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New book on French Renaissance dance

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Margaret M. McGowan's Dance in the Renaissance: European fashion, French obsession (Yale Univ. Press) is now available from Amazon.


Here are a few of the more interesting points made by the reviewer, Julia Prest, in this weeks Times Literary Supplement (Feb. 13).

Francois I -- performing in a masquerade in 1542 -- played the front end of a centaur; the Cardinal de Lorraine took up the rear.

Francois's grandson, Henri III, was obsessed with dancing,

often spending several hours a day rehearsing or dancing ballets and did not care to be interrupted under any circumstances. His assiduous attention to dance provoked a mixed response: his contemporaries agree that he was a talented and impressive dancer; and that he was a passionate supporter of the arts was undeniable. However, his critics were quick to note that Henri's enthusiasm for dance was excessive; at best, unseemly in its flamboyance, and at worst, threatening to the well-being and stability of France, mainly because it left him little time to atend to anything else.

Unfortunately, Henri III died at the hands of an assassin. An instance of "dance criticism" taken to excess? :o

The most strenuous dance in this period was la volta, which involved serious jumping and tossing your partner into the air.

The volta was a more physically demanding dance than most, and part of its appeal lay in the fact that the swirling skirts of its female dancers tended to reveal more leg than was customary. More dangerously, on at least one occasion, the dagger worn by a male dancer performing a volta came loose and embedded itself in his thigh.

For an image of la volta, see the second illustration on the following page:


And here is Elizabeth I of England, Henri III's contemporary, doing her own version partnered by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.


The book also mentions a Renaissance belief that dancing was conducive to peace and love. In 1572, Catholics and Protestants at the royal court danced together in a ballet entitled the Paradis d'Amour. This was to celebrate the marriage of the French King's Catholic sister to the Protestant King of Navarre, Henri (later to become Henri IV of France).

Their collaborative perforance was intended both to symbolize an end to the bitter fighting that had baeen ravaaging France periodically for more than a decade, and to enforce it. For dance was considered much mroe than mere entertainment; it was charted with many strategic political functions and, among its mroe mysterious attributes, was bellieved by some to be endowed the the potential the replicate the cosmic harmony of the heavens here on earth.

Alas, the stars were not in harmony that week. The harmony-inducing qualities of dance did not work. Two days later, thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered in the streets of Paris -- the event known as St. Bartholomew's Day -- and the religious wars got even nastier.

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