Guglielmo’s Six Principal Elements of Dance

by Maestro Lyev Davidovitch (Cleftlands Dance Collegium, Sept. XXIV A.S.XL)


“Measure is foremost and wants with it memory; partition then of ground, with pleasant air;

sweet manner and movement – these the things which give dance its glory” – Guglielmo Ebreo’s list of the six elements


Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro’s book ­De Pratica seu Arte Tripudii[1] (On the Practice or Art of Dancing) is one of the best surviving primary sources on 15th century Italian dance, and describes dances and courtly behavior as observed by the author. Several copies of the manuscript were made over time, and a few minor changes were made. But this work is well known for its descriptions of music and dance, and also advice to gentlemen and ladies as to how to act in courtly settings. Guglielmo gives rules for dancing well – his “Six Principal Elements” of dance – and also a series of exercises that students can do to improve their skill. These elements are[2],[3]:


1. Measure/misura

2. Memory/memoria

3. Partitioning the Ground/partir di terreno

4. Air/aire

5. Manner/maniera

6. Body Movement/movimento corporeo


So how can we use these elements to improve our dancing style?



Thus says Guglielmo, “Therefore, the person who wishes to dance must regulate and gauge himself, and must so perfectly accord his movements with it and in such a way that his steps will be in perfect accord with aforesaid tempo and measure will be regulated by that measure.” What does that mean? I interpret it as keeping the steps crisply in beat within the allocated unit of music.  Thus two sempii or one doppio will exactly fit into one bar of music (one “tempo” according to him). 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 exercise he gives is to have a musician play a piece, and change the tempo by speeding up or slowing down, trying to get the dancers to go out of time with the music. Many of you have seen this already, with how the SCA Maltese Branle is usually done as a “suicide” dance.

Another exercise that he gives is to have the dancers start a few bars late, but to try and keep in tempo despite of this[4]. Since Italian 15th century balli tend to change tempo/time signature, this can be quite challenging. A better beginning exercise is to do this with simple duple time branles or figured almans. For example, the musicians could play Horse’s Branle, and the dancers will wait until the musicians are starting their 3rd bar to join in (assuming one bar equals a branle double):



The musicans play bars:

While the dancers normally would do:

While the dancers instead will do:

A part: 1-2

Double L & R

Do nothing!


Double L & R

Double L & R


Double L & R

Double L & R


Double L & R

Double L & R

B part: 1

Men tap, tap, step to the R

Double L!


Men turn in place

Double R!

B part repeats: 1

Ladies tap, tap, step R

Men tap, tap, step to the R


Ladies turn in place

Men turn in place

Back to A part: 1

First Double L

Ladies tap, tap, step to the R


First Double R

Ladies turn in place


Second Double L & R….

From the beginning: Double L & R etc


Once the dancers get the hang of this exercise, the musicians can have more fun with it. Instead of playing at an even tempo, the musicians can try to slow down and speed up to try and draw the dancers in correct time with the music (as Guglielmo describes in another exercise). So while the musicians are “suiciding” the music, the dancers have to stay exactly a set amount off tempo. It’s harder on the dancers than it sounds. Once we get a partial measure off, our feet have been conditioned with years of dancing the same piece to want to adjust to the correct steps, instead of staying a set number of measures off tempo. Both these last two exercises are even harder if the number offset is odd, so the dancers start out of time by, say, one-and-a-half doubles.

The biggest message any beginning dancer can get from this exercise is that the music cues the footwork, and it’s stylish to stay on tempo. When first learning a dance figure, it’s good to ask: “In the time of this sequence, how many doubles/singles/bars of music are played?”



This is not only remembering what steps go with which bars of music, but also remembering when the tempo changes (as it often does with balli). Much of the Italian balli can be broken down into several parts, and I’ve found it to be helpful to give some name to help me remember each part. This can be as descriptive or silly as you want – my “cheat sheet” for Rostiboli Gioioso has the four parts of the dance listed as “solo’s part, dance as a couple, have a really good time as a couple, have a fight and break up[5]”. I have detailed figures for each part -- the solo part is: “two riprese, two sempii, two doppio, turn and face, all that again.” This breaks it down into a list of four segments of a dance rather than forty individual steps, and I can work on each segment individually. I’ve found that a segment of a dozen steps at a time is a manageable number to learn (and practice) at once, and then stringing these segments together into a whole dance becomes much easier. It also becomes a lot easier to call a dance by segments.


