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Yvonne Kendall

Last updated November 24, 2002

  1. Brief Overview of World Dance
    • Asia
      • China
      • India
      • Japan
    • Pan-Islamic Region
    • Ancient Israel
    • Africa
  2. Dance in Western Culture
    • Ancient Dance
    • Dance and Christianity - Early Middle Ages
    • Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
    • Fourteenth Century
    • Fifteenth Century


From the earliest days of civilization, dance has been a part of human expression throughout the world, serving diverse cultural functions. Among these functions were worship, celebration of special events, ceremonies, entertainment, physical fitness, and military training. Dance was a regular part of religious practices in most major religions, and was common in Christianity until the thirteenth century. It was considered an adjunct to praising with music, whether vocal or instrumental. Social events and the secular celebrations that were often linked to religious festivals were also enlivened by dancing, as were formal ceremonies, such as royal visits and coronations. But this physical manifestation of joy and praise was not limited to special occasions. Dance was a part of everyday life as well. There are numerous accounts of after-dinner dancing and the use of dance for creating the healthy body that Plato, among others, considered a necessary component of citizens in a democracy. This linked dance to military training, most of which was done on foot and required not only physical stamina, but agility and fast footwork.

Dance has also been a point of discussion for writers, philosophers and religious leaders who often used dance imagery as part of their lexicon of metaphors. Figures as diverse as Aristotle, St. Augustine and Boccaccio all referred to dance in their works. Religious and literary works, including the Bible, constitute major sources of dance references, some metaphorical, some functional.

Any accurate understanding of dance is handicapped by the ephemeral nature of the art. Unlike the visual arts which are complete once created, the performing arts are ever re-created. For dance this is especially the case since, unlike music, no workable notation existed until the eighteenth century and no instructional treatises, at least in Western culture, existed before the early part of the fifteenth century.

There are, however, several avenues that lead toward information on dance in the medieval period. Dance references in literature, religious tomes and philosophical treatises comprise just one set of sources providing direction. Other writings, such as personal letters and ambassadorial missives add their part. Iconographic references can also be found, not only in art for art's sake but in decorations for household implements.

Later, treatises both theoretical and practical provided more specific information that can now be reconstructed to a certain extent. Although this research, closely allied with our growing understanding of medieval music, makes performance possible, performance of dance before the fifteenth century must remain mostly speculative.

I. Brief Overview of World Dance

A. Asia
1) China

In the pre-Christian era, Chinese iconography made a distinction between military and civilian dance. This distinction shows similarities with Plato's discussions on the purpose of dance for training the body. Later, beginning in the seventh century, both Han and T'ang dynasties made a point of collecting both music and dance for posterity. Chinese Confucianism and Buddhism incorporate dance as part of religious practices.

2) India
The trinity of Hindu gods (Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer) of India are closely associated with dance. Sculptures of Krishna, one of the physical forms or avatars of Vishnu often show him with a flute posing in dance positions. Shiva, as lord of yoga, has even closer dance ties. Dance is considered to be part of yoga and is associated with the act of creation, a vital part of the continuing cycle of life the trinity represents. [Readers with access to the Nanie Bridgeman art library or Groveart might consult image number 111524 (seventh century) and 137113 (twelfth century)].

Hindu temples historically housed devadasis, the dancers and musicians considered to be servants of the gods. The intimate relationship of music and dance in ancient India is exemplified by the Sanskrit word samgîta whose meaning houses both music and dance. The stylized hand and arm motions of the dancing devadasis were joined with characteristic leg gestures for acting out the great epic stories of Hindu culture and eventually a similar concept of dance became a part of Buddhist tradition. These movements have been immortalized in the rich visual arts traditions of India. India’s earliest extant dance treatise Natya sastra dates from approximately 1000 years before the first known Western treatise. The still-practiced Bharat Natyam and Kathak styles of dance developed from this long, rich history.

