A History of Dance
by Chris & Terri
I. From the Beginning
WHAT'S IN A NAME? The words "dance"
and "dancing" come from an old German word "danson,"
which means "to stretch." All dancing is made up of
stretching and relaxing. The muscles are tensed for leaping and then
relaxed as we make what we hope will be a gentle and graceful
landing. Dancing must be organized; it is not enough to jump around
the floor with anger or excitement. Dancing is a way of expressing
one's emotions through a succession of movements disciplined by
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT DANCES?
One reason suggested why there are so many dances lies partly in the
dancers' environment: the natural surroundings in which they live.
Compare the life of a dweller in a mountain village with the life of
a farmer in the wide valley below.
The mountain dweller lives among hills
too steep, too rugged, and too stony for crops to grow in; yet the
hills support sheep, goats, or cattle nimble-footed enough to
scramble for scattered tufts of grass among the rocks. To survive
here, the hillman must be a hunter or herdsman, walking many miles a
day over the roughest country, his eyes raised to the hill slopes
ahead. He develops alert, springing steps and walks with his weight
on his toes. The dances he would most likely invent would be
springing, jumping dances or dances where the men would throw the
women high into the air. Their dances would take up very little room
(we often call these "living room routines" because they
take up very little room on the dance floor and were probably
choreographed in someone's very small living room).
The plainsman lives on a flat expanse
of rich soil where crops grow abundantly. His whole life may be
devoted to tending the same few fertile acres, his eyes cast down to
the earth beneath his feet, as he plows, sows, or reaps. The
plainsman develops a slow, heavy tread and walks with his weight on
his whole foot. He might develop running dances that take up a great
deal of ground.
ANCIENT ROUND DANCES: In ancient round
dances, the dancers formed a circle around something or someone
believed to hold special magical power -- a stone, a wooden object,
or a witch doctor (modern-day Cuers?). As the dancers move in a ring,
power is believed to flow from the object outward to the ring and
back again. The dance becomes so absorbing that often dancers felt
neither fatigue nor pain. As they whirl around, the performers
believe that they themselves have become spirits. These round dances
date from earliest times and are found almost worldwide. They
flourish wherever people believe that power can leave one object and
enter another object by magic (kind of like that helpless look some
dancers give the Cuer before a routine to help them remember what was
in that new routine taught the week before). Long after their ritual
origins had been forgotten, the round dances continued on. Round
dances invaded the ballrooms of the 18th-Century Europe. Original
"Round Dances" are still popular with the country people of
eastern Europe, and survive today in the children's game of "Ring
A Round the Rosie."
II. North American Dances
Did you ever wonder where dance rhythms
originated? Though many of the current Round Dancing rhythms
originated int the Caribbean, South America, and Europe, several have
their true origins in North America. A few "North American
Originals" are below.
BARN DANCE: A nineteenth-century
American couple dance in 4/4 time, taking its name from the rural
custom of dancing to celebrate the completion of a new barn. Known
also as the pas de quatre and the military schottische, the steps
involved walking, hopping, sliding, turning, and foot stamping,
which shocked many who believed all dancing should be decorous.
BIG APPLE: A party dance that
appeared around 1935 in New York, taking its name from the Big Apple
Club of Columbia, South Carolina. Couples arranged themselves in a
large circle and performed figures according to the instructions of
BLACK BOTTOM: A dance employing
strong African- and Caribbean-style hip movements, which first
appeared on Broadway in 1926, and which scandalized older dancers on
both sides of the Atlantic because of its gliding, skipping,
leaping, and stamping -- not to mention its flaunting of the
BOP: American solo dance popular
in the mid-1950s, consisting of a sort of marching in place to music
that emphasized the upbeat. Variations were the scooter, the flea
hop, the swister, and the rock and around.
BOSSA NOVA: A combination of
American jazz rhythms and Brazilian samba, popular in the USA in the
CHARLESTON: Originated in
Charleston, South Carolina, where black dockworkers danced to amuse
themselves. Transported to New York, it became a hit in the Ziegfeld
Follies of 1923, and was quickly adopted by the flappers.
CONTRA: Contra is an American form
of country-dance perfected in the late 17th century. Sets of couples
faced each other, usually in a square or rectangular pattern, and
exchanged positions using various figures. The name also refers to
the fact that the dancers performed counter to, or opposite each
other. May have originated from Court Dances.
