THE BASSE DANCE
Date: From mid-fourteenth century onwards, but most famous in fifteenth
Where was it from?: Uncertain, but first evidence of the dance is from France
Where was it performed and who performed it?:
The basse dance was a measured and stately dance for the nobility and gentry at court. It was meant to show off their magnificence and grandeur.
A pen drawing from Jakob Mennel's Über Wunderzeichen, 1503
So where did the basse dance begin? It must have been around in the fourteenth century, as Troubadour Raimond de Cornet wrote of “cansos e bassa dansas” as early as 1340. However, the basse dance rose in popularity in the fifteenth century. This century is when we start to see dance steps being recorded. The first evidence we have of this was in 1445 at a fete in Nancy, that was held in the honour of Margaret of Anjou. Margaret was on her way over to England to marry Henry VI at Titchfield Abbey, in Hampshire (coincidentally where this website’s dance instructional videos were filmed). This movement of people is probably how the basse dance became known in England.
The wedding of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, from Vigiles de Charles VII, by Martial d’Auvergne, c. 1475–1500
In contemporary evidence, the basse dance was given its name, meaning ‘low dance’ in French, because of its lowly origins. In L’Art et Instruction de bien Dancer (The Art and Instruction of Dancing Well), this is said to be “because when one dances it one goes in country fashion without bearing oneself as graciously as one might”. Even the Italians connected the dance with the piva, which was a country measure associated with shepherds. However, this dance became one very much associated with the courts.
A dancing couple from L’Art et Instruction de bien Dancer (The Art and Instruction of Dancing Well)
This dance came at a time when the ceremonial and decorative aspects of chivalry were highly esteemed, though perhaps the original spirit of this had been lost. Society of the fifteenth century could be seen as more artificial. Instead of the knights and ladies of the twelfth century who wore flower wreaths and danced to the sound of their own voices, the fifteenth century saw fine ladies with painted faces, plucked eyebrows and tall headdresses dancing in palace halls to the sound of trumpets. Social life had become more formal and based on rules. The basse dance was very much a product of its time.
Towering Headdresses and Painted Faces, Facta et dicta memorabilia, by Valerius Maximus, from the second half of the 15th century
The last mention of the basse dance was in 1589 by Thoinot Arbeau, who reminisces about it in his Orchésographie, showing it was certainly still danced late into the sixteenth century. However, by this stage the dance had been simplified and standardised so that it eventually became more like its successor, the pavan.
A Reverence from Thoinot Arbeau's Orchésographie
“And in the meadow we stopped
to listen to their song.
And the young birds
Which were in the nest
Began to sing ‘cheep, cheep’,
With lightsome passages
And with pleasant rising phrases
They tuned their voices;
And, in a few moments, they all
Began to sing,
And then they began
The measure of baixa dansa
From a chanson from France
Most pleasing to hear;
‘I love her, I wish to serve’,
Of most gracious sound;
And then, with great reason,
They made the second measure,
In concord all together
That no bird made a mistake.
I swear you never had heard
Sound so well measured
And I marvelled
At the birds which French
Had learnt so well.”
La Senyora de Valor (The Lady of Quality) by Francesch de la Via, 1406
The first mention of the baixa dansa in Catalonia
The Munich Court at a Grand Ball, engraving by Master MZ, 1500
Earlier French versions are thought to have used springing ‘Pas de Brebant’ steps, with Italy using similar sprung ‘Saltarello’ steps. However, this is thought to have developed into a more refined style later on. By this point, the basse dance was performed with slow gliding steps that remained close to the ground. Dancers were expected to hold themselves elegantly and upright, but not so stiff that it looked unnatural. The basse dance was no longer a bouncy dance but was to be performed with a sense of dignity and importance.
The dance did not become a fixed form in France until the fifteenth century. The final form of basse dance was governed by strict rules, with elements traceable to branle dances. These have been set out by manuscripts nicknamed ‘Toulouse’ and ‘Brussels’. They dictated how the dancer must always step forward on their left foot first and that their first foot backwards was to always be their right. This made noting down steps easy as they did not have to keep reminding their dancers which foot to step on and could simply write the symbol.
These documents also specified a set sequence for the basse dance…
Branle step (b)
Simple step (s)
Double step (d)
In this, simple steps almost always occurred in pairs and there was always an odd number of double steps, which meant that the first step of the reprise was always on the right. These basse dance sequences were called measures, and the name of the measure was different depending on the number of each step. If there was one double step it was a small measure, for three doubles it was a medium measure and for five doubles it was called a large measure.
Usually the number of branles and simple steps in this sequence remained the same, with a changing number of doubles and reprises. You may find an example of this in the La Dame video below. The almost constant number of branles and simples made it easier for dancers to remember the order of steps, as they then only had to remember how many doubles and reprises there were.
For the most part, the French danced in pairs, with one or more couples dancing at a time. These French dances evolved from dances such as the estampie and the branle. In northern Italy, more ambitious configurations were developed for a varying number of dancers. The Italian bassa danzas seem to have derived from the estampie and farandole, following a line dance where dancers move up and down the room, circle each other, change places and meet to dance together. If watched from above, you would have seen many different figure patterns being made on the floor. The baixa dansa of Catalonia does not seem to be too different from those of Italy and France.
