Long before disco or hip-hop, people tore up the dance floor doing renaissance dance steps. While they may seem boring or slow to modern-day social dancers, they were a passionate exchange of flirtations and more in their time.
Renaissance Dance Steps in England and Europe
Many dance steps from England during the Renaissance were codified and perfected in the Elizabethan court. The ability to dance well was considered as much a part of education as reading or eating with a knife and fork. Many of the courtly dances drew from the more common festival dances, and vice versa, with the nobility adding their own interpretations of the often bawdy steps of the countryside.
Most dances were done in some sort of formation, with paired dancers either moving in a circle or in groups of four (two couples) or eight (four couples). Just because they started out paired, though, didn't mean they'd stay that way. The dances were social interactions, with partners switching and moving apart and then back together as the dances progressed. There was also a technique known as "poaching" which involved a very talented dancer manipulating the steps of the formation in order to end up with the partner of his or her choice.
Flirtation and Seduction
The dances were simple for a reason: they left room for the true purpose of Renaissance dance steps, flirtation. Many dances, such as the Pavane (literally, the "Walk") were designed not so much to express movement as to show off clothing. For that reason, steps were designed to be small and easy-to-execute, with occasional wide-turns that accommodated the large gowns and flowing sleeves. Here are some of the descriptions of the dance steps, both of the English and European variety:
- Singles and Doubles - These are simply steps forward or backward, usually starting with the left foot (for both males and females). Often dances will say "Double forward, single back" which makes the whole procession go gradually forward across the dance floor.
- Reverence (also known as a reverena) - this is a kind of "greeting" step, where the dancers, facing each other, slide one step back and bend both knees - sort of like a curtsey - and then rises again. Often this step was done with demure, low-lidded glances from the women towards their partners.
- Saltarello - Modeled after some of the more common dances, this is one of the more active steps, with three steps combined with a hop at the end.
- Arming - The couples grasp each other's elbows and circle each other (usually in two double-steps). This move is very familiar to dancers of country western, square dancing, and many other cultural dances.
- Siding - another "greeting" step, this simply involves the dancers moving slightly to their left or right (while facing each other) and then stepping forward until their shoulders are almost touching - but not quite. It is the proximity and teasing nature of this step, combined again with hot glances over the shoulder (or demurely away) that really make this a favorite step of dancers in spite of its simplicity.
These are only a few of the more common dance steps. While each area had their own styles of dancing (which is why there are so many Italian names for Renaissance dance steps), they liberally borrowed from each other, and traveling dignitaries as well as performers were valued for sharing the latest dances from the stylish courts as they went around.
Learning More About Renaissance Dance
There is much more to dances of the period than just the steps. Entire forms of dances - such as the Bransles, the Almains and of course the entire 15th Century Italian style of dance are well-documented, explored, and even performed by historians and enthusiasts alike.
One excellent source for this kind of dance is the Society for Creative Anachronism, which celebrates many parts of the Renaissance including the dance. Some universities also have dance groups that re-create the feeling of the courtly dances. Learning to appreciate them can expand any dancer's understanding of the origins of contemporary dance as well as just being fun.