Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Dance

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Courtly Dance in the Early Renaissance

Medieval Dance

Dance is one of the oldest and most universal of human art forms. European cave art from the Stone Age depicted dancing figures, and dance flourished in the ancient societies of Greece and Rome. The ancient Greek word for poetry, mousike, referred to a series of stanzas that were delivered in song while dancing. The art form of dance is unique from the other Renaissance arts in that the church did not dominate its development, and largely failed in its attempts to regulate it. Although there were some religious dances—particularly as part of the Good Friday celebrations that occurred prior to Easter—dance was largely a secular pastime by the thirteenth century, and every segment of the society participated: peasants, urban townspeople, and courtly societies. Another unique feature of dance was its inability to exist apart from music as an essential part of performance. Changing musical fashions have served to inspire new dance forms on the one hand, but dances have just as easily given rise to new tastes and fashions in music. Medieval sources testify to the vast popularity of dance, although before the fifteenth century no instructional or theoretical manual survives in Europe that allows us to reconstruct medieval dance steps. Our knowledge of the medieval forms of dance that existed in Europe on the eve of the Renaissance comes to us from paintings and frescoes and from literary sources. Two basic forms of dance seem to have been generally performed throughout the Middle Ages, of which there were a number of variations. The first, known as the carole, was common in folk and elite society alike, and was a kind of line dancing in which groups of men and women formed linear or circular patterns. Jumps and hops were common to the caroles, although some involved nothing more than a series of relatively peaceful steps. In addition, singing often accompanied the carole, and these songs were either sung in unison or in response to the chants of a leader. The most common kinds of songs to accompany the carole in the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance were the virelais, the rondeaux, and theballades. The second form, often referred to in the documents with the French word “danse,” was more elevated and consisted of groups of two or three dancers walking and making a series of elegant steps, struts, and glides. The possibilities of variation were limitless in such dances, and it is for this reason that this form of entertainment flourished in elegant court societies. Many courtly dances appear to have been international and spread from country to country through the efforts of professional entertainers who moved between courts. In France these entertainers were known asjongleurs (jugglers) and in German, spielleute (players). Jews often played a special role as well, since Jewish entertainers known as letzim were prized at court for their knowledge of dance steps. All these figures were itinerant. Traveling from place to place, they entertained nobles with dances, pantomimes, and song, often teaching those in court the latest dance steps. Medieval folk dancing, by contrast, seems to have been subject to a greater degree of regional variation.

Dance Masters

The appearance of dance masters in Renaissance Italy reveals a new attitude toward dancing in the great courts of the region. Just how and when the dance masters of the Renaissance appeared cannot be determined, but by the mid-1400s many of Italy’s wealthiest, most powerful noble and merchant families already had a resident dance master. In contrast to the medieval entertainers who had traveled from court to court, the dance masters were permanent members of noble and merchant households. They trained the family in the latest dance steps as well as instructed them in a variety of other skills. They might be best thought of as a kind of physical education instructor, charged with teaching members of the household, not only dance but gymnastics, fencing, riding, and every kind of athletic endeavor. Beyond physical training, dance masters taught the children about manners and deportment (the proper carriage of the body), and they staged entertainments and choreographed dances and spectacles for the court. The variety of their tutoring duties mandated that the dance masters be highly educated figures skilled in the arts of music, painting, sculpture, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, and aesthetics. The appearance of these masters points to a key change between medieval and Renaissance attitudes toward dance. In the Middle Ages dance had been a relatively straightforward pastime that had flourished in court and village societies, usually at the end of the day as a social entertainment that concluded a festival, a hunt, the harvest, or a tournament. Steps had been so simple that most people probably learned them on the spot. In the Italian Renaissance court, though, dance grew more complex, becoming an art form that must be mastered through careful study. In addition, the dance master’s role in teaching skills besides dancing demonstrates the increasingly ritualized and formal character of Renaissance courtly life. Proper manners, good carriage or deportment, and the mastery of a variety of athletic skills were now important signs of social distinction.

Prominent Figures

A lineage of distinguished masters in fifteenth-century Italy flourished from the training of the early dance theorist and master Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1400-c. 1476). Piacenza served for many years in the urbane, sophisticated court of the D’Este family at Ferrara, where he not only taught dance to members of the court, but also choreographed a number of special dances for the family’s entertainments. He was also much in demand elsewhere in Italy, and frequently staged important dance entertainments for the peninsula’s wealthiest families. Sometime around 1445, Piacenza completed his dance manual, On the Art of Dancing, the first theoretical and instructional handbook for the art of dance. For his theory of dance, he drew upon the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, the text that outlined the doctrine of the “Golden Mean” and whose Tenth Book discussed beauty and pleasure in movement. Similarly, Piacenza advised his readers that dance provided a “refined and delicate demonstration of … intellect and effort” and he counseled against extremes or jerks in movement. After treating the theory of dance along these Aristotelian grounds, he proceeded to outline the musical meters commonly used in Italy at the time and the various steps needed to perform dances. Piacenza’s manner of treating first the theory of dance and then its practice had imitators in the many dance manuals that followed his early handbook. Two of these came from the hands of his students, Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (William the Jew of Pesaro) (c. 1420-1484) and Antonio Cornazano (c. 1430-1484), both of whom were active in courts throughout Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century. Guglielmo Ebreo was much sought after as a dance master. Born a Jew, he converted to Christianity and took the name Giovanni Ambrosio, perhaps to increase his prospects at court. He spent most of his career working as a dance master at the court of the Malatesta family in Pesaro and Rimini, although he also worked for the ruling dynasties of Milan, Ravenna, Naples, Ferrara, Urbino, and Camerino, and for the Medici family at Florence. Ebreo earned special recognition for the quality of dance spectacles he choreographed for weddings, entries, and the visits of state dignitaries, and his skill in the construction of elaborate entertainments meant that he was very much in demand. In 1463, he completed his own instructional manual on dance, a work that was less theoretical than that of his teacher, Piacenza. Antonio Cornazano, by contrast, was born a nobleman at Piacenza near Milan. Early on, he studied dance with Domenico da Piacenza before joining the Sforza family as a secretary around 1454. In the years that followed he also served as dance master to the young Sforza princess Ippolita, dedicating his first edition of the Book on the Art of Dancing to her in 1455. This work, like Ebreo’s shows a great debt to the ideas of Cornazano’s teacher, Domenico da Piacenza. Together these three treatises inspired many similar works over the following years that discussed both the theory and practice of dance.