The basse dance was often performed alongside a few other ‘companion’ dances. In France this was the pas de Brabant, in Italy the saltarello and in Spain the alta and ioyos. Unfortunately, we know far less about these than we do about the basse dance itself.
LEARN THE BASSE DANCE
The following version of this basse dance is an extract from an original basse dance found in a medieval manuscript and is called ‘La Dame’.
If you have difficulty performing these steps, please see the alternative steps page for further guidance.
This basse dance follows the simple sequence bssdr.
1. Branle (b) - 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.
2. Two simple steps (ss) - Take a step forward with the left foot, bringing the right feet to close. Repeat starting on the right foot.
3. One double step (d) - Take three steps forward starting on the left foot, bringing foot to close at the end.
4. Reprise (r) - Take one long lunging step back with the right foot, and slowly draw the left foot back to close. If you are dancing with a partner, turn your top half of your body towards them as you step back. As the man stands to the left of his lady, he turns his body to the right and she turns hers to the left.
This video shows the dance as if you are dancing on your own. If you are dancing with a partner, remember that the man usually stands to the left of his lady with their hands in a low hand-hold. Both partners follow the same steps on the same feet.
Why not try it with the music below? Extracted from a medieval tune called La Dame, this version is long enough to perform the routine four times through.
If you need a further reminder on what the dance steps are, feel free to check out the Dance Steps page.
What to do and not to do when dancing the Basse Dance
Remember to start with your left foot first!
Keep your arms loose by your sides so that they gently move as you dance. Make no crazy arm movements!
Maintain a refined and noble poise.
Do not just walk around as if you are going to the shops! Make graceful flowing steps, that do not bob about but keep you at a consistent height.
Do not kick your train about, it should move with you!
Keep your weight over your moving foot, this will prevent you from slouching or wobbling as you step.
Now, why not challenge yourself and have a go at learning the full version of La Dame below?
In this sequence, the pattern of branle, simple step, double step, reprise stays the same, but the number of double steps and reprises change each time. As the dance is performed three times, the ratio of doubles to reprise (double:reprise) is 3:3 the first time through, 1:1 the second time and 3:1 on the final time.
French Basse Dance, La Dame
A dance sequence written on a blank page in a Catholicon printed in Venice 1497 (can now be found in Salisbury Cathedral)
Performed by members of Nonsuch History and Dance Company
Fifteenth century music was freely adapted and utilised for a variety of situations. We know that a few song melodies were re-used as basse dance tunes and that at least one basse dance tune was even used for a mass. A popular type of music for this dance was performed by a tenor. However, there are few modern recordings of music as it might have been played in the fifteenth century which make a suitable accompaniment to the dance itself.
An extract from Margaret of Austria's Dancing Book
Although there are many other source documents referring to the basse dance from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the following are arguably the most informative.
Date: c. 1496
Current Location: Archivo Municapal de Cervera
It is the earliest known Catalonian document to refer to the movements of the dance, with the choreographies of eleven different baixes dansas, which seem to be related to Burgundian basse dances.
The manuscript is made up of two pages, which came from scribbles on blank pages within a book and other notes on flyleaves.
The manuscript is mostly written in shorthand, using a highly advanced graphic notation technique to represent step sequences
See the detailed notation technique to the right...
Current Location: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (fonds français 5699)
Author: Jean d’Orléans, Comte d'Angoulême
This manuscript has the steps for seven dances written on a flyleaf. It is believed that they all are basse dance, though only one is titled as such.
It was written by Jean d’Orléans and is thought that he made these notes at a fete held at Nancy in 1445 to honour Margaret of Anjou, which is why it is known as the ‘Nancy Dances’. He may have written these up at a later stage.
These are the earliest known dances from France to have a record of their step sequence and are from the same time period of the earliest dance recordings in northern Italy by Domenico da Piacenza.
This manuscript is particularly peculiar because simple steps come in threes instead of the normal twos and simples that follow double steps are all to the side.
They show the beginning of the basse dance form, highlighting the process of change from estampies and branles coupés to the basse dance.
Margaret of Austria’s or Marie of Hungary’s Book
Date: End of the fifteenth century (estimated 1490)
Current Location: Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels (MS 9085)
This manuscript has been nicknamed ‘Brussels’ for short.
This book originally belonged to Mary of Burgundy, the wife of Emperor Maximilian I, who left it to her daughter Margaret of Austria and then subsequently Margaret’s niece Marie of Hungary. The book later passed into the hands of King Philip II of Spain and remained in the Burgundian library of the Habsburg dynasty until it was transferred to the Bibliothèque Royale.
It is a collection of fifty eight dances with a treatise at the beginning to describe how the dances would have been performed.
It is famous for having been printed in gold and silver on black paper.
L’Art et Instruction de Bien Dancer (The Art and Instruction of Dancing Well)
This source has been nicknamed ‘Toulouse’ for short.
This is a printed book from the Paris press printed by Michel Toulouze.
Comparing Brussels and Toulouse…
Although they are likely to have derived from a common original, both have a treatise and minor differences that shows they are not copies.
Both have a collection of basse dances, with sixty five in total across both sources and fifty three in common. Each dance has its own title, notes and numbers of steps.