Dance historian commentator: Dr. Emma Lewis Thomas


France entered the 1500s as a developing power, competing neither with the artistic superiority of Italian artists nor coping with the religious rebellions that occupied England and Germany. The early French renaissance dance tradition is primarily documented in Burgundy, beginning with a small tome from the end of the 15th century printed by Michel Toulouse: l'Art et instruction de bien dancer (ca.1496).  It consists primarily of basses danses with a few galliards thrown in to challenge the dancers with lively hopping, jumping, and circling steps. The text tells the dancer how to execute basse danse movements: révérences (bows), bransles, simples, doubles, and reprises; then explains the difference between grand, moyen, and petit mésures (dance phrases). These step-units (step sequences) are recorded as letters below the notes on the musical dance scores reproduced in the book.   Dance historians also know dances and music notated in the beautiful black parchment ms:  Manuscrit des basses danses dit de Marie de Bourgogne (ca. 1495).  When performed, these Burgundian scores reveal a type of “formula” dance, aptly described in Toulouse, whereby the dancer memorizes short, medium and long measures that quickly convert into muscle memory, freeing the mind for far more interesting conversation and challenging repartee.

In 1529 Antonius Arena, a mercenary soldier (later a lawyer) from Aix-en-Provence, who guarded the Pope when he was deposed from Rome for two weeks in the 1520s, wrote his ad suos companones et leges danzandi in Macaronic Latin. It contains no music, and deciphering the very locally based language has prevented dance scholars from re-creating the dance step-units and mastering the material in this book.[1]  Pictorial dance evidence shows musicians playing primarily without music, improvising on wind instruments out-of-doors, lutes and recorders indoors, generally with a drum to hold the beat for the dancers.

The one printed book that stands out as the most important contribution to French dance of the 16th century was written not in a large or cultured city, but in a very small town in northeastern France, called Langres,[2] by a 69 year-old cleric named Jehan Tabourot who used the pseudonym Thoinot Arbeau, an anagram of his given name, published in 1588 under the title, Orchesographie.

Orchesography[3], widely known in the US in the 1966 Dover edition translation by Mary Stewart Evans with an introduction and notes by Julia Sutton, is popular with both musicians and dancers written in the form of a conversational dialogue. After introducing dancing to young law student Capriol, the 69-year-old cleric Arbeau justifies learning dance by referencing antiquity and the Bible, teaching fife & drum rhythms of the military,  then describing the dances by placing the name of the step units immediately next to a musical staff printed perpendicular to the page.  This allows us, the readers, to recreate the dances with the music as they were done in 1589. Comical upright figures illustrate the step descriptions. The first dances described are galliards, followed by la Volte, the Couranto, the Alman, then two dozen Branles [brawls] that include most of the ones performed at the SCEMS event.

Dance historians and musicians who recognize many of the “folk” tunes reproduced in the book have often relegated Arbeau’s book to the “beginners” shelf; however, I take issue with this point of view for the following reasons:

1.         Many dances in the book are complicated rhythmically and require hours of rehearsal; for example, the galliard, with its 6 count structure, consisting generally of two measures of music with a syncopated 5th beat, can have 5 steps with a leap and cadence, 11 steps, 17 steps or 23 steps before the cadence.[4] Example of a simple galliard:  “God Save the Queen” or its US equivalent, “My Country ‘tis of Thee”.

2.        If  these dances and this music were being performed in 1588 in Langres, a tiny northwestern French town south of Burgundy near the Swiss border, what was being done at court? In Paris? London? Rome?

3.       As an introduction to French dancing at the close of the 16th century, Arbeau is unparalleled in providing a plethora of clues to the music and dancing of the time. Its clarity and empirical application can lead to more complex choreography for music composed for ceremonial dancing and early opera.

The SCEMS-sponsored program on June 26, 2012 sought to demonstrate the wealth of French Renaissance dance and “What makes it great?” Dance historian Dr. Emma Lewis Thomas provide insightful commentary on how the French developed dance as a form of high culture during the Renaissance, forming the basis of their undisputed status as masters of that art form in the Baroque.  Two dance troupes performed in beautiful costumes, the Guild of Saint George (GSG; John Smith, Larry Hansen directors) in royal court costumes performed some of the more refined court dances and the  Eldorado Danza (EDD; Irene Ujda director) performed son the livelier and mimed dances. The Wessex Consort (Bruce Teter and John Robinson directors) of nine musicians used a vast instrumentarium of some 30 period instruments plus singers in creative combinations of constantly changing sonic palate. The concert was presented at the Holy Nativity Church in Westchester with great acoustics and good sightlines for viewing the dancers.


1. The program began with the Pavane pour le Mariage de Henri le Grand in 1600, a duple beat processional dance used in courtly and church ceremonies such as the marriage of Henri VI, King of Navarre, to his second wife, Marie de Medici.  (Henri was raised as a Hugenot, 1572 crowned King of Navarre, 1589 ascended to King of France – d. 1610)[5] .  The entrance of the dancers up the central aisle gave the first good glimpse of their fabulous costumes.

