Dance Instruction Manuals

How to Read a Dance Manual


The Importance of Dance Manuals

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Il ballarino
Published 1581.

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This Special Presentation is divided into three sections. The first section describes the importance of instructional books about dance, especially in eras before the advent of photography, film, or video. The second section provides information on just what we learn from studying these books; the third and fourth sections focus on recreating the steps of the pavane, a dance from Thoinot Arbeau's 1589 dance treatise, Orchésographie. Video examples are available as tools to supplement the text.

During much of the twentieth century, social dances have been characterized by individualism and personal expression. Social dancers began the century by hugging and hopping through dances such as the Grizzly Bear and Turkey Trot--dances that certainly did not need a dance instructor, just a little imagination. In many cases, the popular steps and dances of the last decades of this century have evolved so quickly that many became trendy without even having names. Dance teachers, "how to" books, or teaching videos are not needed to learn Voguing, Whacking, Slam Dancing, hip-hop, or the Macarena. Information on today's dance steps, performance style, and fashionable clothing to be worn while dancing is transmitted by television (especially MTV) and movies, and through magazines that are flashed all over the world.

However, before the advent of modern technology, anyone wishing to learn the latest dances was dependent on one of two things: a local dancing teacher or a book that detailed instructions. From the early Renaissance to the 1920s, aspiring social dancers could purchase books that described dances in words, often supplemented by drawings. Frequently, dance instructors (also known as dancing masters) published their own books to aid their students (as well as supplement their income). The Italian Renaissance dancing master, Fabritio Caroso used words to describe a large number of steps and dances. Each dance is preceded by an illustration showing the starting position of the dance. (See Caroso's 1581 manual, Il ballarino.)

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Round dancing
Published c1890.

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One of the most important developments in the transmission of social dance was the creation of various notation systems that represented specific steps and step patterns of dances. The first attempt at a dance notation system appeared in Italy during the late-fifteenth century (The c.1490 manual, Les basses danses de Marguerite d'Austriche). Later, in 1700, a French dance teacher, Raoul-Auger Feuillet, published a notation system that is used even today to recreate Baroque social and theatrical dances. (The Royall Gailliarde, which is preserved in Feuillet notation, shows the first figure from an eighteenth-century couple dance.) In addition, the advent of photography meant that photographs could supplement text and many late-nineteenth-century instructors, such as M. B. Gilbert, took advantage of the new technology (see Gilbert's Round dancing).

Why We Look at Dance Manuals

Dance manuals can tell us important things about how people lived in past eras. For example, the illustrations and, later, photographs not only illuminate how people dressed, but demonstrate body carriage. These books highlight the importance of knowing the most fashionable dances and detail grand balls, private gatherings, and other social events that included dance, thus describing the importance of dance (or lack of) in any particular era, as well as how to appropriately spend leisure time. In addition, each era has codified rules of etiquette, specific gender roles, as well as codes regarding acceptable behavior toward one's partner while dancing. Dance manuals are an excellent source for this type of information. And, of course, the manuals detail the steps and dances--in many cases, dances that were popular before the advent of photographs or film. Many manuals also contain music to accompany the dances. All of this information is helpful to anybody who wishes to recreate (often called "reconstruct") dances of the past or to better understand the evolution of popular social dance.

How to Reconstruct a Dance

Let's examine the pavane (Eng. pavan), a dance from a French manual that was published in 1588. Written as a dialogue between a teacher, Arbeau, and his student, Cabriol, Thoinot Arbeau's Orchésographie not only gives instructions for many late Renaissance French social dances, but also provides valuable clues about the style of the dances. The author declares that the pavane is a processional dance and frequently used to open a ball. Ladies and Gentlemen, dressed in their finest ball clothes, would process as partners in a line around the ballroom. Hints about the style of the pavane can be observed in the following translations from the text, "Our musicians play it [the pavane] when a maiden of good family is taken to Holy Church to be married or when they lead a procession of the chaplains, masters and brethren of some notable confraternity." The following provides more information on the style as well as the gentleman's clothes. "A cavalier may dance the pavan wearing his cloak and sword, and others...dressed in your long gowns, walking with decorum and measured gravity. And the damsels with demure mien, their eyes lowered save to cast an occasional glance of virginal modesty at the onlookers."

