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The Renaissance, roughly the period from the end of the 14th century to the beginning of the 17th century, is the first era in time with preserved dance descriptions we still can reconstruct today. For the area of present-day Italy, where the upheavals of the Renaissance took its origin, we have the most reliable sources. In this period the man as an individual moves into the center of consciousness. With his art the Dancing Master wins self-confidence, which he expresses in his treatises. From some other countries we also have preserved sources, but with the exception of some books from the area of today's France they usually contain too little information for an independent reconstruction.

Italy in the Quattrocento (15th century)

The earliest surviving comprehensive treatise on ballroom dancing “De arte saltandi et choreas ducendi” (Paris , Bibliothèque nationale , fonds ital. 972) probably dates from around 1452. Next to a justification for the art of dance and theoretical considerations on dancing, it contains a number of dance descriptions with the accompanying music.

Its author Domenico da Piacenza forms together with his students Cornazzano Antonio and Guglielmo Ebreo what in dance reconstruction we call today Quattrocento style. The sources of this style reaches until around 1520. The authors initially formulate the conditions which are required for a dancer to dance well. These are in addition to the necessary physical skills a number of mental abilities such as a good measure of time, a good memory, a good sense of space, abundance of variation in the steps and of course good manners.

During the time there are in Italy two different types of dances – the slow noble Bassadanza dances and faster richly varied Balli. To perform these dances there is already a wide range of steps and music in different time measurements. The steps are classified in “movimenti naturali” (natural movements) and “movimenti accedentali” (fancy steps - acquired movements). Unfortunately some of the steps are not described or only described vaguely, so that today these gaps must be closed by interpretations (mostly from the step name). The space already plays an important role for the arc of suspense of the dances and the interaction of the dancers with each other. It is believed that the preserved dances were supposed to be shown to an surrounding knowledgeable audience.

Italy in the Cinquecento (16th century)

For Italy at the end of the 16th century, in the period from about 1580 to 1620, there is a second accumulation of sources of a new, far more challenging style we now call Cinquecento style. With their lusty jumping steps the virtuoso Gaillard is style defining for this epoch. For us the two most important dance book authors of this time are Fabritio Caroso and Cesare Negri, who have left us several printed works that are spread throughout Europe.

Compared to the previous time the step repertoire have multiplied. The books become more extensive and systematic and now even exercises to improve the dance technique can be found in the works.


A few years before the earliest surviving Italian sources, to about 1445, a kind of “dance cheat sheet” from today’s France can be dated. It contains the notation (unfortunately without music) of processional dances in the style of Bassedanse and comes from Nancy in the Burgundy of the here still late Middle Ages. The dances consists of a complex composed sequences, which are assembled of a handful of steps, which are notated with letter abbreviations.

We can decrypt the steps on this notepad with later sources, such as the “Brussels manuscript 9085”, or the oldest preserved printed dance book - Toulouzes “L'art et instruction de bien Dancer” from 1488. Both using the same shortcuts as the older source for describing the dance steps. There are sources from different countries in Europe for this type of dance. The slow walking dance, which we interpret in the absence of a description of the use of space as linear dance, is joined with an associated faster afterdance, for whom we unfortunately have no preserved dance instructions.

The book “L'Orchésographie” (1588/1589) is one of today's most popular sources of the dances of the Renaissance. It is published by the at this time 69 year old capitular of Langres under the pseudonym Arbeau. The book contains a theory part on dance in the form of a dialogue and retrospectively described dances from his youth. For this purpose he uses a notation invented by him, in which he appends line by line the verbal dance description to a 90 degrees rotated stave with musical notes.

Other countries

For the time of the Renaissance we also have some preserved sources from other countries, often with links to the dances from France or Italy. Unfortunately most the time the descriptions how to perform the steps are missing here. For reconstruction attempts we therefore often use other sources to fill these gaps.

For example the first surviving German dance source can be found in a letter written by Johannes Cochlaeus in 1517 from Bologna to inform his the relatives in Germany about the current Italian dances. Unfortunately otherwise German authors usually appear primarily in the form of printed sermons against dancing.

Particularly England is certainly noteworthy among the sources of other countries. In the end of the 20th century they found a manuscript with technically independent dances called “John Banys ' Notebook” (or the “Gresley manuscript” dated around 1500). It includes dances with accompanying music, but unfortunately no description how to perform the steps. Other major English sources are the “Old Measures” that the lawyers and students of the “Inns of Court” danced in London from the late Renaissance to the Baroque between 1570 and 1670. They are also an important link to the later dance collections of John Playford with English country dancing, whom he has issued from 1651 on.