3) Japan
Traditions from China and India influenced the music and dance of Japan as early as the third century B.C.E., but Japanese culture adapted those influences for its own purposes. Bugaku, a ceremonial music of ancient Japan whose development began around 700 C.E., is associated with dance, as are celebrations in Shinto and Japanese Buddhist traditions. Japanese Buddhists, for example, celebrate festivals in honor of Buddha's life, enlightenment, and death. Obon festivals, representing the latter, are among the most well known of these celebrations with dance as an integral part of the activities. Noh drama, begun in the fourteenth century and left virtually unchanged until the seventeenth century always included highly stylized dance movements, much like Greek theater. The earliest Noh dances were related to Shinto ceremonies.

B. The Pan-Islamic region
Pre-Islamic Iran saw heaven as a place where the deserving would be surrounded by a paradise of voluptuous beauty, pleasure and the arts. Although much of Islamic practice precludes dance as part of religious observances, the Darwish, part of the Mevlevi order of Islam see dance as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Beginning in the thirteenth century, members of this sect, known as "whirling dervishes," initiated the practice of spinning in ever-accelerating circles, hoping to reach a trance state. Despite a fourteenth century attempt by more conservative proponents of Islam to stamp out dancing, Arab raqs (dances) remained widespread among the populace.

C. Ancient Israel
The Hebrews used dance as part of worship and general celebration as seen in the many references to dance in the Bible's Old Testament and the Apocrypha. In the Psalms, for example, the Israelites are often encouraged to express their praise of God with dance as part of worship (see Psalm 149:3, 150:4, etc.). Several biblical references supported dance as an appropriate part of religious celebrations and, in fact, current studies of the Aramaic language have revealed that the meaning of the word "rejoice" includes the concept of dancing. Dance was also used to celebrate the return of heroic figures, as seen in the Apocrypha where the women of Israel danced before Judith, while singing men in armor followed (Judith 12-13).

D. Africa
Africans include among them the world cultures best known for dancing. Prehistoric African art includes several examples of dance movements. This clear interest in dance was reported by early European visitors to Africa who, almost without exception, commented on the integral part dance played in African life. Even fourteenth-century Arab historian Muhammad ibn Kaldûn mentions eagerness to dance whenever music was available as one of the most notable characteristics of African culture. Dance was and is part of praise, celebration and everyday life among the varied peoples of Africa.

II. Dance in Western Culture

In Western culture the largest repertoire of instrumental music in the Medieval Period is dance music. While there are no choreographies available before 1445, there are examples of dance music notated from the days of the ancient Greeks. General descriptions and iconographic exemplars of specific dances preserve some idea of the nature of these dances.

A. Ancient Dance
Dance, like music, served both sacred and secular purposes in the Ancient Western world. Beyond these, however, extant dance references among the ancient Greeks and Romans are metaphorical, philosophical, practical, and iconographic. An example of a metaphorical reference comes from Aristotle who, in his Metaphysics (VII-9), compared the motion of matter to dancing. In Book IX of the Aeneid, Virgil similarly refers to the "glittering planets dancing in their spheres.” Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides and others used dance metaphors on numerous occasions. Aristophanes’s works, for instance, contain over eighty dance references. These references are not limited to comedies, as might be expected, but are plentiful in tragedies as well.

Philosophical references to dance include those in the "Laws" section of Plato's Dialogues. Plato promotes the following view: "dancing that imitates musical recitation aims to preserve dignity and freedom." He also posited that the combination of rhythm and melody produced the choral art, while rhythm and motion created dance. More pragmatic is his view that physical activities help balance musical activities in the life of a healthy person. Horace, however, takes a more earthy tone concerning the entertainment value of dance when he exhorts "Now for drinks, now for some dancing to a good beat" (Odes I.xxxvii.1).

