La volta (or volte or volt or, in England, lavolta) was reputedly the favourite dance of Queen Elizabeth I, performed by couples with much leaping, lifting and turning. The dance, a variation of the galliard, was considered scandalous by the moralists of the day. Just as today we hear talk of ‘gateway drugs’ leading to harder and more destructive substances, la volta was considered a ‘gateway dance’, leading to more destructive vices. This article describes the key point of the choreography, discusses the moral opprobium it attracted, and weighs up the evidence for the Queen dancing this “lewd and unchaste dance”.
We begin with a performance of two voltas by The Night Watch.
The church on dance: vice or virtue?
To understand the vexed issues around dance in the renaissance, and the moral panic over la volta in particular, we must first understand that the chief social force in the renaissance was the church, and the church has always had mixed views on dance.
The Bible, the chief source of information about faith for renaissance Protestants, describes dance positively, as a normal part of life and a way of praising God. A few examples among many include:
- “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.” ~ Exodus 15: 20
- “Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful … Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well.” ~ Jeremiah 31: 4, 13
- “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.” ~ Psalm 149: 3
- “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to mourn, and a time to dance” ~ Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 4
- “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.” ~ Luke 15: 25
Puritans, the ultra-Protestants of the renaissance and baroque periods, selected parts of the Bible which cast a sinful shadow over dancing.
- The Israelites’ idolatrous dancing before the golden calf, provoking Moses’ anger such that he broke the tablets on which the 10 Commandments were written. ~ Exodus 32: 19 (in which the sin really is idolatry, not dance).
- Salome’s dance before Herod, which caused him such pleasure that he granted her any wish. Prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. ~ Mark 6: 14-27; Matthew 14: 1-12; Luke 9: 9 (in which the sin is the murder of John, not Salome’s dancing).
- Saint Paul’s words in Galatians 5: 19, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality”, were taken by religious censors to mean, among other things, dancing (though Paul makes no reference to dance).
Some renaissance and baroque clergy were all for dancing. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of religious men also known as the Jesuits, considered dance to be so important that, in the 17th century, it was integral to the curriculum in their Parisian boys’ school, Louis le Grand. Their reasoning was the same as that of French cleric Jehan Tabourot, who wrote the dance manual, Orchésographie, in 1588, published in 1589 under an anagrammatic pseudonym, Thoinot Arbeau. (There is an article about Orchésographie here). In Orchésographie, Tabourot gives a spirited defence of dancing, citing classical Greece and Rome, contemporary church practice and Jesus himself. He explains the social importance of dance in the following way: “naturally the male and female seek one another and nothing does more to stimulate a man to acts of courtesy, honour, and generosity than love. And if you desire to marry you must realise that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing … And there is more to it than this, for dancing is practised to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savour one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odour as of bad meat. Therefore from this standpoint, quite apart from the many other advantages to be derived from dancing, it becomes an essential in a well-ordered society.” (1)
For some religious moralists in the renaissance, any dance was a vice for the very reason Tabourot considered it a virtue. Francesco Petrarch, one of the 14th century founders of the Italian renaissance, thought that dancing necessarily leads to immorality. Juan Luis Vives, a 16th century Spanish scholar who lived in the Netherlands, wrote Instruction of a Christian Woman, in which he expressed the view that even observing dancing is unchaste. English cleric, John Northbrooke, in his A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes, with Other Idle Pastimes, 1577, described dancing as “the vilest vice of all, and truly it cannot easily be saide what mischiefes the sight and the hearing do recieve hereby … They daunce with disordinate gestures, and with monstrous thumping of the feet, to pleasant soundes, to wanton songs, to dishonest verses: maydens and matrones are groped and handled with unchast handes, and kissed and dishonestly embraced … an exercise not descended from heaven, but by the devilles of hell devised to the injuire of the Divinitie.” (2)
