In every culture, going back to prehistory, there has been music, song, dance and rhythm. The current popularity of Early Music shows how many people delight in sounds from the past. The variety, interest and enjoyment of Early Dance, although less widely known, are just as exciting.
You will encounter some forms of early dancing at classes in Circle Dance, International Dance, English and Scottish Folk Dance, Contra and Cajun - to name just a few. These traditional styles of dancing maintain continuity with what used to be done by ordinary people long ago.
There are also historical records of how the gentry and nobility danced in past centuries. For this reason Early Dance is also often known as Historical Dance. These written records were obviously made by people who could read and write, and such people were not much concerned with the dances of peasants and artisans. What they needed to write down was how to perform the fashionable dances enjoyed by themselves and their betters.
We have detailed information for actual dances of this kind in western Europe all the way from 1445 up to the present day.
There is some excellent dance music in the two centuries before 1445, to which they performed dances with names like Carole, Ductia, Estampie, Saltarello and Trotto, but unfortunately no one wrote down the steps for these - or if they did, the texts have not survived. For this period we can only create our own imaginative reconstructions based on what we know of traditional dance-forms in later centuries, such as the Provençal Farandole (a line dance) and French regional Branle (a round dance).
By the later 15th century it has become possible for us to study details of actual dances of England, France, Italy and Spain. The stately French Basse Dance (performed by a single couple) was current in most neighbouring countries, from Scotland to Spain, often with local variations. In Italy they more often danced their own version of this dance, the Bassadanza, as well as the more lively and varied Ballo. In England, too, there were many dances for two or three persons, only recently discovered and still not too easy to understand.
In the middle of the 16th century many new dance styles were introduced: Almain, Canaries, Coranto, Galliard, Pavan and others. The leading country for dancing at this time was Italy, where a number of dance manuals were printed. Italian dances were current in most places, including England, and Queen Elizabeth prided herself on her Italian technique. Another feature of Elizabeth's reign was the arrival in Society of the English Country Dance, which continued in fashion thereafter for more than two centuries.
During the early 1600s leadership in dancing passed from Italy to France. By 1700 we have a repertoire familiar from the French Dance Suite: Bourrée, Courante, Gavotte, Gigue, Minuet and Sarabande. At the same time the English Country Dance was exported across the Channel to become the Contredanse.
In the 19th century the fashionable ballroom was overwhelmed with dances from central Europe - Mazurka, Polka, Waltz - while the English Country Dance began to yield place to Cotillions and Quadrilles. The dances of the 20th century are more familiar, but these too have to be studied from books and films and photographs if they are to be made historically correct.
For more detailed comments on these dances and their sources, see Dance Through History at The Early Dance Circle.