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The little quirks of medieval dance

Breviari d'Amour


All known medieval dances started with the left foot and had a focus on the left-hand side. When dancing, the left should be associated with moving forward and the right with moving backwards. In circle dances, the leader is shown by having their left hand free.


We are not sure quite why the left rose to such prominence, but there have been a few suggestions. For example, it is thought that moving to the left was similar to earlier dances which follow the old view of the movements of the Sun and other planets around the Earth. As the standard world-view of the medieval period saw the Sun moving from right to left, or East to West, in the sky, movement in this direction could be seen to have importance. Or perhaps this idea may have stemmed from the understanding that the heart was on the left side of the body, and so by starting on the left, you would be leading with your heart. 


Either way, this all changed from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, when country dancers started using the right foot to start, as we now see with modern European circle dances.

(Earth sat in the centre of the universe in
Breviari d'Amour, by Matfré Ermengau of Béziers, estimated to be from Spain between 1375-1400)


When dancing in a circle, you were meant to move in a clockwise direction, hence towards your left. But when couples started performing dances together, it is suggested that they started to turn anticlockwise when reaching the end of the room, turning to the left. 

This could perhaps have been a development from dance processions, where couples lined up and moved forwards to greet a noble person at the front, and then move away. It would have been easier for the man to turn left with his lady moving towards the front in her long dress. This would allow them to face the back, having travelled anticlockwise.

Seems very confusing! Why not give it a try!


When partnered dances came into fashion, couples would have consulted the art of courtly love for advice. To be able to make any physical contact and begin dancing, the gentleman would first have to seek agreement from his partner through a reverence. This reverence was made up of three parts:

  1. Visus (to look) - using your eyes to convey respect

  2. Loqui (to speak) - asking if your partner is willing to dance, either verbally or (if particularly nervous) with the eyes

  3. Contactus (to touch) - offering your hand to dance

This code was meant to prevent a partner being refused or even grabbed in public. If any of the steps were forgotten, there was a big risk of misunderstanding. If you were about to dance together that would have been the last thing you would have wanted to happen!

Dance Traditions: List
Courtesy with a Knight.jpg

On the left...

Courtesy between a knight and his lady in The Romance of the Rose


In paintings of the period, it would seem as if hands were only joined by the slightest of contact. Often only the fingers are touching! Even with this little contact, the leader was able to signal to their group or their partner what to expect next in the dance.


When dancing as a couple, the man would usually be to the left of his lady. This could be for several reasons: 

  1. The man would have had his left hand free. Following ideas of leadership from the circle dance, this would mean he had the task of leading the couple. Think of these partnered dances as circle dances with only two people, where they have a joint responsibility to shape the dance but still require a leader.

  2. The man may still be wearing his sword, which would have sat to his left.

  3. The man would be leading his lady with his right hand, which, as the hand he would have typically held his sword in, was more likely to be stronger. 

  4. As the man would be leading, when the couple turned they would turn to the left. This would allow the lady a larger turning circle so she would not get her long dress caught under her feet! With the man on the left side, it meant her dress would swish out and not trip anyone up!



Dance sources of the fifteenth and sixteenth century state that there were different movements for both men and women, with these enforcing accepted gendered codes of behaviour. Whilst women’s movements were meant to be smaller, gentler, graceful and more restrained, men were meant to be more athletic in style, even though their steps were the same. In Domenico da Piacenza’s choreography for the ballo (a dance) the man has the opportunity to dance away from his partner three times, with the woman simply repeating his movements.

Dance Traditions: List
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