find that enthusiasm on the dance floor is contagious – this is one of the joys of social dance.


“And there is more to it than this, for dancing is practiced to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savour one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasat odour as of rotten meat ” -Arbeau


Honors and courtesy on the dance floor – asking someone to dance Both men and women were expected to ask others to dance, so don’t be a wallflower unless you want to. The environment is friendlier than Jr. High. Good dancers should always try to share one dance at an event with someone they’ve never danced with before. Remember that the historical nobility were showing their best courtly manners on the dance floor. I’ve always felt that this is where the gentles in the SCA show their best courtesy (or at least try too). Often though, people may be a bit hesitant to ask someone to dance if they seem to be sitting away from the musicians, or are engaged in conversation. According to Caroso, a 16th c. dancingmaster, the ladies who didn’t want to be asked to dance would keep their mantles on, but the gentlemen could expect to be asked to dance at any time[2]. But in the SCA, it’s not as clear cut. If you’re sitting down and haven’t danced for a while, people might be assuming that you’re only interested in watching the dancing. But if you go up to a few people and ask them to dance, then others will see that you’re actively dancing, and will be more likely to ask you in return.


Good ways to decline dancing with someone:

  1. Thanks, but I think I’m going to sit this dance out. Later perhaps?
  2. Thanks, but I already promised this dance to that person over there.
  3. Thanks, but I’ve danced with you already this night, and there are several people that I want to and haven’t had a chance to dance with yet. Maybe after I’ve danced with them?

Also not everyone you ask will want to dance with you for various reasons. They don’t need to offer an detailed explanation either.


Again, you’re being asked to share a dance for a few minutes with someone, and help them enjoy their time at this SCA event. You’re not being asked to go on a date with them, marry them, or spend the rest of your evening with them. As a side note, some people will only dance with their sweeties. This is quite fine if you and your sweetie are that way, although uncommon in SCA social dance. A quick “Thanks, but I only dance with X” is all it takes -- no need to explain yourself.


Introductory reverence Usually before a dance the musicians will play a bar or two of music for you to honor your partner (called a reverence or riverenza), and the last note of the dance will be often be drawn out a bit to left you give a brief honors again. Briefly, you put your weight on one foot while drawing the other back slightly. Bend the knee of the foot that moves while transferring weight to it (your torso will dip slightly). You can decline your body downwards slightly from the hips, but not to the extent that it looks like you’re bending over to tie your shoe[3]. You can doff your hat and kiss your hand at your partner if you want. Then straighten up and move your feet together. Honoring your partner is described slightly differently in the French and Italian sources.


Connection, not control Nearly every dance is done with a partner (except some galliards and tourdions[4]). Most often you will take hands with your partner. Branles and Carole were done as long chains or rings of dancers holding hands. Taking hands properly will not only keep you from getting your feet stepped on, but also increase the likelihood of your partner wanting to dance with you again. The best way to take hands is to form a small C-shape with your fingers and thumb, and interlock it with your partner’s C-shape. The man’s thumb goes on top, the lady’s on bottom. It’s OK if the thumb touches your partner’s hand (the sources are unclear on this), but you shouldn’t grasp your partner’s hand so tightly that they can’t easily remove their hand. You are connecting with your partner, not controlling them. Think of your arm as a spring, connecting you to your partner. Too much tension and you will yank your partner around like a sack of barleycorn (and probably not be asked to dance again). Again, this is connection and communication, and not control. Too little tension and your partner will not know where you’re moving next. A good exercise to practice good connection is to do a simple couple dance like a pavan with the follower’s eyes closed! A good leader will be able to easily guide the follower around gracefully.


Music cues the footwork One beat usually equals one foot movement. One tempo of music is the amount of time that a double takes, whether it’s Italian 15th c., French 16th c., or English 16th c. As an aside, the measure lines in 15-16th c. music were not standardized to the “tactus” (the underlying pulse) of a piece of music. This pulse guides the footwork. In an arrangement where a tempo is one measure of 4/4 time, a double forward is:

Beat 1: step      Beat 2: step      Beat 3: step      Beat 4: close without shifting weight

This pattern of stepping (with a weight shift) and closing (without a weight shift) appears often. Dancers who have to hurry and fudge through the last few steps (when they are behind the tempo) look less graceful than those that are in perfect time with the music.


One double = 3 steps and sometimes a close The basic step is the “double” That is, a double left would be: Step left (putting your weight on the left), step right, step left, and end by bringing the right foot next to the left but keeping your weight on the left. Since your weight is on the left foot, the next movement would be with the right foot. Thus three doubles in a row starting with a double left would be: double left, double right, and double left again. There are a few steps that don’t follow this, and the next step will start on the same foot (contropasso and scorssi). But they are the rare exception! A double left that’s not closed would lack that final bringing your feet together. Some Italian doubles lack the closing and have a small pause instead, or have a hop. But that’s best left for the specifics of whatever form of dance. The French branle doubles go sideways. A branle double left would be: step sideways left, bring your right foot near to your left, step sideways left again, bring your right foot to close (without shifting your weight).


