Rosina's Dance Page

Introduction to Early Dance

This is a page of information I put up when I was running the monthly introductory dance class for Eoforwic, the Toronto SCA group. The basic information on dance of the period is still applicable, but the dances being taught are probably different.


We only have dance sources starting from the fifteenth-century, and only from a few countries of Western Europe. Despite this, there is a large number of steps and, to make things more confusing, many different reconstructions of some of the steps. (The sources are often unclear, and may not even bother to explain how to do the steps at all.) Unless you are interested in doing the more complicated dances, however, two easy steps will get you through most of the simpler dances. These two steps are the Single and the Double.

The Single
This takes half a bar of music, and consists of one step, and then a pause where you usually bring the other foot beside the first foot, (but don't step on the second foot.) Some dances call for you to do something else with the second foot, such as in Almans, where you bring it forward in the air a little. In some dances the single is fancied up, such as in Saltarello La Regina where a hop replaces the pause, so the single becomes step-hop. But each of these really is just a single with icing added. A single can be done sideways, forward, or backward. A single left is done stepping on the left foot, and a single right on the right. After you do a single on the left, your next step has to be on the right.

The Double
From the name you may expect this to be two steps. Actually, it is three. The reason it is called a double may be because it takes twice the time of a single (a full bar instead of half a bar) or it may be because you step twice on the leading foot. That is, when you do a double left, you step twice on the left foot, and, of course, once on the right inbetween. A double forward is three steps forward, and then a pause. Again, it may get fancied up in the same way that a single is. In an Alman you lift your foot forward on the pause (so a double left would be step left, step right, step left, raise right) while in a Saltarello you hop on the pause (step left, step right, step left, hop on the left foot with your right foot in the air.) When you do a double sideways you are taking two steps to that side.

The Piva
One version of the double that we use is the piva. For the piva the 2nd step is shorter than the 1st and 3rd steps. So a piva left would be:

  1. Step forward on the left
  2. Short step right (or put the right toes under the left heel)
  3. Step left
  4. Pause
The result is a bit galloping, or lurching ... appropriate, as the Italians considered the piva rather rustic and unrefined, only suitable to be done late at night, presumably when everyone was well into their cups ...

Foot to Start On
Nearly all the dances we do in the SCA start on the left foot, and the steps usually alternate thereafter. For some figures the dancers pass each other or take hands, and, to match the first foot being left, this is normally done first with the right (since the right hand swings forward as the left foot comes forward, in walking.)

Other Rules
The woman is always right. That is, when dancing as a couple, except in a few "improper" dances, the woman is on the right side of the man.
When holding hands, keep them low and relaxed.

Figures are patterns that are made while dancing. There are a number of common ones that we do, and again, in some dances they were fancied up with a lot of complicated steps. The basic figures themselves can usually be done with singles, doubles, or just normal walking. Here are some of the common figures:

Many of the early English Country dances that we do follow a standard pattern that has been nicknamed 'USA'. In the first verse the couples go Up a double and back, in the second verse they Side, and in the third verse they Arm. Once the pattern is learned it becomes pretty easy to learn more USA dances, as all that has to be memorized are the choruses.

Some Dances and Their Backgrounds

There are no dance manuals from this period. Some dance music survives, but the performance of the dances has to be guessed at, using information gleaned from references to dancing, pictures, and knowledge of later dances. Because of this, the dances taught from this period are extremely speculative. Dances mentioned in this period include ductia and carole, estampie, trotto, and saltarello. Pictures indicate that some dancing was done by couples in a processional formation, others were done by a long line of dancers holding hands in a line, and some seem to have been done by couples moving freely around the floor and to have included spins and jumps.

Ductia: Probably equivalent to the carole and the forerunner of the later bransle. One person leads a line of dancers, making various shapes. It may have been sung to, the leader perhaps singing the verses of the song, and the rest joining in for the choruses. Religious dance may have been of this type.

For this dance the "S" or "train" handhold is best, where everyone turns a little to their left, puts their left hand in front palm down, and their right hand back, palm up.