In several plays by Aristophanes, practical references appear, including instructions for the placement of dances to be performed by the chorus. This shows the use of dance both for the purposes of entertainment and as part of political commentary. The iconographic evidence of Ancient Greek art supports these references. Pottery from the seventh and sixth centuries (BCE) show choral dance-songs called dithyrambs in progress [There is an excellent illustration in McKinnon, p. 59]. During this era Alexandrian scholars collected and cataloged approximately fifty types of dance. Among the surviving fragments of Greek music notation, some dance music exists, but there are no actual choreographies beyond vague descriptions.

B. Dance and Christianity - Early Middle Ages
Most extant dance references from this period are from religious sources, primarily borrowed by Christians from Hebrew tradition. Until the thirteenth century, church-sanctioned dancing was an accepted part of Christian worship. In the fourth century, St. Gregory admonished Emperor Julian, the last emperor to take an official stand against Christianity, advising him that dance was fine if done in honor of God, but not when it aped the dissolute movements of the pagans.

Gregory's support of dance notwithstanding, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, among others, urged that the ties between the physical movements of dance and spiritual matters be strengthened. He worried that the necessarily physical nature of dance might overshadow the spiritual aspects of worship, potentially leading to sinful behavior.

Like the ancient Greeks, St. Augustine used dance in metaphorical terms as well as philosophical ones. In his early writings he beseeches his reader to "Receive my words, then that I may pour them out without wasting them. But if I sing, while you prefer to dance to another tune, even thus I do not regret my effort to give advice." This clearly echoes biblical scripture: "We piped to you, but you did not dance" (Matthew 11:17). Here again it is clear that Augustine, perhaps as a result of his North African roots, accepted dance as a normal part of life by comparing his words of advice to a tune to which one may choose to dance, or not.

St. Isadore, sixth-century Archbishop of Seville was, in fact, ordered by the Council of Toledo to create choreographies for certain council events. It has been suggested by some scholars that the invasion and subsequent influence of the Moors bearing the strong dance traditions of Africa resulted in Spain's retention of the practice of religious dance longer than other European locales. The Mozarabic mass included dance for centuries, even surviving an eleventh-century attempt to quash the practice.

C. Twelfth and thirteenth centuries
The first extant medieval dance music dates from this period. Although Odon, Bishop of Paris in the twelfth-century, fought against dance because of what he, like Gregory and Ambrose, saw as its potential excesses, he was swimming against the stream. In the thirteenth century "Cantigas de Santa Maria," collected by Spanish king Alfonso X (known as "the Wise"), dance is part of the volume's text as well as its marvelous illuminations. Some of the miniatures show dance as part of the religious subjects of these songs; others portray it as part of village life. For instance, in the panel for Cantiga 120, a lyrical Marian cantiga of praise, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are surrounded by musicians who play while others dance. Cantiga 409 begins "May the Crowned Virgin who is our hope be praised by us with singing and dancing." Cantiga 62, however, has the corrupt people of a town dancing as a woman comes to retrieve her pawned son from a moneylender.

The thirteenth century also saw the beginning of the notation of instrumental music and secular music. The carole, popular in first in France and then in England, was a dance-song possibly descended from the Greek dithyramb. It could be danced in a circle, in a chain, or as a processional. Illustrations of this dance are even found in French bibles of the period [Bridgeman Art Library, Item 68722]. The carole is also mentioned by name in iconographic examples found in the Le roman de la rose [plates 49, 50, 54, 58].

Other French literary sources with dance references include Le roman de la violette and Remêde de Fortune. This last, by noted poet/composer Guillaume de Machaut shows the close ties of music, dance and poetic forms. In addition, "Remêde" includes illustrations with dancers. The rondeau, a form found in this work that is commonly used by medieval poets and composers, is thought to be related to a round dance. The likelihood that this dance is the carole has been determined by the occasional use of the word “chanter” [to sing] found with caroles in rondeau form.

