Dance in the Renaissance

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, nobility started to have ballrooms in their houses. Dance masters became more popular among the aristocracy, and as this happened, the masters began to create new dances, new steps, etc.

The first book written by a dance master was Orchesography, by Arbeau, written in 1589. I was delighted to find copies - in English - online. Indeed, there are many original texts online for the Renaissance period, due mostly to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and the popularity of Renaissance Festivals.

Another type of dance in the Renaissance - and one that survives today - is Morris. The Morris dances were originally Moorish, and called 'Morisco' or 'Mouresca' or several variations thereof. They took place on May Day each year, along with the Maypole dance, and today are held at other times of year as well. (There are Morris dancers at my local Renaissance Festival every year.) The dance involves jumping and leaping, and the dancers have bells on their legs and often hold handkerchiefs or sticks. It is thought of as a typically English dance, but has spread to America as well, where there are several Morris teams today.

Ballet began to influence the everyday lives of the nobility. One indirectly related phenomena was fan talk - an intricate, flirtatious language spoken by women using only their fans. This was particularly helpful when a woman wanted to communicate with someone across a crowded ballroom. Some examples of this language are:

with fan closed:

  • fan brought to lips: conspiratorial
  • fan brought to right cheek: "yes"
  • fan brought to left cheek: "no"
  • brought to the tip of the nose: distrust
  • brought to the chin: annoyance
  • brought to the forehead: crazy
  • gazing at the fan: "tell me more"
  • covering left ear: secret
  • tipped to heart: love
  • yawn behind closed fan: total boredom
with fan open:
  • hide eyes: love
  • overhead, to side: annoyance
  • overhead, slowly lowering to ground: hatred
  • palm up, raising: welcome
  • brush away, palm down: go away

Pictures & Articles

Some of these have interesting articles, and others I included only for the pictures - those might be for event listings, etc., but the pictures are nice.

Renaissance Dance

Orchesography
SCA Renaissance Dance homepage (huge number of resources, including original texts!)
Renaissance Dance

Morris Dancing

Rich Holmes’s Morris Site
Middlesex Morris
Red Herring Morris
Morris Dance

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