The history of dance can be traced back to the very beginnings of humankind history. Dance is ultimately a social event and signalizes occasions of social interaction: not incidentally, therefore, elements of dance can be observed even in such non-human societies as bee swarms and bird couples.
Initially bearing purely informative meaning in the animal world and the primitive society, dance gradually acquired a more complex meaning and became a means of self expression. Developing from symbolic religious activities, the practice of dancing evolved in a social activity and later obtained the status of performing arts.
As such, dance is movement, and movement is altogether natural to human body. It is observed that at moments of intense joy, people tend to perform an increased amount of movements in order to relieve the brain of the excessive amount of oxygen (Scott 1). Such behavior is especially noticeable about children, since they do not control themselves as much as adults; in this respect, primitive savages are not much different from children.
Those leaping movements of the body are the first prehistoric dance that can be observed both in people and in animals expressing their happiness. But this disarrayed motion does not comply with the comprehensive definition of dance provided by Edward Scott, who interprets dance as “the art and expressing gracefully and intelligibly, by movement and gesture, every emotion and sentiment of which the mind is capable, and every incident possible in human life” (6).
Such was the vision of dancing practiced already among the Ancient Greeks, whose art of pantomime dance was compared by Aristotle to poetry, since it could express not only actions but also manners and passions. The art of dancing was connected by Greeks to the idea of harmony and perfection of human body: therefore, dancing ultimately had to be graceful in order to emphasize and not to destroy the natural human beauty (Scott 38).
Corresponding to the meaning behind them, religious dances, embodying the spirit of tragedy, were dignified and stately; while their opposites, the wild grotesque dance, were not to be danced in sober mind (Scott 41). Combining the features of those two extremes and concluding the three-partite order of dances was the vivid dance. In any case, both stately and wild Greek dances were inseparably linked with their religious practices and bore their peculiarities from the nature of the deity glorified by dance.
Historians state that the Greeks borrowed the art of mimic imitation from the dancing art of the Ancient Egyptians (Scott 21). Together with ritual dances performed at funeral of prominent people and at other religious ceremonies connected with worshipping the astronomic gods, Egyptians took pleasure in entertaining dances, mostly performed by graceful girls in light attire. The character of movements was varied by hired dancers according to the tastes of their employers, and therefore could sink from grotesque to mere buffoonery (Scott 23).
From the above it becomes obvious that the antiquity shaped three visions of dance: dance as ritual, as ecstasy, and as entertainment. The Middle Ages witnessed two applications of dance: in church (sacred dance) and in society (secular). Ceremonial in its nature, religious dance involved solemn movements and symbolic figures that corresponded to the accompanying hymns.
Though provoking controversy as to their appropriateness in the church, sacred dances enjoyed a large variation from May Dances to Dances of Death, each bearing a religious significance (Kassing 73–75). Due to the fact that secular and sacred spheres closely intermingled in contemporary life, dances often ‘migrated’ from church to the worldly life. In addition, the institute of chivalry which prospered at the time positioned dance as a way to express gentility and compliance with etiquette, as well as state the knight’s code of honor (Kassing 72).
Dance was more and more drawn into the sphere of entertainment, since amusements were scarce; travelling performers became especially popular, bringing new dances such as carole, farandole, pavane, and others from court to court. In the Renaissance dances increasingly drifted apart from the sacred sphere and became a token of position and manners for the upper society, and a way of celebrating social and life events for the lower classes.
From the Medieval tradition of Dance Dramas, which represented the lives of saints and martyrs, stemmed the idea of 16th and 17th century ballets, ranging from Ballet-Masquerade to Ballet Pastoral and Ballet-Comique (Kassing 101–105). Moving dance from the court into the theatre, the eighteenth century celebrated the onset of ballet art, mainly in the Paris Opera.
Moving away from the artificiality of court ballet, ballet d’action set the aim of imitating nature, which naturally fostered development of costume and decorations. In addition, the art of pointe-work was initiated as well as capacities of whole body were employed in dancing.
Court ballrooms also witnessed a refreshment of repertoire, with minuet being one of the most popular dances of the period and reflecting the national peculiarities of the places it was danced in: while the French envisaged it as a graceful unhurried dance, emphasizing the male gallantry and the female grace, the Italians imparted a brisk and lively character, as well as faster tempo to it.
The early nineteenth century in Europe was still experiencing the consequences of the French Revolution, and the slogan of freedom applies to women’s clothes as well. The unrestrictive design of the garments allow performing jumping and skipping movements, reflected in such dances as gallop and quadrille. However, the ballet stage witnesses a completely different situation.
The era of Romanticism dictated its ideals to the image of ballet-dancer: ballerina on pointes became a nearly deific, ethereal creature, soaring over the parquet in her magic movements. This fully reflected the tendencies towards fantasy, spiritualism, and emotional perception of world promoted by Romantic ideas. By the mid-1850s, female fashion was characterized by enormous hoop skirts, which in turn promoted changes in dancing techniques and made turning dances, such as waltz, rule the ballroom.
The twentieth century has brought about cardinal social change, which also reflected on the dancing styles. On the one hand, due to efforts of Russian ballet troupes, professional ballet was revolutionized, acquiring new techniques and virtuosic standards of dancing.
On the other hand, social dancing is more than ever the terrain for raving youth who possess enough energy to perform such active dances as Charleston, fox trot, shag, and others. In addition, black society influences the dance room and introduces such genre as swing dancing. By the eng of the century, classical dance is characterized by breath-taking technique and conceptual choreography, while popular culture is organized in the sphere of street-dancing, with hip-hop and break dance ruling the dance floors.
All in all, it appears obvious that the ritual character of dance inherent in it since the first days of its existence shapes itself into two directions: the “self-unconscious act without deliberate aesthetic concerns” that reveals itself in the culture of tribal dances, and the unique experience of individual transformed into the “metaphoric idiom known as art” (Highwater 14).
In the course of historical development, dance demonstrates a clear tendency from the former aspect to the latter, basing on the social influence that affect its development.
Highwater, Jamake. Dance: Rituals of Experience. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
Kassing, Gayle. History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007. Print.
Scott, Edward. Dancing in All Ages — The History of Dance. London, Hesperides Press, 2006. Print.