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In Ancient Israel

In the Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud, dance is referred to in various contexts as an important ritualized activity and as an expression of joy. None of these references, however, contain descriptions of how the dancers actually moved. Dancing is mentioned in connection with celebrations of military victories and in rituals such as the golden calf dance and the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.

The Bible contains many Hebrew verb roots employed to describe dancing activity, four of which were used in the description of the popular but religious event of the bringing of the Ark, which inspired King David and his subjects to dance before God. David not only danced in the ordinary sense of the word saḥek (שׂחק) but also rotated with all his might, karker (כרכר); and jumped, pazez (פזז) (ii Sam. 6:5, 14, 16); a slightly different version appears in i Chronicles 15:29, mentioning that he skipped, rakad (רקד). The other verb roots used for describing dance are daleg (דלג), leap or jump; kafotz (קפץ), jump with both feet; savav (סבב), go around; paseʿaḥ (פסח), skip; ẓalaʿ (צלע), limp; ḥagag (חגג), dance in circle.

It is noteworthy that in addition to the textual descriptions we have some tangible evidence. This includes newly discovered iconographic features found in *Megiddo, *Lachish, the Negev, and other sites. For example, a number of cylinder seals from the second millennium b.c.e. show lines of dancers standing with their hands on one another's shoulders (Near Eastern Archeology, 66:3 (2003)). Figures on a late Bronze Age cylinder seal from Lachish have been interpreted as participants in a ritual or battle dance similar to the Arab folk "debka" still in use in our days. A. Mazar adds that "this posture is typical of seals showing dancers from various sites in Israel" (ibid.). T. Ilan in his study "Dance and Gender" (see Bibliography) describes dance represented in ancient iconography as an activity in which the two genders have specific defined roles.

victory dances

Dancing to the accompaniment of drums is associated with the celebrations of military victories and welcoming home heroes who have routed an enemy. The women's role was to receive and extol the fighters. After the triumphant crossing of the Red Sea, "Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances" (Ex. 15:20, 21). On his triumphant return from battle to Mizpah, Jephthah was greeted by his daughter with timbrels and dancing (Judg. 11:34). When David and Saul returned from the battle with the Philistines, "the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with rattles" (i Sam. 18:6). There is a detailed description of a victory parade, where Judith leads the women in the dance, to the accompaniment of a special thanksgiving song: "And all the women of Israel hurried to see her, and they praised her and made a dance for her… And she went out in the dance before all the people, leading all the women" (Judith 15:12, 13).

ecstatic dances

The most telling biblical evidence of the power of music inspiring ecstasy and prophetic vision is connected with King Saul. A passage from Samuel tells that Saul goes to the hill of God where he meets a group prophesizing while in motion, accompanied by several instruments. The text adds: "And the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophecy with them, and shalt be turned into another man" (i Sam. 10:5–6). There is no mention of dancing, which typically accompanies ecstatic practices, but the movement that is an inherent part of the situation described may well allude to its ritual nature.

David's dance before the Ark was an example of the religious ecstatic dance performed by men. The Psalms exhorted people to "praise God's name in the dance" – "praise Him with timbrels and dance" (Ps. 149:3; 150:4).

folk dances

Detailed descriptions have been handed down to us from the period of the Mishnah, from which we learn that there was folk dancing at religious celebrations. During the festival of Tabernacles, there was a daily procession around the altar in the Temple following the sacrifices. The celebrations reached a climax in the dances of the water-drawing festival: "Whoever has not witnessed the joy of the festival of the water-drawing has seen no joy in life. Pious men and men of affairs danced with torches in their hands, singing songs of joy and of praise, and the Levites made music with lyre and harp and cymbals and trumpets and countless other instruments" (Suk. 5:1b). During this celebration, R. Simeon b. Gamliel juggled eight lighted torches, and when he prostrated himself he dug his two thumbs into the ground, bent, kissed the ground, leaped up, and stood on his feet (Suk. 5:3a).

The Book of Judges (21:21), in describing the annual feast in Shiloh tells of the bride-choosing ceremonies. The story of the capture of brides by the surviving men of the tribe of Benjamin indicates that choosing brides during the vineyard dances was a recognized practice in Israel. Others believe it was the celebration of the vines on the Fifteenth of Av. According to the Mishnah, R. Simeon b. Gamaliel declared, "There were no holidays for Israel like the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement, on which the daughters of Jerusalem went out in white dresses which were borrowed so that no one need be ashamed if she had none. And the daughters of Jerusalem went forth and danced in a circle in the vineyards. And what spake they? 'Youth, lift up thine eyes and behold her whom thou wouldst choose'" (Ta'an. 4:8).

In the Song of Songs (7:1), one finds the rather obscure mention of "the dance of the two companies," which seems to have been taken from a traditional wedding dance, and may imply two groups of dancers, a type of dancing that can still be seen at Bedouin festivities in the Middle East. In Talmudic literature (Ket. 17a) the bridal procession was regarded with great deference and was given priority on public thoroughfares requiring even a funeral procession to make way. Dancing in honor of the bride at a wedding was considered an act of religious devotion. Rabbis and scholars performed it joyously, each in his own manner. R. Judah b. Ilai would take a myrtle twig and dance before the bride singing. R. Samuel b. Isaac, even when he was old, would juggle three myrtle twigs as he sang and danced. R. Aḥa danced with the bride on his shoulder (ibid.).

In the Diaspora

During the dispersion, the dancing associated with the normal activities of a nation in its own country ceased. The rabbinical authorities often forbade dancing in public. The many discussions in the rabbinical literature and responsa about dancing include opinions ranging from lukewarm compromise to outright hostility. At weddings and bridal feasts and for the Sabbath and particularly on Purim and Simḥat Torah and Lag ba-Omer dancing continued while taking on new forms.

In European Jewry of the Middle Ages, dancing for pleasure was an end in itself. In the medieval ghettos of France, Germany, and Poland, where living quarters were crowded, almost every Jewish community had a wedding-house or Tanzhaus for festive occasions. Here the Tanzfuehrer (dance leader or caller) was aided by hired musicians. New humorous dances came into use, some of them reflecting the surrounding cultures. Among them were the Maien Tanz, Umgehender Tanz, Spring Tanz, Judentanz, Adam Harischon Tanz, Doktor Foist [Faust] Tanz, and Fisch Tanz. In Spain the children played with miniature wooden horses called kurraj. These toys resembled the pirate's wooden battle horses that were favorites among the adults.

During the Renaissance, Jews danced for recreation and entertainment. David Reuveni describes the dancing in the home of Jehiel Nissim of Pisa in 1524. They also danced in public as in the procession in Palermo celebrating the marriage of King Ferdinand of Castille and Isabella of Aragon in 1469. In Jewish homes in Italy the Hebrew teacher taught Bible and Talmud, music, and dancing. That Jews engaged extensively in the profession of teaching in that period is emphasized by the recurring laws closing schools of dance and music conducted by Jews, such as the edicts of 1443 in Venice, and 1466 in Parma. There were Jewish dancing teachers in Renaissance Italy, the most distinguished dance master of the time being *Guglielmo de Pesaro, author of a treatise on dance dated 1463. In the 16th century, another Jew, Jacchino *Massarano, won fame as a dance master and teacher in Rome.

Oriental Jewry's Dances

There are many communities, such as the Moroccans, Georgians, Libyans, and Ethiopians, in which spontaneous group folk dancing is important, yet the Jews of Yemen and Kurdistan Jewry are among the most prominent traditional cultures attributing dynamic importance to dance in the daily and festive life of the community.

Dance among the Jews born in Yemen comprises stylistic diversity characteristic of urban and rural settlements as well as including women and men. Dancing usually takes place during ceremonies and celebrations. Fundamentally, the men's dances are composed of steps and figures executed in a very small area. The dominant line is vertical – with agile, springy bending of the knees. The very expressive hands are used for an infinite variety of gestures. One or two singers, rhythm instruments, or hand clapping always accompany the dance but no melodic instruments were used. The women's dances are less variegated and more restrained. They are accompanied by the singing of the dancers themselves, or that of two female musicians who beat the rhythm respectively on copper plate and drum.

The dances of Jews from Kurdistan are distinguished from those of all other Jewish communities in that the men and women dance together. The dances are accompanied by songs and two instruments: the zurna, a nasal-sounding wind instrument similar to the oboe, and the dola, a large double-headed drum that is beaten on both sides, with one thick and one thin stick. Most Kurdish dances are based on open or closed circles, with couples or soloists taking turns in the center where they improvise figures and steps. Some of the men brandish short swords as they dance and the women wave colorful kerchiefs.

Ḥasidic Dances

With the rise of *Hasidism in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, dance assumed great importance for the Jewish masses. *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, used dance to attain religious enthusiasm (hitlahavut) and devoted adherence to the Almighty (devekut). He taught his followers that "the dances of the Jew before his Creator are prayers," and quoted the Psalmist, "All my bones shall say: 'Lord, who is like unto Thee?'" (Ps. 35:10). Ḥasidic dance assumed the form of the circle, symbolic of the ḥasidic philosophy that "every one is equal, each one being a link in the chain, the circle having no front or rear, no beginning or ending." The Ḥasidim would start their dancing in slow tempo, and as the music became faster they held arms upward and leapt in the air in an effort to reach spiritual ecstasy. The accompanying melodies were composed to brief texts from either the Bible or the Talmud. *Naḥman of Bratzlav, great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, believed that to dance in prayer was a sacred command, and he composed a prayer which he recited before dancing. He and other ḥasidic rabbis called for dancing on all festive occasions and even on the solemn days of the Ninth of Av, Rosh Ha-Shanah, and the Day of Atonement. During the celebrations on Simḥat Torah, the usual processions with the scrolls reached a climax in the rabbi's own dance. Wrapped in a prayer shawl, with a scroll held high in his hands, the rabbi danced with spiritual ecstasy as the Ḥasidim sang and clapped hands in a circle around him. The Ḥasidim danced on Friday nights around the rabbi's banquet table, and at twilight on Saturday they danced with mystic fervor. Ḥasidic dancing has influenced the celebrations at Jewish festivals generally, and has served as the basis and inspiration of choreography on Jewish themes in ballet.

hillula dances

The Aramaic word hillula implies a joyous celebration. Certain Orthodox Jewish sects use the term to describe the annual ritual of visiting the grave of a ẓaddik or ḥasid on the actual or reputed day of his death. Among those whose sanctification has been recognized by the entire nation is certainly *Simeon Bar Yoḥai. Lag ba-Omer, the traditional anniversary of his death, has long been commemorated in song and dance by pilgrims gathered at his tomb at Meron, near Safed. Naḥman of Bratzlav ordered his disciples to observe the anniversary of his death by studying a chapter of the Mishnah and dancing at his grave. The Bratzlav Ḥasidim fulfilled his wish for generations at the cemetery in Uman in the Ukraine. In Alkush, in the mountains of Kurdistan (northern Iraq), *Benjamin ii, a 19th-century explorer, discovered an unusual form of celebration of Shavuot at the tomb of the prophet Nahum. Pilgrims joined in the reading of the Book of Nahum and circled the shrine singing while women came dancing around the catafalque. The next morning, the men went to the summit of a nearby hill, symbolizing Mount Sinai, read from the Torah, and then descended in warlike procession, clashing weapons and simulating the great combat heralding the coming of the Messiah. The women met the men with dancing and singing to the accompaniment of tambourines.

Life Cycle Dances

birth and circumcision

A person's lifetime, from birth to death, is filled with a succession of special occasions, many of which are celebrated in song and dance. The first is birth. In many Eastern communities, the mother and newborn son were the center of special events. According to popular belief the demons – headed by *Lilith – are jealous of those blessed with a son who would soon fulfill the mitzvah of the circumcision; they are increasingly dangerous as the circumcision approaches. In Morocco, Jews would perform the taḥdid ceremony. The term is apparently derived from the word ḥadid, which means iron, so named in reference to the sword used the night before the circumcision to banish the evil spirits. The sword is brandished in all corners of the house and around the beds of the mother and child, while a selection of biblical verses and appropriate psalms are chanted. In Persia, the father would engage professional dancers for the night before the ceremony. Among the Sephardi Jews of North Africa, the Tray of Elijah, used in the circumcision rite, would be carried in procession with song and dance and lighted candles, from its last place of use to the home of the newborn. In Syria and Lebanon, on arrival of the tray, seven guests would be called on to dance with the tray in turn. In Kurdistan, the Chair of Elijah would be brought in procession from the synagogue and the guests would circle it with dances. In Aden, the guests would take turns to dance with the Chair of Elijah as if dancing with the prophet Elijah himself.


Of all family events, the wedding and its colorful attendant ceremonies probably is the most important in the life of the individual and the community. Dancing in honor of the bride gave rise to the Mitzvah dances. A 16th-century source published in Venice described the Mitzvah dance as a form of group dance in which the men danced with the bridegroom, and the women with the bride (Sefer Minhagim, Venice, 1590). This conformed to the prevalent practice and the restrictions against mixed dancing in Jewish communities. Later publications describe a modified Mitzvah dance. Men took turns to dance with the bride after wrapping something around the hand as a symbol of separation (J.M. Epstein, Derekh ha-Yashar, Frankfurt, 1704). By the beginning of the 19th century it became the practice for men to dance with the bride while separated by a handkerchief held at opposite ends. In the pattern of the Mitzvah dance, the bride was usually seated in the middle of a circle of chosen guests while the badḥan ("jester"), serving as master of ceremonies, called each guest by name to step forward and dance with the bride. First honors went to the parents of the couple and to the bridegroom; then scholars and important members of the community took turns. Each would extend to the bride the tip of a handkerchief or receive one from her, then circle with her once or twice to the accompaniment of music from the orchestra. During the wedding festivities, which lasted seven days, guests and neighbors took part in the dancing and even the beggars of the town had the right to dance with the bride. Other dances performed at weddings in East European communities were Koilich Tanz, a dance of salutation to the bride and bridegroom performed by a woman holding a twisted white loaf and some salt to wish them abundance; Klapper Tanz, a dance with much handclapping; Redl, Frailachs, Karahod, Hopke, vigorous circle dances done by men; Besem Tanz, a man dancing with a broom used as horse or musket; Flash [Bottle] Tanz, dance with a bottle on the head; Bobes Tanz for the grandmothers; Mechutanem Tanz for the relatives of both families; Broyges Tanz, a man and a woman portraying quarrel and reconciliation; Sher, Sherele, Quadrille, dances based on square and longways dances performed with partners; Lancelot, Kutzatsky, Bulgar, Pas d'Espagne, Vingerka, Waltz, forms of popular Russian, Polish, and Romanian dances. At ḥasidic weddings, an old practice was often revived of dancing in peasant costumes, animal skins, or even Cossack uniforms. Groups of young girls would also dance toward the seated bride from three directions singing Keitzad merakkedim lifnei ha-kallah ("How we dance before the bride"). The young men, meanwhile, would dance around the bridegroom.

