Humans have a fundamental desire for regular rhythmic movement. Whether this desire takes the form of athletics, activities of daily living, or dance, the human body is the essential instrument for each. Dance differs from athletics or activities of daily living in that the primary focus of dance is an aesthetic or even entertaining experience. One recent trend in dance is a competitive activity known as DanceSport, but most of the field focuses elsewhere.
Dance through the ages has served a variety of functions. Despite vast contextual differences in period and culture, people have danced throughout history for four primary reasons:
- To please the gods: Examples include the Southwestern Native American Corn Dance of the Jemez Pueblo, a ritualistic dance performed by the whole community, and the fifteenth-century los seises, a Roman Catholic choirboy dance performed during church holidays in the cathedral of Seville, Spain.
- To please others: These range from those seen in a contemporary all-male Kabuki performance in Japan, to the traditional Balinese legong for young girls, to those seen in a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York City.
- To please themselves: Examples include aerobic dancing for the sake of fitness or for the sheer kinesthetic pleasure of movement to music.
- To build community within an ethnic group: Examples include la marcha, a group dance traditionally performed at Hispanic weddings; the mayim, an Israeli folk dance; and the koko sawa, a playful West African dance for boys and girls.
Global Dance Forms
Differences in dance forms and gender roles vary with culture and historical period. In traditional ritualistic dances, gender roles are a dominant factor.Women’s dances often have themes of planting, harvest, relationships, or child rearing, whereas men’s dances deal with war, hunting, or displays of physical prowess. Female ritualistic dancing often uses subtlety in its use of gestures and a compact use of space. Male dancers are usually more physically mobile with bold and energetic movements.
Dance forms also vary from culture to culture. Around the globe, identifiable characteristics may be associated with individual cultures.
Traditional Asian dance has remained closely linked with worship and generally has adhered to ancient forms and legends for its choreography, costumes, and musical accompaniment. Characteristics of Asian dance movement include a fluid body stance, with a flexible use of the spine.The hips, rib cage, head, and shoulders shift from side to side while the legs glide in a low level over the ground. The overall movement quality is multifocused, with a bound flow and a light use of weight. D The arms, fingers, hands, and eyes perform complicated yet expressive movements, and stylized facial expressions are used. In most Asian dance forms, one finds a distinction between more vigorous and athletic dancing for males, with more confined and subtle dancing for females. In certain traditional Asian dance forms, including Kabuki and Noh, male dancers perform all roles.
African dance has evolved from a religious and community-building context into a means of personal fulfillment or theatrical performance.African dance has always been closely tied to the music with which it is performed. African dance, like African music, is frequently polyrhythmic, with contrasting rhythms and musical gestures occurring simultaneously. The movement style is strong and free flowing, with the body weight rooted in the earth. The head, shoulders, rib cage, and hips move in a flexible manner, often to independent rhythms, and the legs are often bent. In African dance forms, both males and females sometimes dance in a strong and grounded manner. However, some dances such as the adowa are gender specific, with the female version being more subtle and expressive, and the male version being more aggressive and exhibitionistic. African dance is often performed solo or in large unison groups that allow individual expression.
Most classical European dance is performed either with a partner or in choreographed group formations. It incorporates a stable and erect spine, with hips, shoulders, and arms held framing the torso. Classical European dancers often use bent legs only as a preparation to jump or to accentuate the extension of the legs.The body is generally held erect, with a light use of weight and an emphasis on intricate footwork. High jumps and leg extensions are frequently used in ballet technique and in some folk dance forms. Ballets often feature women in spectacular displays of exhibitionism, while the male dancers are often seen in supporting roles.
American dance forms, with the exception of traditional Native American dances, are recent additions to world dance. Jazz dance, tap dance, and modern dance are uniquely American forms and vary widely in style.
- Jazz dance has its roots in African dance and has developed into an eclectic mix of styles including Broadway dance, lyrical jazz dance, and various street-dance forms (e.g., hip-hop dance).
