16th century court dances

Written by kathleen cook
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16th century court dances
Royal courtiers enjoyed many different dances in 16th-century Europe. (Hemera Technologies/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

Dance in the High Renaissance period reflected the opulence, culture and constraints of the era. More than a social pastime, the ability to dance enhanced one's position at court and determined the fortunes of marriage. Dance masters often employed mathematical formulae to assemble dance moves that reflected the exploration and enlightenment of the Age of Discovery. Some of these dances survive today, as ensembles and theatre troupes preserve this rich historic tradition.

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Elizabethan Court Dances

Elizabethans enjoyed many court dances considered risqué in Catholic countries. Queen Elizabeth popularised La Volta, which she danced with the Earl Leicester. Other Elizabethan dances include the Pavan, the Almain and the Galliards. In the rollicking La Volta, a series of hops and leaps required the couple to embrace. On the other end of refinement, women lowered their eyes and curtsied during the Pavan, to show refinement and gentility. Couples held hands during the Almain or Allemande, popular in the mid-16th century, while dancing the Gallairds required athletic skill.

Court Dances of Europe

Many of the peasant dances became popular at 16th century courts. Likewise, some of the dances of the upper class eventually filtered down to the peasants. A few of these include the Branle and the Spanish Pavan, or Pavaniglia. The intricate footwork of the Pavaniglia afforded dancers a chance to flaunt their skills. The Mattachins incorporated swords into the dance, and a wide variety of the Balli dances employed mathematical equations. Artisans drew triangles and other symbols on ballroom floors to convey messages to Renaissance dancers. The meaning of many of those messages are now lost.

The First Ballet

Catherine de Medici supported the creation of the first ballet in 1581. Her dance master, Balthasar de Beaujoyeax, composed Le Ballet Comique de La Reine for a party of 10,000 guests. The large number of dance sequences, elaborate decorations and accompanying poetry all served to popularise this dance form. Artisans repeated it throughout the courts of Europe and England, and ballet masters gained esteem in the latter 16th century and beyond.

Renaissance Dance Masters

Nearly all aristocrats of the High Renaissance period employed dance masters. One of them, Jehan Tabourot, wrote under the pen name of Thoinot Arbeau. His Orchesographie, published in 1589, became the most popular manual of his era. He described in detail the dances of the 15th and 16th centuries and included excerpts and illustrations to aid in dance mastery. Most of the early dance masters believed that human movement paralleled the celestial movements of the cosmos. Some also tied modern dance steps to ancient texts. In Fabritio Caroso's Il Ballarino of 1581, for example, he states that current dance steps may be learnt by examining the rhythm and verse of ancient writers, such as Virgil. Dance Masters remained in favour throughout the High Renaissance and into the Baroque periods of the 17th century. Their treatises remain useful sources of information about the dances of the era.

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