It is generally assumed that dance is as old as human society and that it has existed in all the continents from the very earliest times. The fact that various birds and animals perform dance-like movements, especially during courtship, gives further credence to the suggestion that a propensity for rhythmic movement and physical display is innate in humankind as in other species. Early human beings no doubt did dance purely for pleasure and entertainment, but their dancing in the main had a purpose and a context, and many of the forms of dancing that we now think of primarily as entertainment grew out of older, purposeful forms.
- Several functions are usually ascribed to early dance. It formed an important part of religious ritual: dancing was a form of worship, a way of propitiating or supplicating the gods, or ensuring the fertility of the earth and a good harvest. In places as far apart as Australia, the Amazon forests and northern Europe, tribal peoples danced around trees to worship them, to ensure their continued growth or magically to draw the strength of the tree into themselves. Maypole dancing is a survival of this.
- Dancing also had a social function, especially in courtship. It ritualized a display of physical vigour and fitness for mating, as well as the actual process of wooing. It was a way of enacting social cohesion or of passing information from one generation to another. In Polynesia and Micronesia dancing accompanied the recital of poetry (concerned with genealogies and legends) to the accompaniment of drums, with the movements of hands, arms and heads providing additional meaning to the words. The dances of the Australian Aboriginals told of their mythical origins. Hunting dances in Africa and elsewhere passed on tribal lore concerning the behaviour of animals and the conduct of the hunt to the young. Dancing also represented and taught the manipulation of tools and weapons: net-casting, spear-throwing and similar activities. Morris dancing is said to derive from an early weapons dance.
- Dancing also had a military function. Besides energizing the fighters before they went into battle, war dances were a way of signalling hostile intent and instilling fear into the enemy. As a display of controlled ferocity and extraordinary energy contained within disciplined movement, the stamping dances of Zulu warriors leave few spectators unmoved.
- According to the biblical story told in the Book of Samuel, King David ‘danced before the Lord with all his might’ when bringing the Ark of the Covenant into his city. Samuel also recounts that ‘Saul's daughter looked through a window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart’.
- Most early civilizations gave dance a place in religious ritual, and out of ritual dancing in both India and ancient Greece grew a variety of dramatic forms. Dances honouring Dionysus, the god of wine, are held to be the origin of Greek tragedy. Perhaps mindful of its religious associations, the Greeks generally held dancing in high esteem. It was one of the arts that philosophers recommended as worthy of teaching to the young. It was also a communal activity in which citizens were proud to take part.
- Dance was appreciated less by the Romans, who tended to regard it as effeminate. All the dancing schools in Rome were closed in 150BC. But though dancing was something that respectable Romans would not engage in themselves, its entertainment value was appreciated. Dance and pantomimes involving dance were popular spectacles, though the social status of public performers was low – a situation that was to persist in Europe for many centuries.
- The Christian Church's attitude towards dance was on the whole that of Saul's daughter and the Romans. Dance did form a part of the worship of some early sects and was incorporated into the religious services of the Shakers (founded around 1750 in England and first appearing in the USA in 1774). Though only extreme puritans denounced the dancing of the peasantry or at court as sinful or attempted to outlaw it, there was no route from religious dancing into the cultural mainstream in the Christian world. The situation was much the same in Islam, where only the sect of the whirling dervishes, founded in 1273 by the Persian mystic and poet Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, used dance as a way of entering into a religious trance, as the shamans of many earlier societies had done.
- In India dance emphatically emerged out of religion into an artistic tradition of great variety and strength. Dance was used to enact the stories of the gods in temple worship. The principles guiding it were set down in the early Sanskrit theoretical treatise, the Natyasastra (c.100BC–AD100), which also served as a manual for early Indian drama and music. It specifies a large variety of expressive gestures for the head, the hands and other parts of the body, and gives them a particular meaning (there are over 4,000 such mudras – gestures or positions – in classical Indian dance), besides prescribing the correct training for performers and the psychological and spiritual preparation required for a performance.
- Six schools of dance developed out of religious dance – the best-known and most closely linked to the Natyasastra being bharata natyam, famous especially for slow graceful and lyrical dances known as padams that illustrate and accompany love poems. Bharata natyam, especially in modern times, is usually performed by solo women dancers. Kathakali is a more vigorous – often explosively so – form of dance drama most often performed by men and originating in Kerala in the 17c. The performers wear elaborate costumes and make-up to portray stories of gods and heroes in mime. In general, the link between dance, drama and music in theatre was maintained in the East, while in the West the three elements developed separately.