Ballo and Bassadanza

Each of these manuals outlined two types of dance: the bassadanza and the ballo. The bassadanza was the Italian version of the French and Burgundian bassedance, although it was significantly different from this Northern European style. In a dance of this type lines or circular groups of dancers performed a series of steps in procession. The word “bassa,” meaning “low,” reveals one feature of the bassadanza: the feet stayed close to the floor. There were, in other words, no leaps or hops worked into the steps and the bassadanza was an elegant, if somewhat severe dance. A ballo or balleto, by contrast, was a highly choreographed dance with a more playful dimension, in which a couple or several couples performed a series of dances involving changes of speed and steps. Oftentimes, balli followed a story line, which required a higher level of choreography. A key difference between the bassadanza and ballo at this time seems to have lain in the music available to each. Balli were choreographed for a specific piece of music that fit with the steps of the dance master’s choreography. A bassadanza, on the other hand, was more often performed with any piece that had a suitable tempo, meter, and length for the steps chosen. Although the dance manuals recommended that all dancers develop a fluid and beautiful line, displays of mere technical prowess on the dance floor were generally discouraged in these manuals. These styles of dance constituted courtly entertainment, and thus the authors advised their aristocratic readers to avoid unseemly movements or specific dances that might tarnish their reputations. The dancer’s body should become, these writers observed, an expression of beauty and of the dancer’s own intellect. Courtly dance was thus a restrained art, different from the athletic proficiency displayed by professional performers. At the same time all three writers allowed men a greater degree of flexibility on the dance floor than women. A male dancer’s jumps were to be higher and his steps could be ornamented more vigorously. A woman’s conduct on the dance floor was expected to be more modest, and although she was always to stand tall, she was expected to keep her eyes downcast as a sign of modesty.


Unlike Italian court dances of the fifteenth century, which were characterized by great complexity, difficult choreographies, elegant footwork, and other bodily disciplines that expressed the taste of the Renaissance for a language of movement that was refined and difficult to achieve, the styles of dance that flourished in Northern Europe at the time were heavily influenced by the tastes of the court of the Duchy of Burgundy, a powerful territory in the center of Europe. While Burgundian dance was very refined, its steps were simpler and its choreography less difficult to master than the Italian models. It is perhaps for this reason that we find evidence of the appearance of dance masters in Northern Europe much later than in Italy. Burgundy was a territory that was officially subject to the French king, but which had by the end of the fourteenth century acquired a vast amount of land in central and northwestern Europe, including Lorraine, large parts of northern France, and the Netherlands or Low Countries (modern Belgium, Luxembourg, and Holland). These areas included some of the wealthiest commercial centers of Europe, and in the early fifteenth century, Burgundy’s style of court life influenced many other European regions. Courts throughout Europe sought out Burgundy’s music and musicians, and its dance form—the bassedance—affected tastes in dance in places far from the center of Burgundian power.


The bassedance was a line dance that consisted of only five steps: single steps, double steps, branle, reverence (a bow or curtsey), and reprise. Very strict rules governed the ways in which these steps could be arranged, and dances that followed all these rules were known as common dances. Others that slightly altered these conventions were known as uncommon forms. It is difficult to reconstruct these steps precisely from the few technical descriptions that survive, although artistic evidence does provide some clues. Burgundian dance did not emphasize the technical display of skill, but slow and graceful movements of the feet and the upper body. Like the early Italian bassadanza, which had originally been inspired by the Burgundian bassedance, this form was to be performed “low,” that is, without hops and skips. The elegant, controlled steps allowed the lines of the dancers’ bodies and the folds and drape of their clothes to be brilliantly displayed. Since it was a highly stylized, dance-like procession, its steps involved simple, short movements of the feet, the raising and lowering of the body, and gentle sideways motions. In the final step—the reprise—dancers moved backwards, and great care needed to be taken so that the women did not trip on the elaborate trains popular in Burgundy at the time. The shoes worn at Burgundy’s court at the time were known as poulaine, and they were long constructions in felt that ended with a high-rising point at the toe. While preventing a great freedom of movement, the poulaine allowed the graceful stepping movements typical of the bassedance, and they also accentuated the line of the foot, thus adding to the impression of the dancer’s elegance. The range of steps was limited, yet at the same time, modern reconstructions of the Burgundian bassedance have shown that it can be a remarkably expressive form. Like Italian dances, the bassedance inspired its own manuals of instruction, including an anonymous fifteenth-century manuscript written at Brussels around 1420 and a later anonymous dance manual published in Paris in 1488. This later book, The Art and Instruction of Good Dancing, contained instructions about the music that should accompany these dances. It stipulated a tenor line for the music above which up to three layers of instruments might improvise harmonies to accompany the dance. Typically, the sackbut (an early trombone) played the tenor, while shawms (the Renaissance counterpart of the modern oboe) performed the improvised lines.