FOXTROT: Foxtrot was originally a
Ragtime dance best credited to Harry Fox, a music-hall entertainer
who performed a fast trotting dance that electrified the Ziegfeld
Follies of 1914. Tamed by dancing teachers, it became a popular
ballroom dance to ragtime music. The English smoothed out its jerks
and originally called it the saunter; it is now termed the Slow
Foxtrot (also called English or International Foxtrot). Today,
Social Foxtrot (also called American Foxtrot or Rhythm Dancing)
closely resembles slow quickstep, due to the influence of Arthur
Murray. It involves various combinations of short, quick steps.
JITTERBUG: In the jitterbug
(another name for lindy) athletic couples moved energetically, alone
and together to a rapid beat, originally to 1930's boogie-woogie and
swing music. There are two types of basic steps, those in which the
feet stay on the ground, and the "air steps" in which the
dancer leaves the floor entirely.
JIVE: Jive is a tamed version of
the jitterbug that came into fashion in the 1950s.
ONE-STEP: Also known as the turkey
trot,the most ubiquitous ragtime dance. It was universally popular
among the young during the early twentieth century. The one-step
simply required a single step per beat.
RAGTIME: Dances performed to
syncopated, jazzy music of ragtime, popular in the late 19th
century. Ragtime also includes the mimic/animal dances (e.g., black
bottom, bunny hug, cakewalk, turkey trot) popular in the first two
decades of the 20th century.
ROCK 'N' ROLL: Frenetic, solo or
occasionally couple dances performed to the simple, compulsively
rhythmic style of pop or rock music originating in the 1950s. These
developed out of jive.
ROUND DANCE (ancient definition):
Prehistoric groups would dance around a central object or totem. In
the 19th century, these became country dances in a round or circular
formation (as opposed to a square), in which the couples exchanged
positions. The term is also used for the 19th-century, couple dances
such as the waltz or polka, which feature a constant turning of the
SQUARE DANCE: An American form of
country dancing, developed from the early 19th-century contras and
quadrilles. Couples face each other in a square formation and
exchange places in relation to their partners and to the other
couples. Another addition is that of a caller who announces the
figures or floor patterns they are to perform.
TWO-STEP: A dance requiring two
steps per beat, first performed to John Philip Sousa's Washington
Post March (1891), and rapidly applied to other dances of the
period, until ousted by ragtime and the one-step. An ancestor of the
TWIST: Solo rock dance that first
appeared in 1961, performed by Chubby Checker.
III. International Dances
Did you ever wonder where
dance rhythms originated? In Part 1 (last month), we discussed
several "North American Originals." This time, we will
discuss the origins of several other popular dance rhythms in Round
Originally an erotic dance from the Caribbean and Argentina. The
dance was tamed in France in the early 20th century, and became a
craze in England and the US, where "tango teas" took
place, offering a small space for fashionable dancers to show off
their skill. It was further refined in England and a new dance was
created, the INTERNATIONAL TANGO. There were innumerable different
tango steps in 2/4 time, although the dance was standardized, at
least for ballroom performers, in the 1920s. The Argentine tango is
one of the Latin dances while the International tango is one of the
Smooth/Modern dances. AMERICAN TANGO is a combination of Argentine
and International figures and techniques. It is generally classified
as a Smooth/Modern dance, too.
BALLROOM DANCE: Social
dancing usually performed for pleasure at "balls," in
dance halls, and the like. Ballroom dancing competitions, for
couples or for groups, are a popular form of entertainment.
BOLERO: Spanish dance
in 3/4 time that came from Provence in the Middle Ages, but which by
the 19th century had developed into a folk dance to a throbbing
rhythm from vocal or guitar and castanet accompaniment.
CHA CHA: A Cuban dance
derived from the mambo, possibly named after the noise made by the
slippers of Caribbean women (2 slow and 3 quick steps), to the Latin
American sound in 2/4 or 4/4 time. First popular in the middle
CONGA: A Cuban dance in
which performers formed a long chain by holding onto the waist of
the person in front, and snaked their way around the floor, house,
or even town, performing a 1-2-3-kick to Latin American music. First
popular in England and the US in the 1930s.
