Weekend of Wisdom, October 12th AS XXXVII (2002)


Stepping and Lo Spagnoletto in 16c. Italian Balli

Don Lyev Davidovitch lyev@verizon.net


Abstact: This is a quick course for dancers who want to try out 16th century Italian, but might have been intimidated by the difficulty of having to learn new step vocabulary at the same time as learning the choreographies of the dances. This class separates the two, and emphasizes the building blocks of dance rather than the choreographies (enough other instructors teach the latter).


Thesis: Almost everything can be thought of in terms of singles and doubles, with the specifics to be added once the choreography is mastered.


Background: There are three main primary sources for 16th c. Italian dance: Fabrito Caroso’s Il Ballarino (1581) and Nobilta di Dame[1] (1600) and Cesare Negri’s Le Gratie d’Amore[2] (1602). Of Caroso’s two monographs, the second introduces “new and corrected” choreographies for some dances. Caroso’s dances tended to be for one couple, while Negri’s tended to be for two couples. The step vocabulary is essentially identical between Caroso’s two works. There are slight differences in the step descriptions between Negri and Caroso, which can actually be explained as a typo in Negri[3]. Hence, I’m using Caroso’s terminology.


Discussion: One constant of western dance in the 16th century is that most of it can be broken down into “singles” and “doubles”. In the English and French courtly dances, a single is commonly reconstructed as a on the first beat a step forward with one foot, and on the second either a pause or a closing of the feet without switching weight. In a sequence of two singles, the second one would start on the opposite foot from the first. A double is a sequence of three steps and again a pause/close. So a single left would be (in four beats): step left, step right, step left, keep weight on the left. Since the dancer’s weight ended up on the left foot, a second double immediately following would be starting on the right.


Thus in Italian 16th century, if we think of everything as patterns of singles and doubles, then the footwork becomes a whole lot easier to comprehend. As an example, the English Dances in the 1st edition of Playford have figures which often can be described as “do a hey for so many doubles worth of music” or “do a double forwards and back”. It doesn’t matter how the doubles are done, and that is not even described (other than “four steps and a closing both feet”) anywhere in Playford.


There are a variety of ways to do a double and single step, but the constant that I will be assuming is that two singles happen in the same time as a double. What gets confusing is that there are some slow and fast double steps that throw off this rhythm (breves, minimums, etc.) This is gone into more detail in Pamela Jones’ work, but one way to think of it is that there are usually a slow way to do a step (often called or “breve” or “grave”) and a fast way (“minima” or “presti”).


Some steps in 16th century dance move sideways or turn instead of going forwards or backwards (ex: bransles and set-and-turns). Correspondingly, the sideways steps of Italian 16th century dance can be broken down into singles and doubles sideways, some going more slowly than others. There are also kicks, hops and jumps, but I’m only covering those briefly. I’m going to assume all these are starting with the left foot for ease of explanation.

The “singles”: (these usually take half the time of a double)

Seguito Spezzato (SAY-goo-ee-toe  Spets-ZAH-toe) Step forward on your left, place your right foot behind your left heel, and lift-and-drop your left foot. This step sequence gives the appearance of an “interrupted” or “broken” walking motion. I don’t think the second foot actually cuts under.

Passo (PASS-so) One step done naturally like part of a walking motion.

Passo Presti (-- PRESS-tee) Twice as fast as a normal passo

Passo Puntato (-- Pun-TAH-toe) A step with a close. It’s a distinctly stopped step, like the Spezzato. Think pavane single, but choppier.


The “doubles”:  (“Seguito” means “sequence”)

Seguito Ordinario (SAY-goo-ee-toe Or-din-ARE-ee-oh) Three steps with no close at the end. The tempo in duple time is quick-quick-slow. In triple time it would be step-and-step-step-and-and. The sequence starts on the toes and ends flat.

Seguito Semidoppio Ornato (-- Say-me-DOH-pee-oh Or-NA-toe) Two steps in the quick-quick beats, and a seguito spezzato on the slow beat.

Seguito Scorso (-- SCORE-so) Ten little “scurrying” steps (I’ve never gotten in more than eight in the time of most music!)


“Honoring”: Riverenza (Re-ver-EN-zah). In four counts, point your foot slightly forward (it should be a little forward in your normal stance anyway), bring it slightly behind your other foot, bend your back knee while keeping your body straight, finally rise up and bring your feet together. Usually takes two doubles worth of music, in Lo Spagnoletto it takes only one (riverenza breve).


“Sideways singles”

Trabuchetto (Tra-boo-KET-toe) in the time of a single, rock your body up and down and end up on one foot. Imagine that you’re miming a trebuchet shot going up-across-and down. This is a falling jump to the side. Two of these take the time of a single in Lo Spagnoletto.

Sottopiede (SOT-toe-pee-yea-dee) A “foot-under” – step sideways diagonally forward with your left foot, then replace it by putting your right underneath it from behind. In Lo Spagnoletto, three of these are in the space of a single so they really go fast (sometimes called a “ripresa”).


“Sideways double”: Continenza (con-tin-EN-zah) A graceful step to the side with a slight raising of the body, ending flat and feet together right on the beat.