From these quotations by Arbeau, one would appropriately assume that the pavane was a dignified dance. At the same time, however, we must not forget that the pavane did open the merry festivities of a ball and, while the dancers were appropriately dignified, they were also animatedóglancing about to see who else was at the ball, or what others were wearing.

Looking at Descriptions of Steps

Arbeau states that the pavane is danced in duple meter with two steps: simples (single steps) and doubles (double steps). Further, he notes that the sequence of steps, known as choreography, consists of "two simples and one double forward and two simples and one double backward." Arbeau describes the simple as "one step forward with the left foot for the first bar, then bring the right foot up beside the left for the second bar." The second simple would proceed in the same manner on the right foot.

1st bar (two counts) Step forward with the left foot
2nd bar (two counts) Close the right foot next to the left, but do not put weight on the right foot, thus completing one simple step;
3rd and 4th bars (four counts) Perform the second simple beginning with the right foot.

The double step takes four bars.

1st bar (2 counts) Step forward with the left foot;
2nd bar (2 counts) Step forward with the right foot;
3rd bar (2 counts) Step forward with the left foot;
4th bar (2 counts) Place the right foot beside the left with the heels together.

(See Video Clip 36 for a performance of two simples and one double forward.) Arbeau notes that the simple and double steps can also be performed while moving backward. (See Video Clip 37 for a performance of two simples and one double backward.)

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Published 1589.

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If the dancers find themselves near the end of the room and do not wish to move backward, Arbeau suggests a conversion. In doing so, the dancers turn around to face the opposite direction while dancing the double. The gentleman moves backward with small steps while the lady advances around the gentleman until they face the opposite direction from which they started. Arbeau also notes that the conversion is preferred to dancing backward because it is easier for the lady to see where she is going. Arbeau warns the gentleman that "if she were to meet with some hindrance while moving backwards she might fall, a mishap for which you would receive the blame and suffer a rapid decline in her good graces." (See Video Clip 38 for a performance of the conversion.) Repeating two simples and one double forward and two simples and one double backward, over and over, as suggested by Arbeau, would not move the dancers very far along the line of direction. We can assume that other patterns of steps were performed because Arbeau himself states that the dancers should "circle the hall two or three times."

Arbeau's text is enhanced with charming line drawings. (See révérence, also known as bow and curtsy.) The révérence was an important component of all Renaissance dances and was performed at the beginning of each dance, including the pavane. (See Video Clip 53 for a demonstration of a révérence.)

Arbeau states that pavanes were played on musical instruments known as hautbois (also known as the shawm, a loud double-reed woodwind instrument that was eventually replaced by the oboe) and sackbuts (an early version of the trombone). Music for the pavane is given in the form of a song "Belle qui tiens ma vie" ("Fair one, who holds my heart") and Arbeau provides a four-part version with accompanying drum rhythm. (See a modern score of Arbeau's music for the pavane.)

See Video Clip 39 for a demonstration of the following pavane choreography:

2 simples and one double forward
2 simples and one double forward
2 simples and one double backward
2 simples and one double forward
2 simples and one double forward
2 simples and one double forward

Although the pavane was not often performed after 1600, a new dance, called the Grand March or Polonaise, was performed throughout the nineteenth century. Danced by lines of couples as an opening to a ball--just like the pavane--the Grand March only required normal walking steps. Instead, emphasis was placed on a great variety of spatial patterns that were described in many nineteenth-century dance manuals. (See Video Clip 1 for a performance of several figures from the late nineteenth-century Grand March.)

Neither the pavane nor the Grand March is performed today. However, strange as it may seem, traces of the ancient pavane are still an important part of our lives. Students often perform the simple step as they process at graduations, as do brides and bridesmaids as they "march" down the aisle.

(See the full French text of Arbeau's Orchésographie.)

Dance Instruction Manuals