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Home >Writings & Research > Masculinity & Dancing > Introduction



'What is thy excellence in a galliard, knight?'
Masculinity and Dancing in Early Modern England

by E. F. Winerock

23 April 2003
'Thames at Richmond' painting
The Thames at Richmond, with the Old Royal Palace (detail of the Morris Dancers),
Flemish School, c.1620, (Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge)


In 1600, William Kemp performed the impressive feat of dancing a Morris dance all the way from London to Norwich over the course of nine, non-consecutive days. In his own account of the journey, Kemps nine daies wonder, performed in a daunce from London to Norwich, the famous Shakespeare clown and master of the jig described the various people who joined him along the way:

There was a butcher, for instance, a 'lusty tall fellow' who set out sturdily enough to accompany him from Sudbury to Bury but was forced to admit defeat 'ever we had measur'd halfe a mile' and a 'lusty Country lasse' who berated the butcher for a 'faint hearted lout, 'tucked up her russet petticoat, garnished 'her thicke short legs' with a 'leash' of Kemp's bells, and 'shooke her fat sides and footed it merrily to Melford a long myle. [1]

While this story compliments the 'lusty country lass,' a woman outdancing a 'lusty tall fellow' calls the man's strength, courage, and masculinity into question. Less physically 'lusty' than a woman, the butcher is mocked as a 'faint hearted lout' and his perpetual shame is ensured by Kemp's printing of the account. Moreover, since the author dances for many more miles than even the country lass, Kemp's own virility is implicitly stressed and magnified.

In the twenty-first century, dancing may be considered, if not effeminate, at least as an activity in which women are more interested and more likely to excel. [2] For men in early modern England, however, proficiency in dancing was expected and often required. There were specific dances primarily performed by or associated with men. In addition to the country Morris dance mentioned above and sword dances, the galliard, although generally performed as a couple, was the dance showpiece for men at court. [3]

But dancing was not always encouraged and even its supporters recognised that certain situations made men's dancing inappropriate or emasculating. In this paper I will explore the range of views expressed about men dancing in early modern England and analyse the contexts and conditions that affected these views. By examining contemporary discussions and allusions to dancing and masculinity in dramatic literature, conduct manuals, defences of dancing, and antidance treatises, I will argue that dancing was an integral, if contested, component of masculinity in early modern England. I will also briefly outline several of the recent debates on masculinity that are of particular relevance to dancing.

In Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), Thomas Laqueur presents his controversial one-sex body theory where the female body is considered an inside out or imperfect version of the male body. He argues that in early modern England, given the right (or wrong) conditions, it was possible for a man to turn into a woman or visa-versa, making the designation of male and female unstable and a source of anxiety. [comment on sex as flexible and gender as permanent....] [4] Yet, as Karen Harvey points out in 'The Substance of Sexual Difference: Change and Persistence in Representations of the Body in 18th-Century England', Laqueur's primary sources are early modern medical treatises, which rely heavily on Roman works and are targeted at a very narrow readership. [5] Early modern conduct manuals are aimed at a much wider audience and offer a rather different view of male and female bodies. There were clear delineations in choreography and movement styles of for women and men. Conduct manual writers warned that dancing in the wrong way could make a man look womanish or visa-versa, but they were concerned with the perception of masculinity, not with the corporal instability in Laquer's argument. As Elizabeth Foyster writes in Manhood in Early Modern England: Honour, Sex and Marriage (1999), 'Honourable manhood depended on the opinions of others.' [6]

As much of the recent work on slander reveals, maintaining the good opinion of others was both critical and difficult, and some of the issues surrounding dancing and masculinity are also seen in slander cases. In Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (1996), Laura Gowing notes that men's sexuality was generally referred to in terms of power over women or lack thereof; the most frequent insults either charging a man with too much mastery over women as in 'whoremaster' and 'whoremonger' or too little, 'cuckold.' [7] Homosexuality is almost never mentioned. [8] Instead, as Alex Shepard contends in her forthcoming book, The Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, 'Male preoccupations in slanderous exchanges were often a direct product of contests over rank and status, to which patriarchal concepts of manhood were firmly harnessed.' [9] Delineating and maintaining rank and status was one of the central concerns in writings about dance. Moreover, the 'competitive assertion of position' that fuelled slander litigation between men could also manifest itself in competitive dancing.

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[1] M. Pennino-Baskerville, 'Terpsichore Reviled: Andidance Tracts in Elizabethan England' in Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 22, Issue 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 475-476.

[2] M. Stephens, 'Fear of Dancing: Movement, Bodily Display, and the Practice of Restraint' in Bad Subjects, Issue 59 (February, 2002).

[3] J. Forrest, 'Morris Dance,' Vol. 4, pp. 473-475 and J. Sutton, 'Galliard,' Vol. 3, pp. 106-111 in S. J. Cohen (ed.) International Encyclopedia of Dance: A project of Dance Perspectives Foundation, Inc. (New York, 1998).

[4] T. Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990).

[5] K. Harvey, 'The Substance of Sexual Difference: Change and Persistence in Representations of the Body in 18th-Century England' in Gender and History, Vol. 14, Issue 2 (2002).

[6] E. Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England: Honour, Sex and Marriage (London, 1999), p. 198.

[7] L. Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996), pp. 61-63.

[8] ibid., p. 65. Also see A. Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London, 1988).

[9] A. Shepard, The Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, forthcoming 2003), p. 135.

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Copyright 1999-2013 E. F. Winerock
Updated 13 March, 2013