The following are suggested patterns to make. Some are from medieval pictures, while others are found in modern folk dances of the same style. While dancing, the leader can:

  • Snake back and forth.
  • Weave under peoples' arms. (Aim for a gap between a shorter person followed by a taller person.)
  • Back up so others go under arch formed with second person.
  • Form a spiral. Get out by reversing, or weaving under, or backing up forming an arch.
  • Close the line into a circle.
  • Break off forming an arch with the second person, so the third is the new leader. When the last person passes under the arch, join on at the end (so the person who was 2nd in line is now last.)

Handwritten dance manuals survive from this period. They give choreographies and often the music that goes with them, but the steps are not completely explained. The Italian sources are most numerous, and give two types of dances, being the ballo, and the bassadanza. We usually only do some of the easier balli at the monthly sessions. There are also Burgundian sources, which have only bassedances (related to the Italian bassedanze). And there is one English source from @1500, which has dances somewhat like the Italian balli.

Petit Riens: This is an anonymous ballo from an Italian source of about 1470. It is referred to as a French ballo, so may be more typical of French dances of the time, or may perhaps be an indication of what the Italians imagined that the French were dancing.
This reconstruction is based on the one by Ingrid Brainard.

For 3 dancers, side by side, A on the left, B in the middle, C on the right, holding hands with the "S" hand hold.

  • 16 Piva together. Drop hands, and end side by side (not one behind the other.)
  • A does 4 Pive, then B the same to catch up, then C the same.
  • A does a double, then B the same, then C the same.
  • A+B Reverence, then B+C reverence, then all 3 reverence.
  • "Fan back" = all do a double backward, A+C angling away from B,
  • All double forward coming together.
  • Set and turn.

Gelosia: This is an Italian ballo from @1450, composed by Master Domenico. The name of the dance means Jealousy, and it is easy to see why.
For three couples, starting one couple behind the other.


  • 8 Doubles (or can do saltarello, with a hop at the end of each double)
                    MEN SWAP PARTNERS
  • Man 1 = 3 Pive clockwise 2/3rds of way around Woman 1, and a fast Reverence to Woman 2.
  • Man 2 = Double to join Woman 1.
  • Man 1 = 3 Pive, counterclockwise partly around Woman 2 stopping with a fast Reverence at the right side of Woman 3.
  • Man 3 = Double to join Woman 2.
  • Man 1 = Double behind Woman 3, ending at her left.
  • 8 Pive
                    GREET NEW PARTNER (promising eternal faithfulness optional)
  • Each Man in turn does a Reverence to his partner.
  • Take Right hands with partner, and circle with 3 Singles.
  • Switch hands, and circle with 3 more Singles, the men turning to face front at the end.

    Repeat dance twice more, until each man returns to his starting place.

    With live musicians, the number of couple can be extended to 4 or 5 in a set.

  • Ly Bens Distonys - This is an English dance from @1500, found in the Gresley dance collection. All the dances from this source are described as being for men only. There may have been a tradition in England at this time for men and women to dance seperately, or the descriptions may have just been for men, but the dances could have been done as easily by two women or a couple. The description following is for one couple.


  • Starting on outside feet (man's left, woman's right), do 4 pive.
  • Man = double forward, and turn at the end, as the Woman does a double back.
  • Man = double forward into woman's place, and turn to face front, as Woman doubles forward into man's place.
  • Repeat all that, with roles reversed.
    (Each person is tracing a diamond-shaped path.)
                    SET AND TURN
  • Each does sort of a set and turn, the man starting on the left, the woman on the right, stepping a single forward, a single back, and then turning around.

    By the 1500's printed dance manuals survive, although some sources are still handwritten. There are dances from France, England and Italy, and both easier, more social dances, and complicated, more performance oriented dances. (But even the hardest dances were meant for the nobles to entertain each other with - they were not reserved to a separate profession of entertainers, which only starts to occur in the next century.)

    Brawls - No, 'brawl' doesn't mean the dancers start fighting, but comes from a French word for swaying - this type of dance is done mostly moving sideways. The dancers join in a long line, or circle, to start. All the brawls that we do are either from Orchesograhy by T. Arbeau, published in 1589, or are SCA inventions.