Groups of professional women musicians called taňaderas (drummers) in the Balkan Sephardi communities, mughnniyat in Yemen, mutribat in Kurdistan (poet-singers), and daqqaqat (drummers) in Iraq, conducted the ceremonies and sang to the accompaniment of drums, amusing the women and making them dance. In Morocco, a small ensemble of male instrumentalists and a singer accompany the spontaneous dancing of women relatives and guests, performing individually gestures which call to mind the belly dance: the head tilted sideways and a kerchief in each hand. In Yemen, it was considered an honor for the women guests to dance with the mazhera, a bowl containing the henna dye with which the bride's hands were painted.

[Dvora Lapson /

Amnon Shiloah (2nd ed.)]

Contemporary Period

Already at the early decades of the 20th century, when interest in ballet began to spread throughout the West, Jewish dancers once more made their mark. The Diaghilev Company, during its two decades in Western Europe (1909–29), had notable Jewish dancers (apart from its famous designer Leon *Bakst). The first to attract attention was Ida *Rubinstein, though she was known more for her beauty than for her skill as a dancer. More important were two women whose careers only began with Diaghilev. The first was Alicia *Markova, who became an internationally recognized ballerina. The second was Marie *Rambert, who founded one of the first classical companies in England. David *Lichine first made his name in Ida Rubinstein's company. The great Anna Pavlova (1881–1951) once confided to her American impresario, Sol *Hurok, that her father was Jewish but asked him not to reveal it before her death (see S. Hurok, Impresario, 1946). In Soviet Russia, Jews found opportunities that had been denied them in Czarist times. Outstanding among them was Asaf *Messerer, leading dancer and later teacher of the Bolshoi Ballet, and his sister Shulamith. His niece, Maya *Plisetskaya, became the company's prima ballerina. In America, Jewish teachers like Louis Chalif and Sandor Gluck trained performers for the classical ballet companies that formed in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. Ballet Theater numbered three important women dancers of Jewish descent – Annabella Lyon, Melissa *Hayden, and Nora *Kaye, all notable not only for technical mastery but for the intensity of their dramatic portrayals. In the 1960s Bruce Marks became a leading dramatic male dancer with the company. Jewish choreographers also came to the fore at Ballet Theater. Both Michael *Kidd and Herbert *Ross, best known for their work in Broadway musical comedies, began their careers with Ballet Theater. Also from the ranks of this company came Jerome *Robbins, generally credited with winning attention for American dance in the wider world. Of major importance to American ballet was the work of Lincoln *Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet. The Jewish modern dancer has generally made more use of his Jewish heritage than his classical counterpart. Because the modern dance is based on the expression of individual emotion, rather than on the discipline that molds the individual to an established form (like the ballet), there emerged a search for identity through the exploration of ethnic background. Sophie *Maslow created The Village I Knew, depicting the life of Jews in Czarist Russia. Pearl Lang utilized her Jewish source in Song of Deborah and in Legend, based on An-Ski's Dybbuk; Helen *Tamiris portrayed with nostalgia the landmarks of Jewish family life in Memoir. Another Jewish choreographer, Anna *Sokolow, showed concern with the alienation of the individual in contemporary society. Her Dreams was an indictment of Nazi Germany. These Jewish choreographers made strong statements about their people and the plight of all humanity in their troubled times.

[Selma Jeanne Cohen]

Artistic Dance in Modern Israel

The pioneers of artistic dance in Ereẓ Israel in the early 20th century had to create dance "from scratch." Ausdruckstanz was the style that took root in a society based on socialist values. This dance style, standing for simplicity and freedom from tradition and opting for personal expression and social involvement, spoke to the heart of this generation of pioneers.

In 1920 Agadati presented a modern dance recital in Neveh Tzedek on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Wishing to combine Middle Eastern and Western motifs, he turned to ḥasidic and Yemenite dances. Two years after Agadati's recital, Margalit Ornstein, who had immigrated to Ereẓ Israel from Vienna, established the first dance studio in Tel Aviv teaching Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Isadora Duncan's style. Rina *Nikova immigrated in 1924 from St. Petersburg and became ballerina in the Ereẓ Israeli Opera, founded that year by the conductor Mordechai Golinkin. She danced on a floor covered with Oriental rugs, usually accompanied by one man and three women who constituted the corps de ballet. In 1933, she founded the Yemenite Company, where young Yemenite girls performed dances on biblical themes. The company successfully toured Europe between 1936 and 1939.

The early 1930s saw the rise of the second generation of dancers. Among them were the twins Yehudit and Shoshana Ornstein, Deborah *Bertonoff, Dania Levin, and Yardena *Cohen.

Among the immigrants arriving in Ereẓ Israel following the Nazis' rise to power in 1933 were Tille Roessler, who had been a principal teacher at Gret Palucca's school in Dresden, and the dancers Else *Dublon, Paula Padani, and Katia Michaeli, who had danced in Mary Wigman's company. In 1935, at the peak of her artistic success as a notable dancer and creator in the Ausdruckstanz style in Central Europe, Gertrud *Kraus decided to immigrate to Ereẓ Israel. She gave many recitals and founded the Peoples' Dance Opera Company, which operated from 1941 to 1947. It was the first modern dance group in the world associated with an opera house.

By the end of the 1940s the third generation of dancers started performing. Prominent dancers included Naomi Aleskovsky, Rachel Nadav, Hilde Kesten, and Hassia *Levi-Agron, who later founded the faculty of dance at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

As opposed to Ausdruckstanz which was favored among the settler community, classic ballet was rejected as representing bourgeois art. Despite this, Valentina Archipova-Grossman from Latvia founded in 1936 a classic ballet studio in Haifa, giving a start to many teachers. In 1938 Mia *Arbatova, a former ballerina at the Riga Opera, founded her ballet studio in Tel Aviv, in which many choreographers and artists studied.

During World War ii, all cultural links to Europe were severed and the dance artists in the yishuv entered a period of cultural isolation extending up to Israel's War of Independence and the end of the austerity period of the early 1950s. Thus Israel, in absorbing the Jews as a safe haven from the Nazis, ironically became one of the only countries on the globe where Ausdruckstanz became not only acceptable but also dominant.

Side by side with universal issues concerning man and society, the newcomers created dances inspired by the landscape of the country and biblical themes, aiming to express the link between Modern and Ancient Israel. In the newly created State of Israel, many artistic endeavors were supported by the state, but not artistic dance, which was still viewed as elitist, while folk dances were considered acceptably socialist.

In the first half of the 1950s foreign dance groups began to tour Israel. American immigrants such as Ruth Harris, Rina Shaham, and Rena Gluck had brought awareness of American modern dance. Martha Graham's historic visit, by courtesy of the Baroness Bethsabee de Rothschild, struck waves and stimulated Israeli dancers to sign up for studies at her school in New York. At the same time, there was a rapid process of rejecting Ausdruckstanz.

At this critical juncture, Sara *Levi-Tannai founded in 1949 Inbal Dance Theater, an artistic Yemenite traditional-culture-inspired dance group. In the 1950s Noah Eshkol had invented the *Eshkol/Wachman Dance Notation. In 1971 Amos Hetz founded "Movements," a group that utilized the Dance Notation as a means of exploring new possibilities in movement.

All attempts to establish a permanent non-funded professional modern dance group had failed. (This was the case with the Israeli Ballet Theater founded by Kraus and the Lyric Theater founded by Anna *Sokolow.) In 1964, however, Bethsabee de Rothschild founded the *Batsheva Dance Company and during the 1970s several dance companies were established, such as *Bat-Dor by Rothschild (1967), the Israeli Ballet by Berta *Yampolsky and Hillel Markman (1968), the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company with its artistic director Yehudit Arnon (1969), and Kol Demamah by Moshe Efrati (1978), originally employing both deaf and hearing dancers.

Between 1964 and 1976, all professional dance activities in Israel took place in professional companies. This improved Israeli dancers' technical and teaching standards and their tours placed Israeli dance on the global map. Batsheva and Bat-Dor, the leading companies, competed for important choreographers from around the world and did not readily open their doors to Israeli choreographers; local creativity diminished.

In the mid-1970s, modern dance in Israel began to show signs of weariness. The dramatic, thematic approach as well as the movement idiom and artistic concept became repetitive. At that time, several young female choreographers who had studied abroad brought with them American post-modern influences. Post-modern dance gave the legitimacy to revolt against the canons of modern American dance as performed by the major dance companies in Israel. The first fringe generation included Ruth Ziv-Ayal, Ruth Eshel, Ronit Land, Heda Oren, Dorit Shimron, and Rina Schenfeld.

In 1981 Pina Bausch came to Israel with the Wuppertal Dance Theater for the first time, and the local dance community became familiar with the Tanztheater style. For about five years before that visit, experimental dance works had been created in Israel, some of them in the movement-theater style, and Bausch's visit reinforced this tendency, providing local creators with more tools. The creative upsurge following Bausch's visit to Israel was immediate. The following year, Nava Zuckerman founded the Temu-Na Theater and Oshra Elkayam founded her Movement Theater. In the 1980s fringe dance in Israel was enriched by more dancers and creators, including Mirali Sharon (who was among the few choreographers who created for Batsheva and Bat-Dor), Sally-Anne Friedland, Tami Ben-Ami, Yaron Margolin, Nir Ben-Gal, Liat Dror, Amir Kolben, and the Ramleh Dance Company in 1983 (later the Tamar Jerusalem Company).

Flamenco is very popular and there are several prominent dancers such as Silvia Doran, Neta Sheazaf, and Michal Natan. A manifestation of the relation between ethnic and artistic dance is the University of Haifa's Eskesta Dance Theater, which studies Ethiopian dance and creates artistic dance inspired by folklore. The yearly Karmiel Dance Festival in Galilee, established in 1988 and directed by Yonatan Karmon, draws thousands of people who come to dance folk dances for three days and nights. The festival program includes hall performances as well as mass dances in public parks and in the streets; folk dance, ethnic dance, and artistic dance are all combined.

In the past decade, a large group of young experienced Israeli creators and dancers have worked in established big companies and in marginal fringe frameworks. Among the most notable creators and companies are Ohad *Naharin (Batsheva Dance Company), Rami *Be'er (Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company), Nir Ben-Gal and Liat Dror (The Group), Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha'al (Vertigo Dance Company), Anat Danieli Dance Company, Amir Kolben (Kombina Company), Ido Tadmor Dance Company, Tamar Borer, Yossi Yungman, Emanuel Gat, Noah Dar Dance Company – Holon, Muza Dance Company, Inbal Pinto Dance Company, Barak Marshal Dance, and Yasmeen Godder. The Inbal Dance Theater and the Israeli Ballet are still active. In 1998 Valery Panov established the Ashdod Ballet, where all the dancers are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

Increasing fringe activity brought about the establishment of the Shades in Dance project (1984), in which works by young fringe artists were exposed on a professional stage, and in 1990 the first of the Curtain Up events, premieres of works by known fringe creators, took place. In 1989 the Susan Dellal Center was founded, managed by Yair Vardi, and it became the main home of Israeli dance.

[Ruth Eshel (2nd ed.)]

Contemporary American Dance

Modern dance reflected American social conventions at the beginning of the 20th century complete with quotas restricting Jewish participation; this was true of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn's Denishawn Co. and schools. Their main dancers, Martha *Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, broke with Denishawn over their discriminatory policies. Apparently Isadora Duncan was not so exclusive for she and her staff trained Julia Levien, Mignon Garlin, Ruth Fletcher, and Hortense Kooluris. The Denishawn star, Martha Graham, became a favorite teacher at the heart of the Jewish world in New York's Lower East Side at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Built by Irene and Alice Lewisohn as both a philanthropic and artistic endeavor, the dance classes there offered an entree into modern American culture for the children of immigrants. Jewish teachers at the Neighborhood Playhouse included Blanche Talmud and Senia Gluck-Sendor. Students included leftist Edith Segal, and Helen Tamiris, who later directed the Federal Dance Project of the wpa with her husband/partner Daniel Nagrin, and their dances often dealt with brotherhood and emancipation. Tamiris's company included many Jewish dancers such Mura Dehn, Sue Ramos, and Pauline Bubrick Tish before Tamiris went on to choreograph for Broadway. Edith Segal, on the other hand, used her dances such as "The Belt Goes Red" and "Black and White" as vehicles for social protest at rallies. Other radical leftist dancers, of whom many trained by the German emigrée Hanya Holm, include Miriam Blecher, Lily Mehlman, Edna Ocko, and Muriel Mannings, who created the New Dance Group (both a school and center for performance). Hadassah Spira, born in Jerusalem, came to New York in 1938, created several solos including "Shuvi Nafshi" and headed the Ethnic Dance Dept. of the New Dance Group. In Hanya Holm's dance company, Eve Gentry was the most prominent Jewish dancer.