Three additional French dances, the ductia, estampie (also called stantipes), and nota, have also survived only in their music. Both dances have strains that are repeated, with the first of each strain having an ouvert (open) ending, while the repeat has the slightly different clos (close) ending. Compared to the ductia, the estampie has more strains (at least four) and those strains are longer and more melodically complex. These represent the first purely instrumental dances in the Medieval period that survive in music notation, all of which are discussed in De musica, a treatise written in 1300 by Grocheio. Current research by Christopher Page and Timothy McGee proposes that the ductia, mentioned only in literary references and in Grocheio, not in music titles, may be the same as the carole. Detailed discussion of these dances can be found in McGee's Medieval Instrumental Dances.

An unusual dance-related practice came to prominence in the thirteenth century. The danse macabre or totentanz is found in numerous woodcuts, illuminations and other illustrations from the late thirteenth century through the twentieth. It is thought that the creation of this dance was tied to the horrendous number of deaths caused by the plague. The dance, normally depicted as a skeleton (representing Death) playing a musical instrument while dancing, was more than a literary or iconographic device. Church synod decisions forbidding these dances in cemeteries and other holy places establish its actual existence.

D. Fourteenth century
Similar dances from the fourteenth century include the istanpitta and saltarello, both instrumental dances from Italy. The istanpitta is melodically similar to the estampie, but is more formally intricate, while the saltarello is described in text and iconography as a lively hopping dance. Found in the early fifteenth century Faenza Codex, these dances are clearly predecessors to the earliest known choreographies, also found in early fifteenth-century Italy. The use of dance in fourteenth-century Italian society is depicted in Boccaccio's Decameron. At the end of most of the ten days, the young storytellers entertain themselves after dinner with music and dance. The carola, most likely related to the French carole, is specifically mentioned.

An important French source containing literature, dance, music and iconographic examples is the Roman de Fauvel, a well-known satire whose creation was the work of many, among them the composer Philippe de Vitry. Dance references are found among the miniatures that adorn this derisive view of Court and Church in medieval France. In these miniatures, lively characters with and without animal masks cavort with one another.

The English classic Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is replete with references placing dance in a social and metaphorical context, beginning in the prologue where a young man is considered socially and sexually desirable because he could "songes make...and daunce." This is echoed metaphorically in "The Squieres Tale" when the "lusty" children of Venus are said to "dauncen." Other such references are found in tales of the Pardoner, the Franklin and, not surprisingly, the Wife of Bath. Of particular interest is a statement found in the Man of Law's tale where a religious holiday is cited as a reason for dancing: "At Cristemasse myrie may ye daunce!" This corroborates the continued relationship of dance with religious celebrations.

E. Fifteenth century
The first dance manuals of Western culture appeared in the first half of the fifteenth century. Solely found in Italy, these sources provide step descriptions and choreographies for the ballo, bassadanza, quaternaria, saltarello, and piva. Ballo can be used as a generic term for any dance, but also had a more particular use referring to a choreography with changes of misura (meter and/or tempo). The misure are, in order of tempo:

1) Bassadanza
The bassadanza, the slowest dance of this period, can be a misura for a ballo or an independent dance. It is named as a "low" [bassa] dance because of its lack of hops or jumps. While it is clearly related to the later fifteenth-century Burgundian basse dance, they have some stylistic differences that separate them. Among these differences are the more flexible choreographies of the bassadanza as opposed to the more limited step patterns possible in the basse dance [Bridgeman Art Library, Item 62348].
2) Quaternaria
The quaternaria is the only dance misura of the fifteenth century that is not found as an independent dance. Faster than the bassadanza, this is a four-beat walking step with a stamp on the last beat.
3) Saltarello
Called alta dança [high dance] in Spain, the saltarello is a lively dance that includes kicks and hops. One early sixteenth-century dance master, Antonio Cornazano, referred to it as "the merriest dance of all." With references dating from the fourteenth century, the saltarello is the oldest known Italian dance [Bridgeman Art Library, Item 49735].
4) Piva
Piva refers to a dance with pastoral associations, as well as the instrument (a small bagpipe) known to have been used as its accompaniment. The quickest dance of the period, it was often ornamented with spins, turns and other feats of virtuosity.

