We perform dances from the 14th century through to the 20th century.
The earliest dances come from the mediaeval period: they are farandoles, danced in a line led by the person at the front, weaving patterns in the dance area, and branles which are circle dances moving round one way and then back again. No partners were needed for these types of dances unlike estampies, which were possibly the earliest couple dances. Later still came another kind of couple dance, the almaine from Germany, with hopped steps.
The French basse danse comes from the 15th century and it is a slow, stately form of couple dance. There were many different basses danses but they were strict in structure, using only four different kinds of step. Lighter in feel than the French basse danse were the Italian bassadanza and ballo. The bassadanza is slow like its French counterpart, but balli have differences in tempo and rhythm, with a greater range of steps, and while some were written for one couple to perform, others used three or more dancers.
The stately processional pavane and lively galliard, with its opportunity to show off one’s agility and skill in leaping, both come from the 16th century. So too do the Italian balletto, cascarda, volta and canario, and there were also 16th century branles. The Italians were the acknowledged masters and Queen Elizabeth I was said to dance “high in the Italian manner”. As in the 15th century some dances were choreographed for couples while others were written for three dancers or for two or more couples. There were a wide variety of steps with detailed instructions given in dance treatises.
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
The English Dancing Master was published by John Playford in 1651, containing instructions for country dances with music for each dance. These are social dances for two or more couples. There are different dance formations: longways, both for as many couples as wanted to dance and for a set number of couples; two couples facing; and square sets of four couples. Playford and his successors went on to publish 18 editions of his book between 1651 and 1728, each edition including many new dances and there were numerous other collections of dances published throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Other than country dances the most popular form was the minuet from France. Also from France came theatre and ballroom dances such as the gavotte, gigue and sarabande which require a high level of skill in performance.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries
In the 18th century the square set dance-form evolved in France into the cotillon (cotillion in English), with a verse-chorus form using nine different “verses” (called changes), being the same for all cotillions, and a more difficult “chorus” (figure) which varied for each cotillion. Towards the end of the century came quadrilles which were a progression from cotillions: the changes disappeared leaving only the figures and these were put together to form sets of quadrilles.