Creating a Dance in the Style of Maestro Domenico da Piacenza

Although this is not the first Renaissance-style dance I have created, it is the first I’m trying to teach and spread widely. I wrote a dance a few years ago called “Penny’s Farthing” to the song “The Great Velocipede Migration” from S.J. Tucker’s Album “Wonders”. I was listening to it in the car and my feet decided the tune needed an English Country Dance written to it. The album is inspired by the book “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” by Catherynne Valente, and the particular song is in reference to a scene where wild, living old-fashioned bicycles (high wheelers or pennyfarthings) are migrating, hence the song and dance name. It’s a circle dance for four couples and I’m still not quite sure about the middle.

This dance, which I’m calling Il Ballo d’Eleanor con Fettuccie per Cinque (Eleanor’s Ribbon Dance for Five), was inspired by a series of events over the past several months. My local dance practice regularly has an odd number of people, most often 5 or 7. This is somewhat frustrating when one really wants to do 3 couple or 4 couple English Country Dances, but does lend itself to 15th century Italian dances which do come in odd numbers of dancers. Eleanor duChester had been bothering me for more 5 person dances we could do. I had been intending to revisit the original directions for Verceppe in particular, but kept forgetting to work on it before practice. It had become something of a running joke, she would “remind” me at practice which was less than helpful.

So, there we were at Winter University, in a class on Tessara, which is a ribbon dance. There were more participants in the class than dance spots, so Eleanor and I were sitting and watching and chatting a bit. Watching them dance Tessara and thinking about her request for five-person dances created a spark of inspiration and I started writing this dance. It is very much Eleanor’s dance – if you know her, you will see how her personality inspired it very easily.

In the courts of the high families of Renaissance Italy, noble children were taught to dance by masters such as Domenico da Piacenza. When they were old enough and judged ready, sometimes a specific dance would be written for them to perform to show that they had attained the skills and bearing of a noble. Nobles learned to dance as part of learning deportment – dance in the late fifteenth century in the courts of the Italian city-states was intentionally being used as a class marker, a distinction to help consolidate the power of the ruling families. Anyway, this dance is dance for Eleanor to show that she has learned grace and deportment. (Did I type that with a straight face? Wow)

I mostly had the dance written by the end of University. Eleanor and I discussed and tweaked it the next day and even got some victims volunteers to walk it with us to make sure that it worked. It starts out with the dancers in a line entering with pive, then we have a little section where they make arches and Eleanor steals their ribbons (but bows to thank them after, of course). Then there’s a saltarelli section in a wheel. Then some slow and dramatic ribbon waving and turning around before they line up again to dance off with a fun piva snake. (I’ll write up a full how-to page on it when I’m ready to disseminate the whole thing.)

Eleanor’s approach to learning dance is very kinesthetic and very much based on musical cues. She is a firm believer in the music tells her what to do, and we make up songs to the tunes to help remember dances. With that in mind, actually writing the tune for her dance has been a bit of a struggle. I wanted it to clearly fit the steps and be singable.

I was able to fairly quickly write a tune for the bassadanza sections. Whenever we do a dance with a bassadanza voltatonda del gioioso, Eleanor sings it as “very slow and boring turn” so I had to work that into the bassadanza section of the music since she does one after the entrance. Once I figured out that it wanted to be in D minor that piece of melody practically wrote itself, along with variations for later bassadanza sections.

The melody for the piva sections took longer. I listened to and played through several of the existing 15th century dance tunes for inspiration, especially Amoroso. I was trying to write something in F major and it just wasn’t coming together. I switched from trying to write on my recorder to my gemshorn this week, and thus to D major (the gemshorn defaults to F#), and suddenly something started to click. I’ve even got several variations on it. Now all I need is to figure out the final melody, for the saltarelli section in the middle, and we’ll be ready to go!

The next steps are to work on arranging the music (which I already have people offering to help with, yay!), practicing the dance, and planning outfits. Our hope is to dance this for everyone at our Baronial Birthday event in September. I’m excited!