A Horrible Pestiferous Vice or Wholesome Exercise? – Dancing in Elizabethan England

Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Philip Stubbs, the Puritan pamphleteer, in his Anatomie of Abuses (1582-3) had little good to say about dancing unless men and women were dancing separately to the glory of God, following the example of King David. He described it as ‘an introduction to whordom, a preparatiue to wantonnes, a prouocatiue to vncleanes, & an introite to al kind of lewdenes’. He considered that ‘euery skip, or leap in dance, is a leap toward hel’. He begrudgingly tolerated it for ‘mans comfort, recreation and godly pleasure’ if done privately, the sexes segregated, even with music! Fortunately, most took no notice of warnings like Stubbs’ (possibly laughing ‘privately’ behind their hands), considering grace at dancing an essential social skill and dancing itself a wholesome exercise of both body and mind.

Elizabethans enjoyed a wide range of dances from the stately pavane to the the energetic courante and the showy La Volta. Many were French or Italian in influence, if not origin. These dances have been described as simple and sedate allowing for conversation between the dancers, though galliards and courantes can be energetic. As well as these formal elegant dances favoured by the upper and the middling sort, there were country dances enjoyed by people at all levels of society.

The following video clips give a good idea of the steps and music to some of these dances. Unfortunately, the costumes are a bit of a mish-mash of styles and decades. The videos of the students of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, with their simplified costumes, give a good view of the steps and movements of the dances.
And, while I don’t know what the dancers are saying to each other, they seem to be enjoying wholesome exercise not indulging in the uncleanness and wantonness imagined by Stubbs.

Pavane
A sedate and dignified dance in which couples danced in procession.

Almaine
A moderate dance where a line of couples held hands and progressed the length of the room. A livelier version was the allemande courante.

Branle
Originating in France, the branle was danced in a chain with the dancers, usually in couples, linking arms or holding hands and stepping to the left and alternating with smaller steps to the right so that the dance gradually moved to the left.

Courante
A lively dance which involved fast running and jumping steps. There were both Italian and French versions, the French being closer to the pavane in pace. When danced as part of a suite the courante was often preceded by the allemande.

Galliard
The galliard was a vigorous dance, popular all over Europe, that used choreographed steps and included leaps, jumps and hops. It was characterized by a large jump where the dancer landed with one leg ahead of the other.

La Volta
La Volta was a form of galliard that progressed to the couple dancing in a close hold. The man would let go of his partner’s hand, grip the lower end of the busk stiffening her bodice and place his other hand at her waist. The woman placed her hand on top of her partner’s shoulder. They then turned together in small springing steps. On their second step, the woman would spring up into the air, her partner assisting her by lifting her with his hands, the thigh of his free leg under her thighs. He then let her down to land on both feet on the last beat of the measure The couple would makes a three-quarter turn during each measure. The turn was repeated for several measures and then the galliard continued.
Although Elizabeth I danced La Volta, many thought it inappropriate, possibly considering it, as Stubbs would have, to be ‘filthie, luxurious and uncleane dauncing’.
Most film examples of it are very inaccurate; however, that danced by Walter Raleigh and Bess Throckmorton in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age is considered to be quite accurate.

English Country Dances
These dances had obscure origins but were intended for general participation and involved interaction both with the dancing partner and other dancers, often with a progression. By the late 16th century these dances were acquiring influences from both Italian and French dance. They were also known to be popular at the court of Elizabeth I.
Many of these dances were documented for the first time in John Playford’s The English Dancing Master (1651) but names of some of the dances have been found in records from the previous century. It is not known if the form of the dances in 1651 was the same as the earlier versions. Many have delightful names such as Jenny Plucks Pears and the Maid Peeped Out at the Window.

Sellenger’s Round

Jenny Plucks Pears

The Maid Peeped Out at the Window

4 thoughts on “A Horrible Pestiferous Vice or Wholesome Exercise? – Dancing in Elizabethan England

    • They do look like fun though I’ve never danced any of them. My dancing skills are quite limited as most of the time when we were learning at the all girl secondary school I went to, I was the ‘boy’. Lessons even included learning to do a full court curtsey. As if any of us from the regional backblocks of Australia were likely to be presented at Court – or would want to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The group I play with had a day a couple of years ago when someone came and taught us Rennaissance dances. We took it in turn to play for the dancers and to dance. Suffice it to say that our version of the brasle was very rustic.

        Liked by 1 person

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