Of the mainstream modern dance companies, Graham's included the most remarkable number of Jewish dancers. Most notably among them were Anna *Sokolow, Lillian Shapero, and Sophie *Maslow. Among other Jewish Graham dancers were Bertram Ross, Robert Cohan, Stuart Hodes, Linda Margolis Hodes (who later moved to Israel to oversee Graham works in the Batsheva Dance Co), and Pearl *Lang. The drive to assimilate into American culture thrust some into glorifying American folk (such as Maslow's "Dust Bowl Ballads") though many maintained Jewish concerns for social justice and especially rights for workers' and Afro-Americans. Opposition to fascism was seen in dance concerts to support Spanish democracy during in the Spanish Civil War. Even Ruthanna *Boris from American Ballet Theater joined forces with modern dancers for this cause. So, too, did *Habimah-trained Benjamin *Zemach, who worked in both New York and Los Angeles. Bella Lewitzsky did not use Jewish material in her choreography or classes nor did Gloria Newman. Anna *Halprin (a.k.a. Ann), long an experimentalist with dance improvisation, community, and healing, was driven by social concerns. Her work for her 80th birthday in 2000, "Memories from my Closet, Grandfather Dance," has Jewish references and klezmer music. After World War ii, both Pearl Lang and Sokolow did solos using Jewish male prayer symbols such as tefillin.

The Nazi regime destroyed all forms of dance by the mid-1930s: professional theater dance, dance in Yiddish theater, and dance in the folk and religious life of the Jewish communities of Europe. Stars such as Ruth Abrahamowitsch Sorel (trained by the German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman) performed at the Berlin State Opera house. Margarete Wallmann, who directed Wigman's Berlin school and that of the Vienna State Opera, fled Europe. So did Gertrud *Kraus, who immigrated to Palestine in 1935. Performers from Kraus's Viennese Company who escaped and reached America during World War ii included Fred *Berk, Katya Delakova, and Claudia Vall, who taught dance in Hollywood after a brief touring stint with Berk. After partnership performing with Katya Delakova and their Jewish Dance Guild, Berk established the Jewish Dance Division at the 92nd St. Y., whose emphasis was on Jews living a pluralistic life in the U.S. Joyce Mollow, a modern dancer, was also concerned with Jewish themes; a yearly lectureship at Queens College on Jewish dance was established in her memory. Hans Wierner or Jan Veen, another dancer from Kraus's Co., had settled in Boston and taught at the New England Conservatory of Music. Truda Kashmann, also trained by Wigman, escaped Germany and directed a studio in Connecticut and trained Alwin Nikolais, a gentile talent who made an important home for dance in the Lower East Side. His lead dancers Murray Louis and Phyllis Lamhat became teachers and company directors in their own right. Pola Nirenska who was expelled from the Wigman Company in 1933 with the other Jewish performers, returned to her native Poland, escaped to London, and then the U.S., where she devoted herself to choreographing and teaching. Judith Berg, another Polish dancer trained by Wigman, was known in Warsaw for her dances on Jewish themes. She choreographed and danced the role of death in the Polish film of The Dybbuk. She escaped to the Soviet Union and with her partner Felix Fibich toured the provinces with a Yiddish revue. She reached the U.S. in 1950 where she continued to choreograph and perform in New York's Yiddish theater.

Elsie Salomons, who had danced in Kurt Joos's German Co., reached Canada, where she trained her niece Judith Marcuse who became an established performer and choreographer in Canada.

Eliot Feld, trained in ballet, performed in Jerome *Robbins' West Side Story, and later created "Tzaddik" for his contemporary Feld Ballet, though he is not known for dances on Jewish themes. His mentor, the prolific genius choreographer Robbins, and his collaborators, including Leonard *Bernstein, first considered portraying Jews and Catholics in conflict for Robbins' remake of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy, West Side Story. However, they changed their minds and shied away from religious conflict in favor of ethnic gangs. In 1964, Robbins directed and choreographed Fiddler on the Roof an enormous Broadway hit, which ran for almost eight years. On another occasion he turned to a Jewish theme creating "The Dybbuk Variations" for the New York City Ballet (1974); Sophie Maslow also choreographed her own "Dybbuk" as did Pearl Lang. Other choreographers have also been drawn to this spiritual story, including Bejart, whose company performed it in Israel. The Pilobolus Company, which specializes in group choreography, occasionally touched on a Jewish theme, especially when commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which sponsored their company piece called "Davenin." An offshoot of Pilobolus was Momix with Daniel Ezralow, which has choreographed for Batsheva.

Arnie Zane (1948–1988) collaborated with African-American Bill T. Jones and Zane occasionally used Jewish references in his work. Meredith Monk uses her own original music as well as choreography to encompass Jewish experience such as her epic to immigration, Ellis Island, or her ode to loss in World War ii called Quarry: An Opera and Book of Days about the Middle Ages and Jewish life then and now. Liz Lerman has had a multi-generational, multi-racial dance company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, since 1976 and often draws on Jewish themes for her dances including The Hallelujah Project and "Shehehianu." Like Monk, she was a MacArthur Prize recipient, a mark of American achievement, and in 2005 Lerman was commissioned by Harvard Law School to do a dance project on the Nuremberg Trials and genocide. Margalit *Oved, Ze'eva Cohen (both Israeli-American choreographer/dancers) with Risa Jaraslow, Ruth Goodman, Beth Corning, and Heidi Latsky are some who bring their Jewish experiences into their works.

David Gordon, David Dorfman, Danial Shapiro, and Stuart Pimsler use vestiges of burlesque and vaudeville in their humorous look at themselves as Jewish men through their own choreography, using autobiography and their Jewish families as a base for their choreography.

[Judith Brin Ingber (2nd ed.)]

Russian and European Dance

At the beginning of the 20th century, not a few Jews in Russia occupied a prominent place in classical ballet; yet, many of them did not reveal their Jewish origin. Sol *Hurok, the impresario of the great and most famous Diva Ana Pavlova (1881–1931), reports in his Memories that she told him she was the illegitimate daughter of the known Jewish banker Lazar Polakov, allowing him to disclose her origin only after her death.

The outstanding classical dancer, choreographer, and teacher Asaf *Messerer (1903–1992) belonged to a great artistic family. He was a legendary premier dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet Theater, where he performed the major roles in the most famous classical ballets. He also distinguished himself as a great choreographer and teacher, and staged ballets in Belgium. Hungary, and Poland, and he wrote two books on ballet technique.

His sister Sulamith Messerer (1908– ) was a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi, where she danced leading roles in the 1930s and 1940s, often partnered by her brother Asaf. She moved to London in 1980 and was a ballet guest teacher with leading companies. Her niece, daughter of the cinema actress Rakhail (Raisa), is the legendary ballerina Maya *Plisteskaya (1925– ), one of the most famous names in the history of ballet. She danced in many capitals and served as guest director at the Rome opera ballet (1984–86) and with Spanish National ballet (1987–90). She visited Israel several times.

In his autobiography Dance – Imagination – Time, Asaf Messerer refers to several Jewish dancers who began their career together with him, including Miriam Reisen, Lubov Bank, Raisa Stein, Feina Leisner, and others; they are all included in the Russian Encyclopedia of Dance.

A prominent and greatly gifted dancer was Michael Gabovitch (1905–1965), who danced leading roles with the Bolshoi, having for many years as a dance partner Galina Ulanova (1910– ). In the years 1954–58 Gabovitch was the director of the Moscow choreographic school, and he is the author of books and articles on dance. His son, also called Michael, danced as soloist with the Bolshoi.

The star Alla Schelest (1919–1999) was for 25 years a tenured soloist with the St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater and the most appreciated dancer of the famous Jewish choreographer Leonid Yacobson (1904–1973).

The ballerina Nina Timofeyeva (1935– ) made her debut with the Kirov-Maryinsky Theater in 1953 when she was 18 years old. In 1956 she became the leading soloist with the Bolshoi and was distinguished by her brilliant technique; she also made her mark in modern ballet. In 1991, she and her dancer daughter immigrated to Israel she and pursued her career in Jerusalem, first at the Rubin Academy and later, along with her daughter, she founded her own ballet company and school.

The famous Russian-born dancer Valery *Panov, who was a star with Kirov-Maryinsky in Moscow immigrated with his wife, dancer Galina, to Israel in 1974. After dancing in several Israeli venues, Valery became art director of the opera ballet in Bonn (1992–97) and also worked in South Africa. At the end of the 1990s he returned to Israel and founded his own ballet company and school in the town of Ashdod.

Another famous Russian dancer who immigrated to Israel was Alexander Lifchitz. He was a soloist with Kirov-Maryinsky Theater (1954–74), where he successfully distinguished himself with brilliant performances of character dances. After his immigration to Israel he directed a ballet school in Jerusalem until his premature death in 1998.

The prevailing antisemitism in Soviet Russia imprinted foremost the major theaters, which refused to enroll many excellent Jewish dancers; those who were lucky enough to be admitted preferred to conceal their Jewish origin; one finds among them such Jewish names as Violetta Bobet, Alexander Klein, Ella Fein, and others. Other dancers moved to cities like Novosibirsk, Kiev, and Riga, where they found recognition and favor as leading dancers

The choreographer and ballet director Boris Eifman (1946– ) belongs to the generation of Soviet ballet masters who tried at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s to change traditional Russian ballet and make it more contemporary. Eifman, a spiritual disciple of Leonid Yacobson, endowed with a creative style of his own, is considered an important force in contemporary Russian culture as the director of his own dance theater.

Among the scholars and critics of Soviet dance, the Jews occupied important place. Akim Wolinsky (born Haim ben Lev Flakser in 1861) became famous among the most influential thinkers and writers on Russian ballet art. He was the author of several books and articles on all major personalities in dance. In 1921, he founded and directed a Russian dance school in Petersburg, where many of the prominent Soviet dancers studied. Another remarkable writer and critic is Vadim Gaievski, author of books on such celebrated artists as Petipa, Balanchine, Ulanova, Plisteskaya, and others.

After World War i and the Russian Revolution, many Russian dancers and choreographers settled in Central and Western Europe and where they enjoyed intense activity as dancers and choreographers. The most prominent were those associated with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The most famous among them is Ida *Rubinstein (1885–1960), who was the star of this prestigious company in the years 1909–11 and 1920. Rubinstein also founded and directed a company of her own (Paris, 1911–13) and then a second one with Bronislava Nijinska as choreographer (Paris, 1928–29, 1931, 1934).

Another outstanding artist is David Lishem (born David Lichtenstein in 1910). Although he left Russia at an early age he absorbed the Russian ballet tradition via L. Yegorva and Bronislava Nijinski, with whom he studied. He made his debut as a soloist with Ida Rubinstein's company and had as stage partner Ana Pavlova; he excelled in character dances. He immigrated in 1940 to the U.S. and danced there with the Ballet Theater.

Mentioned should be also made of the legendary Lituanian Sonia *Gaskel, who studied in Russia and Paris and founded the famous National Dutch company in Holland.

In her book The Blue Maiden Dancer, Nina Tichonova describes admirably the Parisian and Berlin's ballet in the period between the two world wars, mentioning the leading Russian names, which include not a few Jews. She also refers to the extraordinary phenomenon of the Russian Romantic Ballet Theater in Berlin, whose founders were Anatoli and his son Andre Shaikovitch, who also wrote books on ballet in French and German.

[Yossi Tavor (2nd ed.)]

The dancer, teacher, choreographer, and ballet director Marie (Cyvia Rambam) Rambert (1888–1982) was born in Poland and came to Paris in 1906 where she studied free dance with Raymond Duncan and later eurhythmics with Jacques Dalcrose in Geneva. In 1913, she was dancer and teacher of eurhythmics with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and the musical adviser of dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinski when he created Stravisky's Sacre du Printemps. In 1912, she settled in London, where she pioneered classical ballet and was founder and director of the Rambert Ballet School (1920) and the Ballet Rambert (1935). Among her honors are the Queen Elizabeth Coronation Award (1956); Chevalier, Légion d'honneur (France, 1957), and Golf medal of the Order of Merit (Poland, 1979).

Another outstanding ballerina is the British-born Alicia (Alice Lilian Marks) *Markova (1910–2004), who danced at the Ballet Rambert. At the age of 15 she joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Markova created many major roles in the ballets of Balanchine and in the 1950s was the prima ballerina of the London Festival Ballet. She was made a "Dame" (female equivalent of knighthood) by order of Queen Elizabeth.

The South African dancer, choreographer, and ballet director John *Cranko (1927–1973) came to London in 1945 and joined the Sadler Royal Ballet. This master of various styles of ballet was the artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet and chief choreographer of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

The French dancer and choreographer Jean *Babilée (Gutmann), born in 1923, showed astonishing technique and natural grace as a child. He was the star of Roland Petit's Les Ballets des Champs Elisées (1945–50) and in 1955 earned the gold star for best dancer at the International Festival Dance in Paris.

[Amnon Shiloah (2nd ed.)]


