I tried a new format for the Ball at St Catherine's this year: dancing by request, requests in strict Order of Precedence. There are some records of renaissance festivities where the guests chose dances in order of rank like this, though they seem to have been even more formal.
Blue Lymphad Herald approached each of the gentles present at the ball, in turn, and asked them to choose a dance. The leader of that dance would then find a partner while I found the music. Blue Lymphad would then announce the dance, everyone who wished to join in would arrange themselves on the floor, and we'd dance. The Herald had a list of suitable dances to offer anyone who had trouble remembering names (and he's a rather skilled dancer himself, so he could offer good advice); those who didn't wish to dance could simply decline their turn.
I really liked this format, and will use it again. It added some pomp and ceremony to the process of choosing the dances, while being a relaxed, comfortable and popular way to run a ball. In spite of the hierarchical Order of Precedence, it's more egalitarian than balls usually are, because everyone gets a chance to choose.
Advantages of this format:
- everyone can choose their favourite dance
- louder people don't dominate the requests
- more experienced dancers can request harder dances without feeling guilty, knowing the next person will probably choose something more inclusive; the mix of dances necessarily reflects the skills and interests of the people present
- it's rather slow-moving. Not always an advantage, but on a muggy afternoon having several minutes at least between dances was pleasant
- the person running the ball isn't responsible for the choice of dances, so gets more positive and less negative feedback
Disadvantages / constraints / limitations:
- need a wide range of music "ready to go", hence either skillful, knowledgeable musicians, or a well-stocked music-box
- the herald should prepare a list of guests in Order of Precedence in advance, or be very good at working it out on the fly
- with a large group of dancers, those lower in rank might not get a choice. We danced for several hours; there were 33 people present, and all those who wanted to got to choose a dance
- unless dancers choose from a limited list, you can't limit dances to a certain time or place
- a certain level of background knowledge is needed in the populace, so people can choose the dances they like
- once you've been dancing for a while people start to say "all my favourites have been done already": either encourage people to repeat popular dances, or have someone to hand (preferably a local dance-teacher, who will know the tastes of the populace) to suggest suitable alternatives.
For Saint Catherine's Feast, I was very happy with this format. The Baron and Baroness, Emrys and Beatriz, lead the dancing with the Earl of Essex Measure and the Black Almain - formal, stately, and well-known enough for everyone to join in. Other dances that were requested were (in no particular order):
- Ly Bens Distonys (two versions)
- The Horse's Branle (two versions)
- La Figlia de Guglielmino
- Pungente Dardo
- Ballo del Fiore
- The Mixed Branles of Champagne
- Chiara Stella
- Petit Riens (multiple times)
- Contentezza d'Amore
I was pleased with this mix: there was something for everyone who wanted to dance, and yet plenty of opportunities for those who've been practicing hard all year to show off some more difficult stuff. Looking at the list now, I'm struck by what good taste the dancers of Ildhafn have: well done to all of you!