In general, the steps were kept very small and described as traveling so many “finger-widths” in a given direction. The big galumphs done in 20th century contra dances would get you a stern look from your dance master, if he were present.
A quick and dirty reconstruction of Lo Spagnoletto


The music is in the pattern AABBCC. Each part is two doubles long. The steps for the “BBCC” are identical throughout the dance, but sometimes only the men or women do the BB part. There are a total of seven repeats (verses) of the music. The dance starts with two couples facing inwards to a square, ladies to the right of their partners, no one holding hands.


Verse 1: “introductions around town”

Verse 1A: All reverence in the space of a double, jumping up slightly on the last beat. All go around the circle a seguito ordinario to their left in the time of a double*

Verse 1A repeated: Two spezzati continuing around the circle in the time of a double, and a seguito ordinario**.

1B: All do three sottopiedi to the left in the space of a single (fast!), a trabuchetto left and right in the space of a single. Turn around in place to the left in the time of a double.

1B repeated: The same to the right starting with the right foot to get you back home.


Figure 1:Footwork is shown for part 1B (left) and 1B repeated (right). For clarity only Woman 1’s (W1) part is shown: sottopiedi to the left(1), trabuchetto left and right(2), then turn a circle to the left(3). And that to the right(4,5,6), ending up back to place.


1C: All do a passo backwards on the right, turning the right side. then do a passo back on the left turning left side (the two passi are in the time of one double). Then do a seguito ordinario forwards to get back home

1C repeated: The same


The “B” and “C” parts are the same for the entire dance. On the verses where one gender does a solo, only that gender does the “B” part. Everybody always does the “C” parts.



Figure 2: Pattern for the C parts (again only W1 is shown moving for clarity). Passo backwards turning right side(1), Passo back turning left side(2), Seguito forwards(3).


Verse 2: “Ladies strut”

2AA: Ladies only 2 doubles (or 2 passi and an ordinario) towards each other passing right shoulders, a double (or 2 spezzati) to turn 180, and a double (or an ordinario) to get back home, again passing the other lady to the right. Discrete glances at the other man can be done if you want.

2BB: Ladies only do this part.

2CC: everybody


3: Like verse 2, but Men are the active dancers “Men strut”


“Walk around town”

4AA: All 4 doubles around the circle to the left (actually 2 spezzati and an ordinario, repeated a total of two times)

4BB and 4CC:everybody


“Ladies get hopping mad”

5AA: Ladies only into the center do two passi (presti) and two trabuchetti in front of their partner (all in the space of a double) and a double to turn 180. Do the same in front of the other man and go back to place. Glaring at the other lady for daring to look at your man is optional. Negri calls for leading with the right shoulder for the first half, and the left shoulder for the second. This seems to be “strutting posture” to me.***

5BB: Ladies only. 5CC: everybody


6: Like verse 2, but Men are the active dancers “Lords get hopping mad”



7A: Arming – take right arms and two spezzati and a seguito ordinario (i.e. 2 doubles) to circle your partner 360’, so M1 and W1 arm, with each other, and thus M2 and W2****

7A repeated: M1 takes left arms with W2 and circles as before, M2 and W1 likewise

7BB and 7CC: everybody does this


Figure 3: This is the pattern for verses 2,3,5,6. For clarity only W1 is shown moving, but it would be her and W2 in verses 2 and 5. M1 and M2 only move in verses 3 and 6. The steps are two passi presti and two trabuchetti(1), a seguito(2), again passi and trabs(3) a seguito to home(4). The soloists would be passing right shoulders in the center.


*= An easy way to think of each of the “A” parts is that you’re doing something in the space of a double (riverenza, two spezzati, etc), then a seguito ordinario. So here the “thing in the time of a double” is the riverenza, followed by two spezzati. Incidentally here and in a few other places Negri calls for these to be two “fioretti spezzati”. This seems to be an ornamented version of the regular seguito spezzato (he fails to describe this though)

**=There is a lot of evidence that Negri’s seguito ordinario is really what Caroso calles a seguito semidoppio. I believe it’s a typo in Noblita, see Jones’s dissertation. However you could do the semidoppio’s whenever I call for an ordinatio if you prefer.

***=He could just be making sure that you pass shoulders, but then you’d be passing right shoulders first and left second. I like it as written above.

****=It’s ambiguous if only the men are moving and the ladies are stationary as the men orbit them (this figure is sometimes called a “post”) or if everyone is circling. I’ve written the latter here just since it’s easier to teach. Try both!*

[1] Courtly Dance of the Renaissance, A New Translation and Edition of the “Nobilta di Dame” (1600) Fabrito Carouso, translated and edited by Julia Sutton, Dover 1986 ISBN#0-486-28619-3

[2] Le Gratie d’Amore 1602 by Cesare Negri, Translation and Commentary, Gustavia Yvonne Kendall, PhD Dissertation, 1985, UMI#8602570

[3] The Relation between Music and Dance in Cesare Negri’s “Le Gratie d’Amore” (1602), Paula Jones, PhD Dissertation, 1988, UMI#9230321