Last updated November 24, 2002
Overview of World Dance
- Pan-Islamic Region
- Ancient Israel
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
I. Brief Overview of World Dance
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.
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
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. Indias 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.
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).
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. Aristophaness
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
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
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
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
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:
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].
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.
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].
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
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.
- Anon. Basse dances dites de Marguerite d'Autriche
(MS 9085). Facsimile reprint, Graz: Akademishe Druck-u.Verlagsanstalt,
- Closson, Ernest, ed. Le Manuscrit dit des Basse dances
de la Bibliotheque de Bourgognes - Brussels 9085. Geneva:
- 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,
- 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 .
Facsimile reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1972.
- 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,
- 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 Grocheios 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,
- 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,
- Yudkin, Jeremy. Music in Medieval Europe. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989.
For other articles on music from the ORB encyclopedia,
consult the ORB
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.