Why “Horse’s Branle” gives dancemasters headaches
“For everyone who has belittled dancing, scores of others have praised and esteemed it. The holy prophet, King David, danced before the Ark of the Lord and the holy prophet Moses was not angered to see dancing, but grieved that it should take place around a Golden Calf and become an act of idolatry” –Arbeau 1589
by Don Lyev Davidovitch
Arbeau describes in passing a choreography and music for a dance called the “Branle des Chevavlx” (Horse’s Branle). The directions seem straightforward enough, starting with a set of “double left and right” repeated four times. As this is a mimed branle2, the man then stomps on the right foot twice, takes a step to the right, and turns over his left shoulder. The lady then does the same and the dance repeats3. It seems like this is a line dance, like most other branles (fig.1).
Figure 1. Man #1 (represented by the “M1” stamped on the top of his head) has taken the left arm of Woman#1 (W1, with the train behind her) with his right, and they are joined in line by Man#2 and Woman#2. The line is dancing to their left, then dancing to the right to return to place4.
But Arbeau specifically mentions that the man takes “both hands5” with the lady at the beginning of the dance, and after dropping hands for the stomping parts, takes both hands again. Since this wording appears twice in separate places it’s unlikely to be just a typo. Could the dancers be in a two lines facing each other then (fig.2)?
Figure 2. The dancers are facing their partner and holding both hands.
The problem with this then is that for the dance to work (and the dancers not to yank off each other’s arms) is that the women have to do branle doubles right first and then left, instead of Arbeau’s instructions of left first and then right. Thus they will be going in the same direction as the lords.
But what if this branle is not done longways, and instead has isolated couples facing each other holding both hands? (see fig 3). Then they could be doing branle doubles together with the proper footwork. There is some evidence for branles6 being danced like this, as isolated couples, such as the Torches/Candlestick Branle.
Figure 3 (left side) shows one couple facing and doing a branle double left, while Figure 4 (right side) shows a couple in skaters position holding both hands in front of them and doing an alman double forwards.
As for similarities between Torches/Candlestick Branle and Horse’s Branle, there are two interesting things7 about the former that might be relevant to understanding the instructions for Horse’s Branle. First, Arbeau explicitly calls for partner switching in each repeat of Torches Branle. Elsewhere he condemns the practice of taking another dancer’s partner when not called for in the choreography8, so one has to assume that any dances with partner switching will have it explicitly called for. Second, Torches Branle is done with alman (forwards) doubles, and not branle (sideways) doubles! Could it be that Horse’s Branle is meant to be done with alman doubles, since Arbeau never specifies which type9 of double in the choreography for Horse’s Branle? If the dancers in Horse’s Branle are in processional (pavane/alman) position, with the lady on the right, and they take each others outside hands low and in front of them (ala skater’s position), then this dance can work with any type of double. (see fig 4)
So what did Arbeau really mean with his brief instructions on this dance? I don’t know. There are at least a half dozen ways to do this dance, with varying degrees of authenticity. Try a few of them next dance practice, and you’ll find that this is not just that “same old dance” again.
Notes and References
 Orchesography by Thoinot Arbeau, trans. Lady Mary Stewart Evans, notes by Dr. Julia Sutton, Dover 1967 ISBN#0-486-21745-0
2 Such as Washerwoman’s, Maltese and Pease branles where the dancers imitate something with their movements
3 p.165-7 of Dover edition, folio 88r-89r of Library of Congress copy of the original book
4 With thanks to Rosina and She’erah for ideas for depictions of the dancers in these diagrams
5 “…le ieune homme tenant fa Damoise le par les deux mains”
6 Of course the Lavolta was danced this way, see p.122 of the Dover edition
7 In addition to the fact that the choreography and melody see to have been copied from Caroso’s Ballo del Fiore
8 p.126, “In dancing the Alman the young men sometimes steal the damsels from their partners and he who has been robbed seeks to obtain another damsel. But I do not hold with this behaviour since it may lead to quarrels and heart burning.” Keep in mind that Arbeau is inadvertently documenting partner stealing as a period practice here, since enough young men seem to have done it to provoke this stern warning from the dancing master.
9 Or pavane doubles, or courante doubles, or basse dance doubles