Bransles, Pavans, and Cascarde: Renaissance Dance Finds a Home in Crozet

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Kendra Schmid (first on left) leads Renaissance dancers in “Jenny Pluck Pears” at Tabor Church in Crozet. The group meets the first and third Tuesday of each month in the Chiles-Pickford Fellowship Hall. Dances are open to the public. Photo: Clover Carroll.

The eight couples form a circle, join hands and slip to the left, turn single to the left, slip to the right, and turn again. Men join hands inside the circle and slip left, then ladies do the same. Men step in toward the center, clap and step back; then ladies do the same. Now men step in and mime picking fruit from a tree or vine, then ladies do the same. This alternating of men and women constitutes the “chorus,” which is repeated between two more “verses” in which partners “side,” i.e. step up beside each other and back, and  partners “arm,” i.e. swing each other with a forearm grip. Smiles abound, skirts swirl, and the gentle thud of happy feet fills the hall. Finally, all repeat the “chorus,” with slipping, clapping, miming, and spinning, and voila! We’ve just danced “Gathering Peascods” (aka peapods), an English social dance from before 1650, recorded in The English Dancing Master by John Playford (1651) and later re-published by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) in The Playford Ball: 103 Early English Country Dances. Sharp reinvigorated folk singing and dancing, and is credited with starting the historical dance movement.

Lucky for us, historical dancing is alive and well in western Albemarle County. Area “dance gypsies” who, as I explained in my 2009 article [“Become a Dancing Queen…,” Crozet Gazette, November 2009], travel all over the country in pursuit of the dancer’s high, now have another local option: a Renaissance Dance that meets every first and third Tuesday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the Chiles-Pickford Fellowship Hall at Tabor Church in Crozet. Dance mistress Kendra Schmid, aka Lady Nicolosa d’Isenfir, teaches a range of English, Italian, and French dances spanning from 1450 to 1650. These are choreographed dances for individuals and sets of two or more people, with pre-defined steps. They are different from—because earlier than—the dances done in longways lines with progression, such as Contra and English Country dancing. Sources for Renaissance dances beyond Playford include Dancing in the Inns of Court (c. 1570) compiled by D.R. Wilson in 1987, On the Practice or Art of Dancing by Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (c. 1420–c. 1484), and Orchesography by Thoinot Arbeau (1589), among others.

Renaissance dancers learn a range of English, Italian, and French dances spanning from 1450 to 1650 for individuals and/or sets of two or more people. Photo: David Oxford.

On a typical evening, Schmid might lead you through a bransle (pron. brawl), a quick, lively Renaissance dance popular in France and England; a pavan, a slow, processional dance common in Europe during the 16th century; and a cascarda, a flirtatious dance from 16th c. Italy that is danced facing your partner “in ruota,” that is, on the rim of an imaginary wheel. These are social dances, so dancers change partners between every dance, and it is fine to dance with a partner of the same gender. All dances are taught and called, and beginners are welcome. Lively accompaniment on mandolin and drums is provided by Dan Goldberg.

These historical dances span the social classes, from court dances, to those practiced in wealthy manor houses, to country dances enjoyed by peasants. Some might have been enjoyed by Catherine de Medici, some by Leonardo da Vinci, and some by Shakespeare’s Bottom the Weaver. Queen Elizabeth’s favorite dance was the peppy, energetic French Volta (or Lavolta). “16th c Italian court dance eventually evolved into ballet; English Country dances evolved into contra and square dancing,” organizer David Oxford explained. The dances vary between stately elegance and spirited vigor, offering an artistic exercise experience with historical connections.

The Renaissance dancers have been meeting in Crozet for two years, after the Municipal Arts Center became unavailable on the nights they needed. Dancing is only one of the activities offered by the Isenfir chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a non-profit, educational group that re-creates the Western European Middle Ages and Renaissance. SCA members choose aspects of pre-17th century life to re-create through the use of a “persona”—a character that each member creates who might have lived in that time period. SCA artisans research, create, and teach music, poetry, cooking, singing, dancing, metalsmithing, tailoring, armoring, etc. People in the SCA study and re-create martial activities including armored combat, fencing, archery, and more, hosting living history events all over the country every weekend. There are hundreds of Renaissance Dance groups around the country and world, each with its own personality—some perform “in garb.” This month, Kendra is teaching the dances that will be presented at the War of the Wings weekend in Boonville, NC, October 18-22—including Rufty Tufty, Ballo del Fiore, Black Nag, and a Carolingian Pavan.

We happen to reside in the Shire of Isenfir (Old Norse for “iron mountain), which encompasses Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Nelson County, Waynesboro, Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Augusta and Rockingham Counties. Isenfir falls within the Kingdom of Atlantia, which stretches from Maryland through Virginia and North and South Carolina to Georgia. Organized by Lord Bryan Morgan (David Oxford) and Lady Nicolosa d’Isenfir (Kendra Schmid), Isenfir offers activities in the Tabor Fellowship Hall every Tuesday night, including Renaissance Dance on the first and third Tuesday, a Populace (or chapter meeting) on the second Tuesday, Arts & Crafts night on the fourth Tuesday, and a Revel on the rare fifth Tuesday—where you’ll find dancers decked out in period costume and eating period desserts. Other Isenfir activities include archery, sewing, and an annual, all-day Mead Hall event held at Camp Albemarle (www.isenfir.atlantia.sca.org). In addition, the Kingdom of Atlantia’s day-long University—held three times a year—features classes on every imaginable topic in medieval/Renaissance history, such as costume making, martial combat, dance, performing arts, chain mail, period husbandry, and agricultural practices.

For David Oxford, the “Seneschal” of Isenfir, re-creating Renaissance life is more than just a hobby. He joined the SCA while studying engineering at U.Va. “I’ve loved dancing ever since I was a kid. I was one of those geeks. When I got here, I joined the group, and when the person who was running it left he gave all the dance tapes to me. I’ve continued running it for close to 30 years, with only one break for grad school.”

Oxford, who serves as chief information officer for Tiger Fuel, also mentors a NASA Student Launch team at PVCC, which includes 21 students. This national competition requires the team to write a proposal to design, build, test, and fly a high-powered rocket and engineering payload for NASA. “This proposal is just like those required for a federal contract, so it provides the kids with great career development experience,” Oxford explained. If accepted, the team works for eight months testing their rocket and payload designs and preparing and presenting technical documentation for NASA. Launch week is in April 2018 in Huntsville, AL. In the future, Oxford would like to present a class on the history of Chinese rockets at Atlantia University.

Once I learn a dance and become independent of the caller, I feel like I’m floating! For an evening of elegant exercise, movement to music, and a trip back in time all rolled into one, head out on a Tuesday evening to Tabor Church. Park along the east side and behind the church, and enter the Fellowship Hall from the back. There is no charge, but a donation to the community charity Crozet Cares is encouraged—you’ll find a jar on a table near the entrance. See you on the dance floor!

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