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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Analyzing Primary Sources through Movement

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

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.

Orchesographie Et traicte en forme de dialogve, 1589

“The Washerwomen’s Branle” was described in Arbeau’s Orchesographie in 1589. Though it’s possible to study the notation and learn the dance, the instructional video, produced at the Library of Congress in 1998, streamlines the process.

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, as time allows, 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. What do students notice about moments where the dancers move in similar ways? When do the dancers move together, and when do they move independently? 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 who are ready, challenge small groups 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, instruction becomes a matter of labeling an idea the students’ bodies and ears already know.

Comments (2)

  1. I wonder if my great great grandmother, Bridget Brennan (1815-1915), ever danced the “Washerwomen’s Branle.” Here’s a rather tragic excerpt about Bridget from my family’s genealogy that might help personalize the dance study for students:

    “Bridget, also known as Bea, was born in County Cork, Waxford, Ireland. She was married there to a man named Doyle, and they, with her brother, came to America in 1848. Bridget and Mr. Doyle had two sons, Hugh and Willy, and three other children, who died from cholera. Mr. Doyle drowned in the Mississippi River, and Willy Doyle was accidentally shot to death while duck hunting on the river. After her husband’s death, Bea found it difficult to earn a living, and at one time she worked as a washerwoman for Ulysses S. Grant in Galena, Illinois, a real ‘Irish washerwoman.'”

    • Mary, thanks for sharing this amazing personal connection. What a tragic story!

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