Rehearsal Tools of the ASC - Dance


Pictured above: Will Kemp, a famous comedic actor of Shakespeare’s company, dancing a jig with a taborer (drummer), from his Nine Days Wonder (1600).

During the Renaissance, dancing was a valuable skill in which any man wishing to fit himself to the ideal of the time had to be adept. Dance played an integral role in the new educational movement known as humanism, a Classically-influenced curriculum which teachers, monarchs, and citizens favored at the time and which incorporated both physical and scholastic training. In early modern England, a student of humanism not only had to be proficient in areas such as language, arts, and mathematics, but also be physically fit and able to dance, fence, and ride, among other talents. The ultimate goal of such an education was a perfect balance of body and mind – both physical and mental dexterity.     

A flair for dancing was especially valuable to men of the stage during this time and, in many cases, served as a test of an actor’s physical prowess. Indeed, the ability to act was only one part of what was required of a professional performer in Shakespeare’s day; such an individual also had to be an expert in acrobatics, fencing, and, of course, dancing. This was no small accomplishment, as dances of the time were elaborate and physically demanding. The galliard, the capriole, and the volte were some of the most popular, each involving intricate choreography and a fair amount of leaping and bounding. On the stage, dance provided an opportunity for an actor to impress his audience with his nimbleness and deft turn of foot.[1] 

An example of just how complex these early modern dances were may be found in Englishman Robert Coplande’s translation of a now lost French treatise on the “maner of dauncynge.” This translation is the only remaining work in English describing the individual steps involved in a dance of the sixteenth century. In the text, Coplande provides a guideline for the movements of the “Filles a marier,” a dance associated with a popular song of the time. The first measure reads thus: “…fyrst ye ought to make reverence [towarde ye lady] with ye lyfte fote / & than a braule with the right fote / than two single paces / the first with the lyfte fote and the seconde with the right fote in goynge forwarde / & ye must reyse your body.”[2] Reading this text today, certain difficulties become immediately apparent, such as the fact that the description is limited almost totally to the dancer’s feet, giving no indication of what the upper body ought to be doing. Nor is it specified just how much the dancer must “reyse” their body, or how much they must “lyfte” their feet. The inherent implication in the text is that the reader would have seen a performance of the dance before or would be able to consult a dancing master for further clarification. Most significantly, however, Coplande’s text proves how multi-faceted and detailed popular dances of the Renaissance were.[3] 

Dance plays a vital role in many of Shakespeare’s plays, both comic and tragic, and references to different dances abound in his works. A dance may either help to propel the plot forward, as when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, or simply provide an uplifting atmosphere for a happy ending, as in Much Ado About Nothing. The types of dance featured in Shakespeare’s works also serve as a reflection of the times. For instance, the popularity of dance in Elizabethan drama is thought to be due, in part, to the love of Queen Elizabeth herself for the activity. Additionally, in the London theatres which catered to the wealthier side of society, such as the original Blackfriars playhouse, fashionable dances known as masques, elaborately staged ceremonies involving several set pieces, were often featured on stage as a favored entertainment of the upper classes.[4]

James I, successor to Elizabeth I, was particularly fond of masques, and a model of how lavish these court productions could be may be found in Thomas Campion’s The Discription of a Maske, Presented before the Kinges Majestie at White-Hall, published in 1607. In it, Campion describes a stage “all enclosed with a double vale, so artificially painted, that it seemed as if darke clouds had hung before it: within that shrowde was concealed a greene valley, with greene trees round about it, and in the midst of them nine golden trees of fifteene foote high, with armes and branches very glorious to behold.” The “dauncing place” is set directly before the King’s chair, and, on either side are “two ascents, like the sides of two hilles, drest with shrubbes and trees.” Such elaborate staging illustrates the unimaginably grand scale of these masques. The story being enacted is the simple one of Flora, the Queen of Flowers, and the focus is primarily on the dance and music rather than the plot. Four main dances are performed, along with several smaller ones. The most fantastic of these is when the “golden trees” themselves come to life and begin to dance, after which the character of Night transforms the trees back into the men they originally were. Campion describes how this bit of stage magic was achieved by saying, “[T]hat part of the stage whereon the first three trees stoode began to yeeld, and the three formost trees gently to sincke, and this was effected, by an Ingin plac’t under the stage. When the trees had sunke a yarde they cleft in three parts, and the Maskers appeared out of the tops of them, the trees were sodainly convayed away, and the first three Maskers were raysed againe by the Ingin.” When all nine trees have exchanged places with the male maskers in this way, they descend to the front of the stage for another dance. Finally, the masque is concluded with several “lighter dances,” such as “Currantoes, Levaltas, and galliards.”[5]

Shakespeare, in tune with what was popular in his day and the interests of his king, uses masques in his plays The Tempestand Henry VIII, among others. A well-performed dance, however, was something a Renaissance audience enjoyed seeing while at the theatre, regardless of whatever play they might have come to observe and whether or not a masque was involved. Thus, a dance did not have to necessarily be incorporated into the play itself; rather, it could serve as a final flourish of entertainment after the play was finished. Thomas Platter, in his sixteenth century account of “A Swiss Tourist in London,” writes that, at the conclusion of a comedy, the actors “danced very charmingly in English and Irish fashion.” And while it may seem contradictory to modern audiences, a dance would also come at the end of a tragedy, as Platter writes after seeingJulius Ceasar: “[W]hen the play was over, [the actors] danced very marvelously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.”[6]

