Nonsuch History & Dance Dance UK explores… historical dance

Date Wed 23 April 2014

Each month in 2014, Dance UK is investigating a different dance style for our members' e-newsletter, finding out about its technique, style and history. For April, it’s historical dance, which Darren Royston, choreographer, dancer and Artistic Director of Nonsuch History & Dance, discusses in an interview with Dance UK’s Communications and Membership Officer, Laura Dodge.

What is historical dance?

Historical dance would have been done as a popular activity at some time in the past but has since been stopped. Traditional dance is a different thing – it is a dance that has a long history but has never stopped being performed.

In many cases, historical dance was originally a social form that everyone would learn as a way to meet people, especially potential marital partners. Each period of history has specific styles.

Historical dance has to be recreated from evidence such as photos, paintings and written descriptions. That’s why most of dance performed is from the 15th Century onwards as there is more material that can be used to recreate it.

How do you get information about historical dance styles?

Styles have to be pieced together from a variety of sources. There are always gaps in knowledge and people debate the correct ways to perform. There is a lot more information about dances performed by royalty and noblemen than the folk dances performed by ordinary people. West European court dancing is particularly well documented as it was performed at important historical moments.

Sometimes there are steps and patterns which are written down and in fact, dancing manuals were given as wedding gifts when noblemen were married in 15th Century ducal courts. But often a lot of other sources have to be used, such as paintings, letters and novels.

The music gives a big clue as to how to dance. For one early dance form, the music is the saltarello, which is named after the Italian verb ‘saltare’, to jump. As we assume the musicians didn’t jump up and down, the dance that accompanied must have included jumping, but we don’t much more than that. We have to re-imagine the style with only that minimal information.

Why did you get involved in historical dance?

Working as a choreographer, I was asked by directors to recreate the dance styles of particular historical periods. When I researched, I found that I loved the steps and patterns and I enjoyed piecing together different sources of information and learning about the historical context.

I first looked at the dances from Shakespeare’s time. During Elizabeth I’s reign, courtiers showed their power by dancing for the queen. Their nobility was demonstrated not just by birthright but in their movement. I was fascinated by how learning about dancing in the past shed new light on my understanding of history and dance development.

How do historical dancers train?

There are lots of independent teachers specialising in different styles of historical dance. My company, Nonsuch History & Dance, offers an introduction to various styles. For our summer school, we do a different century’s style each day so by the end of the week your body has covered 600 years of movement!

There isn’t a specific way that professional dancers can train in historical styles. When I’m casting, I look for dancers who are able to make the movements seem natural, as historical dance was performed by people without professional dance training. I also need dancers who are able to adapt to the subtleties of different styles and periods.

What should you look out for when watching historical dance?

Historical dances convey historical attitudes, such as morally acceptable levels of touch and social contact, so how people interact while dancing is important. A good dancer will use eyes, facial expression and gesture to convey a historical story. You should feel like you are watching real people dancing as if they were living in the past.

Why do you love historical dance?

I love how historical styles link to contemporary dance. I trained at Laban and I can see such clear links between what I studied and the dances from hundreds of years ago. It’s amazing to see the connections between past and present. For example, everyone knows about polkadots, but did you know they became fashionable in 1843 when the polka was a popular dance form?

Historical dance transports you to another time. You can feel like you’re Elizabeth Bennett and you’re about to meet Mr Darcy for the first time. It brings history off the page.

What dance style would you like to see featured next in the 'Dance UK explores...' series? Email suggestions to laura@danceuk.org.