            The music has an interesting history. This and several other pieces on the program are arrangements of French renaissance dances by the music librarian to Louix XIV, Andre Danican Philador (1647-1730). It is remarkable that the French Baroque court was compelled to preserve its historical dance music and is a testament to their recognition of its place in dance history. The Wessex Consort orchestration featured double reeds that the French were so enamoured of, the soprano dulcian and a crumhorn consort.

2. Branle double, branle simple – Branles are circle dances, generally moving to the left. Arbeau tells his young pupil Capriol:

“All musicians are in the habit of opening the dancing at a festival by a double branle which they call the common branle and afterwards they play the single branle…The order is determined by the different groups taking part in a dance: the elderly who dance the double and the single branle sedately, the young married folk who dance the gay and the youngest of all, like yourself, who nimbly trip the branles of Burgundy. And every dancer acquits himself to the best of his ability, each according to his years and his degree of skill.” (Arbeau p. 129)

            To accompany these rather simple dances, Wessex used both rare instruments and catchy orchestrations.  The double bransle called La Bounette was played on two uniquely French instruments, the rare musette bagpipe and the tambourin string drum; the musette was invented before 1575 for the court ballets of the French king Henri III, who loved dancing and was the first to put considerable royal patronage into advancing the art of court dance by developing ballet as a story-telling art form, a form to be viewed rather than participated in.                                                                                                                                                   

            The music for the simple branle, delightfully performed on high recorder consort with two sopranino recorders on top, was a set of  tunes by Pierre-Francisque Caroubel (1556 –1615) who collaborated with Michael Praetorius (1571-1621).  This and several other pieces on the program were taken from Praetorius’ publication Terpsichore in 1612; so the concert was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of its publication.  That Terpsichore is a collection of mostly French dances is a testament to the high regard of French dance at that time.
In the Bransle des Chevaux (horse dance), is a miming dance where ladies “ride sidesaddle”, as was the custom of Catherine de Medici. [6]

            The music (by Caroubel/Praetorius) used the rustic peasant instruments vielle a roué (hurdy gurdy) and cornemuse (bagpipe), two instruments that have an unbroken history in France from the Medieval period up to today where they form the core instruments for French folk music and dance.

4. There are many tunes used both for dance and for song. This was illustrated in the program by two tunes, the basse dance Jouyssance vous donneray and the pavane Belle qui tiens ma vie.

            The dance song, Jouyssance vous donneray (Pleasure will I give you),

 is a popular basse danse that dates back to the 14th century dancing manuals known as “Toulouse” and Antonius Arena’s Macaronic Latin leges dansandi.  From these formula dances, Arbeau calls for step-units  reverence,  branle, 2 simples, 1 double, and a reprise, all indicated by one letter of the alphabet. Then comes the retour and finally a tordion, “…in triple time like the basse danse but it is lighter and more lively. “(Arbeau p. 57)

         The song was sung by soprano accompanied by strings and low recorders,  The basse dance was then performed in an stirring arrangement by Wessex member Tom Axworthy, who began with an improvised shawm solo to announce the dancers entrance, followed by the dance  using the loud wind band instruments of shawms and bass dulcian (double reeds)  with a nice timbral variation provided by the cornetto (that has a trumpet-mouthpice and finger holes like a recorder).

5. Tourdion was a delightful choreography by Irene Ujda and her Eldorado Danza, where they flitted around the audience with peacock feathers.  This illustrated the interaction between dancers and audience common in the Renaissance.

            The music was a appropriately delicate arrangement  featuring the virginal harpsichord (recently renovated by Wessex member Curtis Berak), which was doubled with bass recorder, and a delicate D-bell emphasized the hemiola (two-versus-three) rhythms.  This effective arrangement was considered by many to be one of the highlights of the musical program.

6. Branle Montarde, Mountain Branle, is a mimed dance in a line, with little springs, circlings, and a hay, a weaving figure that allows the dance leader to make his/her way to the end of the line so that each participant in turn can lead.

            The music was published by Pierre Attaignant in Paris using his newly invented single-impression movable type printing press that revolutionized  the dissemination of printed music. The orchestration contrasted the loud wind band (the double reeds rauschpfeife, shawm, dulcian) with the soft band (violin, recorders, bass viol), with the occasional stratospherically high garklein recorder on top.

7. Gavottes are a miscellany of double branles, selected by the musicians and arranged in a sequence. “We call it the “kissing dance” because the leader is allowed to kiss all the women in the room and his partner can kiss all the men.” (Arbeau p.175)

            The music featured the low recorder consort from alto down to the great-bass, a matched set by maker A. Breukink, with two instruments in the key of G instead of the usual F, which allowed a simple transposition of the music to fit the low instruments.
8. Torche Bransle
is a mimed mixer  that engaged the audience members,  where dancers find new partners and, eventually, “….all are invited in turn to join in the dance.”

