Reading Italian Dances If You Don't Read Italian

This article and the next two may be of some benefit in reconstructing dance from the Italian. The articles are by Urraca Yriarte de Gamboa, OL (Mary Peralta Railing), and appeared in the proceedings of the 3rd Known World Dance Symposium in the Barony of Carolingia (Boston, MA, USA).


Translating dance treatises is not like translating literature. The material has a very limited vocabulary and a formulaic structure, and the goal is not to create a perfect translation of every subtlety of mood and tense, but simply to generate an understandable list of instructions.


Caroso and Negri wrote in something pretty close to modern Italian, with some variant verb forms, archaic or specialized words and different (or just unproofed) spelling. Most words will be in any modern Italian dictionary. (There is a facsimile of an Italian-English dictionary contemporary with the treatises: John Florio, Queen Anna's New World of Words 1611) If you can read modern Italian, all you need is to get used to the spelling and be able to recognise dance terms when you come to them. If you've had enough Spanish or French to figure out that "d'" is some form of "of" and "l'" is some form of "the" you will find a lot that is already familiar to you.


Basics of Romance Languages

Italian, like other Romance languages, normally puts adjectives after nouns and requires adjectives and articles to agree with the number and gramatical gender of the noun. What is unusual is that there are no plurals with "s". Masculine singular is usually "-o" with a plural "-i", thus: "un passo presto" and "due passi presti". Feminine singular is usually "-a" with a plural "-e", thus: "una ripresa minima" and "due riprese minime". (Recognising "dame" as a plural can take some getting used to.)



There are some spelling quirks to watch out for: the tall "s" , ß and various "s" ligatures in addition to the normal "s". "V" and "u" are interchangable. "V" is used at the beginning of a word for both sounds, and "u" is used elsewhere for both. At the end of a word "ij" is used for "ii". The most common occurance of this is the plural of "ordinario" spelled "ordinarij".



Contractions are indicated by an apostrophe. There are standard contractions, such as "d'" and places where the printer ran out of space and made up a contraction (like in English using "nat'l" for "national). Another form of contraction is the tilde ~. Unlike Spanish, this is not a separate sound. It indicates the omission of an "n" or "m" such as "i~anzi" for "innanzi".


Sentence structure

Nouns are capitalized even in the middle of a sentence. Sentences tend to run on and on, in part because Caroso used punctuation to help align the steps to the music. Commas are used randomly, but colons and semicolons indicate ends of strains of the music. Watch out for repeated instructions though. Sometimes Caroso describes a sequence ending with a ";" and then describes it again, ending with another ";". If you use punctuation to count strains of music you may accidentally count the same strain twice in such a case.


Book Structure

Caroso and Negri's books follow the same basic structure. Rules for dancing are defined in one section, then there is a section of choreographies. Each choreography is dedicated to a noble lady and preceeded by a poem in her honor. Ignore the poems. They have nothing to do with the dances. The heading gives the kind of dance (ballo, balletto, cascarda), the name of the dance in large letters, sometimes the choreographer (not all the dances are by Caroso or Negri), and the dedication. The dedication can be skipped. It will say something like, "in praise of the most serene, most " -issima" Lady Such and Such, Duchess of Wherever." If the dance is labled "d'incerto" that means "of uncertain origin" "anonymous".



Each paragraph of the choreography equals one playing of the music. All but the first paragraph will begin with a phrase like "Nel segundo Tempo" (In the second time). "Tempo" here means "time through the music." The first paragraph will begin by describing the starting position of the dance, such as "one man and one lady facing," ending with a phrase meaning "as in the picture" So just look at the picture that goes with the dace. If there is a section in a different tempo, there will be a heading to mark the shift-- "Schiolta in Gagliarda" or whatever. There can be two or more Schiolte.



After the choreography is the music. Sometimes just in lute tabulature, sometimes with a one or two-part notation. For more information on the music read chapters 6 and 7 of Julia Sutton's translation of Caroso's second book, Nobilta di Dame. (While you're at it, read all the introductory chapters for a professional overview of the problems of translation.) For the purpose of working out the choreography you just need to count measures. These dances are much more regular than the dances of the previous century. The measures should count out to 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, or 24. If you get something like 9 it's because the music begins on the upbeat, and there is a half measure at each end of an 8 measure strain. Also look for repeat signs (:). Of course if you are going to be dancing to a piece of commercially recorded music, you can just listen to the recording and count measures.


The Method

Pick a dance. Xerox it out of the book, or download the text from the web, but have it on paper. Get some highlighters and other paper to take notes on. You recognise the names of Italian dance steps, right? If you want to compare the definitions of "Seguito ordinario" in the original texts, more power to you, but for right now lets assume that you know that Seguito ordinario is the name of a step and have some idea how to do it.

Highlight all the names of steps in the first paragraph.

Refer to "Italian Grammar in a Nutshell"



You will probably only need 1 to 4. Look for a number in front of each step you highlighted. Write the numeral over the word for the number. Instead of just a number you might find "un'altra" which means "another”.


