[SCA-Dance] Theme and Variations

Justin du coeur jducoeur at gmail.com
Thu Apr 6 14:32:24 EDT 2017

On Thu, Apr 6, 2017 at 12:52 PM, White,John <john.white at drexel.edu> wrote:

> As some few of you may know, I have been for the longest time an
> absolutist - there is *one* way and
> only one way to do any specific dance.

That's a valid approach, but by and large one that I disagree with, because
I think it somewhat misrepresents the reality of how dance works in culture.

I mean, sure -- if what you are working from is an author *prescribing* the
correct way to do a dance that he has *written*, then that's totally
appropriate: you have a truly authoritative prescription.  But as far as I
can tell, that's a minority of our examples: more of them appear to be an
author *describing* the way an existing dance happens to have been
performed, right then at that specific time and place, and it's just a
datapoint, not an absolute.  That makes it a good tentpole for our
research, a solid foundation to build on, but viewing it as the *only* way
this dance was actually performed in period is, IMO, probably just plain
incorrect in most cases.

Indeed, in some cases I'd be near-certain that the description we have is
at best a minority view.  This is nicely exemplified by Chestnut.  I tend
to teach it as-written, but Mara prefers to change the order of verses to
the normal USA pattern, and I can't disagree with her logic: real people,
doing this dance in a real setting, would likely have done it following the
standard memes they are accustomed to.  (Indeed, I often suspect that
Playford simply mis-transcribed it.)

Another favorite example of dance variation is the relationship of
Candlestick Bransle and Ballo del Fiore.  They are screamingly obviously
the "same" dance, but viewed through so much folk-process evolution that
they mutated into different species.  (I suspect both branching from the
same original ur-folk-dance, but that's just a guess.)  I would bet good
money that there were *many* intermediate stages of that evolution, as the
dance wandered between France and Italy.

And that matches everything I know about social dance: it evolves and
changes more or less constantly, and fairly rapidly in the grand scheme of
things.  Indeed, I find the Inns of Court dances fascinating precisely
because they are the exception that proves the rule -- a repertoire that
was astonishingly static for an astonishingly long time.  I don't think
it's a coincidence that this happened within the specific context of law
training, occurring in the same few buildings over a span of decades.

None of which means that every possible variation is equally valid --
figuring out what variations would be *likely* is a fairly subtle art, and
a fairly subjective one.  But it's one of the more interesting areas of
study, IMO, and the SCA -- with its informal "experimental archaeology"
approach -- makes an interesting ground for examining it.  It's fascinating
to observe the way we vary the dances in practice, compare that with what
we know about period practices, and see what we can learn from it.  It
often casts into sharp relief the way that our social setting doesn't match
the period examples.

So sure -- I don't have a problem with focusing on the dances precisely
as-written: it's an easy and decently principled approach.  But as a
representation of dance as it was actually done in period, I suspect it's
misleading: it's a thought process that is distinctly modern, and I believe
would have been considered downright weird in most of period.  We have a
tendency to reify things to exactly one "correct" form, where the period
reality was often that each of those things was actually a large family
with many different exemplars.

Mind, over in my other primary art, Games, this is *screamingly* clear --
many of the games that we think of as a single game today, such as Chess or
Backgammon or Cribbage, were actually families of games in period, with
many documented variations.  During the birth of the modern era (and the
rise of universal literacy), there was a profound movement towards unifying
these families into single, consistent, universal forms -- but right up
through the Renaissance, that's just not how folks *thought* about this
stuff, far as I can tell...

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