Foremost among renaissance dance-disapprovers was Philip Stubbes who, in 1583, published his The Anatomie of Abuses. Stubbes did not wish to ban dancing altogether, but have it so that women dance only with women, and men only with men, “Because otherwise it provoketh lust, and stirreth up concupiscence, and the fire of lust once conceived (by some irruption or other) bursteth foorth into open action of Whoredome and Fornication.” He complained that mixed-sex dancing presents ungodly temptations: “And seeing mans nature is too prone of it self to sinne, it hath no need of allurementes and enticements to sinne, (as Dauncing is) but rather of restraintes and inhibitions to stay him from the same, which are not there to be found. For what clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smouching & slabbering of one another? what filthy groping & unclean handling is not practised everywhere in these dauncings?” The Anatomie of Abuses proclaims that in dance we see just how corrupt society is, since dance is both the social glue of Elizabethan society and the road to perdition: “Every leap or skip in daunce, is a leap toward hel. Yet notwithstanding, in England it is counted a vertue, & an ornament to man, yea, and the only way to attaine to promotion and advancement, as experience teacheth.” (3)
Crispijn van de Passe’s engraving, De vijf dwaze maagden dansen en musiceren (The five foolish virgins dance and make music), 1589–1611, after Martin de Vos, shown above, illustrates renaissance and baroque biblical retelling. In Jesus’ parable, Matthew 25: 1-13, there are ten virgins, five of whom are prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, five of whom are not. All ten virgins have lamps, the wise ones with oil, the foolish ones without. The bridegroom arrives at midnight, a metaphor for Jesus’ return. The wise virgins are ready with oils and lamps and so can see, and they are accepted by the bridegroom, Jesus; the foolish virgins are unprepared and, without lamp oil, cannot see, and they are rejected. In the engraving above, the story has been changed so that it is making music and dancing the galliard or la volta – the image could show either – that renders the foolish unready for Christ’s return and prone to the fleshly desires illustrated by the couple centre right. The Latin words under the illustration say: “Where no light shines, the darkness exists there, it is certain. Pursuing the lust of the flesh without doubt disregards the rules of God: Accordingly, they are deprived of sacred light and oil.”
Another English Puritan, William Prynne, published Historiomastix in 1632, in which he rails against the evils of his age, chiefly stage plays, but he also includes large dollops of disapproval of dance. He marshals his arguments by cataloguing early church councils which forbad dance, including:
- Concilium Laodicenum, AD 364, attended by most Asian bishops: “Christians going to weddings ought neither wantonly to sing, nor yet to dance; but to suppe or dine soberly as become Christians”.
- Concilium Carthaginense, AD 401, condemned church ministers who “delight in filthy jests, or sing or dance pubclikely”.
- Concilium Africanum, AD 408, attended by such luminaries as Saint Augustine, described dance as “wicked”, since “the modesty of innumerable women devoutly coming to the most holy day, is assaulted with lascivious injuries”.
- The Council of Carthage, AD 419, demanded that clergy do not attend weddings where “amorous and filthy things are sung, or where obscene motions of the body are expressed in rounds or dances”. (4)
La volta: “they seize each other in lewd places”
Against this backdrop of vehement disapproval of dance on religious and moral grounds, and enthusiastic participation by others, la volta was introduced to the French court circa 1556 by Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 by her marriage to King Henry II. From there, it travelled to England.
While not agreeing with Christian fundamentalists, renaissance dancers were nevertheless aware of their moral compass and were keen to tread on the correct side of social propriety: thus male and female dancing partners kept a respectable physical distance between them, touching only the palms of each others’ hands. La volta changed this, not only breaching the decent distance between couples, but making energetic bodily contact.
The foundational step of la volta is the galliard, the cinque-pas or five-step, counted 1 2 3 4 _ 6 since, on the fifth of the six beats, the dancer has sprung himself or herself into the air. The scandal of la volta was in the particular method by which the female dancer was sprung, assisted by her male partner. La volta is Italian for the turn, which partially describes the movement. Jehan Tabourot, writing as Thoinot Arbeau in Orchésographie, 1589, described it thus:
“When you wish to turn, release the damsel’s left hand and throw your left arm around her, grasping and holding her firmly by the waist above the right hip with your left hand. At the same moment, place your right hand below her busk to help her to leap when you push her forward with your left thigh. She, for her part, will place her right hand on your back or collar with her left hand on her thigh to hold her petticoat and dress in place, lest the swirling air should catch them and reveal her chemise or bare thigh. This done, you will perform the turns of la volta together as described above.” (5)
To understand just how scandalous this was, we need to understand the standard public decorum of men and women keeping their distance in dancing, save for the touching palms, and to understand what a busk was, the part of women’s underclothing grasped by her male partner.