    Washerwoman's Brawl, from Arbeau - For couples.
  • Double sideways left + right, repeat.
  • Single sideways left + right, man shaking their finger at their partner, who have their hands on their hips.
  • Repeat the singles, women doing the nagging.
  • Double left clapping, double right NOT clapping,
  • Double left clapping, double right turning in a circle (the high impact original version calls for three kicks and a jump).
  • SCA Maltese Brawl - An SCA invention, somewhat like the version in Arbeau, usually done with the music gradually speeding up.
  • Double sideways left + right, repeat.
  • Singles left, right, left into the center of the circle, snapping fingers each time, then clap three times.
  • Singles right, left, right out of the circle (backing or turn + go forward), snapping fingers each time, then clap three times.
  • Pinagay, from Arbeau
  • Double left, kick left.
  • Double left, kick left, right, left.
  • Double left, double right.
  • Pavans and Almans: These were slow dances, done in couples and often in a procession. The pavan was popular all over Europe, and seems to have been mostly improvised. (If it is being improvised, it doesn't work very well as a procession.) The modern descendant of this dance is the wedding processional. The alman is mentioned in Orchesography, but the surviving choreographies come from the English Inns of Court manuscripts. The basic alman step was done with a lift of the free foot at the end of the step, so an alman single is step-lift, like the modern funeral march.

    The basic pavan sequence is:
  • Single left, single right, double left.
    The next sequence would start on the right.

    Possible Figures:

  • Move always forward.
  • One sequence forward, one backward.
  • Two forward, two backward.
  • Do the singles sideways, and the doubles forward or backward, or alternating.
  • Conversion. (In order to turn around, the man moves backward in a half-circle as the woman continues forward, also in a half-circle, for one pavan sequence.)
  • Black Alman
  • 4 doubles forward, ending by facing partner.
  • Double backward, double forward, ending by turning to own left.
  • Double forward (men are going up the hall, women down), turn to face other way.
  • Double forward, and face partner.
  • Men set and turn, then women the same.
  • Take both hands and switch places with a double.
  • 4 sideways singles up the hall.
  • Switch places with a double, and 4 singles sideways down the hall.
  • Double back away from partner, double forward, and turn to face forward.

    On the repeat of the dance, the women do the set and turn first. Also, because of the smallness of our hall, we usually do the 4 doubles at the beginning of each repeat as 2 forward and 2 back, but that isn't in the original.

  • Ballo del Fiore (The Dance of the Flower) - This is one of the simplest of the late 16th-century Italian dances, from Il Ballarino a dance manual by Fabritio Caroso published in 1581. The version taught at the montly session has been simplified even more. The original dance was done with just one couple dancing at a time, but this adaptation has everyone dancing at once.

    The men start in the center of the hall in a circle, each holding a flower, while the women are seated around the outside of the hall.


  • Men reverence (2 bars), then 2 doubles in a circle (getting a good look at all the ladies available).
                    VERSE 1
  • Men 4 doubles to woman of their choice.
                    CHORUS (men only, this time)
  • The chorus consists of Slow sideways single (1 bar - the Italians called it a Continenza), slow sideways right, 2 bar reverence.
                    VERSE 2
  • Together do 4 doubles. Then face and both do chorus.
                    VERSE 3
  • 2 doubles in a circle (each on own), then 2 doubles to pass each other. Turn to face and do chorus.
                    VERSE 4
  • 4 doubles zigzagging to partner. Chorus and man gives the flower to his partner.

    Repeat dance (not the introduction) with the women choosing a man to dance with. Depending how long the music lasts the dance may repeat more often.

  • The Hunt and The Wheel (or 'The Poaching Game')
    These are two dance games - one is basically tag, the other involves stealing partners. For more information see this article in the Letter of Dance

    17th Century
    In 1651 John Playford published a book called The English Dancing Master listing a large number of English Country Dances. ('Country' doesn't mean that these were done by rustic labourers, but likely indicates that they were done as more casual dancing, such as while the nobles were in the country, as opposed to the more intricate, footwork intensive dances also popular at the time.) The book proved to be a huge success, and went through a number of printings, with new dances being added or changed, and others being dropped as they became unfashionable. The dances in the 1st edition are often for a specific number of dancers and follow the USA pattern mentioned in the Figures section above. In later editions these rapidly dissappear, being replaced with dances for any number of couples, with a duple minor progression, such as the dance Hole in the Wall. Because of this the USA style of dances are presumed to belong to an older tradition, and are more appropriate for the SCA time period.