Two singles = one double This is another cardinal rule. The same amount of music is needed for two singles or one double. A single left (taking half the time of a double) would just be a step left followed by a close (or pause or whatever) where your weight is not shifted. This would then be followed by a movement with the right foot, just like how a double left followed by a double right is done.

Some easily available period sources for Western Dance for beginners

* Del’s Book of Dance (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/del/

* The SCA Dance page: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/dance.html

* Dance music MP3’s http://ieee.uwaterloo.ca/praetzel/mp3-cd/index.html#Heading9


Links to cheat sheets, articles, online sources, and much more

* “The Old Measures”(16th c. English) ed  Peter and Janelle Durham. Ordering information for booklet with transcriptions of the original sources and CD of music for the dances is at http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/dance/inns_of_court.html

* Joy and Jealousy (15th c. Italian reconstructions) by Vivian Stephens and Monica Cellio, Real Soon Now Press 1997, Parts available online at http://sca.uwaterloo.ca/~praetzel/Joy_Jealousy/  For sale at Tomes at Trips at Pennsic! This is probably the best beginner’s guide to Italian dance ever made

* The Letter of Dance (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/lod/ ) edited by Cathy Dean (ska Lady Katherine Mercer) is a newsletter highlighting information of interest to the SCA dance community. Back issues are archived on the site one year after publication. Some inexpensive CD’s of dance music ($3/ea.) are available through her too.


Easy to find translations of period sources:

* Orchesography by Thoinot Arbeau (1589, French), trans Mary Stewart Evans, notes by Julia Sutton, Dover 1967 ISBN#0-486-21745-0

* De Practica Seu Arte Tripudii – On the Practice or Art of Dancing, by Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro, (15th c. Italian) ed and trans Barbara Sparti, Clarendon Press 1993 ISBN#0-19-816574-9  (this one is a bit more difficult than Arbeau)

* The Library of Congress has scans of many vintage dance manuals at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html


A brief dance timeline:

Before 1400: Dance music survives but no complete choreographies do. Common dance forms were carole, piva, saltarello and estampie.

c. 1450: Music and choreographies of Burgungian bassadance in the Brussles MS (but limited description of how the steps were done)

1450-1470: The three Italian masters of the 15th century, Domenico, Cornazzano, and Guglielmo Ebreo, write manuscripts on balli and bassadanza. Several copies of their manuscripts exist today.

c.1486: The Gresley manuscript is made – a cribsheet offering clues on English dances.

1570-1625: A series of crib sheets by various authors, collectively called the “Old Measures” document the dancing at the Christmas revels of the Inns of Court in London. The dances done were almans, pavans and measures.

1581: Caroso publishes Il Ballarino describing Italian balli. The 16th century style is much different than the previous work of the 15th century dancingmasters.

1589: Orchesographie first published in France by Arbeau, documenting branles, pavans, almans, galliards, bassadance among others. Arena in France writes about similar dances.

1600: Caroso’s second book of balli, Nobilta di Dame is published

1602: Negri publishes his book of Italian balli, Le Gratie d’Amore

1651: John Playford, a few years after Cromwell’s execution of the king, starts a family dynasty by publishing the English Country Dancingmaster. This is a record of country dances and music. Many editions are made by him and his descendants, stretching into the late 18th century. Hole in the Wall appears in the 1696 edition.


Note: SCA Corpora (www.sca.org) states that the period of study is “pre-1600”, but often there is some leeway past this in dance balls. Some dancingmasters consider dances in the first-edition of Playford  edition to be close enough to include. Some consider 18th century minutes close enough. Some consider 20th century folk dances and contra dances close enough. If you want to know the time period of the dance you’re learning, just ask the instructor!

[1] Speaking of which, the best way to annoy someone you’re dancing with is to be critical of their footwork. There is a chivalric virtue known as “Frankness” that requires a person in some cases to speak their opinion even if they know the recipient doesn’t want to hear the news (such as an advisor warning their king). Along those lines, frankness also means that if you are not in the proper position to give unsolicited advice, then you keep quiet. For example, if you are teaching a dance class then the students can expect that you will politely correct their technique. If you are socially dancing, then you should not do unless asked. The exception is if you have a close relationship with the person you’re giving advice to. My rule is if I’m acquainted enough with someone that I feel comfortable going up to them and point out something stuck between their teeth, then I will correct their dance technique without first being asked.

[2] From Julia Sutton’s translation of Noblita, and Caroso also mentions that if a noted guest at a ball hasn’t been asked to dance, that the host should send his wife to ask him to dance lest he feel left out.

[3] From Noblita, p95-98

[4] But even then there are stylized variants such as the Lyonesse galliard that partners show off for the other.


Copyright © 2005 by L.J. Sparvero, this document is freely copyable for not-for-profit educational organizations as long as it is copied intact and the only prices charged are to cover copying expenses.