You are here

Memory in Renaissance Dance - a thought

I've known for a long time that memorising long choreographies is a learned skill - one must learn the techniques for remembering, practice remembering, and eventually a whole complicated balletto can be memorised in a short session, where at the start even the simplest dances are hard to remember.

I've often wondered how large a repertoire of dances a renaissance person, even a renaissance dance teacher, might have memorised. I have memorised many dances, but I often refer to notes for dances that I've not done recently. Fifteenth century French Basse Danse (where so many dances were so similar) and sixteenth century Italian dance (where there are so many distinct, intricate, unique choreographies) seem particularly taxing - I wonder what the casual dancer attained.

I'm reading "The Performance of 16th-Century Music" by Anne Smith and "The Medieval Craft of Memory" by Mary Carruthers, and it's finally occured to me to connect those musings with another fact: memory, in the middle ages and renaissance, was a much more important intellectual skill than it is now. Memory-training was a serious endeavour and a large part of schooling; complex techniques were used; many people had highly organised systems for accurately recalling large amounts of information. Some people were experts, probably most people were better at it then than most of us are today.

Suddenly, a social dance culture that relies on a large number of people being willing and able to memorise, retain, and accurately reproduce many complex choreographies and mutanza makes more sense. Of course "Memoria" is the very first skill Guglielmo requires of a fine dancer.

This struck me today in a way that it hasn't before, and subtly changed my view of the past.