    Hearts Ease ('Turn and Spurn') - A 'USA' dance for two couples, starting with partners standing side by side, facing the other couple in a little square. (Contrary is the person of the other gender who isn't your partner.)

                    VERSE 1

  • Up a double and back, repeat. (These have to be small, as you're walking toward the other couple.)
  • Face partner. Double back from them. Double forward.
  • Turn Contrary with right hand (all the way around, so back home.)
  • Double back away from Contrary. Double forward.
  • Turn partner with left hand.
                    VERSE 2
  • Side Right with your partner,     Side Left with your Contrary.
                    VERSE 3
  • Arm right with your partner,     Arm left with your Contrary.
  • Rufty Tufty - Another 'USA' dance for two couples, starting with partners standing side by side, facing the other couple in a little square. (Contrary is the person of the other gender who isn't your partner.)

                    VERSE 1

  • Up a double and back, repeat. (Small double)
  • Set and Turn.   (Most recordings repeat the music for this, so we do it a 2nd time, but it isn't in the original version, and can be left out with live musicians.)
  • Face away from other couple, and double away with partner,
  • Turn, and double forward back to the other couple,
  • Turn around on the spot.
  • Repeat this (double away, double back, turn), but with your contrary.
                    VERSE 2
  • Side Right with your partner     Side Left your partner.
                    VERSE 3
  • Arm right with your partner.     Arm left your partner.
  • Sellengers Round - Yet another 'USA' dance, for any number of couples in a circle. This one has an extra verse, however. This version of the dance was first published in the 1670 edition of John Playford's "The Dancing Master". The version done in the SCA is descended from the reconstruction done in 1916 by Cecil Sharp.

                    VERSE 1

  • 8 slip steps (fast sideways singles) to the left around the circle.
  • 8 slip steps to the right.
  • Two singles in, one double back, face partner and set and turn.   Repeat
                    VERSE 2
  • Double into the circle (with a whoop) and back.   Repeat.
                    VERSE 3
  • Side right with partner.   Side left.
                    VERSE 4
  • Arm right with partner.   Arm left.
  • Black Nag - A 'USA' dance for three couples, one behind the other. In this one the choruses are all different.

                    VERSE 1

  • Up a double and back, repeat.   End by facing partner and taking both hands.
                    CHORUS 1
  • 1st couple 4 slips (fast sideways singles) up the hall,
  • 2nd and then 3rd couple the same,
  • All drop hands and turn around in a little circle on the spot.
  • Repeat all that in reverse, the 3rd, 2nd, then 1st couples slipping down the hall, and then all turn.
                    VERSE 2
  • Side Right with your partner,     Side Left.
                    CHORUS 2
  • 1st Man and last Woman 4 slips to change places,
  • Last Man and 1st Woman the same, then 2nd couple the same,
  • All turn around in a little circle on the spot.
  • Repeat all that, the 1st Man and last Woman again starting.
                    VERSE 3
  • Arm right with your partner,     Arm left.
                    CHORUS 3
  • Men do a hey, starting by Man 1 and Man 2 trading places passing right shoulders.
  • Everyone turns around.
  • Woman do a hey, Women 1 and 2 start by passing right shoulders.
  • Everyone turns around.
  • Heralds in Love - Choreographed by Lord Iulstun Sigewealding (Stephen Goldschmidt), AS XXV (1990). This is a 'USA' dance for 4 couples, where the choruses are all heys.
    Starting position: 4 couples, lined up behind each other, facing up the hall. The first and third couple are in the normal position, with the women on the right, but the 2nd and 4th couples have the women on the left (improper).