I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1932), 91, 404–6, includes bibliography; W.O.E. Oesterley, Sacred Dance (1923), index, s.v.Israelites and the nations of antiquity, Jewish custom, Jews, Ashkenazic and Jews, Sephardic; C. Roth, Jews in the Renaissance (1959), 275–81, includes bibliography; F. Berk (ed.), Jewish Dance, an Anthology of Articles (1960). in modern israel: Z. Friedhaber, in: Tatzlil, 2 (1962), 95–97; 4 (1964), 39–43; 5 (1965), 117–20. add. bibliography: N. Bahat-Ratzon (ed.), Barefoot: Jewish-Yemenite Tradition in Israeli Dance (1999); F. Berk (ed.), Jewish Dance, an Anthology of Articles (1960); A. Biran, "The Dancer from Dan," in: Near Eastern Archeology, 66:3 (2003), 128–32; Y. Cohen, Be-Tof u-Maḥol ("With Drum and Dance," 1963); idem, Ha-Tof veha-Yam ("The Drum and the Sea," 1976); R. Eshel, Dancing with the Dream: The Development of Artistic Dance in Israel 1920–1964 (1991); Z. Friedhaber, Ha-Maḥol be-Am Yisrael ("Dance among the Jewish People," 1984); idem, "Ha-Maḥol bi-Kehillot Mantova" ("Dance in the Jewish Communities of Mantua in the 17th and 18th Centuries"), in: Peʿamim, 37 (1988), 67–77; S. Cohen (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998); G. Kadman, "Yemenite Dances and their Influence on the New Israeli Folk Dances," in: Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 4 (1952), 27–30; G. Manor, Inbal: Quest for a Movement-Language (1975); idem, Agadati – The Pioneer of Modern Dance in Israel (1986); A. Mazar, "Ritual Dancing in the Iron Age," in: Near Eastern Archeology, 66:3 (2003), 126–27; W.O.E. Oesterley, Sacred Dance, index, s.v. (1923); T. Ilan, "Dance and Gender in Ancient Jewish Sources," in: Near Eastern Archeology, 66:3 (2003), 135–36; B.N. Cohen-Stratyner, Biographical Dictionary of Dance (1982); J.B. Ingber, Victory Dances: The Life of Fred Berk (1985); D. Nagrin, "Tamiris in Her Own Voice: Draft of an Autobiography," in: Studies in Dance History (Fall/Winter 1989), 1–162; J. Ingber, "Dance, Performance," in: Jewish Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia (1997), 300–11; N.M. Jackson, Converging Movements, Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd St. Y (2000); D. Jowitt, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (2004); L. Worth, Libby and H.Poynor, Anna Halprin (2004).


views updated Jun 08 2018



Dance, or the human body making rhythmic patterns in time and space for a purpose transcending utility, has been approached by anthropologists as one aspect of human behavior inextricably bound up with all those aspects that constitute what we call culture. Early ethnographers attended to dance as an adjunct to ritual or as an accompaniment to leisure social activities. Contemporary scholars examine it as belonging to the more general category of embodied knowledge. Their scope extends to classical performance traditions, modern popular forms, and communally embedded traditional dance.

Throughout human history, dance has always elicited powerful responseson one hand, it has been banned, feared, seen as a corrupting influence, criticized for its sexual nature, and anathema to those who privilege the mind; on the other, dance has been praised for its ability to entertain, viewed as the essential element in rituals of healing, transformation from one state to another, and thanksgiving, and as ordered movement, a symbol of a cosmic great chain of being. Through its performance by the human body and its ability to elicit a kinesthetic response in performer and viewer alike, it becomes elemental. Its universality across cultures is equaled by the strength of human responses to it, in which there appears to be no neutral position. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch, in his influential 1974 article, argues for the language of song, dance, and music as a special form of assertion toward which no argument is possible. Whatever meanings are encoded in these forms, the listener or viewer may only agree or disagree. There is no dialogue possible.

The medium of dance, composed by individuals and embodied by other individuals, creates meanings that are polysemous and multivocalic. The choreographer of a piece or a ritual may have one message to convey, the performers other interpretations, and the audience yet other understandings. This quality compounds the difficulties faced by scholars who wish to understand how and why dance occupies the position it does in society. Dance can be viewed for its formal aspects, its meanings or content, or for the relationships it has to its larger social context. In the history of American anthropology, the last approach has been the most popular. The reasons for this have to do with an implicit hierarchy of ethnographic areas of inquiry with the arts being relegated to the least central to understanding society. Even within the arts, visual arts have always been favored, perhaps because they are easier to document, unlike performing arts, whose products are ephemeral. Secondly, dance is notoriously hard to observe, record, and analyze. A focus on who participates in dance and how it functions within society made dance seem like other social categories. Early descriptions paid minimal attention to form, preferring the safer ground of functional analysis.

Ironically, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) had no such hesitation in exploring the body in motion. In his article Body Techniques (1934), he examined body actions in ordinary life, relating them to expectations about gender, about practice, and about habits of the body. His definition of techniques of the bodyhighly developed body actions that embody aspects of a given culturewas the foundation for Pierre Bourdieus (1930-2002) habitus, a notion that has influenced much of contemporary social science.

American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) acknowledged dance as a universal human phenomenon and, in the case of the Kwakiutl of the northwest coast of North America, as an essential part of their culture, but he found the form of dance more difficult to describe than visual arts, house types, music, or kinship systems. He was one of the first, however, to use film to record dance. Although the first system for notating was published in 1588 (Orchesographie by Thoinot Arbeau), it would not be until the 1930s, when Hungarian dancer Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958) created a dance and movement notation based on universal and arbitrary symbols, that it was possible to make an adequate record of dance that might be a basis for formal analysis. Labans system, labanotation, and its offshoot, effort-shape notation, revolutionized the way in which dance is described and preserved. While most dance ethnographers prefer their own shorthand systems, supplemented by film, for field research, these two notation systems prove invaluable for both structural analyses of dance as well as for permanent records. European folklorists and ethnomusicologists were much quicker than their American counterparts to document such formal aspects of dance as steps, choreography, movement patterns, and floor plans. They were also quicker to use labanotation and effort-shape in their work (Royce 1977).

Attention to the formal aspects of dance did not occur in the United States until dancers trained as anthropologists entered the field. Katherine Dunham (19092006), who worked in Haiti and the Caribbean, and Pearl Primus (1919-1994), who examined West African dance and its American forms, approached their subject as dancers and as anthropologists. As dancers, they were comfortable with the dance itself, settling it in their own bodies. As anthropologists, they documented its purpose in those societies they studied. Both women ultimately focused on theatrical performance as a way of bringing the richness of African diasporic cultures to the widest possible audience. Regarded as performers rather than as scholars, their important work was largely ignored.

Gertrude P. Kurath (1903-1992), a dancer with degrees in music, drama, and art history, was initially more successful. Invited by anthropologist Sol Tax (1907-1995) to write an article on dance ethnology for the first issue of Current Anthropology, Kurath defined and laid out the shape of research on dance within American anthropology. Sound research on dance, she wrote, could only be done by dancers who have achieved the insight and point of view of the ethnologist, or by musicians and ethnologists with dance training (Kurath 1960, p. 247). This, indeed, has been the pattern, with dance-trained anthropologists forming the majority of dance scholars. Kurath herself documented dance in cultures as widely separated as the American Southwest, Mexico, eastern and southern Europe, and ancient Mesoamerica, as well as Iroquois dance. Her most long-lasting contributions to the anthropology of dance have been her meticulous ethnographic description, and her development and use of a notation system easily learned and easily understood by readers. Kuraths superb monograph, Music and Dance of the Tewa Pueblos (written with Antonio Garcia, 1970) provided ethnographer Jill Sweet a foundation on which to trace the trajectory of Tewa dance. Sweet, with forty years of involvement with the Tewa, published a second edition of her book Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians in 2004. Most significantly, she included the voices of Tewa themselves, who reflect on the continuities and disjunctures of their dance.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a small group of anthropologists elaborated different approaches to dance within anthropology. Adrienne Kaeppler used linguistic analysis to explore the structure of Tongan dance. Drid Williams argued for a linguistic approach based on transformational grammar. Judith Lynne Hanna, working initially with West African and African diasporic dance, employed communications theory as a way to examine dance. Joann Kealiinohomoku took the work of Boas and Melville Herskovits (1895-1963) in new directions, looking at dance holistically as performed by the biological, language-using, social, culturally embedded human being. Anya Peterson Royce weighed the merits of historic, comparative, symbolic, and structural approaches to dance as an aspect of human society. The early contributions of these scholars to the emergence of the anthropology of dance as a scientific field of inquiry is the subject of a 2005 volume, Anthropologie de la Danse (Anthropology of Dance). Its editors, Andrée Grau and Georgiana Wierre-Gore, included important European scholars whose work is both fundamental and provocative. These include Rodryk Lange, John Blacking, György Martin, Ernô Pesovár, Anca Giurchescu, and Egil Bakka.

Since the 1980s, dance scholars have kept pace with the discourse of anthropology as it has dealt with issues such as borders and boundaries, postcolonial societies, exile and appropriation, gender, power and agency, the articulation of us and them, and not least, an embodied anthropology of the senses. The tango and the samba provided a multivocalic point of entry into matters of exile, identity, agency, and embodied memory and action for three anthropologists and their work: Barbara Brownings Samba: Resistance in Motion (1995), Marta Saviglianos Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1995), and Julie Taylors Paper Tangos (1998). All three authors capture what it means to be embodied in the dance, and communicate it in their writing. Browning writes of the way in which the dancing body communicates as a complex speaking of the body. Savigliano, an Argentine herself, describes the tango from the inside out in words that allow the reader not only to see the dance but also to feel it. Taylor, who lived in Argentina for more than twenty years, takes us beyond the observable steps into the meanings deep in the dancers bodies, and does so in language that situates the reader in the tango itself. Taylor and Savigliano speak eloquently and powerfully to the issues of exile and appropriation, the recombination of old stereotypes with new territories, and introspection and memory in the face of political terror. These key themes in contemporary anthropology gain new significance from their embodied treatment.

Brownings important contribution is to speak of the agency in the body, especially the danced body. She writes, the insistence of Brazilians to keep dancing is not a means of forgetting but rather a perseverance, an unrelenting attempt to intellectualize, theorize, understand a history and a present of social injustice (Browning 1995, p. 167). The active, creative, and creating body in dance is the subject of studies by Susan Leigh Foster in her perceptive commentaries on theory, by Cynthia Novack (1947-1996), who examined contact improvisation and American culture, and by Kazuko Yamazaki, who describes changing Japanese notions about the gendered body and its implications for innovation in dance.

The nuanced complexities of cultural perceptions and the social manipulations of dance and embodied movement have been the focus of several recent studies. Tw o of those are Jennifer Neviles The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy (2004) and Anne Décoret-Ahihas Les Danses Exotiques en France, 1880-1940 (2004). Nevile discusses the moral divide between the noble dances of the Italian court and the graceless dances of the peasants. Dancing masters, and the court humanists who were the arbiters of intellectual and moral engagement, molded their pupils bodies into the ordered, virtuous symbols of nobility. The peasantry, in contrast, were divorced from any philosophical foundations of morality, their dances therefore reflecting that lack in their sensual formlessness (Nevile 2004, pp. 2-3).

Décoret-Ahiha contrasts nineteenth-century French popular dance with popular dance between 1900 and 1940. Both periods were fascinated with the exotic, but how exotic was defined differed. Nineteenth-century exoticism in the form of worlds fairs and ethnological exhibits found a welcome audience of people who flocked to see these primitive and strange peoples and customs. At the beginning of the twentieth century, exotic dance dominated the music hall scene and drawing rooms. This shifted as artists and companies from all over the world made their way to Paris. Sergei Diaghilevs (1872-1929) Ballets Russes, with its lush ballets on Oriental themes and works that evoked the Russian soul, was one such company. The authors interest lies in the discourses produced by these periods of fascination with the exotic and their impact on society and on the dance itself. Hers is a richly textured commentary that enriches our notion of the exotic other.

Anthropology of dance has expanded its scope to include studies of form as well as meaning, Western and non-Western dance, historic and contemporary phenomena, classical forms as well as popular or traditional dance, comparative and cross-genre performance traditions, and such issues as aesthetics, virtuosity, and the relationship between creator, performer, and audience. These topics have allowed scholars to move beyond ethnographic description and surface meaning to the kind of theory-building that contributes to all those fields concerned with human thought and behavior. It builds, interestingly enough, upon the generalizations, comparisons, and theories about style and structure that Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss developed in the visual arts and oral genres. The shifts within anthropology toward process rather than structure, and performance rather than competence, have led scholars to an acknowledgment of the body, embodiment, and embodied knowledge as essential ways of being and of knowing (Royce 2004).

The field has not only grown since Kuraths 1960 statement of its potential. One has only to compare Kaepplers 1978 review of the field with Susan Reeds 1998 review. Since 1998, dance scholarship has expanded still further. Most importantly, the field has established itself within anthropology as a focus and method that contributes to general theories of culture and society. Whatever issues anthropologists define as worthy of examination, they must pay attention to their embodiment in the repertoire of individual actors and societies. Anthropologists will not be successful in that endeavor unless they acknowledge and practice embodied ways of knowing. They have recognized that dance and performance provide unique and subtle entryways to artistic expression. They have now begun to see the value of that lens for examining cultural understanding as a whole.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Boas, Franz; Culture; Entertainment Industry; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Ethnomusicology; Exoticism; Levi-Strauss, Claude


Bloch, Maurice. 1989. Symbols, Song, Dance, and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority? (1974). In Ritual History and Power: Selected Papers in Anthropology : 1945 London: Athlone.

Browning, Barbara. 1995. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Décoret-Ahiha, Anne. 2004. Les Danses Exotiques en France, 18801940. Pantin, France: Centre National de la Danse.

Grau, Andrée, and Georgiana Wierre-Gore, eds. 2005. Anthropologie de la Danse: Genèse et Construction dune Discipline. Pantin, France: Centre National de la Danse.

Kaeppler, Adrienne. 1978. Dance in Anthropological Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology 7: 3149.

Kurath, Gertrude P. 1960. Panorama of Dance Ethnology. Current Anthropology 1 (3): 233254.

Kurath, Gertrude P., and Antonio Garcia. 1970. Music and Dance of the Tewa Pueblos. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1979. Body Techniques (1934). In Sociology and Psychology: Essays, trans. Ben Brewster: 95123. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Nevile, Jennifer. 2004. The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Reed, Susan A. 1998. The Politics and Poetics of Dance. Annual Review of Anthropology 57 (1): 503532.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 1977. The Anthropology of Dance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 2004. Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Savigliano, Marta E. 1995. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Sweet, Jill D. 2004. Dances of the Tewa Pueblo Indians: Expressions of New Life. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Taylor, Julie 1998. Paper Tangos. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anya Peterson Royce


views updated May 17 2018



The arts of movement and of the moving image have coexisted since the late 19th century. They fill each other's most important needs. Film documents movement. For early forms of pre-cinema and film, dance provided proof of movement. Dancers and choreographers saw film as a solution to the ephemeral nature of movement. The art forms were disappointed by the other for various reasons—both technological and artistic—so they have had to negotiate ways to coexist and collaborate over the century. Concert, ballet, and vaudeville dancers appeared in dozens of early films. But, as narrative became the principle focus on film, dance took a subsidiary role, providing entertainment and an occasional dream sequence.