As we see in the engraving above, fashionable women of the 16th and 17th century, the period of la volta’s popularity, showed their wealth and status by wearing layer upon layer of clothing, completely changing the shape of the female form. The lower half was hugely exaggerated in size with underskirt farthingales (in various forms, including wooden hoops by the 1590s) and rolls of cloth at the back, bum rolls (now called a bustle) to create rounded hips. In contrast, the upper body was restricted to reduce it in size, achieved with a tight corset stiffened by a busk. A busk, seen on the left, was a long, carved and decorated piece of wood, ivory or bone, slipped into a pocket in the corset and tied in place with lace, with the effect that the corset was kept tight, straight and upright. The bottom end of the busk also had the effect of pushing the farthingale backwards, creating an even more exaggerated billow at the back of the skirt.
Thus, when the male dancer places his “right hand below her busk to help her to leap when [he] push[es] her forward with [his] left thigh”, he is helped practically in the movement by the compression and stiffening of the female body in her restricting clothes. In holding his partner below the busk, he is also reaching for a very intimate part of the female anatomy, as we see in the detail on the right from a 16th century anonymous French painting of a couple dancing.
La volta was too much even for dance-defender Jehan Tabourot. In Orchésographie, he considers it dangerous to decorum and physical wellbeing: “after having spun round for as many cadences as you wish, return the damsel to her place when, however brave a face she shows, she will feel her brain reeling and her head full of dizzy whirlings; and you yourself will perhaps be no better off. I leave it to you to judge whether it is a becoming thing for a young girl to take long strides and separations of the legs, and whether in this volta both honour and health are not involved and at stake.” (6)
While being popular in European courts, la volta caused scandal among religious conservatives. In Germany, Johann von Münster, in his Ein Gottseliger Tractat von dem ungottseligen Tantz (A Godly Treatise on the Ungodly Dance), 1592, was outraged that “In this dance the dancer with a leap takes the young lady – who also comes to him with a high jump to the measures of the music – and grasps her in an unseemly place … With horror I have often seen this dance at the Royal Court of King Henry III in the year 1582, and together with other honest persons have frequently been amazed that such a lewd and unchaste dance, in which the King in person was first and foremost, should be officially permitted and publicly practiced.” (7) Several decades later, in 1668, Johannes Praetorius still condemned la volta in his Blockes-Berges Verrichtung (Blocksberg Activities), a publication about the alleged gathering of witches for Satanic rites at Blocksberg, the highest of the Harz mountain range. Praetorius wrote that la volta is “a foreign dance in which they seize each other in lewd places and which was brought to France by conjurors from Italy … a whirling dance full of scandalous, beastly gestures and immodest movements … also responsible for the misfortune that innumerable murders and miscarriages are brought about by it”. (8)
Did Elizabeth I dance la volta?
Protestors against la volta could not dent its popularity from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century. Did its popularity include the English court and, in particular, the Queen? It was reputedly the favourite dance of Elizabeth I, according to many history books, history magazines and historically-set dramas. Is this claim based on any primary evidence?
Certainly, Elizabeth was a music lover and played the lute, as we see in the miniature on the right by Nicholas Hilliard, painted circa 1580. It is documented that she loved the demanding and vigorous galliard, a dance in its own right and also the underlying step sequence of la volta. In 1589, when Elizabeth was 55 years old, John Stanhope of the Privy Chamber stated that “the Queen is so well as I assure you, six or seven galliards in a morning, besides music and singing, is her ordinary exercise.” (9) Her love of the galliard is further underscored by the fact that England’s greatest lutenist, John Dowland, named one piece for the Queen, probably two, both galliards. The first, just called Galliard on folio 62 of the handwritten lute book, Dd.2.11, c. 1585–c. 1595, is given its fuller title, The Queenes Gall[iard], in Margaret Board’s handwritten lute book, c. 1620 and 1635. The title does not name Elizabeth specifically but, since Dowland was her subject and made efforts to be her court lutenist – he wasn’t appointed – she is the logical Queene of the title. The second, The most sacred Queene Elizabeth, her Galliard, was published in his son Robert’s printed book, Varietie of Lute Lessons, 1610.
