Fumbling the Dance

From Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesographie

Although the masque was normally a highly polished performance – with professionals taking the acting, dancing and singing roles of the antimasque, and the courtiers rehearsing long in advance for the masque proper – this did not mean that mistakes were never made! There was pressure, not only to impress the King and audience, but not to humiliate one’s self.

In both Jacobean and Caroline masques, there was an expectation that masques would be performed with an “assured bearing”, an “heroic demeanour”, and with “grave and stately carriage”. (Sabol, 400 Songs and Dances, 12). Experienced dance teachers ensured a high quality of dance, and French masters were particularly keen to rid their English students of what they perceived to be bad English habits. Long rehearsal times meant that performances were refined and proficient. In 1616, masquers rehearsed Jonson’s The Vision of Delight for fifty days prior to its Twelfth Night performance. Particularly when it came to dancing, it seems that some of the nobles struggled to get to grips with it all. During the strenuous rehearsals for Campion’s “The Squire’s Masque”, which had continued for several weeks under the tutelage of dancing masters, one gentleman “over-heating himself with practising… fell into the small pocks and died”.

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Image from Flickr.

In the performance of masques themselves, there are records of mistakes being made. Famously, Sir Thomas Germain disappointed his audience at the wedding of Sir Phillip Herbert and Lady Susan Vere, dancing with “lead in his heels” as well as “sometimes [forgetting] what he was doing”. This hardly seems surprising – dances could be complex at times, with geometric shapes and a variety of steps being put into use. Furthermore, there was a large amount of pressure on the dancers to perform well for their King. In Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, after several dancers began to tire, King James shouted “Why don’t they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take all of you, dance!” (Found in Orazio Busino’s account of the performance – he was chaplain and private secretary to the Venetian ambassador). In this situation the Marquis of Buckingham, George Villiers, came to the rescue and calmed the angry King with “a number of high and very tiny capers” (which required great skill) performed with “such grace and lightness that he made everyone admire and love him”.

Despite some issues that arose, overall, masque performances were generally considered to be of a very high quality. Many a courtier was cast for their dancing skills; the Countess of Carnarvon mastered skilled entries for several masques including Chloridia and Salmacida Spolia. Dancers were hand picked to perform difficult synchronous leaps in Oberon and, sometimes, the dance tutors would perform in the masque. This meant that several choreographers might be employed to work on masque productions, so that when one performed there was someone to take the task of instructing rehearsals.

Thus, for the most part, the high expectations of the court (and to some extent the rest of Europe, through their ambassadors) were met.


Ravelhofer, Barbara. The Early Stuart Masque: dance, costume and music. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sabol, Andrew J. Four Hundred Songs and Dances from the Stuart Masque. Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1959.

Orgel, Stephen and Roy Strong. Inigo Jones: theatre of the Stuart court, volume 1. Sotheby: University of California Press, 1973.

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