Some concert (early modern) dancers experimented with cuing music simultaneous to filmed performance, but, for the most part, silent film did not meet their needs for either documentation or creative collaboration. Sound technology appeared at the period in which the early modern dance vocabularies and structure were developing in America and Germany. But the new dancers' emphasis on weighted movements and philosophical leanings to the left saw little in common with Hollywood and they couldn't afford their own equipment. The avant garde of American dance waited until the 1940s to discover the artistic possibilities of film. Since the 1950s, all forms of dance have used film to document the rehearsal process and choreography. As dance became more and more abstract and non-narrative, it found colleagues in experimental film. Filmmakers and choreographers have worked together to create experimental projects. For the most part, the dance world ignored film as an artistic partner until the 1940s. Although dance as film has never been as popular in the United States as in Europe, there are now annual dance film festivals and screening series in urban centers and university programs.


Dance was featured in late pre-cinema and early film because it showed movement in human scale. Among the earliest films—nickelodeons, Mutoscopes, and other mechanical projections—are dozens of studio films produced by Thomas Edison showing social or musical-comedy dance performances, ranging from Annabelle (Moore) (1878–1961) twirling her skirts, in imitation of another dancer of the period, Loie Fuller (1862–1928), in Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894) to the Cake Walk series (1897–1903). Edison also filmed well-known vaudeville stars, such as Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone (who played the Tin Man and the Scarecrow in the 1903 Broadway musical version of The Wizard of Oz), as examples of eccentric dance. Early narrative films set the pattern for using social dance to indicate period or social class. The first full-length extant films to feature dancers were both made in 1915: The Whirl of Life, starring and based on the lives of the ballroom dancers Irene (1893–1964) and Vernon Castle (1887–1918), integrated their specialty, the Castle walk, into the plot. The Dumb Girl of Portici, Lois Weber's version of the opera Maisannello, or La Muette di Portici, starring the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), did the same with ballet.

In the 1920s feature films frequently used social dance to depict chronology. Present tense or contemporary scenes were signaled by fast couple dances such as the Charleston or black bottom performed by dissolute youths. Films starring "It" girl Clara Bow (1905–1965) were enormously popular, and Our Dancing Daughters (1928) was the film that made Joan Crawford (1904–1977) a star. Slower contemporary social dances were used to show romantic situations. Dance as mise-en-scène was expanded to accommodate experiments with narrative structure. The past was signaled with historical movement, from the Denishawn troupe performing on the Babylon steps in Intolerance, to social dances from the minuet to the waltz. Directors relied on dance to signal shifts caused by their use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences. The contemporary, Amazon, and classical sequences in Man, Woman, Marriage (1921), staged by Marion Morgan, are memorable examples of period dance as atmosphere. A famous scene is the dance in a dirigible, developed by Theodore Kosloff (1882–1956), LeRoy Prinz (1895–1983), and Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), in DeMille's Madam Satan (1930).


Studios' early experiments with sound tended to imitate Broadway or Prologs, vaudeville shows at motion picture palaces. Among the featured dance acts were precision tap lines, ethnic (called "character") dances, adagio or exhibition ballroom work, and such eccentric work as rag doll dances. Examples of all four can be seen in The King of Jazz (1930), the finale of which features successive episodes of ethnic dancers representing immigrants as they march into an onscreen melting pot.

As Hollywood relaxed into sound technology, dance directors developed a new structure for dance-based routines. As exemplified by Busby Berkeley's films for Warner Bros., the routines opened on a traditional stage but expanded into 360-degree effects possible only on a soundstage. Berkeley's first feature films were Samuel Goldwyn vehicles for the comedian Eddie Cantor (1892–1964), such as Roman Scandals (1933). In 1933 he began his association with Warner Bros./First National with 42nd Street. Based on a popular melodramatic novel about a dying director staging a musical during the Depression, the film switched the focus to Ruby Keeler (1909–1993) as a spunky understudy and became a popular icon of the early sound era. Warner Bros. produced a cycle of comedies, featuring its contract character actors, singers, and dancers, about staging musicals during the Depression, including Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), with its Pig Latin "We're in the Money" opening, and Footlight Parade (1933). Apart from solos for Keeler, most of Berkeley's choreography is based on simple movements made by a large number of synchronized dancers, sometimes magnified by mirrors and cameras.

Fayard Nicholas, b. Mobile, Alabama, 20 October 1914, d. 24 January 2006
Harold Nicholas, b. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 27 March 1921, d. 3 July 2000

The extraordinary acrobatic dancing of the Nicholas Brothers enlivened musical films in the 1940s, and offscreen they were also considered one of the best tandem tap teams of the century with major careers in musical theater. The children of pit orchestra musicians, they were influenced by the up-tempo early jazz of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Both were coached by performers on the black vaudeville circuit who appeared at their parents' theater in Philadelphia. They adopted the tandem tap style, then epitomized by Buck and Bubbles, emphasizing synchronization of movements in complicated rhythms. They ended with "flash" sequences, including their signature leaps over each other in full, stretched-out side splits. They moved to New York and appeared in revues at Harlem's hottest nightclub, the Cotton Club, through the 1930s, where they were influenced by both the music and the personal style of Cotton Club orchestra leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

Like Calloway and Ellington, they were featured in shorts, soundies, and early sound films, including Vitaphone shorts such as Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), featuring the composer Eubie Blake, and the Eddie Cantor comedy Kid Millions (1934). Their Hollywood roles were sequences in feature films that could be cut for the segregated markets in the South. They worked with Cotton Club dance directors Nick Castle and Geneva Sawyer, who had relocated to Twentieth Century Fox for a series of seven backstage musicals featuring jazz. In each film the brothers added spatial elements to the tandem and flash dances. They enlivened their splits sequence in Orchestra Wives (with the Glen Miller Orchestra, 1942) by adding runs up walls and flipping over themselves and each other. Their best-remembered variation is in the black all-star revue Stormy Weather (1943): in tribute to co-star Bill Robinson, whose specialty was tapping up and down staircases, the Nicholas Brothers restaged their signature moves down successive stairs.

They continued to tour with jazz ensembles, moving from the big band sound to bebop, and to appear on stage, notably in the musical St. Louis Woman in 1946. Harold Nicholas appeared as an actor in Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and other movie comedies. They received Kennedy Center honors in 1981 and are recognized as a major influence on later tap dancers such as Gregory Hines, Maurice Hines, and Savion Glover. The Nicholas Brothers, with the Copasetics and other greats of their generation, were featured in the documentary short Tapdancin' (1981) and the feature film Tap (1989), and are the subjects of the documentary The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance (1992).


Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Down Argentine Way (1940), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Stormy Weather (1943), The Pirate (1948)


Hill, Constance Valis. Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Barbara Cohen-Stratyner

Most are based on social dances or on tap dancing but are done on staircases. Mirrors and reflective floor surfaces expanded black and white design schemes. All of Berkeley's work features his signature techniques—animation, stage scenes that open up to huge sets, and prismatic overhead camera shots.

Many of the Hollywood dance films of the 1930s and 1940s were film versions of popular modern-dress musicals, with dance sequences expanded rather than reimagined. The studios assigned their staff choreographers and arrangers to the task, and the prevailing Hollywood style determined what reached the screen. Operettas, made popular by the singing film stars Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965) and Nelson Eddy (1901–1967), used social dance to set place and time.

Vestiges of vaudeville and Broadway dance remained in the large number of films with backstage settings or with visits to the theater or nightclub built into the plot. The most prevalent style derived from live theater performance was the retention of the proscenium orientation, with the action taking place as if on a stage and the camera standing in for the audience. Gene Kelly (1912–1996) never broke free of frontal performance but developed many experiments to vary the form, such as his duet with Hanna-Barbera's animated mouse Jerry in Anchors Aweigh (1945), choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen (b. 1924). In "The King Who Couldn't Dance," Kelly teaches the cartoon mouse to tap. The setting is curtained like a stage set, with the throne in dead center. Following the pattern of a tap duet, he demonstrates steps, and the mouse repeats the movements, gradually dancing alongside and finally with him, bouncing off Kelly's biceps.

A defining aspect of dance in films of the 1930s through 1950s was movement inspired by or growing out of walking. Many of Hermes Pan's (1909–1990) solos and duets for Fred Astaire (1899–1987) convey a naturalness by beginning with walking. Classic examples include the "Walking the Dog" and roller skating sequences in Shall We Dance (1937), and the stroll through Central Park with Cyd Charisse (b. 1921) that begins and ends "Dancing in the Dark" in The Band Wagon (1953). The most famous walking dance in film is performed by Gene Kelly to the title song in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Royal Wedding (1951) includes a classic pedestrian prop dance and two dances possible only on a sound-stage. In the first of two sequences danced onboard a ship, Astaire, one-half of a sister-brother dancing team, partners with a coat stand when his sister (Jane Powell) fails to show up for rehearsal. Their social dance number a few scenes later begins conventionally, but the performance is converted into acrobatics when the ship encounters a storm. They attempt to dance, but when the floor begins to tip their steps are turned into slides. Later in the film, choreographed by Nick Castle, Astaire is dancing alone in his hotel room when he begins to push off against the wall. This movement usually signals flips off the wall (as in Donald O'Connor's "Be a Clown" number in Singin' in the Rain), but instead, he taps his way up the wall and on to the ceiling. The magical effect was produced on a soundstage equipped with hydraulic lifts.

Other memorable examples of pedestrian dances in film include the "garbage can" found percussion trio in It's Always Fair Weather (1955), choreographed by Gene Kelly; the Olympic team exercisers who ignore Jane Russell singing "Isn't Anyone Here for Love?" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), choreographed by Jack Cole (1911–1974); and the rhythmic sawing and log splitting performed by the frustrated brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), choreographed by Michael Kidd (b. 1919).

Surrealism was a second strong influence on choreographers for films of the 1940s and 1950s, with Jack Cole and Eugene Loring (1911–1982) at the forefront. Many dances featured moves for separated parts of the body, such as Loring's orchestra dance for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953), written by Dr. Seuss. In Charles Walters's Easter Parade (1948), Ann Miller's (1923–2004) "Shaking the Blues Away" is famously accompanied by instrument-playing arms.

Broadway choreographers were only occasionally hired to reproduce their work. Agnes de Mille (1905–1993) did the stage and film versions of Oklahoma! (on Broadway from 1943, but not filmed until 1955), but not Brigadoon (1954), although both had dance sequences that were integral to the plot. Oklahoma's dream ballet, "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind," had already influenced many film choreographers by 1955. The French postcards that the villain Jud keeps in his shack come to life in her imagination as symbols of sexual depravity. The blank faces and angular movements of the "Post Card Girls" inspired Bob Fosse (1927–1987). Many directors and choreographers have copied or adapted empty soundstage with abstract clouds painted on the cyclorama for their dream sequences, most notably the "Gotta Dance" scene in Singin' in the Rain. Michael Kidd reproduced on film his movements for two highly stylized shows—the Damon Runyon gamblers in Guys and Dolls (1955), and the comic strip come-to-life, Li'l Abner (1959). The King and I (1956) was filmed with Jerome Robbins's (1918–1998) "Siamese" dances intact, including the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sequence. Robbins choreographed and co-directed West Side Story (1961), which scuttled the musical's dream ballets but kept the famous opening dance sequence.

Dance reemerged in Hollywood with the disco era, through popular films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and its many imitators, and the 1950s-era musical Grease (1978), choreographed by Patricia Birch. The Wiz (1978), choreographed by Louis Johnson (b. 1930), employed modern, tap, and jazz techniques, as well as club and break dancing around New York City locations. Dance was featured as atmosphere and plot material in La Bohème (1990), an Australian television production on which Baz Luhrmann (b. 1962) served as opera director, and Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge (2001), directed by Luhrmann. The popular and critical successes of Moulin Rouge and Rob Marshall's (b. 1960) version of the Bob Fosse musical Chicago suggest that the musical is still a viable genre.

There have been feature films about dance as a profession since the silent era. Most, like Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929), include performance as well as backstage scenes. Ballet films tend to be highly melodramatic, among them Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's influential The Red Shoes (1948), in which a ballerina torn between love and art commits suicide. Ben Hecht's forgotten Specter of the Rose (1946), and The Turning Point (1977), directed by Herbert Ross (1927–2001), a former ballet dancer and choreographer, are equally obsessed with the emotional life of dancers. All three inspired their viewers to experience live performance. Similarly, art cinemas and university film societies made Soviet and French ballet films available in the 1960s and enlarged the audiences for touring ballet companies. Carlos Saura's Spanish collaborations with the flamenco choreographer Antonio Gades (1936–2004)—Bodas de sangre (1981), Carmen (1984), and El Amor brujo (1986)—achieved great popularity in the United States.

Fame (1980), based on New York City's High School of the Performing Arts, featured adolescents in ballet, modern, and jazz dance training. The modern dancer Louis Falco (1942–1993) staged the famous "improvised" sequences, in which the characters groove at lunchtime and spill onto the street. Dance (social and modern) has frequently been used as a language of self-expression in such popular films as Flashdance (1983) about a welder who wants to dance; Voices (1979), about a deaf woman who wants to dance; and Footloose (1984), about a teen who wants his town to dance.