- Tap dance is derived from a mix of British Isles step dancing and dances of African slaves from the colonial United States.
- Modern dance, which has European as well as American roots, incorporates a flexible use of the spine and a lower use of body weight than ballet technique uses. Although both men and women today dance leading roles in modern dance, many of the most significant early pioneers were women.
Origins of Western Dance
Since ancient times, dance has been associated with ritual and worship. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Isis was the center of a cult celebrating the rising and falling of the Nile River. Dance and music played a significant part in this agricultural ritual event. Egyptian priests, who were also astronomers, imitated the movements of the sun and cosmos during ritual functions. Egyptian courts and temples maintained specially trained dancers to participate in ceremonial functions.
The ancient Greeks have exerted a profound influence on dance in Western civilization. Dance flourished among the ancient Greeks during the classical period (540–300 BCE).The Greeks viewed the union of dance, music, and poetry as symbolic of the harmony of mind and body. Dance was seen as a metaphor for order and harmony in the heavens. Dance enriched theatrical presentations as well as religious festivals.Young men were taught to dance as part of their military training, professional dancers entertained guests at banquets, and at many religious festivals everyone danced—men and women, young and old, aristocrats and peasants.
According to Greek mythology, the cultivation and preservation of dance was entrusted to Terpsichore, the muse of dance. Two Greek gods also watched over dance and came to symbolize opposing types of art:
- Apollo, the sun god, symbolizes the ideals of intellect, formal balance, and an ordered perfection. Thus, a dance that emphasizes virtuoso technique and form may be considered “Apollonian” in Nature, for example, many traditional ballets such as Agon (1957), choreographed by George Balanchine (1904–1983).
- Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, symbolizes artistic expression that is emotional and unrestrained. The Neo-Expressionist Japanese dance form called Butoh, with its sometimes grotesque movements, is a Dionysian response to the horrors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as a reaction to the traditional etiquette of Japanese society.
Viewing dance according to its Apollonian or Dionysian elements can provide a framework for understanding contrasting artistic styles.
During the Roman Empire, dance became increasingly divorced from poetry and music. As a result, the art form that later became known as pantomime flourished. Over time, there grew to be a lewd, violent, and sensationalistic side to Roman entertainment. Scholars have cited instances in which captured slaves and condemned prisoners were forced to dance in an arena until the flammable clothing they wore was set on fire and they died in agony. In 426 CE, Saint Augustine denounced the cruelty of the arena games and the vulgarity of pantomime, blaming the debauched state of Roman society. The Christian church eventually adopted a policy discouraging all large public gatherings that included dance and theatrical performances and, by 744 CE, forbade all secular forms of dance.
As Christianity spread slowly throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, the use of dance in public festivals became limited. Unlike traditional Asian dance that has remained closely linked with worship, the idea of dance as worship struck many Europeans of the time as sacrilegious. The eighth-century English priest Alcuin characterized the situation in his admonition, “The man who brings actors and mimes and dancers to his house knows not what a bevy of unclean spirits follow them.” Anyone engaging in public dancing was cast out of the church, ostracized from society, and denied Christian burial.
Although dance as public entertainment was severely limited because of restrictions imposed by the Christian church, everyday life during the Middle Ages was not devoid of dancing. Medieval guilds (representing workers in a particular profession) developed ritual activities, including dances that were specifically related to the occupations they represented. Musician guilds, founded by royal decree, provided music for social gatherings for the nobility and taught dance steps. Throughout Europe, licenses were granted for the teaching of dance after a person had demonstrated a thorough knowledge of music and the ability to execute dance steps, to create new dances, and to notate dances.
Renaissance Court Dance
During the Renaissance, members of the nobility organized an elaborate court life for themselves, their associates, and their servants. Intricate rituals of dressing, etiquette, and personal fashion evolved. Florence was the fifteenth-century cultural capital of Europe, with the Medici court a prominent cultural force. Dance masters were in great demand. Court entertainments became lavish spectacles, usually organized around Greek or Roman mythology.These spectacles served as powerful political propaganda for the ruling class—the nobility could display great wealth (and therefore authority), along with richly cloaked allegorical commentary on political and social matters.
