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Thoinot Arbeau's "Orchésographie"

The most important dance instruction manual published in France during the latter half of the 16th Century holds a number of distinctions. For one, it is alone. There are no others. And because it’s unusually detailed, the manual provides a wealth of information for scholars and performers wanting to further their understanding of Renaissance dance and etiquette.

Initially published in 1589 at Langres and entitled "Orchésographie," the manual was written by Jehan Tabourot, a French cleric. And like many a writer, Tabourot went by a pseudonym, Thoinot Arbeau, which was an anagram of his real name. He is commonly referred to as Arbeau.

The book is written in the form of a dialogue between Arbeau, the master, and Capriole, the student. Their lively conversation pervades the entire work and helps to instruct the reader on the many subtleties of the so-called “manly art” of dancing with a partner.


Towards the beginning of the manual, Arbeau stresses the importance of gentlemen learning how to dance both for health benefits and for its role in courtship:

“...if you desire to marry you must realize that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing, because ladies do not like to be present at fencing or tennis, lest a splintered sword or a blow from a tennis ball should cause the injury.”

Arbeau later adds an insightful point: “…dancing is practiced to reveal whether lovers are in good health and of sound limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savor one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odor as of bad meat.”

Dancing as tradition

For Arbeau, dancing was part of a tradition handed down from antiquity. He says “the noun dance comes from the verb to dance, which in Latin is called saltare. To dance is to jump, to hop, to skip, to sway, to stamp, to tiptoe, and to employ the feet, hands and body in certain rhythmic movements.”

The list and explanations of dances he provides is impressive and contains the most important new and old-fashioned dances that a gentleman was expected to know, including the pavane, gaillard, courante, branle, volte, and many others—some having numerous variations.


Whether describing martial or recreational dances, there’s always a greater point for learning to dance—one that might even be relevant for us today. Recalling Galen’s book on health, Arbeau says “all things have a natural desire for movement and that everyone should practice gentle and moderate exercise… [dancing] contributes greatly to health.”

One wonders what Arbeau might have thought about the plethora of today’s dances classes; or the highly physical ballroom dance competitions; or even dancing couched as pure exercise like aerobics, jazzercise, or the video game Dance Dance Revolution.

New Release

Our new release of the week features a new composition for choir and Renaissance band on the Navona record label. American composer Kile Smith has composed a work based on the Lutheran tradition entitled Vespers. Donald Nally directs…

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