Guglielmo Ebreo, a Jewish dancing master of the early fifteenth century who later converted to Christianity and took the name of Giovanni Ambrosio, wrote the earliest known dance manual. Entitled De pratica seu arte tripudii [On the practice or art of dancing], this treatise includes step descriptions, choreographies and dance tunes for social dances. Guglielmo's treatise also contains a section on dance theory, addressing such topics as memorization, manner, and the rather elegant nonchalance called sprezzatura. The author then launches into a defense of dance as an important science framed in dialogue form, responding to the questions of a mythical student.

Although liturgical dance was no longer common in early fifteenth-century France and Italy, it was still a force to be reckoned with in Spain. The Dance of Seises [choirboys] was still practiced in Seville in 1439 and examples of dances for the feast of Corpus Christi were danced even later. In the fifteenth century, Seville's archbishop, Jayme de Palafox, attempted to halt this tradition, but after a command performance in Rome, Pope Eugene IV found no fault in the dance and, indeed, approved its continued use. Eventually, aside from formal processionals, dance became an almost entirely secular art throughout most of Europe.

In the late fifteenth-century, France saw the creation of its first dance manuals. The exquisitely illuminated manuscript known as Brussels 9085 belonging to Marguerite of Austria contains several choreographies for the Burgundian basse dance with music notation for most. Much of the music notation is concordant with tenor lines from chansons and instrumental works of the period. L'art de bien danser [ca. 1488] by Michel de Toulouze, has several concordances with Brussels, but in addition to basse dance commune (regular basse dance), this printed source includes several basse dance incommune (irregular). Both sources contain some theoretical information and instruction on the performance of the steps and on the construction of the phrases [mesures].

The regular Burgundian basse dance was composed of five steps the reverence, branle, simple, double, and reprise. Each step had a specific place in the mesure [measure or, more accurately, phrase] and the number and combinations of steps created mesures of differing sizes. The reverence, for example, is the bow that begins and ends each choreography. The branle, a step not to be confused with the sixteenth-century choreographies of the same name, is a swaying movement to both sides, that follows the reverence, and ends each mesure. The simples are always done in sets of two; one short step with the body lowered and one longer step with the body raised. They always precede the doubles, and may or may not follow them, as well. The double, a three-movement step pattern done the first step with body lowered, the other two with body raised, is found in odd numbers (1, 3, or 5).

The number of doubles determines the size of the mesure - petite (1 double), moyenne (3), grande (5), while the presence or absence of simples after the doubles determines the mesure's degree of perfection; simples after = mesure parfaite, absence of simples = mesure imparfaite. The reprises are done in sets of three in regular basse dances, but may be found singly in irregular dances. The examples below show how mesures are constructed. The reverences are in brackets because they only occur at the beginnings of choreographies; internal mesures would not have them.
Petite mesure parfaite = [R] b ss d ss rrr b
Petite mesure imparfaite - [R] b ss d rrr b
Grande mesure parfaite = [R] b ss ddddd ss rrr b
Grande mesure imparfaite = [R] b ss ddddd rrr b
"La spagna," known is French choreographic sources as "Casulle la novelle" is the only choreography concordant to both French and Italian sources.

While there is little in the way of choreographic source material for the actual performance of the earliest types of historical dance, that which does exist is supported by iconographic sources. Plates, woodcuts, paintings, sculpture and household items like vases are just a few of the sources for pictorial information on dance. The dances are rarely identified, but the implied movement is often quite suggestive of specific dances. Groups of people holding hands in lines or circles, for example, are typical indicators of dancing. This is especially the case if musicians are nearby and if these musicians appear to be in the act of performing. Couples in formal lines moving toward royalty are also indicators. Solo dancers or groups jumping or with a foot in the air while wearing a lively expression can be interpreted as dancers. Such subtleties as the drape of the clothing while the implied movements are taking place are helpful pointers. All these indicators can be cross-referenced with written descriptions and with those iconographic sources (e.g. illustrated literary works) that name the dance or movement portrayed in order to provide additional information for the study of dance in Western culture.

