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Dance with Style: turning a dance into a performance

Katherine Davies

Notes for a class taught at St Vitus dance and music weekend, Canberra, September 2016.

Renaissance dancers, folk dancers, re-enactors who dance: we have a tendency to focus on our feet - on the steps and the choreography - to the exclusion of all else. This is about everything else: bringing our dancing to life, conveying emotion, moving with grace, making a choreography into a perfomance.

A "performance" does not have to be on a stage. There was no rigid line in the renaissance between performance and social dance: your audience is your partner, the other dancers, and any onlookers. An informal ball or a bit of social dancing during a feast is a performance too. 

  • Posture
  • Steps
  • Arms
  • Face
  • Conveying emotion
  • Techniques for practice


Modern posture is often very relaxed, sometimes affectedly casual. Historically - not so much. Your posture is likely to be at all times more formal, more upright. Keep some tension in your muscles - not enough to make you stiff, but enough that you are taut rather than floppy. 

Draw yourself up to your full height: head up, shoulders back, feet side by side. Arms are held in a gentle curve (not flopped by your side).

There are contexts in renaissance dance where you'll depart from this upright, controlled posture; but this is a good default. From time to time you bend your body (to express playful liveliness, say), alter your arm or foot position (for a given period or effect), or even dance in a deliberately grotesque way (as in a moresque), but these are conscious variations for specific effects.


Default to parallel, or with a slight turn-out (heels near each other, toes slightly further apart). Fifteenth century masters don't discuss foot-position, but fifteenth century imagery often shows a slight turn-out (more so in France than in Italy, more with pointier shoes). In the sixteenth century - Caroso insists on parallel feet, Negri allows a slight turn-out, and other masters vary (or don't address the matter). Pointing your toes in opposite directions (as in modern ballet) was mocked as an ugly deformity.

A good resting position has one foot - often the left - just a little in front of the other (often less than the total length of the foot), and the feet parallel (or nearly so), and a few inches apart (definitely less than the width of your shoulders). Santucci calls this  in passo naturale. 

Your weight can be on either foot or both, but imagery suggests that even when your weight is all on one foot you're less likely than we are now to cock one hip - hips stay level, pelvis taut.

Kicks - foot is taut, but ankle is bent naturally (not floppy) - they didn't like the pointed toes that we use in modern ballet.

Step size - small, for all renaissance styles; and extremely small (several inches to the step) in sixteenth century Italy. Small, controlled steps were a measure of refinement (and indoor, or cultivated, dance-spaces). Large steps were considered rustic, messy, untutored, peasant-like (so appropriate to if that's what you're aiming for). 

Step technique - even in plain walking lead from the hip and place the ball of the foot first, to keep steps graceful, silent, light and bouyant.


We're rarely given anything specific to do with our arms in written renaissance choreographies, but that doesn't mean we should ignore them. True, the renaissance aesthetic seems to have been for busy feet and calm hands and arms. But gentle, graceful movement will enhance your dancing; the opposite is true for floppy arms, rigid robot-arms, or jerky movements. Keep some tension in your arms so they don't flop, some relaxation so they can move gently and flowingly with you, and pay attention to small movements of hands and fingers - not too many, but make them count.

Gestures described (approvingly) by dance-masters, or seen in imagery:

  • kissing (or feigning to kiss) your own hand
  • doffing your hat (men)
  • controlling the hilt of your sword (men)
  • controlling or deftly re-arranging your cape (men)
  • playing elegantly with a jewel you're wearing (women)
  • use of a fan, or handkerchief, or gloves (don't overdo it)
  • elegantly arranging or drawing attention to your skirts (women)
  • various positions in taking hands - look at imagery
  • touching, tapping, or beating hands at specifc points in choreographies - use variety, make it count
  • lingering touch as you move away from a partner
  • references in Cotgrave and Florio (early dictionary) to dancers using castanets in the canary, also flips (flourishes, or perhaps clicks) with the fingers
  • claps and other gestures in branles, maybe miming gestures in other dances - use them well - great room for theatre

You can express a lot with small movements of your hands and arms, while your feet are busy with the footwork: lingering with extended fingers as you release your partner's hand in a romantic dance; offering a hand to a partner playfully, hopefully, imperiously; a jump or landing that looks all the more strong for firm arms - no flailing, everything controlled.


The thing I say more often than anything else when I'm rehearsing a group of dancers for performance is: "look happy". Also "more facial expressions!", "interact more", "look up" and "happy surprise!".

