A Glance at the Origins of Ballroom Dancing

by Esther Kando Odescalchi, Ph.D.

Dancing is one of the earliest art forms of mankind; in it human emotions are manifested in motion. In primitive societies communal dancing was associated with religion, magic, medicine, war or nature. The oldest dance form preserved in human record is a chain or ring dance -- where dancers join hands -- found on rocks near Luxor, Egypt, from about 4,000 B.C. But on the same rocks at Luxor, we also find pair dancing, where couples dance face to face. In Egypt, dancing seems to have been limited to religious festivals, funeral rites and temples. We find little evidence of secular dancing.

In ancient Greece, like in Egypt, most of the dancing was associated with temple, funeral, athletic, war, choric or dramatic dances. Here, however, the country people started to dance too, as they, celebrated the vintage with Bacchic or Dionysic dances at rustic festivals. In ancient Greece we find the first record of secular dancing, when the Greek peasants were mimicking their occupations, such as weaving, reaping, spinning and cooking.

It is interesting to note that although the Romans appreciated the dances of other nations, such as the Spanish dances, yet they themselves did little dancing.

Social dancing, as we know it, developed in the Middle Ages, when on holidays the common people had a great time dancing just for fun. Their dances were intimate and spontaneous. This inspired the nobles to adopt dancing for entertainment. They changed the simple dances of the people into grandiose affairs to show off their exquisite and brilliant costumes. Their dances were non-spontaneous and had to be learned. The wealthy tradesmen and merchants soon imitated the nobility's "danza" and as time went by, dances became more and more elaborate. This gave rise to the proliferation of dance masters.

At first, court dances were stately and stiff, such as the solemn "danse basse." Around 1500, the Renaissance brought into dancing the refreshing influence of the common people. A more natural form of dancing spread to the courts of Europe: in France it was the lively "volte" - the favorite dance of England's Queen Elizabeth I - and the "courante;" in Italy it was the "galliard" and the stately "pavan;" in Spain it was the passionate "saraband" and "chaconne;" in Germany it was the sprightly "allemande."

During the 1600s, the happy mood of the Renaissance dances was replaced with the stately and formal ones. Around 1650 Lully, the French composer, introduced the elegant and graceful "minuet," (also the "bouree" and "passepied"). In addition the "gavotte" gained great popularity as the new dance of the day.

By the 1700s the nobility was routinely entertaining its guests with elegant dances and balls. During this time, the German "waltz" was introduced bringing simplicity and naturalness to ballroom dancing. The waltz was probably the first dance in which the close hold was employed and accepted. The waltz was simple to learn and dance masters were no longer in great demand. The dances of the 1800s saw the influence of the common people. The revival of national feeling in Europe in the 1840's resulted in dances such as the "galop" and "polka" of Czech origin and the "mazurka" from Poland. The "quadrille," resembling an old English square dance, also gained popularity.

The early 1900s was a turning point for ballroom dancing. The European "monopoly" on ballroom dancing was challenged by the Americas. It was for the first time that new dances, such as the barn dance (military schottische), cakewalk, two-step, Boston and turkey trot were introduced to Europe from the New World. The famous couple, Irene and Vernon Castle, refined many of the dances, such as the early foxtrot (1912-1914). Their execution of the tango (1910-1914) created a tango craze from Paris to New York.

In the early 1920's several new dances were introduced, such as the paso doble, peabody, and one-step (or fast foxtrot). As a result of the popularity of Dixieland jazz, the Charleston craze engulfed the dancing world. In 1927 the Lindy Hop or jitterbug found its way to the dance halls with its acrobatic patterns and lively footwork. In the 1930s the rumba was introduced into ballroom dancing from Cuba. In the 1940s the samba and mambo became popular. In the 1950s the merengue, cha cha and bossa nova reached New York from Latin America. In the 1960s the twist attained popularity. In the 1970s the hustle, similar to a six count Lindy, brought touch dancing back to the ballroom scene.

Although the disco scene is very much alive, and it is still keeping dancing couples apart, ballroom dancing, with its grace and elegance is gaining momentum as we approach the 21st century. ***

Ms. Odescalchi and performing partner Ben Murtha are the owners of E&B Dance Academy in Pleasant Valley, New York.

From: "The Ballroom Review," December 20, 1993 - January 20, 1994, page 3

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