The Ballo

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The Ballo

Origins of Ballet.

The ballo enters more fully into the area of what we would think of as theatrical dance or ballet. Although the ballo employs the same basic steps as the bassadanza, it is quite different in its overall format and in the number of step variations. Instead of being danced at a single steady tempo and measure, as are the bassadanza and the basse danse, the ballo is made up of an irregular series of up to four different tempos (called misura), each having a different kind of rhythmic organization and speed. The tempos, from slowest to fastest, were bassadanza, quaternaria, saltarello, and piva. The changes of tempo result in a large variation in the natural steps. For example, a saltarello doppio, which involves a small hop as well as a stepping motion, moves quite a bit faster than a bassadanza doppio because the saltarello tempo itself is faster. There is also, of course, a quaternaria doppio and a piva doppio, and to complicate matters, some of the choreographies call for the execution of one kind of step variation in a different tempo: a saltarello doppio, for example, in a bassadanza tempo. The result of the changing tempos and wide variation of steps was a dance form capable of enormous expression. In the hands of the creative Italian dancing masters, such dances were organized into pantomimes and mini-dramas that were highly entertaining. The ballo "Gelosia" (jealousy), for example, involves three couples who flirt with one another while executing a wide variety of dance steps and floor patterns, ending with an exchange of partners. It would be difficult to exaggerate the enormous amount of time and effort required to present these dances with the flair and elegance they required. Throughout the sixteenth century, the ballo continued to be one of the favorite forms of entertainment, attracting professional dancers by the beginning of the seventeenth century, and eventually—as the name would suggest—becoming the basis of modern ballet.

Musical Complexity.

Ballo musical lines are far more complex than those for the bassadanza and basse danse, each having a unique set of sections that vary in style and meter, as well as in the number of times each section is to be repeated. Because of this, each ballo is inseparable from its music. Similar to the music for the other choreographed dances, in performance the ballo music was filled out by the musicians, who extemporized additional musical lines to what was written. The ballo music, however, was based on a melody with a variety of rhythms (as opposed to a basse danse and bassadanza sustained-note "tenor"), which required the musicians to fill in only harmonic lines. The instruments used in these performances were the same as for the bassadanza; the two types of dances were usually combined during the elaborate feasts in which they were performed.


introduction: The ballo "Petit Vriens" is a choreographed dance for three dancers by Guglielmo Ebreo, from one of his dance manuals of the mid-fifteenth century. In performance, a small group of musicians would improvise harmony to this melody.

Novelty and Tradition.

The arrival of choreographed dances brought not only a new repertory and style to the activity of dance, but also a new function in which dance took on unprecedented political and social importance as political leaders used it as a measure of culture, elegance, and taste. The political implications, however, could have been important only to relatively few, meaning that for the majority of those who attended the entertainments of the royal court it was simply a new and sophisticated way to enjoy dancing, though certainly one that required far more preparation than anything they had previously experienced. Rather than replace the older style of conventional dances, the new form merely augmented the repertory for the nobility, while the conventional dances continued to be performed by all the citizens, including the nobles. The low steps of the new basse danse and bassadanza forms were derived from earlier estampie steps, and the line dances of the earlier centuries continued on as well, acquiring new names and step variants but remaining essentially the same. New dances and styles continued to reflect the ever-changing social and political lives of all Europeans, but regardless of the changes, dancing retained its central place in the recreational activities of late medieval society.


Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro, De pratica seu arte tripudii; On the Practice or Art of Dancing. Chapter 3. Ed. and trans. Barbara Sparti (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).