Since colonial times, there have been dancing masters in America, often itinerant, to teach the art of social dancing. John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651) is a landmark guide for social dance classes that eventually took root in the United States. William B. DeGarmo wrote The Dance of Society in 1875. Instruction in dancing included instilling the moral and physically corrective aspects of dance. The 1820s Jacksonian era generated rudeness, and, in response, eighteen dance/etiquette manuals came into circulation in the 1830s.
Social dancing classes were offered in the European waltz and contra (country) dance in the nineteenth century. Then came lessons in the dances of the jazz era with its "tough" dances. From about 1910 on, as part of a dance craze that swept the United States, social dance fads have cascaded in and out of popularity. Numerous dance academies mushroomed during the commercial culture of dance halls from 1880 to 1920 to accommodate neophytes. Dance classes helped people keep up with the latest steps. In 1911, New York City alone listed 100 dancing academies serving 100,000 paying pupils, 90 percent under age twenty-one. Dance halls also offered classes in fashion. The New York Society of Teachers of Dancing formed to counter new vulgar dances and customs, such as "cutting in" from the ballroom.
Although most people of the world learn to dance by watching and being coached, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were about 18,000 dance studios offering classes in the dance art forms that people learn for recreation. The age of students taking dance classes for leisure ranges from preschool to seniors. Recreational dance classes that are open to all comers differ from preprofessional dance classes that admit students who are selected through an audition process. Sometimes a recreational dance student becomes smitten with a dance form and wants to become a professional. A teacher might direct the student elsewhere for more serious training among like peers. Either type of student may participate in dance recitals or competitions to demonstrate proficiency. There are also schools and workshops for teachers of different dance genres and degrees of certification related to training completed.
Dance classes are commonly offered in ballet, modern, jazz, street jam, funk or hip-hop (music video dancing), jazz, contact improvisation, African dance, Balinese dance, Latin salsa and tango, ballroom, Spanish flamenco, Middle Eastern dance, swing/jitterbug (Charleston, lindy hop, hand dancing), clogging, Brazilian capoeira, and Irish step. In the early 2000s, striptease aerobics made its debut.
Dance classes are usually for groups of children, teens, or adults at different levels of dance skill, including dance fundamentals classes for pre-beginners. Teachers may also offer private lessons to individuals. Dance instruction involves verbal explanation and modeling by the teacher. Typically, a class begins with warm-ups, exercises that prepare the student's body to learn movements of a dance genre without injury. Teachers break down parts of a dance for students to learn. These parts are eventually put together so students can perform the entire routine.
The amount of dedication and discipline required in dance classes varies, ballet being one of the more demanding. It has sequential, standardized curriculum teaching methods, as well as examination procedures within each of several traditions for the progressive education of dancers, including the Cecchetti Method of classical ballet training, the Royal Academy of Dancing, the August Bournonville School, the Vaganova Ballet Academy, and the School of American Ballet. Modern dance, too, has its pedagogies (for example, the technique taught at the Martha Graham Conservatory of Contemporary Dance or at the studios of Erik Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Ailey).
In addition to dance academies and studios, dance classes are offered in recreation departments, community centers, senior centers, churches, schools, summer camps, hospitals, and prisons. Individuals can take "dance classes" with an instructor in their own home via videos. Lots of how-to books that codify rules of a dance form and explain dance floor etiquette are available. Over time, books have provided increasingly detailed information about how to perform individual steps, their combinations in dance phrases, and phrases in the complete dance.
Classes in modern dance at the kindergarten through university levels often focus on creative choreography. In these classes, students are taught the elements of dance (time, space, and effort in gesture and locomotion) and ways of putting them together to make an artistic dance. Then students are given problems, such as how to express a particular idea, to solve through their own choreography.
