DANCE AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

Dance was (and still is) an important social ritual and could be used as a way to express identity. The gestures and movements could not only provide a window to the soul, but also a tool to enforce symbolic boundaries and express larger communal identities.


One example of a dance that was used to express collective identities was the Italian moresca. This was frequently performed by courtiers and performers at banquets, jousts and tournaments, marriage celebrations and performances. It was a public spectacle that was all about display, and could be used in cementing identities of city states by consolidating or enhancing their image. 


It is clear that there were dance variations associated with each region as can be seen at the wedding of Isabella of Aragon to the Duke of Milan in 1490. It is noted that groups of dancers from Poland, Germany, France, Spain, and Hungary performed their national dances, dressed in costumes of their country, to honour the couple. Furthermore, several of lsabella’s ladies-in-waiting danced Neapolitan and Spanish dances, again showing that dances were adapted to suit national identity.


Even each Italian city state had its own arrangement. In 1459, Galeazzo Maria Sforza visited the Medici family in Florence. Whilst there he wrote to his father that the women of the family and a few other country women “did dances in the Florentine manner”, implying that the dancing he watched was distinctly different from that he was accustomed to back in Milan.


How these styles differed from each other is almost impossible to find out, but that there were different styles for different regions, and that contemporaries could distinguish them is evident.

So how could they tell the difference? There are four key methods, looking at... 

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1.

CHOREOGRAPHIC STRUCTURE

Perhaps the most obvious way to tell dances apart was the way in which the steps were ordered. For example, the French basse dance had a set structure for the way its steps could be put into a sequence whereas the Italian bassadanza was more flexible and free-flowing with many different ways that the steps could be ordered. Although, there is evidence to suggest that Italian masters attempted to imitate the French basse danse style, sometimes calling it the bassa franzesse.

2.

CHOREOGRAPHIC STYLE 

This was the manner in which the steps were performed. For instance, it seems standard that, in English dances, simple steps appeared in multiples of three and double steps came in pairs (and were in very few dances). In France and Italy, there were doubles in every dance and simples only appeared in pairs.

3.

GESTURES AND QUALITIES 

There are very few studies of gestures in fifteenth-century Europe as it is something that is not often spoken about in contemporary sources. However, it would be unsurprising to find an association between identity and quality of movement. We know from humanist Fracesco Barbaro in De re uxoria (1415-6) that gestures could tell a lot about a person: “the character of men’s minds is ascertained from facial expression and carriage”. Perhaps differences in character could have been a way of discovering regional identity too.

4.

COSTUME 

In the medieval period, clothing could be used to express many things, from the status or rank of the owner, to their occupation and age, even the region in which they lived. The design and fabric used depended on the industry of local areas.

Famous dancing master Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro tells a story of a banquet in Naples by the duke of Calabria in honor of the ambassador of the duke of Burgundy. He describes how a “group of masked dancers dressed in the French fashion” entered the room and performed a French dance. This French costume and dance were undoubtedly a compliment to the ambassador, but the fact that these were identified as ‘French’ suggests that the costume was a way in which the Italians differentiated themselves from their European neighbours.

We might think that music was one easy way of telling dances of different regions apart. However, this would not be quite right. There is evidence from fifteenth-century Italian dancing masters that some dances (that were thought to be Italian) were being performed to French chansons (songs). It would seem instead that the national characteristic of the music was not central to the identification of the dance it accompanied.

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