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France, around 1500

The Basse Danses recorded in various MSS and books between the mid fifteenth century and the early decades of the 16th century.

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Contents: Step Abbreviations
  Details of Steps and Style
   
  Alenchon
  Barcellonne
  La Danse de Cleves
   
  Links to sources and articles

 

Step abbreviations:

b     branle

d     double,

R    reverence / first desmarche

ss    a pair of simples

   desmarche / reprise

 

My step reconstructions:

The step-descriptions in Brussels and Toulouse are obscure, ambiguous, and sometimes seemingly contradictory. This isn't the only valid interpretation: other teachers are likely to do it differently.

Style: All steps involve a smooth rising and falling motion; all steps involve turning the body to some extent ("shoulder-shading", like 15thC Italian "ombreggiare" or "campeggiare"). Forwards steps - simples and doubles - finish with a follow-through (i.e. a single left ends with the right foot poised in front, about to touch the ground). Stand quite close to your partner, and angled somewhat towards them (or away, or both angled left or right: NOT both facing straight ahead).

Each of the steps below takes one bar; usually the music is in 3/2 or 6/4, so I count each bar as 6 beats.

A pair of simples, left then right: 1- step forwards onto the toes of your left foot, raising your body, and bringing your left shoulder (and the whole left side of your body) a little forwards, 2-3 slowly bring your right foot forwards, until it is poised in front of your left, ready to take the next step, while you slowly lower your left heel; you might also (on 3) begin to "straighten up" your shoudlers. 4 - step onto the toes of your right foot, raising your body, and bringing your right shoudler forwards, 5-6, slowly bring your left foot forwards, while lowering your right heel, and beginning to "straighten up" your shoulders.

Note: a pair of simples counts as two steps, so for each step you rise and fall, and for each step you lead with a different shoulder.

A double left: 1 - step forwards onto the toes of your left foot, raising your body, and bringing your left shoulder forwards (with the whole left side of your body), 3 - step forwards onto the toes of your right foot, still leading with the left side of your body, 4 - step forwards onto the toes of your left foot, left shoulder still in front, 5-6, slowly bring forward your right foot, until it's just above the ground, ready to take the next step, while slowly lowering your left heel, and beginning to straighten up your shoulders. 

Note: a double counts as one step (with three movements), so you rise and fall only once over the whole double (up at the beginning, down at the end), and lead with the same shoulder through the whole double (even though that means there's a point in the middle when your feet are doing one thing and your torso, another).

The first desmarche right: you will have just done a pair of simples, right and left, so your right foot will be hanging in the air in front of your left foot. 1 - put your right toes down immediately behind your left foot (just tuck it behind, don't take a big step backwards); 2-3 rise slowly onto your toes (weight on both feet), and turn your torso somewhat towards  your partner (women will have to twist a bit here); 4-6 slowly lower your heels, while bending your torso a little towards your partner (bend from the hips, and keep looking at your partner).

The desmarche left: your will have just done a desmarche right, so your right foot will be tucked behind your left. 1 - put your left toes down immediately behind your right foot, 2-3 rise slowly onto your toes, turning your torso somewhat towards your partner (men will have to twist a bit this time); 4-6 slowly lower your heels, while bending towards your partner a little, as above.

The third desmarche: is on the right, and is just like the first, except that you start with your weight on both feet. Tuck the right foot behind the left, rise and fall and bend just as before. When you lower your heels, make sure most of your weight goes onto your right foot, so that your left is free to move in the branle.

The bransle: is always done to the left (though I used to have the men do left, and the women right, which is very pretty). 1 - step a little to the left with your left foot, 2-3, bring the right foot near the left, but without allowing it to toch the ground; 4 - step a little to the right with the right foot, 5-6 bring the left foot near the right, finishing with it hanging in the air in front of the right foot, ready to make a simple left.

I often do these as if they were a pair of continentie in 15thC Italy, rising and falling a little with the step left and again with the step right. That's very pretty, but it would be more consistent with the rest of my reconstruction to treat the branle as one unit: rising onto the toes with the step left, and not lowering again until after the step right. This can also look lovely, but I'm not so good at it.

Reverences: you begin and end these dances with a desmarche right, followed by a branle - just be especially careful to acknowledge your partner in these, inclining your body towards them, and maintaininh eye-contact. There is no need for extra reverences.

 

Alenchon

Three measures, 30 notes  (intro, 313).  (Brussels MS - the "Alenchon" in Toulouze is the same length, but has a different choreography)

Rb  ss d z   ss ddd ss zzz b

                  ss d     ss zzz b

                  ss ddd ss zzz b

Barcellonne

Four measures, 34 notes (3131).  (Brussels and Toulouze)

Rb ss ddd ss zzz b

      ss d     ss zzz b

      ss ddd ss zzz b

      ss d     ss zzz b

 

La Danse De Cleves

This is unlike most dances in the Brussels MS in that it is not strictly processional, and the music given is a tune with a complex rhythm, not just a tenor. Reconstructions vary, because the description isn't clear, and there are bits missing. This is the first version I learned. I think it is what is usually danced in Lochac, but I don't know where it comes from.

Rb ss ddd ss đ       (processional; đ indicates a double backwards)

"flower pattern"

     ss d               (man goes forwards on ss, backwards on d; woman circles in place with ss d)

     ss d               (woman goes forwards on ss, backwards on d; man circles in place with ss d)

     ss d ss đ            (processional; many finish this 'measure' with a desmarche, I prefer đ, to mirror the first section)

"heart pattern"

     ss d               (ss flankingly forwards, separating, d turning inwards, end together, facing back of room)

     ss d               (repeat, end facing forwards)

     ss ddd ss đ b      (processional)

How much do we actually know about this dance? The first section is fairly solid - the steps are written under the notes in the usual way - but the final step, interpreted above as "double backwards" is given as a d with a funny squiggle next to it. The squiggle may or may not be significant, and may or may not mean 'go backwards'. The patterned sections ("flowers" and "hearts") are definitely done with ssd, ssd, and definitely done to that particular bit of music, but the patterns themselves are not so clear - they are described in words under the relevant sections of music, but the descriptions are brief, and ambiguous. The other two processional sections are made up to be like the first section: the original has two chunks of music with no steps at all under them.

 

Here's a facsimile of the Basse Danses of Marguerite of Austria, also known as the Brussels MS, at the Library of Congress' website.

Here are some articles on Basse Danse that have appeared in the Letter of Dance (SCA dance newsletter).

There's music for a few Basse Danses in here in Del's Dance Book (look at the bottom of the section called "dances of France and Burgundy")

 

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