- The Earliest European Responses to Dancing in the Americas
In June 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed from Plymouth, England to Newfoundland with five ships, in order “to plant Christian inhabitants … upon those large and ample countreys … esteemed fertile and rich in Minerals, yet not in the actuall possession of any Christian prince.” Gilbert would eventually reach the bountiful continent, but he was never to make it back home; he and his ship, named the Squirrel, sank into the Atlantic Ocean before reaching English shores. Thankfully, another one of the five vessels, the Golden Hind, did return safely to England carrying Edward Hayes, who, six years later, published a detailed account of the Humphrey expedition. Describing the company that set off on that fateful day in June, Hayes supplies some unusual musical information. “Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the Savages, we were provided of Musike in good variety: not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, Hobby horse, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people, whom we intended to winne by all faire meanes possible.”1 What is exceptional about this last remark is the type of music specified: the raucous English Morris dance originating in the late medieval moresca from Spain and North Africa, the related ritualistic Hobby horse dance, and general “Maylike conceits”—by which Hayes probably meant other springtime performances popular in England and related to the two dances just mentioned.2
This passage relating an English attempt to entice “savages” with dance music speaks to the broader European fascination in early modern times with dance in [End Page 1] “America”—so named in 1507 by map maker Martin Waldseemüller, who labeled the vast and unknown “fourth part” of the world after the Florentine voyager and self-promoter Amerigo Vespucci.3 Dance was ubiquitous in the Americas: the initial jubilant greeting as European ships hit foreign shores, as well as one of the most common activities in the rituals and festivities that star-struck Europeans witnessed in the place they called the New World.4 In the words of one observer concerning the Aztecs, “songs and dances were very important in all this land.”5
As I will argue in this essay, Native American dance fascinated the earliest European visitors to this continent because of a fundamental paradox. Ritual dance was at once foreign and familiar to them. On the one hand, dance disturbed the priests—Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and the newcomer Jesuits—who wrote up many of the surviving reports about the Americas. As an omnipresent activity, Native American dance as an ever-present cultural phenomenon had no exact counterpart in early modern Europe. On the other hand, similar dances had thrived in rituals and festivities not long before the early modern period—indeed, for the entire millennium known as the Middle Ages and long before that. An abundance of witnesses from all across Europe attests to these festive dances in contexts ranging from private banquets to public feast days throughout the liturgical year.6 For centuries, these European dance-related activities had more often than not been condemned by churchmen, the very group who now took in for the first time the non-Christian dances of the American continent and reported on them.7 What had especially irked medieval churchmen was the prominence of women, young and old, in these dances.8 Woman’s dance was feared because of woman’s perceived sensuality. Woman is “the organ of Satan,” explains Bernard of Clairvaux, for her sweet song and “shifting rhythms” are like “a siren of the sea”—the siren metaphor occurring more than once in medieval condemnations of dance.9 In sum, sixteenth-century European observers had more of an historical connection than an immediate cultural one with Native American dance. The latter conflicted—or at least appeared to conflict—with Christian music. Thus the early modern churchmen who first wrote about the “New World” viewed Native American dance with a mixture of condescension and fascination. But mainly apprehension. [End Page 2]
This was unfortunate but inevitable. Europeans’ general predisposition against Native American dance music had been set up long before they reached American shores by centuries of...