The stories of medieval dances are practically lost in history, making it difficult to piece together what orchestrated movement was like during medieval times. However, there are some jewels remaining that gives us a glimpse into what life was like in medieval times in regards to dance.
In the European Middle Ages, there were plenty of parties and gatherings just as there are today. However, since the first concrete evidence of dancing only goes back to 1450, after the start of the Renaissance, there is little material to go off of. Despite this, paintings from the time period show dances, and there are also some references to it in various pieces of literature.
The very first documentation of dance is a Middle Ages form of folk dance movement known as the 'carole'. In the 12th and 13th centuries, this was orchestrated in the courts. Groups of dancers would hold hands in a circle with all of the dancers singing while they moved around the circle. Unfortunately, no original lyrics or dance steps have survived.
However, the carole is mentioned in the works of French poets, particularly in the series called Arthurian Romances. Here, it is mentioned that "maidens performed rounds and other dances, each trying to outdo the other in showing their joy".
Medieval dances are also mentioned in writing from around 1170, where a story speaks of a meadow with ladies and knights playing games and dancing. These, and many more surviving writings, are considered to all be referring to caroles.
There is also another form of very early dance known as 'Estampie', which could potentially be where the word "stamp" originated, from the stamping of feet to the strong rhythmic beats of the Estampie melodies. Again, no dance steps survive, and what we know of this medieval dance is a mystery still left to be pieced together.
Medieval Dances for Children
If you wish to teach children about medieval dance, the best thing to do is to find a movie soundtrack from a film based around that time, perhaps a Robin Hood score. Dress the children up like princes and princesses, and allow them to learn some traditional court dancing. This can be found through a dance history video or online. Make sure the teachers learn it ahead of time so it is simple enough to teach the children when they arrive.
You can also play "royal ball freeze dance" where you play medieval music and allow the kids to dance around in their medieval dance costumes and then "freeze" whenever the music stops. Eliminate kids when they move during the freeze time, until the last player remains and is the winner.
Another dance often credited to medieval times, even though it was probably developed a bit after, is the Saltarello. This was a lively dance that originated in Naples. Again only pictures remain, so no one is sure of the dance steps, other than that it was probably quick and full of leaps like a jig.
This was danced in Europe until the 15th century, when the Saltarello became the name of an official dance step. People continued to use the Saltarello as improvisation for a complete dance. You canl also see this step in some 16th century dance documents.
Medieval dances will always remain a bit of a mystery to us as we dream and imagine of what these ancient dances must have been like. Surely they were full of joy, passion and creativity, much like the dances we experience today. Dance and movement have been a part of life for centuries, and will continue to endure through the ages.