Other Regions

The Burgundian style of bassedance was already well developed as a form in the early fifteenth century and maintained its popularity in many of the courts of Northern Europe throughout the century. It was performed in France, England, and in certain parts of Germany and Spain at the time. Certainly, other forms of dances may have flourished in Northern European court societies, but the lack of documentation makes it difficult for us to reconstruct many of the precise details of dance in Western Europe during the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century an increase in sources reveals the rising popularity of dance as a form of entertainment as well as its steadily increasing repertory of forms.

High and Late Renaissance Courtly Dance


The styles of courtly dance popular in fifteenth-century Italy and Northern Europe favored restraint in the use of the body. The Burgundian bassedance was intended to be an elegant dance procession that displayed the rich splendor of courtly costumes. Sudden jerks, quick steps, and hops were avoided in favor of an understated repertory of subtle footwork that showed off the long, flowing lines of dancers’ bodies and their costumes. Despite the greater complexity of Italy’s courtly dance, the Italian dancing masters of the time similarly urged restraint in their dance manuals. Changing fashions, both in clothing, shoes, and dance itself, altered the types of movements used in courtly dancing in the sixteenth century. For much of the fifteenth century Burgundian and Italian women’s fashions had favored a long flowing gown under which was worn a simple white chemise. The trains of these creations restricted sideways and backward movements because of the great lengths of material that trailed behind a woman as she moved on the dance floor. At the outset of the sixteenth century the corset came into use and was adopted by both men and women. In women’s dress, its rise to popularity inspired new styles in which the bust line was flattened and the bodice tapered toward the waist in a funnel-like shape. Bulky skirts then flowed from the waist to the floor, often flaring outward into a bell-like shape. The upper portions of both men’s and women’s dress, with their whale-boned corsets, restricted the movements of the torso. The fashion that developed later in the century for ruffled starched collars similarly constricted head movements. At the same time, the broad, bell-shaped skirts allowed women’s feet to move with relative freedom, as did the tights favored by fashionable courtly men. New styles of shoes, too, allowed greater flexibility in steps. Shoes with soles and heels became common among the nobility, allowing dancers to stomp and stamp their feet and protecting them from splinters and other debris on the floor. Thus while the upper body grew more rigid, the feet at the same time could explore a greater range of movement than before.


Italian courts continued to lead the way in creating complex social dances in the sixteenth century, and Italy’s dances spread to many Northern European courts. At the very end of the Renaissance three technical manuals published by the great Italian dance masters Fabrizio Caroso (c. 1527-c. 1605) and Cesare Negri (c. 1535-c. 1604) allow us to gauge the changes that had occurred in attitudes toward courtly dance since the fifteenth century. Both Negri and Caroso laid incredible stress on the proper execution of steps, setting down a large number of rules for the proper performance of each. Caroso continually warned his readers about the possible pitfalls that existed in each dance step, and he spent a large amount of his treatise cautioning his readers about proper deportment at a ball. In addition, he prescribed how men and women should treat their dance accessories—swords, gloves, handkerchiefs, fans and so forth—so that all their movements at a ball were closely choreographed. This increasing emphasis on social refinement was partially inspired by the humanist fashion for Antiquity, as writers like Negri and Caroso argued that modern dance revived the virtues of movement of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In his dance manual, Love’s Graces, published in 1602, Cesare Negri contrasted the art of dancing with another popular courtly pursuit: jousting. Jousting, he argued, was the provenance of the ancient god Mars, while the goddess Venus ruled over the dance floor. In his two popular treatises on dancing, The Ballerina (1581) and The Nobility of Ladies, Caroso gave ancient Latin names—drawn from the poetry of Ovid and Vergil—to the new dances he created. The styles outlined in Caroso’s and Negri’s works were more elaborate than ever before and were now choreographed for groups of up to four couples. Many new steps, too, had been added to the dancing repertoire. In addition to the traditional walking and running steps, bows and reprise steps (which were performed backwards) new foot crossings, leg raisings, and swings flourished, as did vigorous foot stompings. Single-sex dances and solo dances thrived in the period, and many of the new complex creations choreographed by the dancing masters of the High Renaissance bore elaborate titles and were dedicated to noble patronesses.