In the mid-sixteenth century, Catherine de Medici married into the French court and brought with her the Italian ideals of lavish court entertainments, as well as proper culture and style. She hired Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, an Italian dance master, to create entertainments for the court. His Ballet Comique de la Reine (1581) became what is considered by dance historians to be the first identifiable ballet because of its cohesive plot, poetry, music, dance, and décor. Although Renaissance court spectacles were often elaborate, the performers were all amateur dancers from the noble class. Dancing was one of the few acceptable ways for women of the nobility to engage in strenuous physical activity.
Many popular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century court dances survive today, preserved by the notations and descriptions made by dance masters during that time. Of these, one of the most famous dance manuals is Orchésographie, written in 1588 by Thoinot Arbeau. Skill in performing these dances was considered essential for a proper lady or gentleman of the nobility during this period:
- The slow and stately pavane
- The fast and athletic galliard
- The gracefully flowing allemande
- The playful and running courante
- The lively gigue
- The dainty and precise minuet.
Court dance reached its height during the reign of King Louis XIV of France (1638–1715), who used dance as a tool of power. He built the Palace of Versailles and invited French nobility to live together under one roof.The king staged elaborate dance productions in which members of the nobility were expected to participate. Men and women spent many hours each day learning dance steps to keep their status within the court. Missteps had grave consequences. Scholars have noted reports of persons being disgraced from court for poor dancing and having to climb through the social ranks slowly.
Louis XIV was himself a dancer; his teacher, Pierre Beauchamp (1636–1705), was the leading dance master of this era. Ballet fundamentals, including the five feet positions and standard arm movements, were classified under Beauchamp. As the dance steps became more complicated, the use of a ballet barre in training was developed. The barre is a railing attached to the floor or walls that ballet dancers gently grasp while practicing. Ballet turnout, an outward rotation of the hip sockets, was originally an adaptation of a fencer’s stance. Dance masters found that turnout allowed a performer to open outward toward an audience and increased flexibility in the hips. By the middle of the seventeenth century, ballet had reached such a technical level that the first professional dancers arose in Europe.
Proscenium theaters began to be built during the seventeenth century, and dance moved out of the courts and onto the professional stage. Previously, audience members had sat on all sides of the performance, but proscenium theaters framed the stage as in a picture frame, with the audience seated on only one side.With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of a new middle class, audiences flocked to these popular theaters for entertainment.The ascent of professional dancers gave rise to the first “balletomanes,” or devotees of ballet, and to famous rivalries among dancers. This was one of the earliest examples of respectable middleclass women working outside the home in Europe.
Ballet and Beyond: Apollo versus Dionysus
As in other sports, there have always existed intense rivalries in dance. Apollo and Dionysus, the two Greek gods who symbolized contrasting types of art, were the prototypes for these dance rivalries. Apollo symbolizes the ideals of virtuoso technique, strength, and perfect form, ideals that also hold true for many sports. Dionysus symbolizes the ideals of artistic expression that is emotional, creative, and focused on content. This type of expression is present in certain sports including figure skating, ice dancing, and rhythmic gymnastics. Although these events have demanding technical requirements, the aesthetic component of the event is part of the criteria in judging. Dance is generally expected to include both Apollonian and Dionysian components— both form and content. Emphasis on dance technique alone ignores artistic expression, and emotional expression can rarely be effectively conveyed without a fully developed technique.
Two eighteenth-century dance rivals, exemplified the prototypical ballerina rivals:
- Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710–1770) was highly skilled in performing virtuoso jumps and leg beats that were usually the domain of male dancers. Although she caused a scandal by raising her skirts to ankle length to display her impressive technique and fast footwork, her athleticism and technical ability made her famous throughout Europe.
- Marie Sallé (1707–1756) was known for her formidable acting talent and expressive performance ability. Sallé also altered her costumes, not to display her technical abilities, but to heighten her emotional intensity in portraying dramatic characters as convincingly as possible.