You often want emotions and facial expressions directed at your partner, but visible to your audience. That means making them "bigger" than feels comfortable. None of us wants to look like we're overdoing it, or faking it, but in my experience with amatuer dancers it's far more common to feel like your smiling hugely (but actually look rather solemn from the audience) than to look a caricature of the too-smiley too-forced never-natural ball-room-dancing-competitor. 

To "calibrate" my facial expressions, I imagine that my partner is at the far end of the hall from me. How subtle an expression could they see? Then I do that, even when they're close to me.

Conveying emotion

A good starting point for performance (any performance, not just one on a stage - social dancing is performance too) is "what do I want to convey". Appropriate answers for a renaissance dance might be

  • playfulness
  • passion, romance
  • courtship
  • liveliness, joy
  • solemnity, majesty
  • a competitive spirit
  • strength, virtuosity
  • harmony, community
  • wit - clever or unexpected variations on familiar themes

Specific suggestions for conveying each of those:

  • playfulness - cheeky smiles, changeable facial expression, sideways looks, turns from head, hips, etc - not always whole body - difference between dancers in a group (how/when they move, how they look)
  • passion, romance - lots of eye-contact, circling, lingering touch with hands, total focus on partner
  • courtship - dances often include passages where one partner leaves and another follows - make the most of this - you can make it a little story, without hamming it up to the extent that it becomes silly - starting with a degree of shyness (limited eye-contact, tentative gestures, sidelong glances) and slowly increasing the intensity (more and more lingering hand-contact, more eye-contact, held for longer, direct gaze) can be effective
  • liveliness, joy - smiles directed at both partner(s) and audience, bouyancy in your gait (springiness, bounciness, knees can come up - you don't have to actually leave the ground)
  • solemnity, majesty - upright posture, turn with whole body, slow movements, slower changes in facial expression, level gaze at audience as well as partner(s)
  • a competitive spirit - upright posture, chin up, challenging eye-contact with partner, approaches directly towards your partner
  • strength, virtuosity - can't beat jumps, turns and stamps - straight up, solid landing; posture as above - upright, chin up
  • harmony, community - consistency across dancers in a group - lots of eye-contact within group (group happy together), or none (group can move in unison without looking), lots of care to keep movement and figures identical, happy-and-gentle facial expressions but not a lot of sudden variety (looks like individual conversation within a group)
  • wit - suddenly vary a well-known dance, use the steps of one genre in another (e.g. canary steps in a galliard variation), imitate and expand on something your partner or another dancer has done, contrast with something another has done (e.g. follow a stampy mutanza with silent, graceful scorsi)


Techniques for practice

Mirrors - practice in front of a mirror (even if it's just small gestures or facial expressions in a home mirror). A mirrored dance-studio can be briliant.

Video - often very intimidating, always very useful. If I'm rehearsing for a performance I often try to record our dance after we've learned it, but while we're still polishing. There's nothing quite like it for seeing what you actually do, not what you think you do.

Critique each other - take turns sitting out and observing the other dancers. Try to imagine what this will be like for the audience (usually not someone who knows the steps intimately). Each time through, offer one suggestion for improvement. (Clearly, this must be done carefully and kindly, with more praise than criticism, so everyone feels good).

Watch other dancers - watch dancers, in your group, at events, online, in completely different dance-forms. What works? What doesn't? How do they achieve the effect they get?

Play with effects - deliberately try different styles (even ones you think won't work well): dance something familiar, but deliberately make it silly, playful, solemn, formal, casual, joyful, slinky ... something unlike the way you usually dance it. Does it work? If no, why not? If yes, why? And more - how? Consider what specific things you did to achieve that style.

Practice the basics - each dance class, choose a few simple, familiar things and focus on doing them as well as possible. Maybe it's perfect posture in a pavan, or stepping lightly, or moving your arms gracefully. When we're learning complicated stuff we may not have left-over attention for the basics: things you already know well are the perfect opportunity to drill yourself on the basics, so they'll still be there when you're not thinking about them.

Practice in garb - I generally prefer to teach and rehearse in modern clothes, so people can see my movement easily (and I can see theirs). However, dancing in garb is a very different experience to dancing in modern clothes, and it takes practice. Ideally, it's best to dance in clothes appropriate the the period and social class of the dance. Many of our dances are from the late 16thC, and dancing well well corsets, farthingales, trains, ruffs, capes, swords and hats is a skill that can require a goodly amount of practice to learn. Once again - mirrors and video will tell you how well you're doing with brutal honesty.