New Forms

One of the most popular dances to flourish in the sixteenth century was the branle, a couple’s dance that had originated in France, but which soon spread to most of Europe. Branles developed out of the sideways steps that were prescribed in fifteenth-century bassedances. In his dance treatise, Orchesographie (1588), Thoinot Arbeau outlined three kinds of branles that were practiced at the time. These included the simple branle, which consisted of either single or double sideways steps; the mixed branle, which included hops on one leg; and the mimed branle, which incorporated the steps of the other two but also required that performers mime facial gestures and hand movements. Here the Washerwoman’s Branle and the Maltese Branle were among the most popular forms. The boisterousness of the branle form, which evolved over time to include foot stomping, hand clapping, and other exaggerated pantomimes, helped to sustain the dance’s popularity throughout the sixteenth century. Not all observers, though, found the style worthy of inclusion in court balls. In his famous conduct manual, The Book of the Courtier (1528), Baldassare Castiglione warned courtiers and princes against performing the branle in public, arguing that its extremes of motions were not compatible with the decorum necessary for court life. The branle style seems to have been resisted in England for a time, where its English term—the brawl—suggests some of the noisome and “peasant” qualities associated with the dance. In both Italy and England, though, the branle established itself as a popular court entertainment throughout Europe after 1550. In his dance treatises written in 1602, Cesare Negri included several late sixteenth-century examples of branle or brando as they were known in Italy, that had been performed in some of the most elevated court circles of the peninsula.

Galliard and Pavan

By far one of the most difficult dances that flourished in the sixteenth-century court was the galliard. Of Italian origin, it quickly spread to almost every corner of the continent. Within the galliard, the male dancer makes a series of five jumps, shifting his weight back and forth from side to side. This feat must be performed within a musical interval of six beats. More complex and difficult jumping patterns were also common in the galliard, allowing dancers at court to demonstrate their prowess on the dance floor in a way that had generally been avoided in the more restrained fifteenth century. In his Orchesographie (1588) Thoinot Arbeau included a number of variations on the basic galliard as well as some choreographies that linked together two five-jump variations into an even longer eleven-step variation. By contrast, the pavan was more restrained and dignified. It consisted of two single steps walked forward, followed by a double step. Of Italian origin, the pavan was first mentioned in texts in the early sixteenth century. Its name may derive from the Latin word for the city of Padua, or from the Spanish word for a peacock’s tail. The pavan was in many respects similar to the bassedance styles that had flourished in fifteenth-century northern Europe in its restraint and use of staid and grand music.


Little is known about the origins of this form, although the dance’s name, the French word for “German,” suggests that its origins may lie in Germany. Some have suggested that it developed as a German form of the bassedance. By 1550, theallemande was considered its own independent dance form. In this dance a group of couples stand beside one another and fall into a procession that moves across the dance floor. At the other end of the floor each male partner turns his female partner, and the progress is repeated in the opposite direction. By the end of the sixteenth century the allemande had grown more complex with small jumps or leg lifts worked into some of its surviving choreographies. The allemande’s music witnessed a long life. The surviving music composed for the dance in the sixteenth century shows that the form was innovative in its exploration of changes in tonality as well as tempo. It is perhaps for this reason that allemandes continued to be written as music long after the popularity of the dance had faded on the ballroom floor.

Other Forms

The great popularity of dance as an entertainment in the High and Late Renaissance court gave rise to an almost infinite number of styles. There were couple’s dances like the volta in which the dancers held themselves in a tight embrace, moving around the dance floor. At regular intervals in the volta the man thrust his female partner high into the air by grabbing her firmly at the back, and the couple then performed a series of turns in this position. Considered obscene by some authorities, the dance was banned for a time in early seventeenth-century France during the reign of Louis XIII. Its freedom of movement and athleticism, however, inspired its popularity, and the dance spread far from its origins in the southern French region of Provençale. The chiarentana, by contrast, was an elaborate figure dance preceded by a staged chase in which men picked their female partners. The dance that followed made use of complex patterns of line dancing, reels, and figure eights that some authorities, including the great dance expert Fabrizio Caroso, found confusing and difficult to perform. Simpler and easier to learn were the “country dances,” figure dances that flourished in the courts and noble households of France and England at the time and which harked back to rural line dances and earlier bassedance forms. Similar to modern square dancing, the country dances might be learned quickly, since only the first couple that stood at the head of the line needed to be certain of the various steps that were to be performed for the dance to begin. Others might learn the dance merely by imitating the actions of the first couple.

Dance Music

The writers of dance manuals had usually informed their readers about the kinds of musical meters used to perform particular dances, often even including tunes in their guidebooks for performance. Printed music became more popular in the sixteenth century, giving us a clearer glimpse of the kinds of dance music that flourished at the time. The first printed collections of dance music issued from the houses of Ottaviano de Petrucci at Venice and Robert Attaignant in Paris in the early sixteenth century. Printed music was an expensive commodity and thus was likely only to have been used in the wealthiest noble houses and merchant families of the time. Most collections were scored for lute (the most common household instrument), for the keyboard, or for small ensembles of wind and brass instruments. Throughout the sixteenth century printed dance music grew more popular, and toward the end of the century printed dance music popularized dance suites that had been recently performed in some of Europe’s greatest households. These dance suites were often specially written to accompany highly choreographed “ballets” created by dance masters in these courts.


The wealth of dance forms that flourished in the sixteenth century points to the rising importance that dance played as a marker of social distinction and cultivation in courtly societies at the time. In the dance manuals of Italy and France, theorists like Negri, Caroso, and Arbeau celebrated the art as a sign of the era’s kinship with classical Antiquity, and they left little to chance in the choreographies and recommendations that they prescribed to their readers. Dance as an art form had clearly come of age in Renaissance courts, and the clear distinctions of genres and forms that developed at the time expressed the era’s determination to mold the actions of the body to the creative impulses of the human mind.