In contrast, modern audiences are more likely to see a play, especially one by Shakespeare, entirely for the play’s sake; there is not the automatic assumption that additional entertainment of live music or dance will be provided. Theatre has become a more discipline-specific experience. Productions put on by the American Shakespeare Center, however, mark a return to the interdisciplinary viewing experience of early modern theatre, as Colleen Kelly, fight director and dance choreographer for the ASC, points out. At the Blackfriars Playhouse, dances are often featured before, during, and after the play, just as they would have been in the Renaissance. Yet these dances are not always accurate to the early modern period. In an effort to retain traditional Shakespearean theatrical practices while also translating them for twenty-first century audiences, more modern dances are frequently featured at the Staunton Blackfriars playhouse. Kelly cites the famous Michael Jackson “Thriller” dance as an example of a number that has been used in lieu of something Shakespeare’s troupe would have performed. This is a reflection of a fundamental goal of the ASC: commitment to Shakespeare’s theatre and the subsequent connection of that setting with a modern audience. This can mean keeping the environment of the performance the same, while not necessarily limiting the performance itself to a certain date range.  

Dance was undeniably a crucial part of what drew an audience to an early modern theatrical production. Several factors had to come together to provide the perfect afternoon’s entertainment for a British citizen of Shakespeare’s day, from the nobility to the working class,  who was looking for an escape from their daily routine – a good play, most likely some good refreshments, perhaps an exciting stage battle, and certainly some engaging dancing.

Dances featured in some of Shakespeare’s plays…
●   Much Ado About Nothing, II.i.   (A masked dance provides the setting for confusion of identities and much intriguing.)Beatrice. [Music for the dance begins.] We must follow the leaders. Benedick. In every good thing.Beatrice. Nay, if they lead to any ill, I will leave them at the next turning. [Dance.]
●   Much Ado About Nothing, V.iv.(A dance also provides a joyous conclusion to this comedy.)Benedick. Come, come, we are friends. Let’s have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives’ heels. […] Strike up, pipers. [Dance.]
●   A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.(A dance comes at the end of this comedy as well, this time performed by the king and queen of the fairies and their subjects.)Titania. First, rehearse your song by rote,/To each word a warbling note./Hand in hand, with fairy grace,/Will we sing, and bless this place. [Song and dance.]
●   Macbeth, I.iii.(The three Weird Sisters perform a ritualistic dance to execute a charm, adding to their sinister vibe.)All. The weird sisters, hand in hand,/Posters of the sea and land,/Thus do go, about, about,/Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,/And thrice again, to make up nine./Peace, the charm’s wound up.  
●   Timon of Athens, I.ii.(A dance featuring exotic Amazons at a banquet illustrates the sumptuous and sensual lifestyle of its participants. Note: “hoboys” = oboes.)  [Music. Enter Cupid with the masque of Ladies, as Amazons, with lutes in their hands, dancing and playing.]Apemantus. Hoy-day,/What a sweep of vanity comes this way!/They dance? They are madwomen./Like madness is the glory of this life,/As this pomp shows to a little oil and root. […] I should fear those that dance before me now/Would one day stamp upon me. ‘T ‘as been done;/Men shut their doors against a setting sun.[The Lords rise from table, with much adoring of Timon, and to show their loves, each single out an Amazon, and all dance, men with women, a lofty strain or two to the hoboys, and cease.]
●   Romeo and Juliet, I.iii.(It is at a masked dance where Romeo and Juliet have their first fatal meeting.)Capulet. […] You are welcome, gentlemen! Come, musicians, play. [Music plays, and they dance.] A hall, a hall! Give room! And foot it, girls.
●   Henry VIII, I.iii.  (An elaborate masque sponsored by Cardinal Wolsey provides a setting for the meeting of King Henry and Anne Boleyn. It is also famous as the scene during which the firing of a cannon caused the burning of the Globe theatre in 1613.)Wolsey. Say, Lord Chamberlain, they have done my poor house grace; for which I pay ‘em a thousand thanks, and pray ‘em take their pleasures. [Choose ladies; King and Anne Bullen.]King. The fairest hand I ever touch’d! O Beauty, till now I never knew thee! [Music. Dance.]

[1] Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949) 86-89. 
[2] Robert Coplande, quoted in John M. Ward, The Maner of Dauncying (Early Music, Vol. 4, No. 2, April, 1976), 128.   
[3] Ward, 127-128.  
[4] Tiffany Stern, Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), 32.[
5] Thomas Campion, The Description of a Maske, Presented before the Kinges Majestie at White-Hall, on Twelfth Night last, in honour of the Lord Hayes, and his Bride, Daughter and Heire to the Honourable the Lord Dennye, their Marriage having been the same Day at Court solemnized (London, UK: 1607).
[6] Thomas Platter, “A Swiss Tourist in London” (From: The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Norton Topics Online), .