Left and right

Do you know the words for left and right in heraldry? Look for a phrase like "a la sinistra" (to the left) or "a la destra" (to the right) after each step name. Other phrases using "sinistra" or "destra" include "al fianco sinistro" (to the left flank), "alla man sinistra" (to the left hand), "col pie` sinistro" (with the left foot). Highlight these. (you may use a different color.) "Forward" (innanzi) and "back" (indrieto) are less obvious in meaning. Look for these words and highlight them. You may now have translated some fairly long phrases, such as "due Passi gravi innanzi col pie sinistro" (two Passi gravi forward with the left foot).


So far, so good

The instructions for which way to go with a step may be considerably more complicated than this, but take a moment to see how much of the paragraph you've already highlighted. You should have enough to start charting out the first verse.



On a separate sheet of paper make a table like this:






Riverenza grave

(see picture)


2 Continenze

left & right


2 Passi grave

with the left


1 Seguito ordinario


Counting time

Count up the beats. Does the total match the number of measures in one playing of the music? It probably won't. Now you need to look for indications of repeated steps or solos. Key phrases for spotting repeats are "il medesimo" (the same thing) and "per contrario" (to the opposite way, side, foot, etc.). Yes, an instruction to do the same thing to the opposite side does leave open the question of how much of the previously given instructions are to be repeated. Sometimes this remains genuinely ambiguous. Usually a logical solution can be found. For example, in the above chart if "1 Seguito ordinario" were followed by "& il medisimo per contrario," and you knew you had a 16 beat strain to fill, it would make sense to repeat both the 2 Passi gravi and the 1 Seguito ordinario (starting with the right foot) to make 16 beats. Sometimes the author will repeat an instruction to clarify it. A phrase beginning with "cioè" (that is to say) is a re-phrasing of something already said. If you previously counted steps in such a phrase as part of your table of steps in the verse, you may have too many steps and have to adjust.


Other words to note

The word for solo is "solo." The word for lady is "Dama." The word for man is "Huomo" or "Cavaliere." So "il Huomo solo" (the man solo) does such-and-such, usually followed by "la Dama solo" does the same thing. When they are moving together again, the text will say something like "they both (ambedue/amendue) do such-and-such," or they do together (insieme) such-and-such." Adjust your table to show any steps that are repeated either together or solo. With any luck, the total number of beats in your table now matches the number of beats in a verse of the music.



Have you noticed how far we have gotten without discussing verbs? In the Rules for steps a lot of different verbs are used to convey the effect of each step, but in the choreographies most of the verbs are some form of "fare" (to do, to make). Of course it is an irregular verb. Moreover, Caroso loves to use perfected tenses, like "ha fatto" (they have done).


Verb tenses

Don't sweat the verb tenses. Concentrate on recognising whether a verb is singular or plural. (See “Italian Grammer in a Nutshell") This can help you recognise solos. Another verb form that can be helpful to distinguish is the present participle (the -ing in English) It is formed by adding "-ando" or "-endo," such as, "passando" (passing). Italian uses lots of reflexive verbs. Commonest in this context are the verbs for taking and releasing hands. "Lasciandosi" (letting go of each other), or "Pigliandosi la mano destra" literally, "clasping each other the right hand" (clasping right hands). Note that where English says "right hands" Italian says "the right hand." If the text ever says to take "mani" (plural) people are taking both hands. "Mano ordinario" means the woman's left hand in the man's right.



When you are sure you have the right number of steps, then you can flesh out the figures. The hardest part is understanding where people are one the floor. Turning is tricky. "Tornare" does not mean "to turn". It means "to return, to recur". "Voltare" means "to turn", but "volta" can often mean "a turn" in the sense of "another time". Usually a direction to turn will consist of an instruction to do something "atorno" or "intorno". I've never been sure whether these are two different kinds of turning. At times I've thought that Caroso used "atorno" for "around" in a way that travels (like "around the circle") and "intorno" for "around in place". Turning "to the right" seems to mean "clockwise", even in cases where in English we would say "circling to the left". Likewise, turning to the left is counter-clockwise.



"Fiancheggiati" is translated as "flanking". It is some sort of diagonal motion, how much is open to question. It is supposed to be a fencing term, and my impression of renaissance fencing is that it was not with the body edge on, but only slightly turned. Occasionally one is instructed to do something with the left or right flank inward. This I interpret as turning so that one's shoulders are pointing toward each other and moving sideways, as in modern fencing.


The Hall

Caroso uses "capo" "head" to mean either end of the hall. Negri distinguishes a head and a foot of the hall.



There will be times when you are sure you understand every word in a sentence, yet you still aren't sure what you are being told to do, or you just can't make the instructions fit the music. This can happen even in English language sources. Sometimes the instructions just aren't clear. Sometimes there are omissions or typos. At that point you just have to get out on the floor and try various interpretations til you come up with a "best guess" solution.