Theatrical Dance


Dance played a vital role in Renaissance theater. In Italy, troupes of Commedia dell’ Arte performers relied on songs and dances to break up the action of their improvised comedies. Dances and musical interludes became a feature of the intermissions of the early professional theaters common in Europe’s largest cities during the sixteenth century. The surviving sources, though, give little information about the kinds of dances that were performed in these circumstances. In aristocratic society, by contrast, dance flourished as an important component of court spectacles and was well recorded in the documents of the period. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a steady increase in the theatricality of these entertainments, as kings and princes competed with each other to create ever more elaborate spectacles. Such entertainments were almost always undertaken with the purpose of demonstrating a prince’s power and wealth to foreign visitors. Diplomatic visits, dynastic marriages, and ceremonies of royal entry were just a few of the many important political occasions for which elaborate spectacles were mounted. Dance played a key role in these celebrations, and its popularity in the Renaissance provided a constant source of employment for the prominent dance masters of the day who choreographed these productions.


During the fifteenth century Europe’s nobles marked important occasions with “theme” banquets. The rise of these great feasts can be traced to the Duchy of Burgundy, which influenced aristocratic tastes throughout Europe in these years. Philip the Good, who served as Duke of Burgundy between 1423 and 1467, established a court life notable for its lavish display and intricate rituals. In 1430, Philip founded an order of nobility on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal. This Order of the Golden Fleece was intended to promote chivalry and to mediate disputes between nobles. With the fall of Byzantium to the Turks in 1453, however, Philip devised a plan to use the order to promote a new crusade that might wrest the Holy Land from Islamic control. At his famous “Feast of the Pheasant,” held in 1454, Philip announced his vow to undertake the campaign and encouraged other members of the Golden Fleece to follow suit. The evening’s festivities soon became famous throughout European aristocratic society and set a bar that later Renaissance princes tried to surpass. As Philip’s disguised guests arrived in the hall, they encountered elaborate entremets or sculpted concoctions of food that adorned the tables. Originally, such platters had consisted of nuts and other lighter fare that guests consumed between the feast’s courses. Philip’s ingenuous chefs, though, had created entremets in which ships sailed, a working pipe organ played music to accompany a celestial choir, and animals engaged in combat. As the banquet proceeded, living entremets, consisting of acrobatic acts, dances, and musical performances, also entertained the guests between the feast’s courses. At the end of the banquet Philip announced his vow to retake the Holy Land in a highly staged manner, and he encouraged his fellow members of the Order to follow suit. A ball concluded the festivities.


Pantomime, dances, and songs performed in the space between a banquet’s courses flourished in the wake of the Feast of the Pheasant. In Italy these interludes, known as intromesse (the origin of our modern English word “intermission”) orintermedi soon came to be used not only in banquets but in theatrical performances in the space between the acts of plays performed in Italian courts. The dancing of a moresca was among the most common type of interlude used at the time. The moresca was an exotic dance that took its name from the Italian word for “moorish.” Often participants blackened their faces and attached bells to their clothing in imitation of the North African and Spanish Moors. Morescas often had a loose plot narrative in which a Moor threatened a fool dressed as a woman. Sexual overtones and whirling, seemingly ecstatic movements were common to the morescas, and for this reason, the dance was often entrusted to professionals, who would not be embarrassed by performing such exotic actions. In his Book of the Courtier, for instance, Baldassare Castiglione recommended that no prince be seen dancing a moresca in public since its suggestive movements and themes were incompatible with his dignity. By 1500, the popularity of the moresca as a form of theatrical dance was well established throughout Italy, and the rising fashion for Antiquity prompted dancers to adopt the seductive imagery of the moresca to story lines that they drew from ancient mythology and pastoral poetry. At Ferrara, these dance interludes first flourished in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. At the time the D’Este family who ruled the city favored five-act comedies written in the style of the ancient Latin dramatists Plautus and Terence, thus providing four opportunities between the acts for dancers to perform. These interludes usually bore little relationship to the plays themselves, and the dances and other entertainments that occurred between the acts were intended to be mere diversions while the actors prepared for the next act. Over time, intermedi were sometimes added before and after the performance and there were attempts to rely upon the interlude to establish an atmosphere for the play itself. The purpose of the intermedi, though, was always to entertain, and their popularity soon rivaled that of the plays themselves. During 1499, for example, 133 actors performed four plays staged at the court of Ferrara, while 144 performers danced the sixteen moresca interludes that occurred between these plays’ acts. During the sixteenth century the great popularity of dance in court life encouraged the custom’s rapid adoption in palaces throughout Italy and Europe.