Partitioning the Ground/partir di terreno

As much of the 15th century balli were done as performance dances, Gugliemo’s caution here reminds the dancers to be aware of their surroundings. In the SCA, these dances are more often done with several couples on the floor, so crowding can be even more of an issue. Anyone who has had a modern ballroom class will remember the large amount of time devoted to “danger steps” and “leads”. The latter is something that is too often overlooked in the SCA. In closed ballroom position, there is an awful lot of connection between the dancers of a couple. Each of them can look over the other’s blind side, and give a subtle nudge to warn if they are about to get rammed into a wall.

In most couples positions for SCA dance, the only connection is with the inside hand. But still that is enough contact to communicate. If the dancers remember to keep their arms slightly rigid (sort of like a “good frame” in ballroom) this will help give the other dancers enough of a connection to tell them “wall behind you, take little steps back” and such. 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). Too little tension and your partner will not know where you’re moving next[6].

I’ve felt that in Italian balli, the dancer on the left (“il primo”) is the one with the responsibility for leading the set, and the others follow[7]. After all, in three person dances like Petit Riens, if the dancer on the left wants to go one way and the dancer on the right wants to go another, the middle dancer will become a wishbone! As a note, this connection is best thought of as “communication” and not “control.” The partners are communicating with each other by gentle contact. With good connection the leader should be able to guide the other dancers. One problem that can happen is the leader wants to take big steps and the followers little. The leader will then feel a bit of a tug on his arm. This doesn’t mean that he should tug harder! The leader should take smaller paces to restore good connection, like keeping a spring between them from getting stretched too far. A corollary to this is for the followers not to get ahead of the leader. For dances where there is backwards movement, the dancers should be checking the blindsides of their partners and with good connection gently warning them if they’re about to run into something.

Some Italian balli end with a part where the woman goes away from her partner and returns at the very end, and the dance is repeated with the woman doing the man’s part. In this case, the woman should get into the leader’s position. This means that both men and women should practice being followers and leaders. Also men asked women to dance and women asked men to dance. So it’s not all that improbable that a dance could start with the woman in the leader’s position. The Nurnberg MS[8] seems to document this happening.

In circle dances, such as branles, one can cause the whole circle to expand or contract just by changing their arm and shoulder posture. If a dancer is feeling that there is not enough room to dance, they can make their shoulders more rigid and keep their arms wide apart. This connection will be transmitted to all the dancers around the circle (assuming they are keeping the spring-like posture with their arms as before), and eventually the whole circle will expand. If a dancer wants to contract the circle, they can bring their arms slightly in front of them. This technique is also used in modern Scandinavian/Balkan folk dancing; sometimes the dancers will be leaning backwards as they dance and rely on their connection with the other dancers in the circle to keep from falling over.

A more important note is what to do if the floor really is smaller than expected. The best thing to do is to vary the size of your strides, and in fact a good dancer of the time period would normally be doing steps with different stride lengths. As much fun as adding circling and such to avoid running out of room, it’s probably less authentic since such things aren’t called for in the choreography.

One other way that a good connection is important is that the step distances were not fixed (as opposed to the 16th c. Italian sources, which spell out in excruciating detail the number of fingerbreadths and handbreadths each step is). Cornazzano describes “diversita di cose” where the step lengths are deliberately varied. To avoid stepping on your partner’s toes, good frame and good connection is needed.



Thus says Guglielmo: “This is an act of airy presence and a rising movement with one’s body which appears, through nimbleness in the dance, as a sweet and most gentle rising up. Thus, anyone dancing a sempio or a doppio, a ripresa or continenza, or scossi or saltarello, has to lift the body lightly and rise up nimbly on the down-beat, for by keeping flat, without rising and without air, dancing would appear imperfect and unnatural.”

This is related to the “Ondeggiare” (to wave[9]) that Cornazano mentions, and the “Mainera” that Domenico describes as “like a gondola that is propelled by two oars through waves when the sea is calm as it normally is. The said waves rise with slowness and fall with quickness[10].” I interpret this as a flat step for the first beat, and a gentle rising for the rest of the beats. I’m on my toes until the very end of the last beat[11]. The exercise he gives with the instruments is significant in that he says when and to what degree ornamentation should be done.

All one needs to do this exercise is either two recordings of the same dance tune arranged differently, or live musicians that can switch instruments. The dance doesn’t even need to be 15th century Italian, although the balli are the easiest ones for this. The same dance is played with a different instrument on each repeat through the music, and the dancers have to change their ornamentation to match. Is it a light and melodious harp arrangement? Or is it a stern crumhorn? The dancers have to see if they can capture the feel of the piece in their steps.

