The Dancing

“an imitation representing in one part the affections of the mind as attuned to the movements of the body, and on the other, as suitable for a noble person to such a degree that its lack may be interpreted as a kind of imperfection, indeed something reproachable or censurable.”
Fabrizio Caroso, 1581
Il Ballarino

Dancing and the Court Life

Young men and women hired private tutors or went to special academies where they would learn to dance. As the lawyer, John Ramsey, stated, “it must be learned by practise & demonstration”, from a professional teacher of dance. It was one of the many talents expected of a nobleman or woman at court. The repertoires used came from all across Europe; from the likes of Cesare Negri, Fabritio Caroso, Ercole Santucci (all Italians) and Thomas Arbeau (French). They published treatises and repertoires of dancing – although, the Italian publishing numbers dwarfed those of other countries. At court, dance was a common part of the social events, and to excel in favour at court, dancing was an essential talent. It has even been suggested that the Duke of Buckingham’s dance skills were what bought him into favour with James I.

“courtier gentlemen ought to cultivate dancing as it has “a certain dignitie, tempred notwithstanding with a handsome and sightly sweetnesse of gestures”
Sir Thomas Holby, 1561
Translation of Castiglione Libro del Cortegiano

What were the dances?

Woodcut of a Galliard
"After a little while the Prince [Henry] was commanded by his parents to dance the galliard, and they pointed out to him the Lady who was to be his partner; and this he did with much sprightliness and modesty, cutting several capers in the course of the dance. The earl of Southampton then led out the Queen, and three other gentlemen and their several partners, who all joined in the dancing brando... and that being over, the Prince stood up to dance a correnta, which he did very gracefully”
Juan Fernandez de Velasco
Spanish Ambassador to England, 1604.

The Antimasque
The antimasque was performed by professionals – speech, acrobatics, dances and other spectacular entertainments would occur. The dances often seem to have been short, although this was not always the case. The meter of the music was varied, mixed between major and minor keys, and used rapid scale passages, trills and vibrato. The dances reflected the comic or grotesque nature of the antimasque and its music, being jerky and strange – Antonio Foscarini, Venetian Ambassador to England, described the antimasque dance in Oberon, The Fairy Prince as “a thousand strange gestures”, which he found most entertaining. It is likely that the choreographer and the composer worked closely on creating the aural and visual elements of the masque.

The Masque Proper
Most masque propers had an entry, main and exit dance, performed by the nobles of the court, with the main dance being the one which emphasized the essential qualities or concepts expressed in the masque. In this section, the masquers did not sing or speak, and they could only express their ideas through choreographed pieces, gestures and movements; not entirely dissimilar to a modern ballet. The dances were increasingly complex using geometric shapes and patterns, which all had meanings. Poetic librettos added another layer of texture to clarify their meaning. The dances for this section are also known as terminal dances, however they are difficult to reconstruct as we do not have any choreography for these.

The Revels
This is where dancing really came into its own, with members of the audience taking to the floor to dance. These dances might include measures (also known as pavans) which were danced as partners, or individual dances, developed to show off personal skills, such as galliards. In these dances allowing for self-display, improvisation was key (although it is likely that people would have spent time putting sequences together prior to the masque event), and both men and women were able to give virtuoso performances. The repertoire normally followed a specific sequence, and dance partners, at least at the beginning of the night, were selected according to rank over preference. This section represented a breakdown between the stage and the spectator, blurring the lie between performance and reality. This was not unlike a ball, with celebration, of both the occasion and the monarch, at the centre of its purpose.

Also known as pavan, or pavane, measures were relatively slow and stately dances. They could easily be performed by a man wearing a cape and sword, or a woman in a long, extravagant dress. Arbeau, a dance teacher at the time, wrote that it was “walking decorously with a studied gravity”, and suitable for “Kings, Princes and great Lords”. This was a processional dance which moved forwards, down the room, towards the King.

Can also be regarded as a type of measure, however it was slightly livelier than the pavan, with a faster tempo. Sometimes little springs might be performed. It is often mentioned in accounts of the Inns of Court, and had a processional nature, starting at the head of the room and slowly moving forwards, towards the King.

An improvisational dance, seen as very energetic, and a way to show off one’s best skills – almost as a virtuoso. It was the Italian masters who excelled in the galliard (gaglliarda); the dance involved high and intricate jumps. It has been suggested that the more complex steps were reserved for male dancers, whilst women were taught simplified versions, although this was not always the case. It might sometimes be choreographed for both men and women for social dances. These were a common part of the repertoire for the revels at court masques.

Also known as lavolta, it is famed as being the dance which Elizabeth I performed with the Earl of Leicester (see the painting). It seems to have been similar to a galliard, with the highlight being the lifting of the woman – the English court loved the dance, whilst the French believed it to be indecent.

Also known as a brawl, or bransle, was a round dance from France which was especially popular as a closing dance for the revels section of masques; in France it was used more often to open the revels of the Ballet de Cour. Between four and six couples join hands in a circle to perform it, and swaying movements are a central element of this dance.

This dance originated in Italy, and was a light, quick running dance which was popular at the start of the seventeenth century. However it became even more popular in the Baroque era (the time following the restoration in British history), and was described by Johann Mattherson, in 1739, as “chiefly characterized by the passion or mood of sweet expectation. For there is something heartfelt, something longing and also gratifying, in this melody: clearly music on which hopes are built.”

This is an excellent example of the Galliard performed by students of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. With many thanks to the Historical Dance Society for letting me use their video!

Performed by students of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, this is a wonderful example of the Queen’s Almaine. With many thanks to the Historical Dance Society for allowing me to use their video.

Dance Steps

“Finally they danced the Spanish dance once more with their ladies and because they were tired... and the King, who is by nature choleric, grew impatient and shouted loudly, "Why don't they dance? What did you make me come here for? Devil take all of you, dance!" At once the Marquis of Buckingham, his majesty's favorite minion, sprang forward, and danced a number of high and very tiny capers with such grace and lightness that he made everyone love him, and also managed to calm the rage of his angry lord.”
Orazio Busino, chaplain to the Venetian Embassy
Pleasure Reconciled

What were the dance steps of the seventeenth century? As we can see, the dances of the Stuart court could be complex, and a variety of guides were created to help Courtiers learn the necessary steps for each dance. Below are some things you might need to know before starting to dance. There is also a downloadable file for some more detailed steps below:

Seventeenth Century Dance Steps

The Usual Hand

The lady usually stands on the right hand side of the man. Therefore, the man offers his right hand, and the woman takes it with her left and this is known as the usual hand.

Head and Foot

You dance towards the head of the room, where the King is sat if you are at court.


This is the sequence of steps, travelling either forwards or sideways. A passagio can go straight down the room, or follow a path anti-clockwise around the room.

Reverences or Honours (Women)

This is very similar to a curtsy. Like the man, except more restrained, with a modest lowering of the eyes. Posture must remain excellent and movements are synchronised with one’s partner.

Reverences or Honours (Men)

The man stands with his left foot in front, drawing it behind and bending the knees (taking off his hat). The front leg can be extended forwards, and you can make a small rise to finish.


This is the style in which the dance is performed – the translation into English means to swagger or peacocking. Good posture is key and arms are held naturally, with a slight swing.

Follow us on Twitter!!
Parties at the Stuart Court

Discover more with our Blog Posts!

Fumbling the Dance

Discover the Courtiers who didn’t quite get it right on the night!