Motivation for taking dance classes varies. Parents take youngsters to dance classes so they can develop grace and poise, acquire discipline, become physically fit, and be with peers. Dance classes tend to be the preserve of females, although jazz and hip-hop attract many males. Because males are more likely to learn sports than dance, those who have learned to dance are always in demand as partners. Students who are interested in broadening their dance experience and taking classes beyond their home studios can attend periodic convention workshops and competitions (classes are usually offered at these events), which are sponsored by over forty organizations.
Adults take dance classes to keep up with the latest steps, get exercise, gain firsthand experience in a performing art, and fantasize. As one adult student said, "Up the stairs in your business clothes. You hear the piano playing Chopin. You are beat, but begin to feel a little happier. And then the class starts. I fantasize being a princess. At the end of class I am generally always so happy. And I keep wondering what was it that made the world seem like an enchanting place" (Hanna, 1988a, p. 145).
The opportunity for human face-to-face viable contact, in an age of automated telephone responses and computer information, is a factor in drawing people to dance classes. They are a way to meet people and find fresh means of self-expression.
Many males take classes to meet females. Ballroom dance studios, often part of large national chains, attract some lonely people and, in addition to teaching students, put on regular or special event "parties" that duplicate social occasions on the outside.
Wedding preparation catalyzes crash courses in dance. A couple may spend thousands of dollars on their wedding, so they prepare for that first dance together as man and wife. Sometimes the bride's and groom's parents, relatives, and friends also take classes.
Ethnic and national groups take classes in the dances of their cultural heritage. Indian immigrants, for example, cement ties to the home country, and second-generation American-born Indians learn Indian values embedded in, and imparted through, Kuchipudi dance. Dancer and teacher Nilimma Devi says: "The meaning of the dance is the same as in India—and more. Parents in the U.S. see the dance as an auspicious symbol for toughness, survival, good luck, and creation. It is a link to their roots. . . . Many families dislike the Western permissiveness for females, particularly at the high school level. Indian parents hope their children can partake of the Indian values conveyed through Kuchipudi. A traditional message portrays the role of the ideal, beautiful, modest Indian woman" (Hanna, 1997, p. 102).
A parent, Usha Charya, explains: "Even though my daughter, Neeli, is growing up in American culture, she gets through Kuchipudi an appreciation for Indian customs, rituals, grace, music, skill, and mythology of India. True, she's American . . . . But at Ms. Devi's dance school, she can find a sense of identity and belonging. She won't feel she's totally different. She's a kid of the third culture—neither Indian or American" (Hanna, 1997, p. 102). Non-Indians also take ethnic and national dance classes for pleasure and to grow as dancers.
Some women take dance classes in jazz and striptease to learn to love their bodies and to get in touch with their femininity and denied sexuality. In the "The Art of Exotic Dancing for Everyday Women" class, a former exotic dancer takes students of all backgrounds and ages on a spicy journey through striptease dance. In a companion eighty-six-minute instructional video, the instructor models and breaks down the movements, and then students practice and offer tips based on what they learn. A voiceover and outline review key points. Students learn how to walk; project through body language; master stationary, revolving, squatting, and kneeling hip rolls; pose; transition from one move to another; trace lines on the body; and simulate sex. In 2002, women and men could get a sensual stripper workout at gyms from Los Angeles to New York City. The cardio striptease of bump and grind with mirrors; stripper moves, including sliding clothes back and forth between legs; and pole work offered body toning and titillation as incentive to exercise.
People flock to dance classes, from ballet to less formal styles of dance. But it should be noted that some religious groups do not sanction dancing in any format. Instruction in dancing for etiquette has diminished, although some private prep schools give their students such classes so they are versed in proper decorum.
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Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance and Stress: Resistance, Reduction and Euphoria. New York: AMS Press, 1988a.
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——. "Spotlight on Nilimma Devi: A Touch of India in America." Dance Teacher Now 19, no. 2 (February 1997): 97–100, 102
——. Partnering Dance and Education: Intelligent Moves for Changing Times. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Press, 1999.
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Judith Lynne Hanna