Dancing Masters

views updated

Dancing Masters

Burgundian Origins and Italian Splendor.

Choreographed dances brought into existence a new type of artistic impresario, the dancing master, who invented the dances and taught them to the members of the court. The earliest known of these worked in Italian courts from the beginning of the fifteenth century, although their manuals show a well-developed set of step protocols and dance behavior that suggests that the idea had begun in the previous century, and possibly not in Italy. The name of one of the Italian choreographed dances, bassadanza, is first seen in its French form basse danse in a poem by the Provençal troubadour Raimon de Cornet (c. 1340): "A jongleur would rapidly learn stanzas and many little verses, cansos, and basses danses." It is clear that by the fifteenth century the basse danse was choreographed, but since the name simply means "low dance," contrasting its conservative steps with the more flamboyant jumps, hops, and leaps of other dances, there is no way to know whether the history of choreographed dances goes back as early as 1300 or whether the application of specific choreographies to this dance step was developed later. The earliest French collection of basse danse music and choreographies is associated with the court of Burgundy, an area now in eastern France that was once a powerful independent duchy. Although the manuscript itself, a spectacularly beautiful one with silver and gold musical notation on black parchment, dates from approximately 1470, it is clearly a retrospective collection going back at least to the beginning of the century. Given what is known about the splendor of all of the arts at the Burgundian court beginning with the reign of Philip the Bold in 1364, it would not be surprising to learn that the tradition began under his supervision and encouragement.


introduction: The following letter, dated 10 April 1469, was written to Lorenzo de' Medici, from Filippus Bussus, a dancing master trying to gain a position with the illustrious noble family. Although there is no evidence that Filippus was successful, the letter gives a picture of how a dancing master would function at a special celebration—arriving more than a week before the festivity, bringing a repertory of dances to teach the nobles, and creating original choreographies for the principal members of the family.

My magnificent and most distinguished and honorable lord:

In the last few days I have learned that your Magnificence is about to take a wife during the upcoming May festivities and that you are preparing a noble and triumphant celebration. This gives me the greatest pleasure for all your consolation and well being. A little before the Carnival I left Lombardy with the children of the Magnificent lord Roberto [da Sanseverino] whom I have taught to dance, and from that area in Lombardy I have brought some elegant, beautiful and dignified balli and bassadanze.

These things are indeed worthy of lords such as yourself and not of just anyone. And I firmly believe that if your Magnificence were to see them performed, you would like them exceedingly and you would wish to learn them since they are so beautiful and delicate. Consequently, I have almost decided to come, if it pleases you, of course, to help honor your festa. And if you would like to learn two or three of these balli and a few bassadanze from me, I would come eight or ten days before the festa to teach them to you with my humble diligence and ability; and in that way it will also be possible to teach your brother Giuliano and your sisters [Bianca, Maria, and Nannina] so that you will be able to acquire honor and fame in this festa of yours by showing that not everyone has them [i.e. the dances], since they are so little known and rare. And thus I beg and pray, press and urge you to accept this unworthy and small offer of mine. There is nothing else to say now except that I recommend myself to Your Magnificence, for whose pleasures I offer my unfailing and ready service.

Your servant Filippus Bussus of Biandrate

source: Filippus Bussus, Letter to Lorenzo de'Medici, April 10, 1469. Trans. Timothy J. McGee (Florence: Archivio di Stato, MAP, Filza XXI, No. 90).

Ceremonies and Celebrations.

It is clear that the role of the Italian dancing masters extended far beyond the mere teaching of dance. Often, these men also planned the elaborate ceremonies that accompanied a feast, including the plays, parades, processions, jousts, banquets, wild animal hunts, and games that were a part of the celebrations, as well as the decoration of the city streets and performance venues. Celebrations of this kind were arranged for engagements, weddings, receptions of important guests, and other special occasions that could provide the powerful noble families with an opportunity to show off their wealth, artistic superiority, and social importance. At the end of one of the later copies of his treatise, Guglielmo Ebreo adds a list of thirty events in which he participated. There is no doubt that this is only a partial account, but it probably contains those occasions that seemed to him most memorable. His comments (not reported in chronological order) provide an interesting glimpse of the nature of festive events in the fifteenth century:

Event 6 [1454]: I was present [in Bologna] at the nuptials of Messer Sante del Bentivoglio, when we accompanied Lady Ginevra [daughter of Alessandro Sforza] and the festivities lasted three days; and I never saw finer repasts or finer refreshments or greater ceremony. And the platters of boiled meat, that is, the capons, were in the form of his coat of arms. And moreover, around the tables there were peacocks whose feathers and spread tails seemed like curtains in that hall.

