Last updated November 24, 2002
- Brief Overview of World Dance
- Pan-Islamic Region
- Ancient Israel
- 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 andcoronations. 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
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
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
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 (twelfth
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
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 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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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: Minkoff,
- 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 . 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:
- ________________. 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
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