For many, it is difficult to find a more sentimental image than that of an otherworldly Romantic ballerina floating across stage as an unattainable and tragic figure. During the golden age of Romantic ballet (1830–1850), female dancers rose to unprecedented prominence. Ballets such as La Sylphide, Giselle, and Coppélia feature women as the central figures, and male dancers were demoted from strong and muscular figures to assistants waiting to assist ballerinas in lifts. The most famous rival ballerinas during this time were Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler:
- Marie Taglioni (1804–1884), an Italian dancer, won fame through a combination of great technical skill and a demeanor of ease in performance. Her skill was the result of a demanding training regime directed by her father, Filippo Taglioni (1777–1871), who led his daughter through a rigorous daily physical routine until she was near fainting and had to have help dressing after rehearsal. Her strength, graceful ease, and ethereal lightness dancing en pointe in La Sylphide made her internationally famous.
- Fanny Elssler (1810–1884), the Austrian dancer, was a more Dionysian dancer. Elssler had impressive technique, yet audiences were drawn to her personal magnetism and theatrical ability. One of her most famous roles was a sensual solo dance called “La Cachucha,” a Spanish-influenced dance in which she played castanets.
Taglioni came to be known as the ethereal “Christian dancer,” and Elssler was loved as the sensuous “pagan dancer.”
In the early twentieth century, a new company commanded attention throughout Europe—the Ballets Russes. The company manager, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), managed to hire the most talented choreographers, composers, visual artists, and dancers of his time. Important artists who created work for this company included the following:
- Choreographers Balanchine, Nijinsky, Massine, Fokine, and Nijinska
- Composers Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Satie, Poulenc, and Richard Strauss
- Painters Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Rouault, and Bakst
As before, two rival ballerinas embodying the Apollonian-Dionysian contrast arose:
- Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), who trained at the Maryinsky School in St. Petersburg, had a natural delicacy, lightness, and grace. After leaving the Ballets Russes in 1910, Pavlova formed her own company and toured the globe, often performing her celebrated piece The Dying Swan, choreographed for her by Michel Fokine (1880–1942). She was known for the Apollonian ideals of grace, beauty, and form.
- Tamara Karsavina (1885–1978), who danced as a soloist in the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, was also a starring ballerina for the Ballet Russes. Although Karsavina had strong technical abilities, she impressed audiences with her dramatic and expressive qualities in ballets such as Firebird and Petrouchka.
Revolutions in Dance
Modern dance began in the early twentieth century, partly as a reaction to the strict confines of ballet technique but also as means for a new society to express its changing ideals following the world wars. Modern dance with its German and American roots, has flourished in an unbroken progression in the United States since its inception, while the devastating effects of World War II inhibited the growth of German modern dance for many years. Early German modern dancers such as Mary Wigman (1886–1973) believed that art is most powerful when form and content are joined. She was instrumental in developing the new dance form Ausdruckstanz, or “expressive dance.” Wigman’s dances were often about the struggles between conflicting powers, in which opposing forces were given corporeal shape. She studied with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865– 1950), who developed a system of expressing rhythm through bodily movements called eurhythmics, and with the important dance theorist Rudolph von Laban (1879–1958). Laban, who was also a dancer and choreographer, is perhaps best known for his work in the analysis of human motion and his development of a dance notation system. His Labanotation system is the most widely used dance notation system today.
By the end of World War II, German modern dance had been artistically weakened by the Nazi oppression and did not see an artistic phoenix until the rise of Tanz-theater in the early 1970s. Perhaps the best known of these Tanz-theater artists is Pina Bausch (b. 1940), whose productions are known for their dream-like imagery, dramatic intensity, and preoccupation with the struggles between women and men.
During the early part of the twentieth century, several American dancers made their fame in Europe. Among these are the following:
- Loie Fuller (1862–1928) was an early pioneer of modern dance who experimented with the effect of stage lighting on voluminous costumes of silk, which she manipulated through movement.
