“If you can walk, you can dance” and “The music tells you what to do” are well-meant, if somewhat misleading statements intended to reassure the inexperienced dancer that, unlike the nonswimmer asked to leap into the deep end of the pool, you have nothing to worry about when you and your partner step out onto the ballroom floor: You can do it.

While obviously less reassuring, it would be more accurate to say that if you can dance, you can walk, and if you’re dancing, the music tells you not so much what to do as when, how fast, and for how long to do it. As for what “it” is, someone has to teach you what the requisite moves are and how to fit them to the music, whether by example (showing you) or instruction (telling you). In other words, you have to be taught how to dance in a way that you don’t have to be taught how to walk.

Well, actually, you do have to be taught how to do certain kinds of walking, again, either by example or instruction: It takes more than the normal development of human motor functionality to make a tight-rope artist, a cat-walk model, or a log-roller, or to enable you to saunter, skip, or “walk like a girl” (cf. French se déhancher) in accord with local cultural norms. Indeed, even so rudimentary an act of bipedal locomotion as crossing the street can involve a set of instructions. (A friend recounted that on the first day she was allowed to go to school by herself, she knew that she was supposed to do something when she got to the corner but, having forgotten what it was, she made the sign of the cross before proceeding to the other side of the street.) Such instructions may include graphics and, in some cases, auditory cues. The plain crosswalk (known in Great Britain as a zebra crossing) is a simple visual instruction, namely: Cross here.

zebra crossing

zebra crossing

Complicated traffic patterns and other pedestrian safety considerations may occasion more elaborate instructions:

three crossing signals
Exhibit A presents official written instructions and an unofficial floral warning of the possible consequences of ignoring those instructions, never mind the parental injunction to look both ways before crossing the street. Pressing the button activates a beeping signal that takes effect when traffic has (at least in theory) stopped and it should be safe to cross. Exhibit B offers extensive written instructions, complete with graphics and accompanying sound effects—when you push the button, a synthetic voice says “Wait!” and, when the walking-person icon is displayed, a rapid ticking is broadcast, lasting until the “time remaining” numbers replace the icon. Two clues to the mystery of Exhibit C are (1) the lower button conforms to the standard distance-from-ground specifications of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) ( and (2) pressing the upper button does not activate any noise-making mechanism (whereas pressing the lower button does).

While government-sponsored formal instructions such as these for traversing a street on foot are historically relatively recent, those for dancing go back at least to the late 1500s, where “dance” referred specifically to European courtly dance. Bloch and von Wartburg tell us in their Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française that the verb danser—whence English dance—comes originally from the north of France and referred to “elegant dance, of good society [belle société],” while terms descended from the Late Latin verb ballāre—whence ballet and Spanish bailar ‘to dance’—referred to “more popular forms of dance.” Noting that danser is etymologically of Germanic origin, Bloch and Wartburg remark that terms referring to dance are often borrowed from other languages because dance is strongly subject to fashion, to which the Larousse étymologique adds that with dances of the descendents of the Roman Empire [dances romaines] having been proscribed by the Christian Church, dance must have been reintroduced by Germanic people.

One of the earliest how-to manuals of courtly dance instruction is Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie (, first published (posthumously) in 1589 and which the preface to its 1948 English translation aptly characterizes as “…deal[ing] with what we should call today the ballroom dances of the period, considered by Arbeau and his pupil, Capriol, to be an essential part of the education of every well-bred young man.” (Thoinot Arbeau is actually an anagram of the author’s real name, Jehan Tabourot, a member of the clergy in the north-eastern French commune of Langres, who seems to have written the Orchésographie essentially for his own amusement, never seeking to have it published.)

The book is a dialog between Capriol and his teacher, Arbeau. Capriol has come to the realization that in order to be successful in affairs of the heart, he needs to learn how to dance, and Arbeau tells him he has come to the right place, elaborating that learning to dance is a good way for prospective mates to check each other out: “for these dances are practiced to reveal if lovers are healthy and their limbs are fully functional [dispos], at the end of which they can kiss their lady loves [maistresses], so that they can smell each other and be smelled, to see if they have bad breath or if they smell bad, like a shoulder of mutton: so, besides whatever other of the many pleasurable aspects [commoditez] arising from dance, it turns out to be necessary for well ordering of society.”

Arbeau goes on to distinguish between two forms of dance: dance guerrière and dance recréative, the former being what today would be called in French exercice militaire and, in English, close-order drill. Arbeau’s discussion of dance guerrière is chiefly concerned with rhythm and the musicality involved in marching—apparently, military music had yet to be thought of as an oxymoron. The modern-day analog would be an approach to teaching the “Virginia Reel” that proceeded from an exploration of jody calls (in which a marching cadence is supplied vocally, as, e.g., I hád a wífe and I léft hér/léft [´] léft [´], the canonical example being the call-and-response “Duckworth Chant”

Once Capriol has a firm grasp on the notion of left and right and how to match the corresponding feet with a metrical beat, Arbeau moves on to describe how to perform several kinds of courtly dance, describing the dancer’s positions and moves, sometimes with accompanying graphics
and sometimes with the instructions aligned with the music:
Finally, mindful that a new dancer will inevitably have a hard time remembering even the simplest dance routine, Arbeau provides rudimentary shorthand “memoranda” [memoires des mouvementz] for dances (or parts thereof) consisting of the initial letters of the names of the steps/figures as needed. It was not until a century later as the inventory of court dances had grown and become more elaborate that more detailed methods of dance notation began to appear. One of these—Beauchamp-Feuillet notation—will be the subject of our next viabrevis posting, “Best Foot Forward.”