Washerwoman's Branle

Music educators strive to help their students understand the underlying structure of musical form. Young musicians can perform more successfully, listen more acutely, and create more cohesively when they understand the framework behind the music. The vocabulary of form can seem daunting: Phrase and period length and symmetry; antecedent and consequent, parallel and contrasting phrases; motifs, sequences, and recapitulations. Long before students are ready to understand these abstract concepts through verbal analysis, they are ready to understand and express them through movement.

The Library of Congress’s An American Ballroom Companion, an extensive online collection of over 200 dance manuals, is augmented with a video directory of 75 steps and dances. These historic movement patterns invite students to analyze elements of form through physical, as well as verbal, expression.

The Washerwomen’s Branle was described in Arbeau’s Orchesographie in 1588. Though it’s possible to study the notation and learn the dance, the instructional video, produced at the Library of Congress in 1998, makes the process much easier.

Start by listening to the music and examining Arbeau’s original dance notation. Prompt students to reflect: How do they imagine people would move when dancing to this piece? Do they hear parts that should look the same, or parts that should look different? Rather than discussing students’ observations and predictions verbally, explore these questions through creative movement: Invite students to invent original dances to express their observations and predictions. Over a period of rehearsal, students will refine their ideas, be inspired by peers, and prepare to present their ideas to the class.

Then, share the dance with students through the video or in-class demonstration. Do students notice some moments where the dancers move in similar ways? When do the dancers move together, and when do they move differently? How does the dance compare to the students’ predictions through creative movement?

Extend students’ learning by dancing the Washerwomen’s Branle to other classroom songs and rhymes. Engine, Engine Number Nine fits nicely, as does You Turn, I Turn, first collected by John Lomax and archived at the Library of Congress . Students may even wish to try the dance with songs they’ve learned at home or heard through the media. Why do some songs and rhymes fit the dance better than others? What can we learn about form by experimenting with different song and dance pairings?

For students that are ready to work independently, try challenging small groups of students to learn a different dance from the collection. Students can share their analysis of the form in three ways: original movement to the music, a faithful rendition of the historic dance, and the historic movements applied to a contemporary song.

When students can understand, analyze, and express ideas about form physically, the formal teaching of the concept becomes a matter of labeling an idea the students’ bodies and ears already know.

To learn more, check out my Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.