- Josephine Baker (1906–1975) devoted herself more to musical theater and cabaret. Her performances were considered suggestive for early twentieth century America, so Paris became the center of her activities while her international fame grew.
- Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) is considered one of the most important early pioneers of modern dance. She reduced costuming to silky tunics, performed barefoot, and used freely flowing movements inspired by nature, great classical music, and Grecian art. Duncan often performed solo dances to music by composers such as Beethoven, Wagner, Chopin, and Scriabin, and sometimes burst into impromptu speeches on the issues of the day.
All three women enjoyed international fame, albeit for differing approaches to artistic expression through dance.
Two of the most influential American founders of modern dance, may also be discussed in the context of form (Apollonian) versus content (Dionysian):
- Doris Humphrey (1895–1958) based her movement vocabulary on a reaction to gravity, yielding, and resisting gravity in a “fall and recovery.” Her choreography centered around designs in space. Although she believed in a clear motivation for her dances, the manner in which her dancers interact in space suggests these motivations. Her works are seldom literal depictions, and her earlier works can be described as abstract “music visualizations.”
- Martha Graham (1894–1991) based her movement vocabulary on the breath, or “contraction and release,” believing that movement was a mirror into the expressive soul. Her choreography is angular, expressionistic, theatrical, and charged with tension and passion. She created an impressive body of choreographic work during a sixty-year period and was the first dancer to receive the Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.
Later modern dancers had different aesthetic concerns. Choreographers such as Merce Cunningham (b. 1919) rejected the notion of dance as expressing emotions or stories. His work is abstract, and his experiments with chance choreography, the treatment of stage space as an open field for movement, and his regard for all components in a dance production (choreography, costuming, scenic design, lighting design) as independent entities, have made him an influential choreographer. He is also known for his collaborations with the foremost artists of the era, including the painters Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, and his long-term collaboration with the experimental composer John Cage.
In the early 1960s, experimental choreographers from the Judson Dance Theatre explored the idea that everyday movements ordered in time and space can function as dance. Pedestrian movements, those that can be performed by nondancers in everyday situations, quickly came into vogue on the concert stage. Choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, and David Gordon accepted the concept that almost any movement from the simplest, to the most complex, may legitimately function as dance.
Dance Training Today
Dance today has progressed dramatically from its origins. In the early part of the twentieth century, American choreographer Ted Shawn (1891–1972) characterized the relationship between dance and athletics by explaining, “Dancing is a manly sport, more strenuous than golf or tennis, more exciting than boxing or wrestling and more beneficial than gymnastics.” Firstclass choreographers often began their careers as superb dancers, including the following:
- Martha Graham (1894–1991)
- Merce Cunningham (b. 1919)
- Paul Taylor (b. 1930)
- Alvin Ailey (1931–1989)
- Twyla Tharp (b. 1942)
- Mark Morris (b. 1956)
Dance training today shares much in common with athletics:
- Repetitive training that focuses on specific muscular patterns
- Practice sessions that emphasize strength, coordination, and balance
- Both individual and group training sessions
Most professional dancers attend daily dance technique classes, in addition to three to six hours of daily rehearsal for specific choreographic works. Many professional dance companies provide technique classes for company members, but others expect dancers to arrange their own personal training schedules.The need for rigorous training, as well as an aesthetic based on leanness, has caused some dancers to develop eating disorders and other addictive problems.
A famous dancer who suffered such problems is Gelsey Kirkland (b. 1953), who shocked balletomanes by leaving the New York City Ballet, where she worked with Balanchine, and joining the American Ballet Theatre to work with Mikhail Baryshnikov (b. 1948). After leaving the American Ballet Theatre, Kirkland revealed in her autobiography, Dancing on My Grave, that she was able to maintain such a svelte physique and perform with such speed and brilliance because of cocaine addiction and an accompanying eating disorder. Many critics cite Balanchine, founder of the New York City Ballet, for contributing to the problem of dancers’ eating disorders. Balanchine, a seminal figure in American ballet, idolized the female form, albeit an extremely thin female form.This emphasis on an idealized female form is common to both dance and certain sports such as gymnastics and figure skating.
