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Dance through the ages

Workshop for dancers and instruments directed by Philippa Waite, WI Hall Backewell, Bristol, 6th June 2015

Philippa Waite has been at the forefront of historical dance for several decades as a choreographer and reconstructor. She gave us a fascinating overview of dance from the middle ages to the 18th century. This was a practical workshop, in which we danced a whole range of dances, using the building blocks of steps called singles and doubles in different ways, depending on period and country. The differences involved:
a) parallel or turned-out feet
b) moving with feet on the flat or on toes
c) rise and fall or moving on one plane
d) whether the shoulders face forwards and move in the same way or in the opposite direction to the feet
e) the posture of the body
f) different ways of ‘reverencing’ (bows, curtsies and flourishes)
Philippa was exceptionally clear in distinguishing these details.

The day was brilliant for beginners and experienced, and for musicians as well as dancers. The players were given tips on how to play for dancing, the most important (and obvious once you have danced to live musicians) being to maintain the same speed throughout and a definite pulse. At the ends of phrases, you might have to cut notes short in order to take a breath and come in again on the beat. Musicians must have lightness in their playing and be able to look at what the dancers are doing in order both to accompany and lead. Knowing how to dance the steps associated with a piece of music tells you how to play it.

The participants ranged from former historic dancers to rank beginners, and included Philippa’s current students, Morris dancers, others with experience in flamenco and ballet, and musicians wanting to know how to add feet to the dancemusic of the period. Philippa was very good in realizing that some people would not be used to dancing all day, and she allowed plenty of opportunities to relax or just walk around to relieve our leg muscles. After warm-ups, we danced a 15th-century Estampie; an early 16th-century French Pavane; an Almain; then, to test us utterly, a 15th-century Italian dance for six people called Gelosia, which had four changes of rhythm and types of step, and called for a certain amount of acting. The next variation was a 16th-century Italian Pavane, where we had to assume a ‘peacocking’ posture. Then two 16th-century French dances of a less courtly variety, which required less brain-power, but more energy and sideways steps: Washerwoman’s Branle, Branle Pinagay. This was followed by a late 16th-century dance from England: Earl of Essex Measure. We then sped into the late 17th century with Hole in the Wall, a country dance from a publication by John Playford.

Philippa’s main expertise is as a teacher and performer of baroque dance, which, we could see, was much more sophisticated (and confusing) than the earlier dances. It requires turnout and mirror-image footwork, as well as steps initiated on the upbeat rather than with the pulse. We learnt some minuet steps; it was incredibly difficult to get all the different movements as well as having to think across the beat. Baroque dances have different affects; for example, the minuet requires ‘moderate gaiety’.

There were many dance treatises written in this period, and dance was linked to the 18th-century discipline of rhetoric. Academies were established which set standards for dance protocols. Dancing masters advised on etiquette as well as teaching dance. The leisured classes spent a lot of time learning and perfecting dance. Country dances (such as Hole in the Wall) were for the least proficient dancers and Rigadoons for those who excelled. Minuets came towards the lower end of the continuum. Philippa ended the day by demonstrating a hornpipe, which was poetry in motion. We certainly left with an appreciation of how you need a lifetime to study baroque dance.

- Heather Jenne

I need not have worried about the shoes I would wear - those on the dancers’feet varied from boots to trainers to walking shoes and even bare feet, and everyone managed fine. There were about 16 of us, musicians included, and Philippa took us through dances from five different centuries. Most amazing was how long the basic steps (single simple and double simple) persisted from earliest times right up to the age of the minuet, which Philippa describes as ‘a real calf-killer’, as it is danced on tiptoes with descent to the flat only on 2nd and 6th beats of each two-bar phrase.

We started with loosening up and stretching, and learning how to perform the single simple and double simple going forward, backward and sideways, and then applied them to tunes that the musicians, under the direction from the keyboard of Clare Griffel, kindly provided. As well as keyboard, there were two or three recorders, drum, viol and occasionally, plastic trombone! To these, we merrily danced an Estampie, a Bransle or two, ‘Hole in the Wall’ (a Playford to music by Purcell), an Almain, and the saltarello step. We also learned various different ‘salutations’ (curtsies and bows), which were much more interesting if you were dancing the man’s part, as they had the added flourish of a hat, and the furniture of a sword with which to cope.

Sallie’s organization was very smooth. I shall remember the day (for all the right reasons) for a long time, and found Philippa a very sympathetic and fun teacher. Her demonstration of the hornpipe, which depends on absolutely faultless counting, at the end of the afternoon, was marvellously mobile. I hope there might be more dance workshops in the future!

- Marion Bolton




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Last modified: 14 December 2015