                    VERSE 1

  • Double forward and back.   Set and turn.     Repeat.
                    CHORUS 1: The Men's Hey
  • Men 1 and 2, and Men 3 and 4, take R hands, and switch places with a double.
  • Men 1 and 4 take L hands and switch places with a double, as the other two men do a circle over their L shoulder (ie counterclockwise) with a double.
  • Men 1 and 3, and 2 and 4, take R hands and switch with a double.
  • Men 2 and 3 swith with L hands as 1 and 4 are circling over their L shoulder.
  • etc ... (4 more switches should bring everyone home.)
                    VERSE 2
  • Side Right   Set and Turn     Side Left   Set and Turn
                    CHORUS 2: The Woman's Hey
  • Women 2 and 3 take R hands and switch places with a double, as the other two women do a circle over their R shoulder (ie clockwise).
  • Women 1 and 3, and Women 2 and 4, take L hands and switch places.
  • Etc ... (6 more switches to get them all home.)
                    VERSE 3
  • Arm right   Set and Turn     Arm left   Set and Turn
                    CHORUS 3: Everybody Heys
  • Everyone should do their hey exactly as before. So long as everyone keeps exactly to the music (not too slow and not too FAST!), no one should collide.
  • Hole in the Wall - this is an English Country Dance from 1695, when the 'USA' style of dances had lost favour, and the duple minor style was popular. In duple minor dances you and your partner dance once through the dance with another couple, and then pass them to repeat the dance with the next couple in the line. The couple closer to the top of the hall in each set is called the active couple, while the other couple is the inactive couple. While moving down the line the active couple stays as the active couple in each set until they reach the bottom. They then wait one repeat of the dance, and come back as an inactive couple. The inactive couples work their way to the top, wait one turn, and come back in as an active couple.

    In the SCA this dance is often used as a vehicle for a game of stealing partners - but watch out! In some areas this is not done and would be considered very rude, so check it is ok before diving in. Also, there are occasional other duple minor dances done in the SCA, so make sure the dance really is Hole in the Wall, or you may find yourself in the middle of a dance you don't know how to do.

    • 4 bars = Active Couple cast off, going around the inactive couple and back to place. (In the SCA a reverence is added before and after the cast off, to use up half of the music, as 4 bars is a lot to cast off in.)
    • 4 bars = Inactive Couple do the same, casting up.
    • 2 bars = First Corners (Man 1 and Woman 2) change places passing right. (In the SCA, a 1/2 bar reverence precedes and follows this, and the right hands are held up to each other, but without touching.)
    • 2 bars = Second Corners do the same
    • 2 bars = All 4 take hands in a little circle, and rotate counterclockwise half way around the circle
    • 2 bars = Active couples drop each other's hands, and cast off to the inactive couple's place, pulling them up to their place. (The SCA adds in an extra reverence at the end.)


    Arbeau, Thoinot, Orchesography, Dover, 1967. ISBN = 0-486-21745-0. A translation of a French dance manual first published in 1589. A very good starting place for people interested in Renaissance dance.

    Caroso, Fabritio, Courtly Dance of the Renaissance, A New Translation and Edition of the "Nobilta` Di Dame" (1600). Translated and edited by Julia Sutton, Dover, 1995. ISBN 0-486-28619-3. This is the most easily obtained book on late Italian dance.

    Justin du Coeur, "Ballo del Fiore", Letter of Dance vol 1, #6, Aug. AS XXV (1990). A reconstruction of the dance, with discussion of the steps, etc.

    McGee, Timothy J., Medieval Instrumental Dances, Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press, 1989. ISBN: 0-253-33353-9 Discusses the evidence for Medieval dance, and includes sheet music.

    Rosina del Bosco Chiaro, "Two Sixteenth-Century Dance Games", Letter of Dance, Vol 4.

    Smith, A. William, Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music, Pendragon Press, Stuvyesant, NY. 1995. A transcription of the 15th C. Italian sources, with translations and musical transcriptions.

    Stephens, V. & M. Cellio, Joy and Jealousy. Reconstructions of 15th-century Italian dance.

    Some Web Pages on Early Dance

    An American Ballroom Companion, a collection of the dance sources from the Library of Congress. (Includes an overview of historical dance, a huge number of sources from the 15th to 20th centuries, and video clips of dancers demonstrating steps.)

    The Renaissance Dance Page

    SCA Dance

    Last modified June 29, 2008

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