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Dancing in Westeros

Dancing is a natural part of court roleplay and this article attempts to give a good sense of what sort of dancing nobles in Westeros would practice.

Dance as is understood in the 21st century – and through our research into the medieval and early Renaissance period – can be dramatically different than the dance actually practiced in the medieval time period. Additionally, when comparing it with a fictional setting such as Westeros, there’s always a little authorial adjustment that goes on to fit real-world history with the author’s desires for their setting. Subsequently, we have historical record – and in the case of dance during the early medieval period, often that historical record is vague.

Dance seems to have been divided dominantly into round dances and line dances. Close-hold dances such as the waltz were late developments (even for married couples, this could be considered too much of a display of public affection, and far too intimate). Dances involving partners could raise eyebrows; gossip could be quick to follow if a lady danced more than once with any man who was not her husband, father or brother. Gossip certainly would haunt her steps if she partnered an unrelated man more than twice or thrice-even if it was in a formation dance with a half-dozen other couples!

We are aware that young ladies and men alike of noble upbringing are expected to know how to dance (Arya laments at Sansa’s number of abilities including dance; Forel is engaged as a dance teacher and Sansa never bats an eye; and such events as wedding feasts cite dancing amongst the nobles); it is likely that smallfolk are also versed in dance, albeit more closely to village or folk dances.

Linked Formation Dances

Linked formation dances were not necessarily mixed gender; a line or circle dance could be performed by only men, only women, or a mix of both and would follow set steps. Frequently there was a minimum required number of participants for the larger dances (four is a fairly common number, though some dances could require eight or more participants), and they would be paired. Often the dancers would switch partners, before returning to their original pairing. Physical contact was not necessary, and may be limited to gripping elbows, holding hands and stepping sideways, or pressing hands together at a height and moving (forward, backward, side to side or in a circle).

Formations included lines, winding chains, and open and closed circles, serpentine forms, and ‘threading the needle’ (two lines are formed, and partners link hands overhead, one pair at a time moving beneath the archway and progressing) and multiple combinations thereof. Participants tended to stay on the ground, but for small hops/jumps, in formal dance.

Couples Dances

Couples dances appeared in the 1500s and would become popular in some countries (such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and preferred over the linked formation dances. Most formal dance events in Westeros seem to hew closer to formation dances, so any couples/exclusive partner dances would be looked on as highly risque and perhaps only suitable for more intimate gatherings - possibly even as an act of courtship. Close-hold would still be non-existent, however. Partners might touch hands, might possibly even assist in a brief lift, but that would be it.

Informal Dances

In A Clash of Kings we are given a handful of more informal dances, and references to them; one scene references a man seizing a serving girl by the arm, whirling her and tossing her into the air. A second scene compares a combat scene to lovers at a harvest dance, “the riders throwing steel in place of kisses”. Clearly these are much more informal dances, with little of the formation and established sets that the more formal events would possess.

Mummers are also known to sing and dance; this would ostensibly be, again, of the more informal sort.

Dorne

The Dornish spear dance may bear some resemblance to the Morris dance, whose own origins are heavily debated (Morris may be tied to Moorish, or comes from the Moresca pageant which featured swords). Dornish court dances would be broadly similar to those danced elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, but may be infused with elements reminiscent of Moorish or Spanish folk dance: staccato rhythms and movements, the use of castanets and finger-cymbals, and so on.

Belly dance (and the clothing to go with it) as we know it today is a modern invention of the 20th century, though it is drawn from older traditional dances. However, such dances would very much be a folk practice, done by common women or women of low repute and not something taught or practiced at court.

Iron Islands

The “finger dance” is more a throwing-game, where participants hurl axes at one another, and attempt to either catch them or jump over the spinning blades, “without missing a step”; ostensibly the participants may dance in some fashion while throwing the blades back and forth.

Any other dancing would likely take a more ‘maritime’ feel with drums, flute and fiddle; possibly also dance influenced by the Morris Dance

Additional References