Athletics of Dance
Some choreographers who desire to find new sources for virtuosic steps turn away from standard dance techniques to sports, acrobatics, weightlifting, and gymnastics. The American company Pilobolus combines gymnastic movements with modern dance in witty, sculptural dances. Contemporary American choreographers such as Molissa Fenley (b. 1954), and Elizabeth Streb (b. 1950) are also interested in athletics. Fenley’s grueling dances require great endurance, so much so that her training routine has included running and weightlifting, instead of the standard dance technique class. Streb’s company, based in New York City, regularly performs on a series of trapezes and mats, presenting movements related to circus acrobatics and gymnastics.
However inclined choreographers may be to emphasize athletic movements, dancers are still refining their dance techniques in traditional ways. To gain strength and versatility, professional dancers often train in modern dance, ballet, and Pilates or other alternative training methods. Ballet technique develops speed, line, lightness, and articulate footwork, whereas modern dance emphasizes strength, weight, a flexible use of the spine, and asymmetrical and off-balance movements. Pilates develops strong core musculature of the abdominal and back muscles,whereas other alternative training techniques focus on different areas.
In contemporary dance, women and men are expected to have the strength and flexibility to lift other dancers, and to be lifted themselves. Although gender roles in dance have expanded in most Western concert dance forms, traditional forms such as classical ballet, flamenco, and some folk dances retain their historical gender role divisions.
Professional dance is a competitive field. Dancers usually audition for specific roles, or openings in professional companies through a highly competitive audition process. Dancers sometimes compete for prizes and titles in competitions such as the USA International Ballet Competition. Nonprofessional dance studios and dance teams commonly compete in regional and national competitions. Examples of these include Dancemakers, Inc., Dance Alliance, and the International Jazz Dance World Congress, among others.These competitions are a way for dance studios to compete with peer institutions and assess the quality of their training. The area of DanceSport, in which partners or teams of dancers compete in ballroom or Latin dance styles, has also become popular.
Athletes and their coaches are increasingly using dance training to improve coordination, flexibility, agility, alignment, and balance—for example, professional football teams in the United States regularly require their players to attend ballet class. Research clearly shows that dance technique has benefits for athletes in other sports as well, such as diving, track and field, and synchronized swimming. Nevertheless, although dance training can benefit athletes, its primary focus historically has been on aesthetics rather than on competition.
The dance of the future is multifaceted.Today, one can see dance on stage, on film, on video, and on computer screens all around the world. Technological advances have added to the complex nature of twenty-first century dance, from computer-generated dance images, to multimedia performances melding live dancers with projected images. Choreographic explorations now require dancers to improve not only their technical virtuosity but also their skills in music, acting, and a large variety of dance styles. The dancers of today generally are stronger, more flexible, and have more stamina than their historic counterparts, partly because of increased knowledge and application in kinesiology, diet, injury prevention, alternative therapies, and diverse training techniques.
Dance has also seen a recent return to content and expressionism as the focus for choreography. International artists working in this vein include the following:
- Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (Belgium, b. 1960)
- Meredith Monk (U.S., b. 1943)
- Pina Bausch (Germany, b. 1940)
- Kazuo Ohno (Japan, b. 1906)
Other choreographers and dance companies—such as Bill T. Jones (U.S., b. 1952), Anna Halprin (U.S., b. 1920), and the Urban Bush Women—are more concerned with exploring social issues. Anna Halprin, for example, has become known for fusing dance with rehabilitation, particularly in working with AIDS patients.
National folk dance companies have also become common, as highly choreographed performances of these forms successfully tour to concert stages around the globe. Recreational dance enjoys increased interest with its cultivation of physical fitness and social enjoyment. Ballroom and other social dance forms are now popular as both recreational and competitive activities. Dance continues to grow and change as crossfertilization of dance around the world increases.