Fred Astaire, b. Frederick Austerlitz, Omaha, Nebraska, 10 May 1899, d. 22 June 1987
Ginger Rogers, b. Independence, Missouri, 16 July 1911, d. 25 April 1995

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers epitomized exhibition ballroom dance in film and beyond. Both dancers had stage careers before their first film pairing. Astaire and his sister Adele began in vaudeville as children, reaching Broadway as specialty dancers in Over the Top (1917). Their reputations grew in New York and London with roles in the Gerhswins' Lady, Be Good (1925) and Funny Face (1927), The Bandwagon (1931), and many other musicals and revues. Adele retired in 1932. Rogers reached Broadway via Charleston competitions, vaudeville, and stints as a band singer. In Hollywood, she had roles that combined comedy and tap dancing in Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.

They were playing secondary comic roles when they were paired by Dave Gould for "The Carioca" number in the RKO musical Flying Down to Rio (1933). Their subsequent collaborations, staged by Hermes Pan, who had been Gould's assistant, were all starring roles. The classic Astaire and Rogers films were plotted musicals with songs by Broadway's greatest songwriters—The Gay Divorcee, with songs by Cole Porter (1934); Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Carefree (1938), by Irving Berlin; Roberta (1935) and Swing Time (1936), by Jerome Kern; and Shall We Dance (1937), by George and Ira Gershwin. Each accommodated at least one newly invented social dance, one competitive tap routine, and one love duet, as well as a tap solo for Astaire. Pan's romantic duets began simply, often with rhythmic walking, and progressed through flowing movements to lifts and dips, before returning to a quiet ending. Astaire and Rogers were cast in the title roles in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), RKO's tribute to the pre–World War I ballroom dancers. The RKO publicity machine promoted them, the films, the songs, and ballroom dances extracted from the musicals.

Although they reunited for the backstage musical The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), their dance partnership ended in 1939. Rogers went on to star in comedy roles for MGM and Twentieth Century Fox; Astaire kept dancing in film and on television, primarily to Pan's choreography. He was able to adapt his expertise to each partner—in tap with Eleanor Powell, languorous ballroom with Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse, and musical comedy with Judy Garland, Jane Powell, and Leslie Caron. For many, his tap solos with props were the highlight of the films. They began with objects setting a rhythm, such as the ship's engine in "Slap That Bass" in Shall We Dance. Although Astaire is recognized as one of the greatest of American dancers, as a popular quip has it, "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels."


Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Roberta (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)


Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time. New York: Perennial Library, 1987.

Croce, Arlene. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Gallafent, Edward. Astaire & Rogers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Barbara Cohen-Stratyner

In the 1980s Music Television (MTV), and following it, VH1 and Black Entertainment Television (BET), popularized music videos as an integral part of promoting recorded popular music. Many were filmed and spliced performances, relying heavily on editing, but

some were staged and choreographed. Some refer clearly to film choreography, such as Madonna's "Material Girl" (1984) music video, an adaptation of Cole's staging of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, complete with human chandelier. Memorable music videos as dance include the robotic, stylized "Video Killed the Radio Star," and Michael Jackson's (b. 1958) take on a West Side Story–like gang war in "Beat It" (1982). Jackson's "moon walk" excited his teen fans and reminded their elders of the African American tap greats who developed such eccentric steps. Other directors worked with seemingly spontaneous dance steps, adapted from break dancing, voguing, and hip-hop, including Prince's "Purple Rain" (1984). The recognizable editing style associated with music videos, fast cross-cutting between the performance and dance scenes, has spread to influence feature films as well as television.


The few extant examples of collaborations between film and dance from the early twentieth century come from the French avant-garde and include films made in Paris by Loie Fuller, considered a forerunner of modern dance and who was also a pioneer in the use of lighting design. French experimental filmmakers considered ballet to be a partner of animation, as in Fernand Léger's Ballet mécanique (1924). The Dadaist work for Les Ballets Suedois, Relâche (1924), included René Clair's film Entr'acte in the live performance. Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes commissioned Ode (1928), with choreography by Leonide Massine, designs by Pavel Tchelitchev, and projections by Pierre Charbonneau. It is likely that Soviet Constructivist filmmakers also worked with dance, but if so no such work has been found. Among several instances of photographers, filmmakers, and dancers working together, Mura Dehn and Roger Pryor Dodge filmed concerts of jazz dance in the late 1930s. Gjon Mili, best known as a LIFE magazine still photographer, filmed concerts in the early 1940s, releasing Jammin' the Blues in 1944.

Maya Deren (1917–1961) and Alexander Hammid (1907–2004) are generally considered the first major proponents of "cinedance," or dance as film. Deren's first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), shows her walking on a new surface with each step. Her A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), a four-minute film of Talley Beatty dancing, contains one effect still cited as influential for generations of filmmakers: Deren edited Beatty's side leap, which had been filmed in a variety of backgrounds, so that it seemed to stretch from exterior to interior settings. Later, Shirley Clarke (1919–1997) worked with modern dancers, cross-cutting between their movements and evocative nature images. Contemporary figures include Doris Chase and Amy Greenfield, best known for her Antigone/Rites of Passion (1991).

The experimental generation of modern dance, led by the choreographer Merce Cunningham (b. 1919) and the composer John Cage (1912–1992), combined film and choreography in performance. Pioneering work in early video was done by Nam June Paik (1932–2006). The choreographers Trisha Brown, Carolee Schneeman, and Joan Jonas combined the genres, and Yvonne Rainer worked separately in each. Many events combined live task dances in environments that included video or film projection, such as Elaine Summers's Walking Dance for Any Number (1965). The Nine Evenings of Theater and Engineering, organized by RCA engineer Billy Kluver, were collaborations among choreographers, composers, and filmmakers with technology to enable live creation and viewing of performance on film. Cunningham himself made scores of films and videos beginning in the 1950s, collaborating with Paik, Stan VanDerBeek, Elliot Caplan, and Charles Atlas. The abstract expressionist painter Ed Emshwiller (1926–1990) made stop-motion films with Alwin Nikolais (1910–1993), a painter as well as a choreographer who manipulated shapes and color. Their Fusion (1967) was both a dance work performed in front of film and a separate film.

Ballet as film has never developed in the United States but is a respected medium in Canada and Europe. The integration of film into ballet was popularly known only in the late 1960s, when it was also used by experimental opera directors such as Frank Carsaro. The best-known American work is Robert Joffrey's psychedelic Astarte, which was featured on the cover of Newsweek on 15 March 1968. The Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren (1914–1987) has made a number of important cinedance films, including Pas de deux (1968), Ballet Adagio (1972), and Narcissus (1983).

The postmodern generation has worked in both film and video but views the latter as a more flexible medium. Performances often use projections or screens as part of the environment for dance, as in Trisha Brown's Set and Reset (1983), with films and screens by Robert Rauschenberg. The choreographer Bill T. Jones's controversial Still/Here (1994) combined dancers with personal narratives of disease viewed on movable monitors. The composer/choreographer Meredith Monk (b. 1942) has included film in her cantatas, such as Quarry, and has made films that stand on their own, most prominently Book of Days (1988) and several documentaries about her choreography. Eiko & Koma, Kai Takei, and other butoh-influenced choreographers use film to emphasize the slow pace of movement in their work. At the other extreme, Elizabeth Streb's collaborations with Michael Schwartz made visual sense of her impossibly fast dynamics. Many of the experiments were commissioned by and shown on Alive from Off Center (PBS, 1985–1994).


The frustratingly ephemeral nature of dance has remained a problem despite the development of choreographic notation systems. Film, and later videotape, has provided a form of visual documentation and preservation for dance. In the 1910s and 1920s, the mechanical piano firm Ampico developed instructional films for "name" dancers and choreographers, such as Anna Pavlova, the Broadway dance director Ned Wayburn (1874–1942), and the concert dancers Ruth St. Denis (1878–1968) and Ted Shawn (as Denishawn).

Most early filming was done by ethnographers or individual choreographers for their own use. Early attempts by institutions to document dance include Carol Lynn's 8mm films, made at Ted Shawn's summer workshop, Jacob's Pillow, in Becket, Massachusetts, and Helen Priest Rogers's films, made at the American Dance Festival. These silent films have been restored by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, whose projects endeavor to match music exactly to the movements. Ethnographers have used film to document nonchoreographed traditional, indigenous, and popular dance forms. Major figures have connected the worlds of film and ethnography, including the anthropologists/choreographers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus and the filmmaker Maya Deren. Rhoda Grauer, a pioneering producer of dance on television, has recently focused on films documenting the traditional arts of Indonesia. Her Libraries on Fire: When an Elder Dies, a Book Burns series includes the portrait of an elderly Topeng performer in Rasinah: The Enchanted Mask (2005).

Mura Dehn (1902–1987) pioneered documentation of African American social dance in her The Spirit Moves films. Collaborating with dancers and historians, she has created films about the Savoy Ballroom swing dancers, rock and roll moves, and break dancing. Documentaries on underground genres within African American social dance have received wide distribution and praise, including Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning (1990), on voguing; Sally Sommer and Michael Schwartz's project Goin' ta Work (released as Check Your Body at the Door, 1994), on club dancing; Jon Reiss's Better Living through Circuitry (1999), on raves; and David LaChapelle's Krumped (short, 2004) and Rize (2005), on the Los Angeles dance movement called krump.

With the development of video technology, documentation has become common. Character Generators, Inc. (Michael Schwartz and Mark Robison) and Studio D (Dennis Diamond) use single and multiple-camera shoots to document dance and performance art for choreographers and historians. The Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is the depository of record for most dance documentation. Its own projects and those of the Dance Heritage Coalition have identified collections throughout North America and developed standards for cataloging and preservation.

SEE ALSO Choreography;Musicals


Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Dance Perspectives. "Cine Dance" issue, no. 30 (Summer 1967).

Dodds, Sherill. Dance on Screen: Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.

Johnson, Catherine, and Allegra Fuller Snyder. Securing Our Dance Heritage. Washington, DC: Council for Library and Information Resources, 1999.

Snyder, Allegra Fuller. Dance Films: A Study of Choreo-Cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973.

Barbara Cohen-Stratyner


views updated May 29 2018


DANCE. Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, European dance existed widely within different social contexts and groups. Admittedly, religious dance no longer existed, save for rare local examples such as "The Dance of the Six" (El baile de los seises) in the Seville cathedral, since the Roman Catholic Church had refused to integrate such practices into its rituals. But secular dance, done as much as a ball as within the theater, underwent a deep renewal during this time, occupying a privileged place in court society. While the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder suggest popular forms of dancing in the 1560s, there is no evidence of this style of dance in technical or aesthetic treatises. What has been studied in the history of Western dance have been those dances reserved for social elites, from which blossomed what became known as belle danse based on noble style.

Western dance originated first and foremost in the Renaissance of fifteenth-century Italy and subsequently was favored by the leadership of the Council of Trent (15451563) and the Counter-Reformation. It became associated both with music and with poetry, becoming an indispensable element within sumptuous feasts organized to lionize princely patrons, and it developed its own masters and traditions of apprenticeship. These masters not only taught the rules of their art, but also shaped acclaimed styles of choreography to which monarchs and courtiers themselves danced. The most renowned masters circulated chiefly between the great families in Mantua, Ferrara, Milan, and Florence, establishing a highly elaborated, refined, and stylized art that was a pleasure to dance and to see. These men wrote the first treatises on dance, books designed to serve both practice and theory. In the second half of the sixteenth century their work spread all over Europe, as their methods, styles, and terminology were adapted in new places, most prominently of all in France.

Dance crossed the Alps thanks to the Italian wars of Francis I after 1525 and the marriage of Henry II to Catherine de Médicis in 1533. Though the Valois had been accustomed to a more spontaneous form of dance, the court appropriated Italian practices in its own fashion. In the course of the seventeenth century, French masters established a new style of dance that made noble carriage and deportment, elegance, and ease the standard for all people of quality. Moreover, with its emphasis on suppleness and agility, dance was closely linked with fencing, horsemanship, and indeed with military training in general. It thereby became a necessary part of the education of the proper gentleman, the honnête homme, as much in Jesuit as in military academies. In a world where social success depended upon knowing how to comport oneself, the dance master was expected to teach his students appropriate attitude and gesture and thereby how to function on the highest levels of society. Under Louis XIII (ruled 16101643) and Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), it was indispensable for a man of quality to know how to dance, in order to participate in dignified fashion in the company of the king and his courtiers in the balls and the ballets.

Born at the end of the Valois reign in the 1580s, ballet de cour became central to Bourbon cultural leadership. Louis XIII used it as a seat of authority; Richelieu manipulated it as part of his new style of glorifying the monarch; and Louis XIV made it a centerpiece of his search for Europe-wide cultural prominence. Indeed, ballet de cour spread in related forms to Savoy, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia.

A transformation began in the dance when in 1670 Louis XIV withdrew from participating in it. The creation of the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) in 1661 generated a movement of new thinking in both theory and practice among the French masters. Raoul-Auger Feuillet founded a system of notating dance movement, published in his Chorégraphie in 1700, that rapidly became standard practice Europe-wide for belle danse. Seventeenth-century choreographers applied the classicist outlook dominant in the court to notions of dancing with symmetry, equilibrium, clarity, and measure. Moreover, the academy led to a professional order of dance, in fact the first institutionalized ballet troupe, in the Académie Royale de Musique (Royal Music Academy), which was founded in 1669. The original restriction to men was dropped with the addition of women in 1681. During the second half of the seventeenth century, dance was integrated into the performance of all operatic genres, as well as some dramatic ones, and the Académie Royale de Musique, also called the Opéra (with the protection of Louis XIV and the dauphin and under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Lully), became the most prestigious hall of entertainment in Paris.