Event 10 [1450]: I was present when Duke Francesco Sforza made his entry into Milan and was made Duke. And the jousts and the dancing and the great festivities lasted a month. And I saw two hundred knights dubbed. And I understand Giovanni of Castel Nova and Giovanni Chiapa to say to the lord Messer Alessandro Sforza that ten thousand people sat down to table when the trumpet sounded and all of them were in court.

Local Patronage.

As a special feature on some of these occasions, the dancing masters invented new choreographies that were directly related to their patrons, naming the dance after a local person or place: Domenico's balli (dances in the ballo form) called "Belriguardo" and "Belfiore" refer to the Este family residences in Ferrara; those called "Lioncello" and "Marchesana" refer to Marchese Leonello d'Este. These special choreographies would be premiered in front of all of the invited guests, featuring the patrons themselves as the dancers. Some dance teachers, such as Domenico da Piacenza and Antonio Cornazano, were permanent members of the household staff, with duties in addition to dance instruction, while others were hired for particular occasions; the letter from Filippus Bussus to Lorenzo de' Medici shows one such itinerant teacher extolling his own talents while seeking employment in Florence.

Italian Authors.

Three of the fifteenth-century Italian dancing masters left treatises that include not only specific dance patterns for bassadanze and balli, but also essays on etiquette, costume, and dance techniques. The earliest of the treatises is from 1445, De la arte di ballare et Danzare (On the Art of Dancing and Choreography), by Domenico da Piacenza; the second, Libro dell'arte del danzare (Book on the Art of Dancing), from 1455, is by Antonio Cornazano; and the third—the first of seven versions of Guglielmo Ebreo's treatise De pratica seu arte tripudii (On the Practice or Art of Dancing)—was written in 1463. We know from various sources, including choreography attributions and statements in the surviving treatises, that there were many other dancing masters in Italy during the fifteenth century, including Giuseppe Ebreo (Guglielmo's brother), Pietro Paolo (Guglielmo's son), Moise Ebreo, and Filippus Bussus. However, their writings have not survived, and little is known of these dancing masters or their lives.



[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Humanistic Influences.

The Italian dance manuals contain more than just instructions for recreating specific dances; they begin with a section of poems, highly complimentary dedicatory material addressed to their patrons, and essays on a number of different topics. It is clear that the authors were all formally educated, since the subject matter of some of this material is a reflection of the humanist movement, relating dance to philosophy, history, and world thought. On a more practical level, there are also discussions of the basic elements of dance: measure and rhythm, accurate memory, artistic use of the dance area, graceful movement of the body, considerations when wearing long or short gowns and capes, and special instructions to women on the subject of modesty when dancing.


Ingrid Brainard, "The Role of the Dancing Master in 15th-Century Courtly Society," Fifteenth Century Studies 2 (1979): 21–44.

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

Alberto F. Gallo, "L'Autobiografia artistica de Giovanni Ambrosio (Guglielmo Ebreo) de Pesaro," Studi musicali 12 (1983): 189–202.

——, "Il Ballare Lombardo (circa 1435–1475)," Studi musicali 8 (1979), 61–84.

Daniel Heartz, "The Basse Dance, Its Evolution circa 1450–1550," Annales Musicologiques, Moyen Age et Renaissance 6 (1958–1963): 287–340.

Timothy J. McGee, "Dancing Masters and the Medici Court in the 15th Century," Studi musicali 17 (1988): 201–224.

D. R. Wilson, "The Development of French Basse Danse," Historical Dance 2 (1984–1985): 5–12.