The dancing of moresca continued to flourish in the interludes popular in sixteenth-century Italy, but a great variety of musical forms and pantomimes also developed. The singing of madrigals was soon to be adopted in these interludes, and in Florence and other Italian cities the most extravagant stagings of intermedi were usually reserved for the celebration of important dynastic weddings. For the marriage celebrations of Cosimo de’ Medici to Elenore of Toledo in 1539, specially composed madrigals and dance music were used to stage six interludes for a comedy: four for the spaces between the acts and one each at the beginning and end of the play. Each of the interludes was carefully crafted to enhance the evening’s overarching message: that the union of Cosimo and his bride Elenore was to give birth to a new Augustan Golden Age in Florence. That evening, though, the play came to a quiet and serene ending, and the producers of the entertainment feared that its conclusion might disappoint the audience. Thus the final concluding intermedi of the performance consisted of 20 performers who entered the stage to sing and dance an elaborate Bacchanalian rite. Experiments with interludes like these, then, contributed to the development of the modern musical theater, and they continued in Florence during the rest of the sixteenth century. The genre had an important impact on the development of opera, a form that emerged in the city during the final years of the sixteenth century. Concluding “ballets,” similar to that staged at the performance marking the marriage of Cosimo de’ Medici, became a popular feature of these early performances.

Ballet De Cour

In France, the popularity of these interludes combined with a native tradition of court fêtes or festivities that had long been staged around a central theme. Together the two forms of the intermedi and fête inspired a new genre that came to be known as the ballet de cour or “court ballet.” The ballet de cour became a popular dance entertainment in the royal court during the final decades of the sixteenth century. Members of the royal family commissioned the poetry and music for these events, and the productions made use of elaborate stage machinery and sumptuous costumes. The court ballet was very much influenced by the ideas of the French Academy of Poetry and Music, which had been established in 1570 by Jean-Antoine de Baïf. De Baïf was interested in reviving the powerful union he believed had existed in the ancient world between poetry and music. Members of the academy strove to write poetry and music that made use of the ancient metrical modes, thus hoping to deepen music’s power to influence the human spirit. The curiosity the academy bred also inspired investigations into ancient dance, and members of the academy soon experimented with performances staged to their rhythmical songs. Catherine de’ Medici, the regent of France and later Queen Mother, supported these innovations, and frequently included choreographed dances in the festivities she staged at court. Under her influence and patronage, the ballet de cour flowered in the years around 1580. The genre wedded fantastic stage effects with instrumental and vocal music, poetry, and dancing. The first ballet de cour to rely on an integrated and dramatically effective libretto was Circe, or the Comic Ballet of the Queen, which was produced in Paris in 1581. The story retold the ancient tale of Circe, daughter of Perseus and the Sun, who lured men to ruin through their passions. In the end, though, human reason triumphs over the weaknesses of passion, and rationality succeeds in destroying Circe’s power. It is because of this plot, a story in which order is brought out of chaos, that the ballet was termed a “comedy.” The subject matter—the relative power of reason and the passions—was to recur many times in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French literature. Yet as it was conceived in the Comic Ballet of the Queen, the triumph of reason was also intended to glorify the French monarchy. The work’s poetry and art drew frequent parallels between rationality and its French champion, the reigning monarch Henri III, and it glorified the harmony his rule bred in France. In the coming years the optimism of such sentiments proved misplaced as France descended ever deeper into the malaise of religious civil war at the end of the sixteenth century. Despite these troubles, ballets de cour remained popular in these years, but none of the successive works rose to the artistic level of the early Comic Ballet of the Queen. As the seventeenth century approached, though, the conventions that governed these ballets’ performances became ever firmer. Members of the court danced in the productions and played characters in the various scenes, while in the final choreographed dance, the grand seigneurs or “peers of the realm” participated. At least once each year the king danced in the finale of a ballet de cour, establishing a tradition of royal performance that lasted into the early years of the reign of Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715). The genre, with its mixture of music, poetry, and dance, had a profound impact on the emergence of both opera and ballet as independent art forms in seventeenth-century France.


Dance figured prominently in a final category of court entertainments popular in England, which became known as “masques.” The development of masques was long and complex. In late-medieval England professional actors and dancers known as mummers regularly visited the houses of the nobility in disguises to perform for members of the household. These mummers performed elaborate dance pantomimes, and while festive social dances sometimes concluded these events, the professionals did not mingle or dance with the noble audience. In 1512, Henry VIII introduced a new kind of masquerie into England that was inspired by Italian examples. The king and revelers—all in disguise—surprised members of the court, danced and sang, and, in a break with tradition, recruited volunteers from the audience to participate with them. In the course of the sixteenth century, these masques at court grew increasingly formalized. One force that aided in their rising popularity was the establishment of the Master of the Revels in 1545, the chief Tudor official responsible for supervising entertainments at court. The Master appointed the poet George Ferrars to serve as the court’s official “Lord of Misrule,” and during his tenure, Ferrars staged a number of fantastic masques with odd-sounding titles, including The Masque of Covetous Men with Long Noses and The Masque of Cats. Mounting such productions was costly. At first, masques only required an elaborate pageant wagon, which served as their principal set. The performers rode atop this wagon as it was wheeled into the hall in which the masque was to be performed. Over time, though, English spectacles adopted the expensive costumes and elaborate stage machinery typical of Italian intermedi and French ballets de cour. Despite Queen Elizabeth I’s thriftiness, she doled out large sums for the celebration of the masques, and she participated in them on many occasions. They often marked Twelfth Night, the concluding festivities of the annual Christmas celebrations. During Elizabeth’s reign (r. 1559-1603), the English court masque also adopted the unified themes and high quality literary texts that were typical of the intermedi and ballets de cour. Masques were also celebrated, not only at court, but in the Inns of Court, the four legal societies in London. The greatest English masques—notable for their high literary quality, fusion of music and dance with poetry, and elaborate architectural stage effects—were mounted in the first decades of the seventeenth century during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor James I (1603-1625). The playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and the architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) joined forces in these years to produce high-quality works that influenced all court entertainments during James’s reign. Jones served as set designer, importing innovations in stage machinery from the continent and adapting them for use in the masques. The production that Jones and Jonson mounted in 1605, The Masque of Blackness, influenced the style of a number of other Stuart-age poets who wrote for the masque, including Thomas Campion, Thomas Middleton, and William Rowley.

