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History of Dance: The Middle Ages to the 17th Century

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The history of dance is rich and vast. You may have read about the early origins of dance in our last blog post:

Early Dance History (Opens in a new browser tab)

But what happened next? Dance didn’t suddenly stop evolving after ancient Greece. There were many changes and progressions that occurred in dance history from the Middle Ages to the 17th Century. Here are some fun facts and bits of information about these subsequent eras of dance history.

History of Dance: The Middle Ages

A print of two men dancing, one playing the citole, the other playing the vielle.
Two men dancing while playing instruments, all the way from 1320! (British Museum)

In the middle ages, dancing masters were popular. Dancing masters taught dance and etiquette to nobility in the middle ages. One well known master in dance history, Domenico da Piacenza created a list of six things dancers should be able to do:

  • keep time with the music
  • remember the steps in sequence
  • have a sense of space
  • sway or uplift the body
  • demonstrate body coordination, direction and shading in movement
  • move gracefully

These principles are fascinating because they still work today! These six things are still the mark of a good dancer.

Fun Fact: Supposedly, the tarantella was a dance that people would do after being bitten by a tarantula. They would dance until exhausted to rid their bodies of the poison!

History of Dance: Renaissance

Colourful painting of well dressed couples doing a basse dance
Dancers performing a low dance

All the social classes enjoyed dancing, in different ways. The dances at court, for example, were designed to show off the nobility’s clothing and manners. Dances among the peasants tended to be very simple, focusing on walking forwards and back.

The dances themselves at this time were classified as either low or high. Low meant walking or gliding dances and high meant dances with jumps, hops, and leaps. It’s interesting that at that time dances were always one or the other. Today, dancers will incorporate both types of movements in one dance.

History of Dance: The 16th and 17th Centuries

A black and white illustration of four women representing the four virtues, from Le Ballet-Comique de la Reine
A depiction of “the four virtues” from Le Ballet-Comique de la Reine

In the 16th century dance was used by rulers to distract the members of their court. They would entertain their court to keep their attention away from whatever political endeavours the royalty were working on.

One of these pieces of entertainment was the famous Le Ballet-Comique de la Reine. It was considered the first ballet production in Europe. It was extravagant, lasting six hours and including spoken text on top of music and movement.

Fun fact: Turnout became popular in this era! It was useful because dancers would perform on a small stage, and turnout made it so that they could move easily in all directions.

Dancewear

A gold shoe with a red heel from the 18th century
A red heeled shoe – certainly worn by a noble! This particular one is from the 18th century. (From Rossimoda Shoes Museum’s collection)

Dancewear at this point in dance history was often just the clothes worn on a daily basis. In the middle ages, the nobility often wore armour or headresses, which restricted their movement. Ladies with long trains had trainbearers to accompany them! As for dance footwear, during the middle ages shoes were soft with sturdy soles. During the 17th century heels were added, which measured 1 to 1 1/4 inches. Red heels were the mark of the nobility.

Dance in current times may have evolved and become much more complicated, but it’s interesting to notice how many pieces remain the same. From dance trainers and their principles, to turnout in ballet, some things never change.