MAMBO: Cuban dance
popular in the US and Europe in the mid-1950s. The mambo is a
combination of Latin American and jazz. There is one beat in each
bar on which the dancer does not take a step.
MAXIXE: A ballroom
dance, originating in Brazil as a festive folk dance with athletic
dipping and swaying steps.
MERENGUE: The merengue
has a "limp" step in which the right foot is brought up to
the left to Latin American music. Legend claims that a Dominican
Republic ruler/general who had a severe limp but loved to dance
originated this dance. It was first popular in the US in the 1950s.
MINUET: A stately
social dance developed in 17th-century France, involving short
graceful steps, bows, and curtsies.
MORRIS DANCE: A folk
dance originating in Spain (the name is a corruption of "Moorish")
and developed in England. The dancers, wearing bells and waving
scarves, move in patterns of skipping, trotting steps.
PASO DOBLE: Spanish
one-step (a dance that requires a single step per beat of music)
originally popular in the 1930s.
POLKA: The polka came
from Czechoslovakia and Bohemia. The name is connected to the Czech
word pulka, meaning "half" (half steps are used in the
dance). It is a wild and whirling athletic dance, with fast hopping
and running steps. The catchy rhythm in 2/4 time made the dance
widely popular in Europe and the US after its performance on the
Paris stage in 1844.
dance that gave birth to the quick fox trot (American Foxtrot/Arthur
Murray Foxtrot). It was given the name "quickstep" in 1929
and is performed smoothly with gliding steps and turns.
RUMBA: From Cuba,
originally an erotic dance combining African and Caribbean rhythms.
It reached the US in the late 1920s in a tamed version in 2/4 or 4/4
SAMBA: Brazilian dance
in 2/4 or 4/4 time whose name came from the dances performed by
African slaves. A modified version was introduced at the 1939 New
York World's Fair and became popular in Europe after World War II.
WALTZ: Probably the
most famous of all ballroom dances, the waltz was originally a
German turning dance. This dance, in 3/4 time, conquered the rest of
Europe in the early 19th century, though it had to contend with
fierce criticism because of the close hold required and the speed
with which the dancers revolved around the floor. In the Viennese
waltz, couples turned in only one direction; in the slower American
version, the Boston, they could turn in any direction.
IV. Dance Terms
Did you ever wonder where the names of figures and other terms
FROM THE WORLD OF BALLET COMES:
(meaning chased) A ballet term for a gliding step, in which one foot
moves forward and the other follows or "chases" it.
CHOREOGRAPHY: (literally, "dance writing") The
creation and composition of dances, by arranging (or inventing)
steps, movements, and patterns of movement to make individual
routines, and arranging the routines to make an entire ballet. The
choreographer must develop the dancing to reflect and express the
music and, if there is one, the story.
A movement in ballet, in which the dancer draws one leg up, with the
foot touching the supporting leg, and then extends it.
In ballet, a jump from one foot to the other that throws the dancer
a distance on the stage.
(1) In ballet, a slow turn of the body (also called "pivot")
on one foot; and the circling of the ballerina by her partner while
he supports and turns her in an arabesque or attitude pose. (2) In
ballroom dancing, the sideways movement of a couple to the man's
left. (3) A formal ceremonial march that begins a ball or (in the
US) a high-school prom dance.
DANCES WE OBTAINED:
CHANGE: From tap dancing, transfer of weight, stepping onto the ball
of one foot and then onto the ball or flat of the other.
From a ragtime animal dance popular in the early 20th century, and
involving an erotic grinding of the hips.
DANCE: A general term for forms of dancing that originate among the
common people and seem to express the particular nature of the
people. Folk dances include the Central European polka, the
Hungarian czardas, the Spanish flamenco, the American square dance,
and many more.
From a hip-grinding ragtime dance of the early 20th century.
STEP: From tap dancing, steps performed to a steady repetitive
rhythm at an even tempo.
From an old Swedish folk dance, involving two facing lines of
dancers, between which one couple passes like a shuttle across a
from "The Wonderful World of DANCE" by Arnold L. Haskell,
from various personal contacts and other dance history sources, and
published in ROUNDALAB Journal,
Summer 1998. Reprinted DRDC Newsletter, April 2012. Visit Chris & Terri.
If you would like to read other articles on dance
position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit
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