Dancing the lewd La Volta

Dancing, wrote Philip Stubbes in 1583, is altogether a “horrible vice”. In his infamous work The Anatomie of Abuses, Stubbes protested, “what clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smouching and slabbering of one another: what filthy groping and unclean handling is not practised everywhere in these dancings”. For dancing “provoketh lust, and the fires of lust, [which] once conceived…burst forth into the open action of whoredom and fornication”.

An Elizabethan country dance probably was a good excuse to take certain liberties with the opposite sex. However, I imagine that very near the top of Stubbe’s mental list of dances to be banned was the la volta. Also known as the volta or lavolta, this dance, which is believed to have originated in either Italy or the medieval Provençal courts, was introduced in Paris in around 1556 by Catherine de Medici. Like all French fashions, it made its way across the English Channel soon enough, quickly becoming a hit with the Elizabethan court.

What made the la volta different from most court dances was its bawdy nature. Contemporary critics (often strict Puritans like Stubbes) raged at its alleged indecency. The la volta required highly intimate contact between two partners of the opposite sex. It eschewed most of the stately parading which characterised the pavane and similar fashionable dances, instead consisting of an intricate series of quick steps and leaps. A guide to the dance advised that “if you wish to dance the la volta…you must place your right hand on the damsel’s back, and the left below her bust, and, by pushing her with your right thigh beneath her buttocks, turn her”.

A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along
A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along

Small wonder, then, that the lavolta was swiftly condemned throughout Europe among certain circles. In his 1592 work, Ein Gottseliger Tractat von dem ungottseligen Tantz (‘A Godly Treatise on the Ungodly Dance’), Johann von Münster fumed that even kings were promoting the wicked dance:

“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.”

A century later, another German, Johannes Praetorius, condemned the la volta in his book on the practices of witchcraft, Blockes-Berges Verrichtung. He wrote:

“A new galliard, the volta [is] a foreign dance in which they seize each other in lewd places and which was brought to France by conjurors from Italy…[It is] a whirling dance full of scandalous, beastly gestures and immodest movements…[The volta] is also responsible for the misfortune that innumerable murders and miscarriages are brought about by it”.

Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school
Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school

One critic of the dance went so far as to call for forcible state intervention, saying that “the volta should really be looked into by a well-ordered police force and most strictly forbidden”. Yet unfortunately for its detractors, the la volta remained in fashion until the second half of the 17th century. According to some historians, the la volta was actually the precursor of the waltz, a dance which would shock Europe in the later 18th century. If they are right, then perhaps the la volta lives on to this day, although its scandalous nature has been so diluted that the waltz seems an innocent and old-fashioned dance. Of which more in my next post…

On a final note: for the most accurate recreations of the la volta we have to turn to modern re-enactment; the first video below is a beautifully executed la volta, performed in the hall of Ightham Mote in Kent. The dance has also featured in period films and television series, with less success. Directors tend to take advantage of the la volta’s highly intimate nature in order to help ramp up sexual tension, but they lose the dance’s lively, spirited character.

The second video below, a clip from the 1998 film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, recreates an actual event when the queen danced the la volta with her court favourite, Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester). The dance is not very accurate; it leaves out the most indecent parts, for one thing. It is, however, certainly more accurate than the dance in the following extract from The Tudors, which, despite its claims, is not a la volta at all. Rather, it is some dance designed solely as a showpiece for Anne Boleyn in her attempts to seduce the king – which, judging by Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ expression, seem to be proceeding very well.

Further Reading

Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (originally published 1583, this edition 1836)

Drunken church bell ringing, then and now?

To hear church bells ringing continuously for as long as half an hour, several evenings a week, is no surprise if you live in central Oxford as I do, so I was particularly amused at something I read about today. In 1797 a book called Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth was published by the Earl of Orford. It was a translation of a travel account written around 1600 by Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who set out on a 3-year European tour with his protege, a young Silesian nobleman. Hentzner remarked that the English “are vastly fond of great noises that fill the air, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that in London it is common for a number of them, when drunk, to go up into some belfry and ring the bells for hours altogether”.

I can only trust that the bell-ringers in central Oxford are law-abiding citizens who live a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’ according to the dictates of the Book of Common Prayer, though as it’s now approaching the end of exams, one does wonder whether some drunken students might have taken it upon themselves to resurrect this old tradition…

No, this isn't Oxford. But it's a nice painting. ~ Bernhard Stange, Das Abendläuten, 1880 ~
No, this isn’t Oxford. But it’s a nice painting. ~ Bernhard Stange, Das Abendläuten, 1880 ~