- Indian dance had a profound effect throughout South-East Asia in the period c.100–1000AD. In Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, Indian principles and stories were merged with existing local traditions to produce distinctive forms of dance and drama that survive to the present day. In India itself, classical dance declined under Mughal and British rule but was revived in the late 19c and early 20c.
- The Renaissance saw a revival of dance in Europe both as a courtly pastime and as an entertainment. Court banquets would sometimes be enlivened by appropriate interludes between courses: Neptune and his court ushering in the fish course, or Jason, the Argonauts and the golden fleece heralding the arrival of the lamb. When Catherine de’ Medici went to France to marry the future King Henry II, she brought the tradition of court entertainment and a love of dance with her. In 1581 she employed the famous dancing master and violinist Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx to create the Ballet comique de la reine as the spectacle to end all spectacles: a five-and-a-half-hour wedding entertainment danced by the gentlemen and, unusually for the time, the ladies of her court. This spectacle, fully documented in a book that appeared the following year, is generally taken as the starting point for the history of ballet.
- In the next century Louis XIV, who loved dancing, further encouraged the art. The Académie Royale de Danse was founded in 1661. Molière wrote comédie-ballets for the king, among them Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), and Lully provided the music. The dancers in these pieces were the king and his court – until 1670, that is, when Louis decided he was too fat to dance and reluctantly retired from the scene. All his courtiers immediately gave up as well, leaving the field free for professional dancers.
- The chief dancers in these early performances were men. It was acceptable for men to show their legs and they wore tights as part of their everyday costume; women were prevented from making high leaps and expansive leg movements by their long, heavy court dresses. During the 18c clothes became lighter and the famous dancer Maria Camargo (1710–70) shortened her skirts to calf length so that her rapid complex footwork could be more easily seen.
- For much of the 18c, however, ballet remained mainly an episode or interlude in a larger work. The French ballet master and choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) was foremost among those who proposed that ballet should be an independent dramatic art form, communicating a storyline and emotion through movement and gesture. The comic ballet La Fille mal gardée was first staged in 1789, but the classical repertoire of great ballets dates mainly from the 19c: La Sylphide (1832), Giselle (1841) and the ballets to Tchaikovsky scores in the 1880s and 1890s: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.
- Classical ballet produced some of its most famous works and scored some of its greatest triumphs in the early 20c, especially in productions by Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) for his Ballets Russes, starring the great Nijinsky (1890–1950), and productions for the Bolshoi and Kirov ballet companies during the Soviet era. During the same period a movement began to free stage dance from the conventions of classical ballet, particularly associated with two US women dancers: Isadora Duncan (1877–1927), who worked mainly in Europe, and Ruth St Denis, (1877–1968). Duncan advocated a free-flowing dance style inspired by ancient Greece, while St Denis was famous for an exotic blend of Eastern styles. In 1930 Martha Graham (1894–1991), who had earlier worked with Ruth St Denis, founded the Dance Repertory Theatre in New York City and trained a company in her own method, which was to use every aspect of the body and mind to dramatic purpose. Modern freely expressive dance continued to develop throughout the 20c, in turn influencing the ballet tradition from which it originally broke away.
- The older forms of social dancing in the European tradition usually involve couples dancing in a set. This holds true both for English country dancing, Scottish country dancing (where ‘country’ is really the French contre and implies two lines of dancers), American square dances and the stately court dances of Europe such as the minuet. The arrival of the waltz in around 1800, to be followed by the polka in the mid-19c, broke up the set as couples danced as couples independently of others. The waltz also began a tradition of new dances and was considered wild, uninhibited and morally dubious, until older people decided that they had no real option but to copy the young. Other dances involving the standard ‘ballroom hold’ (man's right hand in small of woman's back, woman's left hand on man's right shoulder, man's left and woman's right arms extended and hands clasped) evolved in the early 20c: the tango, the quickstep and the foxtrot. For the first 50 years or so of the century, these dances dominated the repertoire in the public ballrooms which had become popular places of entertainment in many parts of the world. The Charleston craze of the late 1920s introduced a form of dance in which couples danced together without actually clasping each other. The advent of the jitterbug in the USA in the 1930s kept couples as couples holding hands, but with each using the other almost as a piece of gymnastic equipment. The rock 'n' roll revolution of the 1950s made the jive – a less gymnastic version of the jitterbug – the standard dance of young people throughout most of the Western world. The 1960s craze, the twist, separated couples again, and the tendency in the latter half of the 20c – through disco dancing and beyond – has been to make the man-and-woman couple dancing together (with the man ‘leading’) a thing of the past, no longer in keeping with social realities. While almost all forms of dance referred to here still flourish, and dancing is still a social activity, dancing to the most popular music of the day is currently a form of self-expression rather than community in couples or groups.
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