French theatrical dance proceeded to spread all over Europe in the early eighteenth century as artists started dance companies and schools. Dance stylesheroic or serious, half-serious (demicaractère), comic or grotesqueand performers became specialized, just as standards of virtuosity and expressiveness expanded for both male and female dancers. In England in the 1710s there arose a new kind of theatrical dance called ballet d'action, or ballet pantomime, that would tell a story without words or singing. Such shows became diffused throughout the main theaters in Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, and France during the second half of the eighteenth century. Theatrical dance raised vigorous theoretical debates over claims that it rendered mimesis as an art of imitation in Aristotelian terms, as an interpretation of the totality of human experience. In the 1760s ballet began to gain independence from opera. In London, Paris, and Vienna a ballet pantomime was given on its own after an opera, though usually it was on a related theme. In Paris the practice first occurred at the highly innovative Opéra Comique in the 1760s and then at the Opéra in the 1780s. Owing to the mingling of pantomime and dance in this period, performers were required to be both mimes and dancers.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, dance was not simply a distraction. Created by masters, who were almost always musicians as well as dancers, it was closely linked to the musical idioms for which it was designeddance genres such as the pavane, galliard, branle, courante, minuet, sara-band, chaconne, rigadoon, or contredanse. Musicologists have in fact discovered that these idioms influenced many aspects of what went on in operatic and instrumental music of the eighteenth century. That is why when spectators entered the Opéra, they brought with them deep knowledge of complex interpretive aspects of dance and music, all of which was the fruit of an ancient European cultural tradition.

See also Class, Status, and Order ; France ; Gentleman ; Louis XIV (France) ; Lully, Jean-Baptiste ; Music ; Opera ; Renaissance ; Ritual, Civic and Royal .


Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. International Encyclopedia of Dance. 6 vols. New York, 1998.

Hilton, Wendy. Dance of Court and Theater: The French Noble Style, 16901725. Edited by Caroline Gaynor. Princeton, 1981.

Lancelot, Francine. La belle danse: catalogue raisonné fait en l'an 1995. Paris, 1996.

Negri, Cesare. Le gratie d'amore. Milan, 1602; reprint, New York, 1969.

Rameau, Pierre. Le maître à danser, suivi d'un Abrégé de la nouvelle méthode. Paris, 1725. Reprint, New York, 1967. Translated by Cyril W. Beaumont as The Dancing Master. London, 1931. Reprint, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1970.

Tomlinson, Kellom. The Art of Dancing. London, 1735. Reprint, Farnborough, U.K., 1970.

Nathalie Lecomte


views updated May 29 2018


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America was fertile ground for innovations in dance that had a pronounced influence on the form itself and contributed to the formation of national identity. The experimentation of female dancers initiated the modernist movement, and the evolution of the African American tradition of music and dance, from the period of slavery to emancipation, culminated in the explosive rhythm and movement of the Jazz Age. Dance signified transformations in class status and gender identity, and the form was a source of inspiration for writers during this period, which is evident in the influence of dance aesthetics on poetry and the significance of dance motifs in fiction.

The history of dance in America is comprised of many interwoven cultural strands. In the colonial period, figure dances, such as the minuet, waltz, quadrille, and English country dances, were imported from Europe. Each successive wave of immigration was accompanied by the music and dance of the respective Old World country—for example, the popular Irish jigs and the German schottische (polka). There was a social division among dancing styles that can be observed in the differences between the imported European figure dances performed at the society balls of the upper class, the folk dances of the immigrant class, and the intricate African American step dances. However, throughout the course of the nineteenth century, these boundaries began to dissolve. Square dancing, an amalgamation of various folk dances and European figure dances, evolved with the expansion to the West. Some of the square dances that developed in the South were accompanied by adaptations of African American slave songs; likewise, some Anglo-American fiddle chord variations were incorporated in African American music. Native American cultures are a notable exception to this hybridization. The indigenous populations of this country have a tradition of sacred dance and ritual that essentially remained separate and distinct.


There was not a tradition of classical dancing in America until the twentieth century; however, audiences were introduced to ballet in operatic productions and tours of European ballet companies. In 1840 Walt Whitman (1819–1892) saw Fanny Elsler (1810–1884), a British ballerina, when she toured the country. More than a half century later, in 1910, the next foreign ballerina crossed the shore. The prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881–1931) created a sensation because American audiences were finally able to view the virtuosity of a talented danseuse. Pavlova, whose dancing was a continuation of the aesthetics of the Romantic tradition, became the model for the ballerina. Serge Diaghilev's Russian company, Ballets Russe (with whom Pavlova occasionally performed) appeared in 1916 and 1917; the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky danced in the 1917 tour. The company's avant garde innovations in choreography, costume, and stage design influenced the modernist movement in literature in America and Europe.

In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan recalls how she introduced herself at one of her first New York auditions.

I bring you the dance. I bring you the idea that is going to revolutionise our entire epoch. Where have I discovered it? By the Pacific Ocean, by the waving pine-forests of Sierra Nevada. I have seen the ideal figure of youthful America dancing over the top of the Rockies. The supreme poet of our country is Walt Whitman. I have discovered the dance that is worthy of the poem of Walt Whitman. I am indeed the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman. For the children of America I will create a new dance that will express America.

Duncan, My Life, p. 31.

American female dancers, however, had, for the most part, a more significant impact abroad than they did at home. In the syncretic interaction between dance and literature, two female dancers are significant: Loie Fuller (1862–1928) and Isadora Duncan (1877–1927). In fin de siècle Paris, Fuller created a fantastical effect onstage through her experimentations with lighting and her manipulation of yards of fabric. In fact, a special theater was constructed for her at the Paris World Fair in 1900. Auguste Rodin was one of her admirers, and she became a muse for several symbolist poets, including Stéphane Mallarmé and Anatole France. Duncan, a San Francisco native, revolutionized theatrical dance when she rejected the balletic tradition. She abandoned the restrictive costume, which consisted of corseted tutus and pointe shoes, and chose instead to dance barefoot in sheer flowing tunics that evoked ancient Greece. Enraptured by her northwestern homeland, the voluminous ocean and the massive pines, Duncan's movement embodied the expansive spirit of the country; indeed, her innovations ushered in the era of modern dance. She was also inspired by Whitman's poetry and, in fact, recited his poems to her American audiences during performances. For the poet, dance was an important metaphor that often provided the kinetic energy for his epic vision, most notably in Song of Myself (1881). Just as Whitman employed dance aesthetics in his poetry, so too did Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). In her poem, "I cannot dance upon my Toes—" (1862), balletic technique is a metaphor for the intellectual rigor of the poetic process. In one of Whitman's later poems, "Hands Round" (1876), dance aesthetics contribute to the overall structure of the poem.

At the outset of her career, Duncan exuberantly declared, "I am indeed the spiritual daughter of Walt Whitman. For the children of America I will create a new dance that will express America" (p. 31). European audiences responded enthusiastically to Duncan's performances; however, her dancing shocked the Puritan sensibility of American audiences, and she was coldly received in her 1909–1917 productions. Nonetheless, she enthralled many American artists who perceived her movement as emblematic of a new age. Duncan had a profound effect on Hart Crane, and she was an inspirational figure for his dance imagery in The Bridge (1927). Dance aesthetics continued to have a notable influence on modern poetry; in addition to Crane's poetry, the form is central to the works of T. S. Eliot, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.


Because there was not a tradition of classical dance in the United States until the twentieth century, there was no distinction between high and low art in theatrical dance during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Stage dancing was a medley of tap dancing, toe dancing, acrobatics, pantomime, skirt dancing, and ballroom and interpretive dance performed in vaudeville acts, musical revues, minstrel shows, and saloon halls. This type of theatrical dance is depicted by the naturalist writer Stephen Crane (1871–1900) in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). Maggie is mesmerized by a dance hall production featuring a skirt dancer "attired in some half dozen skirts" (p. 26), a ventriloquist act, and an impromptu choral routine in which the performers mockingly imitate the movements of African slave dances.

During this period, female dancers and actresses were generally perceived as immoral; not only were they, for the most part, from the lower classes, but also the public display of the body smacked of impropriety. Nonetheless, the stage afforded many females from the lower classes, who were underpaid laborers in the factories and garment sweatshops in major cities, an opportunity to supplement their salaries in the hope of embarking on a new profession. However, these women often found themselves performing in dance halls and saloons, rather than in the theater. For example, in Maggie, a ballad singer, performing in a saloon in the Bowery district of New York, is finally able to rouse the enthusiasm of her male audience when, after each successive song, she reappears onstage wearing less clothing and her movements become increasingly more provocative. This precarious social positioning is also addressed by the naturalist writer Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). In Sister Carrie (1900), the protagonist, Caroline Meeber, an impoverished young female from rural Illinois, relocates to Chicago where she is forced to contend with the perils of survival. She finds, albeit perhaps temporarily, an alternative to the street and her grueling factory job when she makes her way to the stage, where she struggles to gain a measure of independence and respectability.


Social dance was more respectable than theatrical dance because it was considered a mark of gentility; in this regard, the form was integral to the socialization process of the upper class. Dance was a necessary requisite for the marriage market because much of the courtship ritual centered on the formalities of elite society balls. Dances such as the waltz, polka, and mazurka were carefully orchestrated throughout the course of the evening. Partners were arranged in advance, and the gentlemens' names were notated on the ladies' dance cards. It was crucial for guests to observe social decorum at these balls, such as the correct arrangement of partners and whether or not it was appropriate to "sit out" a dance, in order not to risk tarnishing their reputation. This turn-of-the-century aristocratic world is meticulously described in the realist novels of Edith Wharton (1862–1937) and Henry James (1843–1916). These social galas often became routine by the end of the season, and, in an effort to break up the monotony, tableaux vivants were sometimes presented. A tradition dating to seventeenth-century England, the tableaux is a silent enactment of a scene or painting by one or more individuals. In Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart, a socialite who has been on the circuit for several years, makes a stunning impression costumed as an artist's model in a famous painting of the day and, through this performance, is able to recapture her charm and allure.

In regionalist narratives, as in the works of realist writers, dance signifies issues of class; however, issues of race predominate. George Washington Cable (1844–1925) depicts the Creole culture of New Orleans in his works. The celebration of Carnival, which originated with the early French settlers in Louisiana, influenced the rituals of society balls. In addition to social dancing, masquerade and costume are customary. Cable's novel, The Grandissimes (1880), opens with a Creole bal masque, an elegant soiree attended by guests who are attired in popular costumes of the period, such as commedia dell'arte and religious figures. The definition of Creole is complex and has been variously interpreted as a European born in the West Indies or the Gulf States, a descendant of an original French or Spanish settler in the Gulf States, or an individual of mixed European and African descent. However, the Creole community that Cable describes distinguished itself by excluding individuals of African descent, an exclusion that elucidates the intricacy of race in the formation of regional identity in the Deep South. Dance is central to this identity because it reinforces local customs. Kate Chopin (1851–1904), focuses on both the Creole and Cajun (Acadian French immigrants) cultures of the Deep South in her works. The Acadian community, like the Creole community, distinguished itself by excluding Americans, who were referred to by the term "white." This exclusion is integral to the socialization process; for example, in "At the 'Cadian Ball" (1892), the narrator emphatically declares that "Anyone who is white may go to a Cadian ball, but he must pay for his lemonade, his coffee and chicken gumbo and he must behave himself like a Cadian" (p. 1599).

Free people of color and recently emancipated slaves were forced to negotiate "the color divide" when they chose to settle in the North. Individuals of biracial or multiracial lineage often found themselves in a quixotic social position because class status was dependent on skin color. This positioning is eloquently depicted in the "The Wife of His Youth" (1899) by the regionalist writer's Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932). In the narrative, set in the North, the protagonist, Mr. Ryder, a biracial former slave who becomes economically affluent, plans to host a ball that he has arduously planned to imitate the high society balls of the white upper class. The event will "mark an epoch in the social history" (p. 1641) of the city because he and the light-colored blacks who belong to the social group the "Blue Veins" will be able to set themselves apart through the prestige and grandeur of this ball. Ryder explains that "we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black" (p. 1641). Ironically, the poignancy of this narrative is the omission of the ball; when the protagonist accidentally encounters his first wife, a former slave, on the day of the occasion, he chooses to introduce her to his guests rather than proceed with the planned event, thereby reclaiming his African heritage.

Issues of nationality and ethnicity, for the most part, elide issues of race in the establishment of the northern European immigrant communities in the North and the Midwest during this period; however, issues of race are a factor for some southern European immigrants in the Northeast and for Mexican immigrants in the Midwest and Southwest. For all of these various groups, cultural boundaries continue to be a source of anxiety, and the community dances that Willa Cather (1873–1947) intricately describes in her works elucidate the complexities of assimilation underlying this anxiety. In Song of the Lark (1915), the Scandinavian protagonist, Thea Kronenberg, becomes enthralled with the Mexican community in a small Colorado town when she attends a Mexican ball. Thea is impressed by the intimacy and refinement of the occasion, and she "could not help wondering whether the Mexicans had no jealousies or neighborly grudges as the people in Moonstone had" (p. 230). Cather captures the innocence and idealism that characterize the first generation of immigrants in the plains; nonetheless, she suggests that the inclusiveness of these Scandinavian communities fostered discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance.

In My Ántonia (1918), Cather conveys the popularity of social dance during this period. As the protagonist, Jim Burden, recounts his childhood in Nebraska he fondly remembers one of the best summers of his youth, the summer that he and his friends spent dancing. A dance pavilion was constructed so that the dance instructors who were visiting the town would have a place to teach. Itinerant dancing masters created a sensation upon their arrival in small western towns because of the professional training they provided the community. However, lack of formal training did not discourage pioneers and cowboys from dancing; in fact, almost any occasion, for example, a barn raising or a quilting session, was reason to dance. On the frontier, dances were spontaneous and unstructured, and it was the role of the caller to impose order and to remember the steps. In Song of the Lark, when Thea compares the graceful Mexican dances to the rowdy county dances with which she is familiar, she notes "for the square dances there was always the bawling voice of the caller, who was also the country auctioneer" (p. 229).


