The branle (also spelled “bransle” in Renaissance French) is a type of chain-dance which was first described in the 16th century (Antonius Arena 1538, Thoinot Arbeau 1589). Branles typically include simple steps and double steps in some combination that follows the rhythm of the melody. Therefore the dancer has to listen to the melody to get the steps right.
Many renaissance branles are preserved only instrumentally, in polyphonic settings (e.g. by Attaingnant, Moderne, Praetorius, and lots of lute tablatures), but there exist also plenty of lyrics to sing when dancing branles (e.g. in Chardavoine 1576, Mangeant 1608-1615 etc). Branles were popular not only in France, as is witnessed by music prints and manuscripts in Italy (brando), England (brawl), Scotland (brail), Flanders (brand), Germany (brandle), and even in some Swedish lute and violin manuscripts (pranle; brande). Were all these instrumental branles only played by musicians or were they danced? We don’t know, but they are danceable. At least we know that queen Christina of Sweden “with her Ladyes, & Courtiers, first daunced the Brawles, then French daunces.” (This was noted by Sire Bulstrode Whitelock, English ambassador in Stockholm, in his diary for 5 January 1653.)
After the 17th century, branles were replaced by other fashionable dances at the court, but they lived a little longer among the rural population. In the 18th century, Carl von Linné (who otherwise loved to dance polonaise and menuet) described a peasant’s dance in Mora which has been interpreted as branle double by some scholars.
Several branle tunes survived also by being recycled for various songs in subsequent centuries. For example, Swedish poet C.M.Bellman used popular French tunes of his day as timbre for many of his songs, and some of them can be traced back to a branle from the 16th century. Ask Josef if you want to know more.
Luckily, some regions of France (Bretagne, Poitou, Alsace etc) kept their traditions of branle dances until our days. Since the folk revival of the 1970s, branle dancing has spread from there to other continental Western Europe: Nowadays you can commonly dance branles on folk dance evenings in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and beyond.
Even the folk tradition of the Scandinavian ballad dance may be associated with the once-common European fashion of dancing branles, as it has the typical step structure of a so-called branle simple. However, in the Faroese folk tradition (which is emulated by Danish and Swedish ballad dancers), the singers simply force this step structure upon every song, regardless the rhythm of the song. As a result, the rhythm of the feet goes out of phase with the rhythm of the music, which was never the case in Renaissance times.