Folk Dancing in Europe


The development of the office of dance master and the circulation of dance manuals in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries aided the rise of courtly dance as an art form. Court pageants, ballets de cour, masques, and intermedi were all well documented in the artistic records of the period, allowing for the reconstruction of these festivities in which dance played a central role. These increasingly complex and highly choreographed events spurred dance’s rise to one of the “fine arts” in the seventeenth century, as ballet and other forms of cultivated dance eventually became professional endeavors for which long periods of training and athletic development were necessary. We are less informed, however, about the kinds of dances that were performed by the lower orders of urban people and rural peasants. Certainly dance played a crucial function in these strata of society. It was a vastly popular entertainment, recorded in literary and artistic sources. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century engravings as well as the paintings of artists like Pieter Bruegel frequently depict dancing at peasant festivals and weddings. The sermons and moral tracts of both Catholic and Protestant religious reformers constantly criticized this popular dancing, attacking it as an evil that led to lasciviousness and sexual promiscuity. Europe’s princes and magistrates often tried to limit the lengths of wedding feasts, which sometimes included up to three days of dancing and revelry. At the same time the dances of the countryside inspired dancing masters and courtiers as they fashioned new dances throughout the Renaissance. The branle, or brawl as it was known in English, had originally been one of the steps of the Burgundian bassedance. During the sixteenth century, though, it was expanded to include a number of elements drawn from the dancing of French peasants, including hand-clapping, facial gestures, hops, skips, and jumps. Even though cultivated aesthetes like Baldassare Castiglione implicitly criticized the dancing of the lower orders of society as rambunctious and lacking in refinement, the court society longed for the livelier rhythms and forthright gestures of popular dance.


Perhaps nowhere were the dancing styles more varied and complex than in Europe’s cities. Here elites imitated the dances of the European courts, while the lower orders of society continued to use dance forms that were popular in the countryside. Accounts from urban society, too, point to a great innovation in the cities, as urban dancers experimented with new forms that were often perceived by moralists to be sexually suggestive. Courtly patterns of dance first influenced urban elites through printed dance manuals. In 1488, an anonymous dance manual, The Art and Instruction of Good Dancing, was printed in Paris. Unlike the elaborate theoretical manuals of dance that were being written for Italian aristocrats at the time, this manual was more pragmatic than theoretical and was designed for urban burghers who were interested in mastering the techniques of dance. Other practical manuals intended for city elites anxious to develop their skills on the ballroom floor soon followed in England, Germany, and Italy. While the great dancing masters of the Renaissance worked primarily in courtly society, dance schools began to appear throughout Europe during the sixteenth century for anyone who could afford the tuition. By 1533, the first laws were enacted in England to regulate the new dancing schools. Somewhat later, the City of London granted a monopoly over the instruction of dance within its boundaries to three dancing instructors. At about the same time, two types of dance schools flourished in Lisbon, Portugal: those that taught the whirling, ecstatic style of the morescas, and others that instructed in the more restrained courtly forms. A number of Spaniards also flocked to Italy to learn dancing technique from figures like Cesare Negri. Returning home, they opened their own schools in cities throughout the peninsula, but especially in the capital Madrid and the important provincial city of Seville, which were populated with a large number of dance schools by the late sixteenth century. In his important dance treatise, The Charms of Love (1602), Negri mentioned more than forty men who had trained in Italy before establishing their own schools or winning court positions throughout Europe. Through these new dance schools the techniques and forms of elegant dancing that had flourished in Europe’s courts during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries spread far beyond the confines of castles and palaces. In the late Renaissance this refined style now became a mark of social distinction among the upper and middle ranks of urban society as well.

