Dance and Feelings in Early Modern European Discourses

By Alessandro Arcangeli (University of Verona)

While the practice of many different forms of dance was almost ubiquitous in early modern European society, the sort of treatment and comment it received in all kinds of sources varied significantly. To what extent can we associate this commentary with emotionally charged judgements? Games of inclusion in and exclusion from given communities often listed dance among the positive or negative forms of practice that a member was expected to perform or avoid – sometimes even to the extreme degree represented by the Nuremberg Tanzstatut of 1521, by which only members of the families who had access to the Town Hall on the occasion of balls were admitted to join the city’s governing council. That is to say: if you are one of our customary dancing partners you are in, otherwise you are out! To stereotypes of dancing selves and others we will return in a moment.

Before that, let us examine the connotations of dance towards the end of the Middle Ages, in the Western tradition. The topic of dancing was debated in multiple contexts (from moral theology and education, to the medical treatment of exercise) and with varying evaluation. Regardless their personal positive or negative attitudes, however, writers tended to associate the practice of dance with a set of meanings that was shared. One of the virtually omnipresent characteristics was the idea that dance is a manifestation of joy: humans jump and/or dance as a natural, physical manifestation of their happiness. Already in Classical Athens, Plato (Laws 654a) had expressed this connection in a playful pseudo-etymology, according to which the Greek word for dance (chorós) derived from that for joy (charà). In turn, the joy that found expression in dancing could be seen, particularly by moral critics, as the effect of the consumption of wine and food and of listening to music.

An interesting confirmation of this association between mirth and dance in the shared and widespread cultural discourses of early modern Europe can be found in the standard text that first established the symbolic associations for current iconography –Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia. Its first edition, published in Rome in 1593 without illustrations, already signalled this within its entry on ‘Allegrezza’. In the rough English translation published by Pierce Tempest in 1709, the text reads:

Fig. 8. Allegrezza: MIRTH.
Fig. 8. Allegrezza: MIRTH.


A Youth with jolly, plump Cheeks, a white Raiment, painted with green Branches, Flowers red and yellow, with a Garland of several Flowers; a Crystal-Glass full of Claret, in one Hand, and in the other a gold Cup, and seems to dance in a flowery Meadow. Flowers naturally import a jovial Humour; and we say, the Fields smile, when cover’d with Flowers. The Glass, and golden Goblet, shew that Mirth is rarely alone, but in good Fellowship.[1]

The Italian original is richer, and includes a second reference, in the last line:

La dispositione del corpo ancora è buona cagione et il ballo manifesto inditio dell’allegrezza. (Also, the disposition of the body is a good reason and dancing clear evidence of mirth.)[2]


From 1603, highly influential woodcuts were added. The 1603 edition (printed again in Rome) and the edition that appeared in Padua in 1611 both depict, with some variation, a girl (the Italian text is gendered: giovanetta) with one foot off the ground, in a posture clearly suggesting merry dancing.


Allegrezza 1603&1611


The book’s success, which secured its status as the reference guide on a European scale for the following two centuries, included a number of translations and adaptations. These tended to retain the dance reference in text and image. Thus, the above mentioned English translation of 1709, which inherited quality etchings from late seventeenth-century London that had been made by various artists in preparation for a failed earlier attempt at publication, also included Mirth as a dancing girl with a glass and a cup (although the orientation of her foot at the back implies an improbable contortion).




A political variant in representations of joyful dancing has been seen in the tripudium, the name frequently assigned to a solemnly festive dance.[3]


If we now return to stereotypes, the question in the present context is what affective implications did conflicting representations of positively and negatively connoted dancing practices have? In order to be answerable, the question requires some qualification. In particular, we must acknowledge that ‘dance’ is primarily understood as such through the language of the speaker and the eye of the beholder. If what we consider is the social practice performed by someone else, they may categorise it in completely different ways, for instance by associating it with some forms of experience and dissociating it from others, in different ways than in the West.

With this in mind, a variety of reactions could be expected (and to some extent have been documented) from early modern cultural encounters (as well as from European society per se) involving dance: ranging from marvel and enchantment to laughter or fear. To keep it simple, though, an analytical scheme could aim at collecting under a common headline experiences that are perceived positively and those that are perceived negatively. This can be applied both to the perceptions cultural groups (or emotional communities) have of others, and to what they feel about themselves (or else their immediate neighbours and fellow citizens). The combination of the two variables would produce a fourfold table:


selves others
Value of


pleasure positive self-stereotypes positive hetero-stereotypes
distress negative self-stereotypes negative hetero-stereotypes


Examples for each case can be found historically.


While ‘positive self-stereotypes’ tended to characterise the aesthetic and educational agenda of people from many social groups (including, though not limited to, élites) who used forms of dance throughout Mediterranean and European history to flag standards of posture and demeanour, ‘negative self-stereotypes’ (or perhaps/as well as negative stereotypes of close-by others) were always in circulation to stigmatise what was perceived as excess and lack of civility. However, severe moral critics could also expand the latter box to encompass anything they found undesirable within their definition of ‘dance’.

‘Negative hetero-stereotypes’ were promptly employed when an alien group’s behaviour did not fit some (if any) of the observer’s criteria for social acceptability. On the other hand, Europeans often applied ‘positive hetero-stereotypes’ too, for example in their appreciation watching the ‘noble savages’ dance.

As well as being applied to perceptions of dancing in exotic new worlds, a similar methodology could be used to categorise affective reactions in local contexts, or even applied to depictions of dancing in largely imaginary communities, such as those of witches. Needless to say, the above table provides only a starting point for analysis, and could benefit from further refinement. To mention just its most obvious fault, it does not clearly distinguish between performer and audience experience. The outcome of this investigation seems to be that the meanings attached to dancing were multifaceted, and that investigating source material with questions about perception and affective evaluation in mind may help us reach a fuller appreciation of the deep cultural implications of particular social practices in historic (as well as more recent) cross-cultural encounters.


Alessandro Arcangeli is a cultural historian of early modern Europe with particular research interests in dance, leisure and medical thought. His current projects focus on the image of the dancing ‘other’ in the age of cultural encounters and on sixteenth-century conceptualisations and classifications of the passions. Between 2013 and 2017 he chaired the Committee of the International Society for Cultural History. In October 2016 he was an International Visiting Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Melbourne and Sydney nodes).

Some of his recent publications include:

Alessandro Arcangeli, ‘The Savage, the Peasant and the Witch’, European Drama and Performance Studies 8 (2017): 71–91;

Alessandro Arcangeli, ‘Exercise and Leisure: Sport, Dance and Games’, in The Routledge History of the Renaissance, ed. by William Caferro (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 287–301;

Alessandro Arcangeli, ‘La danse et la codification d’un langage des gestes dans l’Arte de’ cenni (1616) de Giovanni Bonifacio’, e-Phaïstos IV.1, 2015.


[1] Caesar Ripa, Iconologia: or, Moral Emblems… by the Care and and at the Charge of P. Tempest (London, 1709), fol. 2. On the complex story of this edition, see Hans-Joachim Zimmermann, ‘English Translations and Adaptations of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia: From the 17th to the 19th Century’, De zeventiende eeuw 11 (1995): 17–25.

[2] Cesare Ripa, Iconologia overo Descrittione dell’Imagini universali (Rome, 1593), p. 8. See also the comparison between the various Italian editions at

[3] Quentin Skinner, ‘Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Buon governo Frescoes: Two Old Questions, Two New Answers’, The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 62 (1999): 1–28; revised repr. in his Visions of Politics, vol. 2: Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 93–117.

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