The music contrasted the loud band and soft band instrument consorts.

9. Buffens mimics hand-to-hand combat.  Arbeau notated  “Buffons” [Buffens], and described it as a comical Pyrrhic dance for four male warriors in two teams, or by four Amazons (four women, as performed on the SCEMS program) competing with each other and for the attention of the courtly audience.
“Legend has it that the Curetes invented the Pyrrhic dance to amuse the infant Jupiter by their gestures and the noise they make by striking their swords against their shields. … At the end of each passage one round must be made circling the hall  (so that) the dancers can collect their wits and think over the next passage.”  (Arbeau pp.183-187)

10. Sword flourishes  Throughout history, music has played an integral role in the conduct of military affairs, to communicate commands across chaotic battlefields,  as well as in the practice of flouryshing – the practice of positions and actions that are effective for earnest combat  and enhancing dexterity. Such Renaissance fighting schools are depicted in many period artworks with fifers and drummers alongside. Arbeau described the typical music as improvisations by fifer and drummer in response to the flourysh action. This interaction  was demonstrated by improvised music on fife and drum  in response to the remarkable improvised sword flourish given by Myles Cupp, an associate instructor in the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance.

11. Pavane: Belle qui tiens ma vie (Beauty, you who hold my life),  which dates from the 15th century, is the best-known dance song today.  This is a stately dance that gave opportunity to see the beautiful court costumes of the GSG.  It was performed by three singers accompanied by soft instruments that included the capped double reed cornamuse and the regal-sounding cornetto.

12. A set of lively galliards was danced to music (by Philador) played on the recorder consort.

13. A suite of bransles from the region of Champagne: Cassandra, Pinagay, Charlotte was performed on loud wind band, and featured the melody-percussion instrument the xylophone which has a European history from the early 16th C. 

14. The final piece, two of the best known Bourrés, brought together all 14 dancers and 9 musicians – a remarkable achievement by program director, Bruce Teter and the entire cast of dancers and musicians.  Complete program notes can be viewed at

[1] see: W. Thomas Marrocco & Marie-Laure Marveille. "Antonius Arena: master of law and dance of the Renaissance". Studi muscali: v. 18 (1989) p. 19; & John Guthrie and Marino Zorzi in "Rules of Dancing by Antonius Arena." Dance Research 4 (Autumn 1986 :3-53]

[2] Langres, town, eastern France, Haute-Marne département, Champagne-Ardenne région, north-northeast of Dijon. A medieval fortified city,  that still contains historical remnants of a 2nd-century Roman gate, 15th- to 18th-century towers and gates, the 12th-century Saint-MammŹs Cathedral with an 18th-century facade.

[3] Orchesographie, par Thoinot Arbeau, 1589. Réimpression précédée d’une Notice sur les Danses du XVIe siŹcle par Laure Fonta. Forni Editore Bologne, ristampa anstatica dell’edizione di Parigi, 1888.

[4] Galliarde,  5 pas, 11 pas, 17 pas – lier ensemble 3 cadances de 5 pas, & rompre les deux premiŹres : ou bien liez ensemble une passage d’ 11 pas et une cadance de 5 pas,  & rompez les cadences, gardant seulement la derniŹre; pour faire des passages de 23 pas, fault lier ensemble quatre cadances de cinq pas, ou deux passages d’onze pas & rompre toutes les cadances, [sauf] fors la derniŹre : et ainsi conséquemment. «
(p. 62 of  Arbeau)

[5] King of Navarre from 1572 to 1610 and King of France from 1589 to 1610. He was the first monarch of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian dynasty in France.

Baptised Catholic, he converted to Protestantism along with his mother Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre. He inherited the throne of Navarre, in 1572, on the death of his mother. As a Huguenot, Henry was involved in the Wars of Religion, he barely escaped the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and later led Protestant forces against the French Royal Army.

As a prince du sang by his father, Antoine de Bourbon, he was also the natural heir to the throne of France. On the death of the childless Henry III, he ascended the throne of France in 1589, but had to abjure his Calvinist faith. However, his coronation was followed by a four-year war against the Catholic League to establish his legitimacy.

One of the most popular French kings, both during and after his reign, Henry showed great care for the welfare of his subjects and, as a politique, displayed an unusual religious tolerance for the time. He notably enacted the Edict of Nantes, in 1598, which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants, thereby effectively ending the civil war. He was assassinated by Franćois Ravaillac, a fanatical Catholic.

[6] Branle: (related to carole) hommes et femmes se prennent par les mains et forment une chaine: le mouvement consiste simplement en ce que l’on fait en mesure trois pas vers la gauche, puis on se balance un peu, on rapproche le pied droit du gauche, ensuite on détache le gauche, et ainsi de suite. (R. Mullally, A Study of Medieval Dance, 2011)