The Branle (pronounced Bron’l, though some say Bran-lay, wrongly I think) is a medieval dance from the west and north of Europe. Bransle is an older spelling. It is also the name of the step which identifies it as either simple (samp-le as in the French), or double (doob-le). In either case the dance is done in a circle moving to the left initially for two steps closing the trailing foot to the leading one. ‘To the left. Side together, side together’ we might say. Then for the Simple ‘Right. Side together’. Or for the double ‘Right. Side together, side together’. So the difference is between one step back to the right for the simple, and two for the double.
Originally this dance was done on the toes with the feet closing but later it became only the closed step where the heels were lifted and the movement changed from a ‘side together’ to a ‘side cross behind’, in the first of the steps in either direction for the dooble, though the simple still kept side together on its movement to the right.
This dance was done for hundreds of years, even recorded into the 17th Century by Samuel Pepys describing a ball King Charless II attended. Though not exclusive to the Branles in some ways it formed the basis for collecting dances together which became the classical suite in music. This was from the 18th century onwards and used different dances from the Branle.
In one collection we have there are four Branles in succession first the Simple, then the Double, followed by the ‘Gaie’, and ending with the ‘De Bourgogne’.
Suite of Branles
In the first, the Simple, the entire dance is as written above, two steps left and one right. The second piece of music then follows with two left and two right. The third brings a change of direction from centre facing to facing left along the line of dance, with the body raised on the toes and the lead foot (left) raised. This is then slapped to the ground as the dance takes place in four steps to the left, left right, left right, ending with the left foot raised. Lastly the De Bourgogne. This is a double like the second, but instead of closing the foot on the final step to left or right, the foot is swung in front of the other leg. This gives a very light sense to the dance.
In the Branle Simple the circle moves steadily to the left, in a clockwise or daily motion. When danced in a hall with a gallery it served to allow the dancers to make secret assignations with the watchers from the gallery. Dance has always served as a source of liaisons it seems.
Once this ancient dance form is known it becomes recognisable in a variety of dances from various countries. One that is commonly danced at Findhorn is the French dance ‘L’Alouette’, the Lark. Here two steps of the Branle Simple are followed by two steps of the Branle double. Alternating in this way throughout the dance.
A note on pronunciation
Where some choose to accent the final ‘e’ I think this is incorrect and the word devolves from branle into the English word ‘brawl’. A brawl is a rough and tumble with people generally fighting with each other. One is put in mind of Lannigan’s Ball. It is difficult to imagine this dance becoming a brawl with the sedate and measured music we use for the dance. However it is easy to imagine if one thinks that the musicians might speed up the music as the dance progresses. Then it is easy to lose touch with which foot to move next and crashing into one another becomes the order of the day.