Dancing in the SCA

Sister Mairi Jean

 The dances that we do here in the Shire of Adamastor have been chosen due to the fact that we have both steps and music for them. We have many dances for which we only have one of these necessary things, so they will have to wait.

 According to Lawson (1955) there are three forms of dance, all very ancient. These are the circle, the chain and the processional. All started off as “magic” rituals or dances in a religion.

 – The circle dance form existed all across Asia and Europe and generally involved some object of reverence in the centre of the circle. There was rarely any longterm movement to any one side.

 – The chain dance derived from the circle by a gap being left for either evil to leave or good to enter, or sometimes for the good engendered by the dance to spill out over the surrounding countryside. The chain usually moved about energetically and the leading person changed all the time.

 – The processional form was strongest in the Slavic countries and usually involved couples processing throught he village to cleanse it after winter and to encourage fertility.

 Of course, I doubt that any of these reasons persisted into the later Middle Ages but the forms existed and were elaborated upon to give us the dances that we now recognise.

 Basic singles and doubles mostly come from the Yugoslav area where they have fifteen different ways of doing these! Mad leaps and jumps often come from Georgia or from Scotland, although it is apparently very hard to find single historical or geographical sources for dances.

 The circle or line dances involving arches, clapping and basically simple sequences of steps are a feature of 16th and 17th century English country dances, examples are Gathering Peascods and Upon a Summers Day. Rapid foot movement, spinning and leaping are usually a feature of Eastern European or Russian dances. Korobushka is an SCA invention that tries to mimic this style.

 The bransle (pronounceed brawl) is the dance form that is most ancient in form. Arbeau (~1589) says “I have noticed that in good society they usually begin the dancing with a bransle”. A bransle is supposed to be danced in a circle with all facing inward and the steps going sideways. One lighthearted form of the bransle is the miming bransle where the dancers pretend to be something, eg horses, peas, negotiators or hermits.

 The pavan is a slow graceful dance that Arbeau claims should never go out of fashion. It was traditionally played and danced when “a maiden of good family is taken to Holy Church to be married or when they lead a procession of the chaplains, masters and brethren of some notable confraternity”. The pavan clearly follows from the ancient processional form of dance and is “charming and dignified, and well suited to honourable persons, particularly ladies and matrons”. It also offers one a fine opportunity to show off one’s clothes, as attested by Arbeau. Arbeau has many wonderful things to say about the pavan that I cannot fit into this article, I can only suggeat that you read his fine book.

 As far as I can gather the Galliard and Tourdion are modern inventions in that they date from the Renaissance. They involve five rapid steps pretty much on the spot, although you can turn about easily. The dance must have existed for at least some time before 1589 as Arbeau complains about how people do it differently from the way it had been done. In the heyday referred to by him the gentleman and lady walked around the room first, then danced with the lady dancing up the hall and the gentleman staying put. Then he would dance up to her, perfom some fine variations, then she would move away again. This would be repeated till the music ended. By the time of the Orchesography this moving up the hall was not done anymore, to the sorrow of the author.

 The two main sources of dances in the later Middle Ages are Arbeau and Playford. Playford has not been quoted here as I do not have a copy, but he mostly provides very brief notes and not much in the way of explanation. The reason for this is because it never occurred to him that people might forget such an everyday and obvious thing as dancing!


 Arbeau, Thoinot (1589) Orchesography.Translated by Lady Mary Stewart Evans in 1948 with adjustments and notes by Julia Sutton, 1967. Dover Publications, New York.

 Lawson, Joan (1955) European Folk Dance, its National and Musical Characteristics. Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, London.

 SCA Cheat Sheets – available on http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/dance.html