Folk Dancing in Europe

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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.



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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


introduction: During the sixteenth century both Catholic and Protestant reformers stepped up attacks on dance and even tried to eliminate dancing, particularly the kind of folk dance that occurred in connection with weddings and peasant festivals. In 1581, Thomas Lovell, a Puritan minister in London, published a short dialogue about the evils of dance, entitled A Dialogue Between Custome and Veritie Concerning the Uses and Abuses of Dance. It was typical of the many pamphlets that circulated in sixteenth-century Europe attacking dance. In the dialogue, the figure of Custom continually defends dance by recourse to traditional arguments, i.e., dance increases sociability, it provides a way for men and women to meet one another, and so on. Verity, on the other hand, launches bitter attacks like that which follows on the evils of dance.

Custom: But some reply what fool would dance if that when dance is done He may not have at lady's lips What dance hath for him won.

Verity: By this their minds they utter plain:
To feed their fancy and their lust
Not God in mind to keep.
Such dancing where both men and maids together trace and turn,
Stirs up the flesh to Venus' games, causes men with lust to burn.
If we the living God do fear, and dread his laws to break, what so might move us until evil we should nay do nor speak.
So if the causes we cut out, the effect we take away.
Our holy life our loving Lord, better serve we may.
Lest I alone with dance do fight this battle should be thought, out of the works of worthy men let's see what may be brought.
Sirach, that sage in chapter ninth this counsel doth he give:
In company with dancing dame, see that thou doth not live,
Gaze not upon her beauty brave, hear not her mermaid's noise,
Lest thou be snared, and lest that she enchant thee with her voice.
Bishop (Saint) Augustine were wont vain dances to reprove.
But they are now so far from it, they that to dance do love.
Better (he saith) that on Sabbath's rest, if were all day to ditch,
Then on that day to be defiled with dancing as with pitch.
Dancing is a flattering devil, a poison fire, destroying them that take delight therein.
Oh, would that men their sins could see, how dance do them defile:
Though pricked in pride and garnished gay, and they like wanton's smile.
And Chrysostom, that golden mouth, for so his name may spell, where he of Jacob's wedding writes this doth he plainly tell:
Weddings, thou hearest that thou might no wanton dancing hear, might it which dances diabolical he plainly calleth there,
The bride and ere the bridegroom is with dance (saith he) beguiled, and the whole house and family therewith also defiled.
And writing of Herodias her daughter's dancing nice, before the king to which her gave
John Baptist's head of price.
Ye saith that many nowadays whom
Christians men do judge
Not half their kingdoms for to give, nor others heads do grudge.
But their own souls most dear of all, they give to be destroyed.
While by their devilish dancing they are daily sore annoyed.
Yea where that wanton dancing is erected, he doth say,
The devil himself doth dance with them in that ungodly play.
I wish that dancers then would weigh the author of their sport, which is the devil, and that he doth with them in dance resort.

source: Thomas Lovell, A Dialogue between Custom and Veritie Concerning the Use and Abuse of Dancing and Minstrelsie. (London: John Allde, 1581): C4v–D1v.

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.


L. A. Armstrong, Window on Folk Dance (Huddersfield, United Kingdom: Springfield Books, 1985).

J. Cass, Dancing Through History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993).

J.-M. Guilcher, La tradition populaire de danse en Basse-Bretagne (Paris: Mouton, 1963).

W. Hilton, Dance and Music of Court and Theater (Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1997).

N. A. Jaffé, Folk Dance of Europe (Skipton, United Kingdom: Folk Dance Enterprises, 1990).

R. Stevenson, "The Sarabande, A Dance of American Descent," Inter-American Music Bulletin 30 (1962): 1–13.

T. Walker, "Ciaccona and Passacaglia: Remarks on Their Origin and Early History," Journal of the American Musicological Society 21 (1968): 300–320.