Peasant Dances

The artistic evidence that survives of rural society suggests that different patterns of dancing prevailed in the countryside and among many of the lower orders in the cities. The French engraver, Théodore de Bry, completed a series of engravings documenting the styles of dance in use in sixteenth-century Europe. His Dance of Lords and Ladies showed cultivated couples arranged in the stylized poses recommended in the elite dancing manuals of the period. By contrast, his Peasants’ Dance showed wild and raucous movements, with couples hopping and springing, men lifting their women high off the ground, and couples engaged in close tight embraces. The hops, lifts, and tight embraces that de Bry depicted were also found in the artistic depictions of peasant dances of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Sebald Beham, and Pieter Bruegel. These movements had long raised the ire of moral reformers throughout Europe. The popular fifteenth-century preachers St. Bernard of Siena and St. John Capistrano had frequently railed against the immodesty of popular dances. When they preached in towns and villages, their audience sometimes tossed the musical instruments and other frivolities used to celebrate dances into massive “bonfires of the vanities.” Other more cautious individuals packed musical instruments and other dance paraphernalia away, waiting for the religious fervor to subside before bringing their items out of hiding. During the sixteenth century, though, the attacks on dancing from Protestant and Catholic reformers grew more severe, and in many places attempts were made to prohibit the custom. A pamphlet published in Augsburg in 1549, A God-fearing Tract on Ungodly Dancing, criticized peasant dances for their overt sexuality. The author attacked the custom of “fore” and “after” dances. After couples danced a serious “fore-dance,” the author railed, they then proceeded to perform a “less disciplined dance, with nudging, romping about, secretive hand touching, shouts, other improper things, and things about which I dare not speak.” Moralists feared such “improper” mixing of the sexes, and civil authorities tried to curb the popularity of such spirited movements by limiting opportunities for dances or by prohibiting these customs altogether. In spite of the efforts to censure dance, it continued to be a part of wedding celebrations as well as the long church festival of Carnival. While authorities attempted to segregate the young, unmarried men from women at these occasions, these festivals and celebrations provided an important avenue for socializing in country and town societies. At dances many men met their future wives through the courting rituals during which men often sat on ladies’ laps, caressing and fondling them. Such open displays were perceived by Christian moralists and governing officials alike as an easy entree into premarital sex. Sixteenth-century government officials responded by enacting ever-tighter regulations against dance and by sending magistrates into the countryside to punish offenders. Sometimes the magistrates seized and smashed the instruments that had been used to accompany such dancing. But despite such draconian efforts, the popularity of dance persisted.

New Forms

The association of the dances of peasants and the urban poor with immorality and disorder was reinforced in the sixteenth century by the rise of several new dance forms, including the sarabande and the chaconne. Legends linked both dances to the New World Indians, although each derived inspiration from native Spanish folk traditions as well. The sarabande was first mentioned in a manuscript poem written by Fernand Guzmán Mexía in 1539 in Panama, but was not recorded in a Spanish document until 1583, when it was prohibited at Madrid. The sarabande was performed in groups with castanets and tambourines and was explicitly sexual in its movements. It was denounced as a “national disgrace,” and described by one Spanish moralist as a “dance and song so lascivious in its words, so ugly in its movements, that it is enough to inflame even very honest people.” In 1599, Swiss observer Thomas Platter witnessed a group of fifty men and women performing the sarabande in Barcelona, making “ridiculous contortions of the body, the hands, the feet.” Still others condemned the dance as a devilish creation. From Spain the dance spread into France, Germany, and England, where it flourished in the early seventeenth century. As the dance moved throughout Europe, it developed different styles. Some of the forms of the dance were lively and suggestive, while others were grave and mannered, suitable to be performed in the ballrooms of the aristocracy and the rich. The rhythm of the dance, which was similar to the later Baroque minuet, inspired new native sarabande steps. In time, the original daring element of the dance disappeared, and it became one of the more staid of seventeenth-century dances. The chaconne, like the sarabande, developed in Spain, emerging in the final years of the sixteenth century. The songs that accompanied it were frequently filled with anticlerical sentiments and sexual innuendo, and the movements of the dance were thought to be similarly suggestive. The refrains to its songs frequently began with phrases like, “Let’s live the good life! Let’s go to Chacona!” Chacona may have been associated at the time with a colonial outpost in Mexico, but the precise derivation of the dance’s name is still a matter of conjecture. The dance grew popular in Spain’s cities around 1600, and chaconnes together with sarabandes were the two most popular urban dances in the country during the first quarter of the seventeenth century. No one was said to be able to resist the call to dance the chaconne, and its feverish popularity soon spread to other European regions. Its adoption in courtly societies toned down its more overt sexuality, as had happened with the sarabande before it.

Folk Dances

The examples of the chaconne and sarabande illustrate the ongoing and important influence that European folk dance had on the more elevated and highly choreographed styles of the continent’s great ballrooms. A distinguished lineage of ballroom styles in France, Italy, England, and Germany developed out of the folk dances of the European Renaissance. The gavotte, bourrée, passepied, and jig (or gigue) were just a few of the many folk dance forms that entered the repertory of social dances practiced in aristocratic and upperclass European societies during the period.


As one of the fine arts, dance experienced a long period of apprenticeship in the Renaissance under the direction of courtly dance masters and European aristocrats. The widespread love for dance gave birth to scores of new styles, choreographies, and spectacles that were characterized by complexity and grace of movement. For inspiration, Europe’s dance theorists turned to the ancients, trying to recapture the power they believed had flourished in ancient Rome’s poetry, dance, and music. They revived neoplatonic ideas about the nature of the universe as a dance, believing that the harmonies on the dance floor mirrored those of the cosmos. And they also combed through the native styles of their regions and adapted folk dances to the new demands of the ballroom. Dance as an art form of the Renaissance court flourished, even as moralists and civic authorities attacked the spirited dances of the countryside and the urban landscape. Dance played an important role as a marker of social distinction, a sign of cultivated upbringing. As the end of the Renaissance approached, new court forms of theatrical dance like the ballets de cour, masques, operas, and intermedi were being performed throughout Europe. Dance played a key role in court spectacle, and the stage was set in these developments for the emergence of the independent professional ballet in the seventeenth century, a form which has since delighted audiences with its combination of stagecraft and highly choreographed movements.