But did Elizabeth really dance la volta with her favourite courtier, the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, as is repeatedly stated in modern sources? The often-cited title of the painting above would have us believe so: Queen Elizabeth I Dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. However, this painting, now at Penshurst Place in Kent, is French, associated with the Valois school, c. 1580, and the identities of the dancers are unknown. In composition, it is too much like another anonymous French painting of the 16th century to be a coincidence. This second painting is shown below, also depicting a couple dancing la volta.
When I failed to find any supporting primary evidence for Elizabeth dancing la volta with anyone, Tudor dance specialist Anne Daye told me that she also has found nothing to associate the monarch with the dance, and that we have virtually no evidence for any of the dances performed in the Elizabethan court. There are better records for the Inns of Court, where solicitors and attorneys received their basic legal instruction from lawyers before their more rigorous training in one of the associated Inns of Chancery, which were there to serve the Lord Chancellor’s office. Inns of Court were also places of entertainment, and records for the revels of 1605/6 list la volta alongside other popular dances of the period. (10) This is high society, but it is not the royal court and it is not Elizabeth and Dudley. Likewise, Tudor historian and musician Jane Moulder, founder member of renaissance band, Piva, and contributor to Tudor Life magazine, informed me she had trod this path before me, and found no evidence to associate la volta with the Queen. Jane added that Elizabeth was, of course, a political figure, and so had to be extremely circumspect about who she was seen with and what she was seen to be doing, and this included the occasions she danced in public. The Queen was already subject to suspicion and plots, and Jane said she is “absolutely sure in my own mind that she would never had danced la volta with anyone, let alone Dudley.” It clearly was danced in other European courts, as we have seen, but this is not evidence of it being danced by Elizabeth I. Indeed, there would have been good diplomatic reasons for her not to have danced it.
There are two likely explanations for the painting bearing its spurious title, the first positive, the second negative.
Firstly, Robert Dudley was recognised to be the monarch’s favourite. They had known each other since childhood and had a special bond which was obvious to other courtiers. The identities of the dancers may have been associated with Elizabeth and Robert as a mischievous way of representing their emotional closeness and intimacy through dance, la volta symbolising them, their identities superimposed on the painting by romantic wishful thinkers.
Secondly, and more likely, given the evidence, the painting may have gained its title as a way of showing how scandalous and immoral both the Queen and Dudley were in the eyes of their enemies. The daggers were out for Elizabeth and Robert individually and as a supposed couple during their own lifetimes.
Being both Protestant and a woman posed considerable problems for the Queen. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued his papal bull Regnans in Excelsis (Reigning on High), declaring Elizabeth “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime”, excommunicating her and anyone who obeyed her, thus effectively ordering her overthrow. (11) Elizabeth was subject to several assassination plots. Her advisers were keen for her to marry, since it was considered against nature for a woman to have men as subjects: if married, she would obey her husband and so a man would effectively be on the throne again. This is precisely why she strung her advisers along with bogus marital intentions for as long as she could, to appear to follow their counsel and thereby maintain her position as sole monarch. (12)
An anonymous book of 1584, The Copie of a Leter wryten by a Master of Arts of Cambrige, later called Leicester’s Commonwealth, claimed that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was an extortionist, a serial murderer (including of his own wife) and a monster with an unbridled sexual appetite. Dudley’s son died shortly before the book’s publication, and its tone is well-illustrated by its comment on the event: “The children of adulterers shall be consumed, and the seed of a wicked bed shall be rooted out.” (13) The book was Roman Catholic propaganda against Dudley’s Puritan leanings and against Elizabeth’s reign as a Protestant monarch. It was considered truth and repeated by those all too ready to believe the worst.
As an alleged couple, Elizabeth and Robert’s obvious bond was widely taken as ‘evidence’ that they were unmarried lovers and that, when Dudley had married, he was an adulterer and the Queen a fornicator. The behaviour and fate of Mother Anne Dow of Brentwood exemplifies the atmosphere of salacious gossip in the country. In June 1560, Dow repeated the rumour that Dudley had given the Queen a red petticoat. A friend commented that it wasn’t a petticoat he had given her, but a child. Dow then spread the story that the monarch was pregnant by Robert Dudley. Word reached the ears of the authorities, who arrested and tried her. In August she was jailed. Still the story spread far and wide, and 10 years later versions of the tale were still circulating, resulting in other rumour-mongers being jailed or having their ears cut off as punishment. (14)
Catholics yearned for a return of their old power, and upcoming Puritan moralists wished for new power. One way, then, to add to the symbolism of Elizabeth and Dudley as a pair of corrupt, immoral sexual deviants with no right to political or religious authority was to attach their names to a painting of a couple dancing la volta, “such a lewd and unchaste dance” in which, as we have seen, “both honour and health are … involved and at stake”, “a foreign dance in which they seize each other in lewd places … a whirling dance full of scandalous, beastly gestures and immodest movements … also responsible for the misfortune that innumerable murders and miscarriages are brought about by it”.