Primary Sources

  • Anon. Basse dances dites de Marguerite d'Autriche (MS 9085). Facsimile reprint, Graz: Akademishe Druck-u.Verlagsanstalt, 1987.
  • Closson, Ernest, ed. Le Manuscrit dit des Basse dances de la Bibliotheque de Bourgognes - Brussels 9085. Geneva: Minkoff, 1976.
  • Cornazano, Antonio. Il Libro dell'arte del danzare [The Book on the Art of Dancing], trans. Madeleine Inglehearne and Peggy Forsyth. London: Dance Books, 1981.
  • Jackman, James L., ed. Fifteenth-century Basses Dances [Brussels and Toulouze]. New York: Books for Libraries, 1980.
  • Machaut, Guillaume de. Le Jugement du Roy de Behaigne and Remede de Fortune, ed. James Wimsatt, William Kibler and Rebecca Balzer. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
  • Montreuil, Gerbert de. Le Roman de la Violette, ed. Lawrence F. H. Lowe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1928.
  • Sparti, Barbara. Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro: On the Practice or Art of Dancing [trans. of De Pratica seu Arte Tripudii]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Toulouze, Michel de. L'art de bien danser [1488]. Facsimile reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1972.

Secondary Sources

  • Boorman, Stanley, ed. Studies in the Performance of Late Mediaeval Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Bowles, Edmund A. La Pratique Musicale au Moyen Age. Geneva: Minkoff, 1983.
  • Brainard, Ingrid. “Bassedanse, Bassadanza and Ballo in the 15th Century,” Dance History Research: Perspectives from Related Arts and Disciplines, ed. Joann Kealiinohomoku. np, 1970, 64-79.
  • ______________. Three Court Dances of the Early Renaissance. New York: Dance Notation Bureau Press, 1977.
  • Chase, Gilbert. Music of Spain. New York: Dover, 1959.
  • Crane, Frederick. Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth-Century Basse Dance. Brooklyn, NY: Institute of Medieval Music, 1968.
  • Infantes, Víctor. Las dancas de la muerte: génesis y desarrollo de un género medievale (siglos XIII-XVII). Salamanca: Ediciones universidad de Salamanca, 1997.
  • Marrocco, W. Thomas. Inventory of Fifteenth Century Bassedanze, Balli & Balletti. New York: Congress on Research in Dance, 1981.
  • McGee, Timothy. “Eastern Influences in Medieval European Dances,” Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Music, ed. Robert Falck and Timothy Rice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982, 79-100.
  • ______________. “Medieval Dances: Matching the Repertory with Grocheio’s Descriptions,” The Journal of Musicology 7 (1989), 498-517.
  • ______________. Medieval Instrumental Dances. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.
  • McKinnon, James., ed. Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,1990.
  • Page, Christopher. Music and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Studies on Texts and Performance. Aldershot, Great Britain: Variorum, 1997.
  • ________________. Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Instrumental Practice and Songs in France 1100-1300. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Pontremoli, Alessandro and Patrizia La Rocca. Il Ballare Lombardo. Milan: Vita e Piensiero, 1987.
  • Rokseth, Yvonne. “Danses Cléricales du XIIIe siècle,” Mélanges 1945 des Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de Strasbourg. Paris, 1947, 93-126.
  • Sachs, Curt. World History of Dance, trans. Bessie Shonberg. New York: Norton, 1963.
  • Stevens, John E. Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama - 1050-1350. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Wellesz, Egon, ed. Ancient and Oriental Music, New Oxford History of Music, v. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Yudkin, Jeremy. Music in Medieval Europe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989.

For other articles on music from the ORB encyclopedia, consult the ORB music index.

Copyright (C) 2002, Yvonne Kendall. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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