As an aside, it’s unclear whether the doppio was closed at the end. That is, a doppio left that’s closed 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. This is like an English Country or Pavan double. Since your weight is on the left foot, the next movement would be with the right foot. A doppio left that’s not closed would lack that final step. I always do my doppio closed, since it helps keep my body flowing from one step to the next without a pause.



Thus says Guglielmo: “This means when in the art of dance someone does a sempio or a doppio he should accordingly adorn it and shade it in a comely manner; that is, he should, for the entire duration of the appointed time, turn his body completely to the same side as the foot with which he takes the sempio or doppio step.”

This “shading” (umbregi) is related to Cornazano’s “campeggiare” (literally “to square” as in square posture). I chose to interpret it as a slight shading of the torso and shoulder toward the side that I’m leading the step. That is, on a doppio left, I’d interpret this as a slight squaring of my torso to the left (so that the right side shades and becomes square to the axis of movement)[12]. I do this as a continuous motion, starting with the beginning of the step where the side I’m stepping with is leading slightly. My torso then shades toward that side, so that at the very end of the step my torso is square to the direction I’m moving (and thus neither side is leading). This again flows into the next step, where the other side will start by leading slightly.


Body Movement/movimento corporeo[13]

Thus says Guglielmo: “This must itself be perfectly measured, mindful, airy, well partitioned and gracious in manner.” I believe that this is just smoothly putting together the other five attributes in a effortless manner pleasing to the eye. Dancing shouldn’t seem like it’s a forced and unnatural movement, no should it seem like the dancers are sacks of barleycorn being heaved around the room. For a good exercise to get better at dancing, start in a small dance floor (partir di terreno) with aire (the rising and falling), then start adding maniera (the shading/squaring), do it one measure of music off tempo (misura) and finally do it for a new dance (memoria) that you just learned!


Notes and References

[1] ­De Pratica seu Arte Tripudii: On the Practice or Art of Dancing, translated, edited and introduced by Dr. Barbara Sparti, Oxford University Press 1993 ISBN# 0-19-816233-2

[2] Cornazano and Domenico, two other 15th century dance masters, give slightly different sets of the six rules. Cornazano gives: memoria, misura, maniera, aire, diversita di cose, and compartimento di terreno. Domenico gives: misura, memoria, agilitade, maniera, misura di terreno, and fantasmate. One could argue that Domenico’s rules set should be the one that is followed, since he was the senior of the three. Another argument is that Cornazano’s or Guglielmo’s should be followed, since they published their rules about a decade later that Domenico, and thus had more time to tweak them.

[3] Joy and Jealousy, by Monica Cellio and Vivian Stephens, Real Soon Now Press 1997

[4] Much thanks for Daniele for pointing this out to me

[5] The description makes more sense if you’ve seen this particular dance.

[6] To those who have a Science background, I describe this as the dancers becoming atoms connected with a covalent bond, where they will feel resistance if they get to close or too far from each other.

[7] There is some debate if the leader was actually slightly ahead of his partner, or if both of them are even with each other. Try both! I’ve found that on crowded dance floors the former works better for snaking around the other couples, since it’s not like you’re leading a shield-wall charge. Andrew Draskoy wrote a short note in Joy and Jealousy about this.

[8]  Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music v.2, by A.William Smith, Pendragon Press 1995. Several of the descriptions of Italian balli in the Nurenberg MS start with the man to the right of the lady.

[9] The Italian definitions are taken from Andrew Draskoy’s article, “Dance-relevant Definitions in John Florio’s 1611 Italian-English Dictionary,” in Letter of Dance v.4, 1996

[10] Translated from Domenico’s On the art of dancing, c.1455, in Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music v.1, by A.William Smith, Pendragon Press 1995 ISBN# 0-945193-25-4

[11] This particular interpretation has been kicked around by numerous members of the Renaissance dance community and is no means definite, but is the one I have the most confidence in. For a comprehensive look at steps, see The Steps used in Court Dancing in Fifteenth-Century Italy by D.R. Wilson, published by the author 2003, ISBN# 0-9519307-3-7

[12] Again, this is my best interpretation based on evidence which is sometimes contradictory. Another interpretation is to lead with the other side of the body, which gives a posture which is far from square. See also Domenico and Cornazano as quoted by Smith. Were these ambiguous descriptions by different dance masters of the same thing, or was the style different depending on who was teaching it? I don’t know.

[13] Also described by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier


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.