The Basse Danse and the Bassadanza

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The Basse Danse and the Bassadanza

Basse Danse.

Each of the choreographed dances—basse danse, bassadanza, and ballo—has a distinct sequence of steps that are appropriate for only that dance, and all of them also have in common a small number of main steps, although they differ in how they are executed. The Burgundian basse danse is an elegant processional dance, consisting of five basic steps that are arranged in a unique sequence for each composition. The steps themselves are not complicated, and all require that the feet stay close to the floor, in keeping with the name basse (low). Basse danse steps include the following movements:

Branle: A swaying motion with the body turning first to one side and then to the other. Since the partners are holding hands, the first turn is away from each other, the second towards the partner. This is always the first step to follow the reverence.

Double: Three equal steps forward while raising the body.

Reprise: (also called demarche) A small step backward with the right foot, followed by placing the left foot behind the right. The right then moves forward again, thus allowing the dancer to end with the right foot in the place where it began.

Reverence: A bow, executed with one foot behind the other and the knees bent. It was always the first step in each basse danse.

Simple: A single step forward with one foot. This step is always called for in pairs and always begins on the left foot.

This constitutes the complete repertory of steps for all fifteenth-century basses danses. The choreographed versions varied from one another only in the sequence and number of movements. Each basse danse had a specific number of steps that were matched in the music accompanying it by a similar number of units of measure, meaning that the dance and its music were inseparable. Although the descriptions suggest that the steps are not difficult, the exact step sequence for each dance was crucial, and when arm, head, and body motions were added, any one choreographed dance became quite complex, compelling the nobles to spend many hours in dance practice.

The Bassadanza.

The Italian bassadanza is similar to the basse danse in that it too is basically a processional dance, moving at a single steady tempo and organized around a number of relatively simple basic steps. In fact, four of the basic bassadanza steps (called "natural steps") are quite similar to those of the basse danse. The bassadanza and basse danse differ, however, in a number of details of construction and execution, and especially in their tone and the amount of freedom taken by the choreographers and expected of the dancers. Bassadanza and ballo "natural steps" include the following:

Continenza: A small step to the side with knees bending, usually executed in pairs. It is somewhat similar to the branle.

Doppio: Three equal steps forward, similar to the double.

Mezza volta: A half turn, meaning that the dancer ends up facing in the opposite direction. It is sometimes executed by using other steps (one doppio, or two continenze, or two sempii, or two riprese).

Represa: A large step to the side with one foot, which is then joined by the other.

Riverenza: (two types) The normal bow with one foot behind the other and the knees bent, and riverenza in terra, in which the knee of the back leg touches the floor.

Salto: A jump with several possible executions: on one foot or two, or from one foot to the other.

Sempio: A single step forward, similar to the simple.

Volta tondo: A full turn, executed by using the same steps as the mezza volta, but requiring twice as many steps and taking twice as long to execute.

Ornamental steps (sometimes called "accidental steps") could be interpolated into a performance by the dancers themselves. None of these steps is clearly explained; the descriptions are those suggested by the words themselves:

Escambiamento: A change; perhaps performing the motion or step with the other foot.

Frappamento: A shaking motion, perhaps meaning the foot.

Scorsa: Dragging the foot.

Formality Versus Flamboyance.

As can be seen by comparing the steps in both dances, the basse danse, with its limited number of steps executed in a fairly standard sequence, creates an air of sedate and highly controlled formality and elegance, whereas the bassadanza, with its larger repertory of basic steps, numerous variations, and looser tradition of step sequences, results in a far more flamboyant dance. Unlike the two-or three-person formation of the basse danse, which is confined to processional movements with a more or less rigid sequence of the basic steps, all of which are low, the bassadanza allows as many as eight dancers in formations which can be single file, all dancers abreast, or even circular, and there is far more variety in the sequence of the basic steps. The processional aspect of the dance is interrupted by numerous half-turns and even a jumping step, and the bassadanza choreographies include the addition of "accidental" steps to be placed before or after the basic patterns, as well as variations on the basic steps, ornamental movements, and steps borrowed from other dance types. The bassadanza is still a very formal dance, but the greater variety of steps and formations, including larger motions such as full- and half-turns, lend a far more theatrical air. The Italian bassadanza, therefore, although stemming from the same processional idea as its Burgundian counterpart, was a more extravagant product.

Matching Notes and Steps.

As can be seen in the transcription of a Burgundian basse danse called "La Haulte Bourgongne" (The High Burgundian), the written music for the bassadanza and basse danse, known as a "tenor," is expressed only as a series of long notes, each representing one measure of time. The word tenor, from the Latin tenere (to hold), refers to the fact that the notes were sustained. Each bassadanza and basse danse has its own music, which contains exactly the correct number of notes to match the choreography. Some of the melodies of these dances are adapted from known songs, although many of them probably were composed specifically for a particular dance choreography. Since there is no change in the pace of the music, it was also possible to compose a new bassadanza or basse danse to an existing tune; all that was required was that the number of dance steps must correspond with the units of measure in the melody.

Dance Notation and Instrumentation.

Although the music for both low dances looks the same, the way in which the treatises associate the steps with the music differs in that the bassadanza steps are described only in prose, whereas the French developed a shorthand in which letters designating the steps are placed beneath the appropriate notes of the dance tune, showing at a glance which steps go with which notes. In performance, the music would be more complex than the single line that was written. In addition to the long notes of the monophonic (single-line) tenor, one or two other parts would be improvised, resulting in a polyphonic (multi-part) composition full of harmony and ornate inter-weaving melodic lines. Instrumental musicians were quite skilled at this type of improvisation and would easily fill out the harmonies and melodies around the sparse written outline of the tenor. The most common dance ensemble of the period was a trio consisting of a slide trumpet (predecessor of the trombone), and two or three shawms (double-reed instruments, similar to the oboe). In performance, one shawm would play the written melody and the other instruments would improvise faster-moving accompaniment parts above and below the melody. A similar kind of improvised accompaniment would also be added when the music was performed by a single musician playing harp or lute. Other instruments frequently shown in the company of dancers are tambourines, bagpipes, recorders, and fiddles.


introduction: In Italian treatises the dance steps for the bassadanza were indicated simply by written descriptions that were provided alongside the music. But the French developed a kind of shorthand in which letters designating the steps were placed beneath the appropriate notes of the dance tune, showing at a glance which steps were to go with which notes. In the example below, from a dance called "La Haulte Bourgongne" (The High Burgundian), the letters beneath the notes correspond to the five basic steps of the basse danse: R=reverence, b=branle, s=simple, and so on.


Ingrid Brainard, Three Court Dances of the Early Renaissance (New York: Dance Notation Bureau, 1971).

Ernest Closson, Le Manuscrit dit des Basses Danses de la Bibliothèque de Bourgogne (Brussels: Société des Bibliophiles et Iconophiles de Belgiques, 1912).

Frederick Crane, Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth Century Basse Danse (Ottawa: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 1968).

James L. Jackman, Fifteenth Century Basse Dances.

The Wellesley Edition, 6 (Wellesley, Mass.: 1984).

Otto Kinkeldey, "Dance Tunes of the Fifteenth Century," in Instrumental Music. Ed. David G. Hughes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1972): 3–30.