The name branle derives from the French verb branler (to shake, wave, sway, wag, wobble), referring to the side-to-side movement of a circle or chain of dancers holding hands or linking arms. Dances of this name are encountered from about 1500 and the term is used for dances still danced in France today. Before 1500, the only dance-related use of this word is the "swaying" step of the basse danse.
The branle was danced by a chain of dancers, usually in couples, with linked arms or holding hands. The dance alternated a number of larger sideways steps to the left (often four) with the same number of smaller steps to the right so that the chain moved gradually to the left.
Although originally French dances of rustic provenance, danced to the dancers' singing, the branle was adopted, like other folk-dances, into aristocratic use by the time that printed books allow us to reconstruct the dances. A variety of branles, attributed to different regions, were danced in sequence, so that the suite of branle music gives one of the earliest examples of the classical suite of dances. Such suites generally ended with a gavotte, which seems then to have been regarded as a species of branle.
Some aristocratic branles included pantomime elements, such the branle de Poitou, the possible ancestor of the minuet, which acts out gestures of courtship. Some of these dances were reserved for specific age groups - the branle de Bourgogne, for instance, for the youngest dancers. Branle music is generally in common time somewhat like the gavotte, though some variants, like that of Poitou, are in triple time. Branles were danced walking, running, gliding, or skipping depending on the speed of the music. Among the dance's courtly relations may be the basse danse and the passepied which latter, though it is in triple time, Rabelais and Thoinot Arbeau (1589) identify as a type of Breton branle.