Although they have changed over time and between regions, there are a few basic steps that appear frequently in the existing medieval dance instruction books. In these manuals, the steps would have been simply shown by symbols. These steps are worth learning, as they have also been used to reconstruct dances where there are no original instructions, like the estampie. Although there are some minor differences in how these are performed by different historic dance groups, the examples below follow the Nonsuch History and Dance Company style.
Occurs on counts 1, 2, 3, 4
Just to be confusing, this is also the name of a type of carole. The branle is a swaying step that prepares you for dancing. You don’t move from where you are standing, but rock from side to side.
It can occur both at the start of and throughout the dance. In the medieval period, musicians would have taken their cue from those dancing, so this simple step set the pace of the music. When this step then occurred during the dance, it ensured that the dancers were performing at the same tempo.
To perform this step…
Stand with your feet naturally apart.
Raise slightly onto the balls of your feet.
Lower your left heel, keeping your right raised.
Lift your left heel, and lower your right heel.
Lift your right heel, and lower your left heel.
Lift both heels together.
Lower both heels.
This video shows a single branle step, with two further close-up shots.
Occurs on counts 1, 2
The single step is one change of weight, or one step. This can be with or without the closing of the other foot to the one that has just stepped, but the Nonsuch dance-style recommends to close the foot in. The foot that is brought in is not stood upon but merely rests by the side of the other foot, so it can then be used to take the next step. The usual combination in a dance sequence is two singles together, stepping first on the left foot and then the right. This balances out shifts in body weight.
The French word ‘simple’ can be found in manuscripts of dances from the fifteenth-century Burgundian court. Named a ‘simple step’ as it is one of the most basic steps you can make, or called a ‘single step’, in English, to point out the number of steps made.
This video shows four single steps.
Occurs on counts 1, 2, 3, 4
The double step is three changes of weight, or three steps, on alternating feet. After the third step, the foot the Nonsuch dance-style recommends to close the other foot to the one that has just stepped in. The foot that is brought in is not stood upon but merely rests by the side of the other foot, so it can then be used to take the next step.
But why is this called a double step? It’s not twice the amount of steps as a simple! However, it does take twice the amount of time to perform! It takes four counts rather than the simple steps’ two. In music, one double equates to two single steps (d=ss).
This video shows two double steps.
Occurs on counts 1, 2, 3, 4
Reprise means to take a step back on the right foot, as right was the backwards-moving direction. It takes the same length of time as a double, so could perhaps be interpreted as a double step going backwards. However, it is more commonly presented as taking one long lunging step backwards, drawing the left foot back to close on the fourth count, for the same amount of music. This version prevents the lady from stepping back on her dress and also allows for the two dancers to connect as they turn the top halves of their bodies towards each other. Remember, the man stands to the left of his lady.
This video shows the reprise from the front, side and also shows how the couple would turn their bodies.
The reverence was all about showing respect, in a formal gesture of ‘bending’ the knee. The word ‘respect’ comes from the Latin ‘spectare’, meaning ‘to look’, and the prefix ‘re-’, meaning to do again. We can understand that respect means ‘to look and look again’, not necessarily meaning to do a double take, but take a deeper and more meaningful look.
It occurred at the start and end of the dance, and sometimes even in the middle. Etiquette even demanded a sequence of these steps when entering the court. These would have been at the door, part of the way down the hall and when approaching those of the highest rank (who would have received the most formal show of respect).
Although we have no formal instruction in medieval literature about how to perform this step, Nonsuch have provided a simple interpretation of how this might have looked. This was the same for both men and women.
This video shows a reverence from the front and side. For top tips on how to perform the reverence, please see below.
“After the banquet they began to dance. The Queen remained seated in her chair. Her mother knelt before her, but at times the Queen bade her rise… The King’s sister danced a stately dance with two dukes, and this, and the courtly reverence they paid to the Queen, was such as I have never seen elsewhere, nor have I ever seen such exceedingly beautiful maidens.”
Thought to be from a Bohemian nobleman who visited the English court early in 1466 and witnessed the churching of the Queen after the birth of her first child
To perform the reverence…
Start standing upright with your feet naturally apart.
Move forward and upward with the body, raising onto the balls of the feet.
Like a lunge, extend the left foot back and almost kneel on the left knee. Keep your head up and don’t bend forward, so that your headwear cannot fall off. Be sure to look at the person being honoured.
Rise up, drawing your feet back together, lowering your eyes or slightly lowering your head.
Don’t let your knee touch the ground and get your clothes dirty!
This should all be done making no broad arm gestures, though perhaps bringing your palms forward, though not the wrists.
The video above shows a slightly exaggerated version of a head nod, but when you perform it only lower your head a little.
Importantly, retain your dignity at all costs!