The story of the Queen and her favourite dancing la volta has been repeated often enough in modern times to have become unquestioningly accepted, though based on nothing but hearsay and without an understanding of the historical context, in the same way that the name of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, has became associated with the song, Greensleeves.
Nevertheless, the idea has entered the popular public image of Elizabeth, and there are several cinematic and televisual depictions of the Tudor monarch dancing a volta with Robert Dudley. None of them show the dance accurately, and modern movies in general are poor at depicting historical dance. For example, in the film of 2012, Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett as the Queen says to an invisible modern orchestra, “Play a volta!”, and they don’t, while she doesn’t dance it with Robert Dudley, played by Joseph Fiennes. To hear it not being played and see them not dancing it, click the picture below to see the video, which opens in a new window.
La volta past and present
As with so many renaissance dances, the music in sources is often not given a specific title, but simply given the name of the dance, so there are large numbers of different pieces of music just called La Volta, or Pavan, or Galliard, and so on. In manuscripts such as the Scottish Balcarres lute book of circa 1700 we see the tail end of la volta’s popularity as a musical form, several decades after it had ceased to be a popular dance. As with all music and dance, fashions change.
There is a theme common to la volta and popular dances in more modern times: the danger that dance will unleash sexual desire. Several modern writers have tried to make a connection between la volta and the waltz. There is no choreographic connection, but there is a social or moral connection in as much as the waltz was scandalous in the early 19th century due to the physical closeness of couples: a man was required to clasp his arm around a woman’s waist. The scandal of la volta could also be compared thematically to the outrage caused by disco in the early to mid 1970s. Disco was associated with sexuality and immorality – with gay clubs, with homosexual and heterosexual people mixing, with interracial mingling – causing moral panic before it became mainstream. (15) Philip Stubbes would have railed against it as “the fire of lust [which] bursteth foorth into open action of Whoredome and Fornication”.
Like the theatre (William Prynne’s chief target of censure), dance has very often been both a social binder, bringing people together, and perceived as a danger for the very same reason: physical proximity and movement brings the opportunity for lustful thoughts and actions. For this reason, to this day there remain religious communities and governments where public dance is perceived in opposing ways, either as an opportunity to sin, causing carnal offence, to be ranted about and legislated against, or as a way to celebrate, uniting people in a physically energetic and life-affirming form of pleasure.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
(1) Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesography, translated by Mary Stewart Evans with new notes by Julia Sutton and Mireille Backer (1967). New York: Dover.
(2) A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes, with Other Idle Pastimes, by John Northbrooke, Minister, from the earliest edition, about A.D. 1577, with an introduction and notes. London: reprinted for the Shakespeare Society, 1843.
(3) Margaret Jane Kidnie (1996) A critical edition of Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses. A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Arts of The University of Birmingham for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
(4) Cited in Tanya Pollard (2004) Shakespeare’s Theater: A Source Book. London: Blackwell.
(5) Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesography, translated by Mary Stewart Evans with new notes by Julia Sutton and Mireille Backer, 1967, New York: Dover.
(7) Cited in Dancing the lewd La Volta (2014).
(9) Alan Brissenden (1981) Shakespeare and the Dance. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
(10) Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 280, transcribed in D. R. Wilson, ‘Dancing in the Inns of Court’. Historical Dance. Vol. 2, 1986/7, No. 5, pp. 6–8. With thanks to Anne Daye for this reference.
(12) Alison Weir (2008) Elizabeth the Queen. London: Vintage Books.
(13) Cited in Elizabeth Jenkins (2002) Elizabeth and Leicester. London: Phoenix Press.
(14) Alison Weir (2008) Elizabeth the Queen. London: Vintage Books.
(15) Behind the velvet rope: Studio 54 revisited (2008). Broadcast 12 July 2008, BBC Radio 2.