The African American tradition of rhythm and movement was instrumental to the music and dance of the Jazz Age. Aside from New Orleans, where slaves were allowed to observe tribal rituals on Sunday afternoons in a designated area of the city, Congo Square, slaves in the rest of the country were prohibited from beating drums, an important African cultural custom, by the Slave Laws of 1740 because the ritual signified the threat of insurrection to white masters. This prohibition resulted in the substitution of bone clappers, hand clapping, and footbeats for drumbeats. The rhythmic offbeat timing of the clapping and stamping, which mimicked the drumbeats, eventually developed into the syncopation that characterizes the jazz sound. The footbeats evolved into complex step dances and gradually the form of tap dance emerged.

In the nineteenth century, minstrel shows, a combination of jokes, songs, and dances that featured white performers in blackface, were wildly popular. Black performers, aware that whites were profiting from this exploitation, produced their own shows, in which, they too appeared in blackface in order to satisfy the white audiences' expectations. As minstrel shows began to wane in popularity, an exhibition dance called the cakewalk was performed at the conclusion of the show. In the 1890s the cakewalk created a national dance craze that was transported to Europe. The cakewalk originated on plantations in the 1850s by slaves who were parodying the ceremonial promenades of their white masters. The white owners, unaware of the mockery, began to imitate the cake-walk themselves. The popularity of this dance set the trend for the appropriation of other steps from African American dances into mainstream social dance; between 1907 and 1914, the "animal dances"—for example, the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear—incorporated movements such as thrusting the head forward, hopping, and flapping the elbows. The Charleston, the quintessential dance of the Jazz Age, which is distinguished by the characteristic gestures of crossing and uncrossing the knees, is a variant of the juba dance, an African step dance.

By the 1920s the African American tradition of rhythmic syncopation was the dominant force in music and dance, and social dance in America was no longer influenced by European styles. The jazz sound and the accompanying dance movements were the catalyst for the liberation of a generation, and the writer responsible for immortalizing this generation, beginning with his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), is F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), who coined the term "the Jazz Age." The wealthy ingénues who populate his narratives, the "flappers" with their shortened skirts and bobbed hair, symbolized the free spirit of the era. In the early decades of the twentieth century, this generation was introduced to jazz in the clubs in the inner cities of Harlem and Chicago, sites of innovation in the form. Although jazz originated in New Orleans, many musicians relocated to the North in an attempt to escape the oppression of racial prejudice and discrimination. The brutal fact of segregation became a reality for black performers, regardless of the venues in which they performed, from the theatrical stage to the cabarets and clubs. For the Harlem Renaissance writers, jazz music, and dance did not necessarily provide a libidinous release; instead the form increasingly signified the social inequity of racial injustice. Claude McKay (1889–1948), the writer credited with initiating the Harlem Renaissance movement with his publication of Harlem Shadows (1922), addresses these issues in his poetry. In "The Harlem Dancer" (1917), dance is a metaphor for the marginalization of the African American race; in the poem, the kinetic imagery conveying the movements of the black female performer evokes a sense of disembodiment and alienation. In "The Lynching" (1919), the dance motif eerily signifies the frenetic diabolic energy of white supremacy: "And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee" (p. 2085).

Just as African American dance engendered the fear of insurrection during the nineteenth century, so too did Native American dance. This fear was responsible for the massacre at Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1890. Inspired by the visions of Wovoka, a Numa Indian (c. 1856–1932), many tribes in the region adopted the Ghost Dance religion. This religion, which had Christian overtones, espoused a new world order for Native Americans. Integral to the religion was the sacred ceremonial Ghost Dance, a communal round dance performed by tribal members through which they entered a trancelike state, thereby gaining access to the spirit world. Government Indian agents perceived the religion as a threat, and when the Native Americans refused to stop performing the Ghost Dance great violence ensued. In Native American orature, the Ghost Dance songs express the religious belief of a new world order in which, "A nation is coming, a nation is coming / The Eagle has brought the message to the tribe" (Mooney, p. 1789). Interestingly, there was a tradition of religious ecstatic dance in the colonization process of the United States. Like the Native Americans, a Protestant sect, the Shakers or Shaking Quakers, believed that dance was the medium for access to the spiritual world. This belief was antithetical to that of the Puritans, who denounced dance.

Sadly, during the course of the nineteenth century, the stage became the vehicle for the exploitation of both Native and African Americans because ritual dance was reinvented as spectacle in commercial venues, such as the aforementioned minstrel shows and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The evolution of dance during the 1870–1920 period clearly signifies national tensions related to issues of race and ethnicity, as well as conflicted identifications across lines of class and race. During the 1920s, national dance was characterized by popular forms: the dances of the Jazz Age and the innovations in ballroom dances such as the foxtrot, waltz, and tango.

See alsoMusic; Theater; Wounded Knee


Primary Works

Cable, George Washington. The Grandissimes; A Story of Creole Life. 1880. New York: Sagamore Press, 1957.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1932.

Cather, Willa. The Song of The Lark. 1915. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.

Chesnutt, Charles W. "The Wife of His Youth." 1899. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Chopin, Kate. "At the 'Cadian Ball." 1892. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Crane, Hart. "The Bridge." 1927. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, and Other New York Writings. 1893. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Dickinson, Emily. "I cannot dance upon my toes." 1862. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Drieser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Horace Liveright, 1927.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. 1920. New York: Scribners, 1960.

McKay, Claude. "The Harlem Dancer." 1917. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

McKay, Claude. "The Lynching." 1919. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Mooney, James. The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. 1896. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. 1876. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. 1905. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. "Hands Round." 1876. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. 1881. In The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003.

Secondary Works

Doolittle, Lisa, and Heather Elton. "Medicine of the Brave: A Look at the Changing Role of Dance in Native Culture from the Buffalo Days to the Modern Powwow." In Moving History / Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright, pp. 114–127. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

Kraus, Richard. History of the Dance in Art and Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Lomax, M. A. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. New York: Macmillan, 1923.

Rodgers, Audrey T. The Universal Drum: Dance Imagery in the Poetry of Eliot, Crane, Roethke, and Williams. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.

Sommer, Sally. "Dance: II. Social Dance." In The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Siegel, Marcia B. "Dance: I. Theatrical Dance." In The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Elizabeth Miller Lewis


views updated May 18 2018







Dance has long provided a key means of expression for the movement of racialized bodies, and it has intersected with notions of race in a number of ways. In particular, dance has been a literal stage upon which ideas about racial superiority and inferiority have played out. It has also been a means for promoting social mobility.

Practiced by nearly every human society in all eras and locations throughout the world, dance enacts the ways in which people relate to each other; it defines the terms of representation for bodies and behavior; it expresses spirituality and sexuality in terms of the body in motion; and it provides a way to physically resist political structures. Dance in all idioms represents an idealized combination of physicality, aesthetic and spiritual possibility, and social occasion. Dance is widely—and wrongly—assumed to be a “universal language” that can be understood easily by any who witness its movements. In truth, dance exists only in relationship to recognizable human interaction, and it is structured according to local beliefs and ideologies. Because dance encompasses so many powerful possibilities, it has always been tinged with material implications for racist ideologies. Thus, racist practices and racialized representations of cultural formations abound in the historical record of dance performance.


In the United States, difficult race relations have allowed for an extensive permeation of racist ideologies through dance. Persistent stereotypes of ethnic action abound: Latino dances are “sensual” or “hot”; African Americans are “natural dancers” who specialize in “lascivious” and “grotesque” social dances; Native Americans are “spiritual” dancers who “passively” celebrate their ancestors and the land; and Asian dance forms are “delicate” and “mysterious” to their gathered audiences.

Each of these stereotypes deserves scrutiny. As a whole, Latino dances do indeed value accurate rhythmic meter. They stress fast-paced physical isolation of feet, torso, neck, hips, and arms, and they promote social interaction between partners or groups of people. Variations of group dances, including rumba and samba, are featured at festival events and carnival celebrations, while partnered social dances, including salsa and tango, bring couples into close physical proximity to explore movement possibilities as a single unit. For Latino dancers, these forms enhance social interaction, including group solidarity (in festival dances) and communication skills (in partnered dances).

During the European colonization of the Americas, Native American dances were considered to hold such power as tools of spiritual and social organization that white officials routinely banned them. For example, the Ghost Dance, performed by intercultural groups of Plains Indians from 1888 to 1890, emerged as part of a prophetic religion developed in the face of the hostile white takeover of North America. The dance, which lasted four days at a time, called for a costume that included absolutely nothing made by the white man. In 1890, infamous massacres at Wounded Knee involved the interruption of Ghost Dances by U.S. Army troops. Even before this, Native dancers had been consigned to become secular performers in popular entertainments such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West stage shows of the late nineteenth century.

Asian dance forms practiced in the United States, which range from Indian Bharata Natyam through Javanese Kecak, often rely on symbolic gestures to narrate stories based on legend, mythology, and historical events. Because the term “Asian” encompasses hundreds of ethnicities, it lumps together diverse populations—including Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people—and their vibrant contemporary dance traditions. The broad variety of these cultures and their dance forms, combined with the important and coded gestural significations of each, perpetuates the impression of inscrutability for many Americans unversed in the particularities of any of these forms.


African-American social dances convey the most consistent ideologies of race in the United States. Black social dances have been banned by city councils and considered lewd and inappropriate for performance in public spaces. They purportedly signaled the breakdown of moral standards and society itself, thus effectively demonstrating the potential for social disorder. Significantly, African-American social dances have effectively defined each historical era of the twentieth century, as with the Charleston of the 1920s, the lindy hop of the 1930s, the twist of the 1960s, and breakdancing idioms in the 1980s.

The cakewalk offers a particular example of race in dance. Created by African Americans, this partnered social and performance dance derived from activities at corn-husking festivals in the early nineteenth century. The cake-walk emerged as a sly parody of the quadrille, a French-derived set dance popular among slaveholders in the South. African-American dancers made fun of the “genteel manners” of the quadrille, adapting its erect posture and precision patterns to include complex rhythmic walking steps, sequences of bowing low, waving canes, tipping hats, and a fast-paced, high-kicking grand promenade. In its competitive form, the cakewalk involved acrobatic stunts performed by duos who strove to maintain an upright stance even as they kicked higher and higher in tandem. Those determined to possess the most precision, grace, ease, and the highest kicks won a highly decorated cake prepared for the occasion.

Surprisingly, whites who witnessed the dance failed to notice its derisive origins, and they clamored to learn

it. The form transferred easily into blackface minstrel shows and early Broadway offerings as it spread as a popular pastime. The highly successful African-American minstrel team of Williams and Walker (Egbert Austin Williams and George Walker) became the most famous practitioners of the dance. Walker and his wife, Aida Reed Overton, a noteworthy dancer and choreographer in her own right, brought the cakewalk to the height of its international popularity when they danced a Command Performance at Buckingham Palace in 1897. Thus, the cakewalk, which began as a racialized parody of white manners, offered social mobility to its African-American performers who became professional entertainers to the very people that their dance mocked.


As a realm, dance includes theatrical dance and social dance, its two most prevalent idioms in the West. Theatrical dance contains histories of racist exclusion for artists and audiences in the United States, as in the routine barring of black children from ballet classes populated by whites, and the strict segregation of black and white audiences in many theater spaces until the mid-twentieth century. These exclusionary practices held profound significance in the formation of dance performance. For Americans, ballet has stood for the pinnacle of classical achievement in dance, inevitably tied to a winsome white femininity stereotypically considered to be antithetical to African-American womanhood.

The largest ballet schools have resisted efforts to integrate their student bodies in significant numbers, and ballerinas of color have yet to achieve international celebrity in any part of the world, except, perhaps, Chinese ballerinas who tour to Europe and the United States. Because ballet in Europe grew to reflect European ideologies of grace, precision, and physical achievement, many felt that it could not translate to other cultures or geographic locations beyond Europe and the former Soviet Union. But ballet has emerged with vigor in the United States, South Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, and China. Cuba, in particular, holds a place of importance as a training ground for exceptionally trained classical dancers of color who break the mold of “white only” participation in the form. Not surprisingly, Cuban ballet dancers in the United States, some of whom identify as white rather than as people of color, are typically described in terms of their “fiery Latin temperament” while Chinese dancers are often noted for their “shy reticence” and “doll-like stature.”

The founding of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook triumphantly confirmed an African-American presence in classical ballet. In sharp rebuke to racists who contended that their “joints” and “weak feet” rendered African Americans unsuited to ballet, DTH achieved international acclaim at the height of its popularity in the 1990s, drawing on a repertory of some seventy-five ballets danced by a predominantly African-diaspora company of forty-nine dancers.

Mitchell, who had begun his career in 1955 as the only African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), was one of many individual artists who trained in ballet only to find limited possibilities for employment due to race. In Chicago in the 1920s, Katherine Dunham studied ballet with Ludmilla Speranzeva before creating her own Dunham dance technique. The Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1940, trained several significant African-American personalities including Sylvester Campbell and Louis Johnson. Philadelphia’s Judimar School of Dance, created in 1948, offered ballet classes led by Essie Marie Dorsey that produced several outstanding ballet artists of the 1950s and 1960s including Delores Brown, Tamara Guillebeaux, John Jones, and Billy Wilson. After the civil rights era and the founding of DTH, several individual dancers, many of whom had affiliations of some sort with DTH or its school, rose to the ranks of principal dancer in white-majority companies. In the twenty-first century, important African-diaspora classical artists include Alonzo King, who directs the Lines Ballet based in San Francisco, and the dancers of Atlanta’s Ballethnic, who tether classical technique to modern dance and neo-African forms.

At times, some ballet companies presented works that explored racial identity or offered racialized representations to audiences. In 1911, Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the premiere company of modern ballet of its era, presented Petrushka, danced to an original score by Igor Stravinsky. This fantasy ballet tells the story of a lover’s triangle between a female doll, the clown Petrushka, and the blackface Moor character, who brutishly slays the clown in a jealous rage. The Swedish-based Ballets Suedois premiered Sculpture Négre in 1920 with costumes that imitated African statuettes.

During the civil rights era, representations of black people gained in humanity on ballet stages in works such as Trinity by Gerald Arpino (Joffrey Ballet 1970), which featured the Trinidadian-born dancer Christian Holder leading a cast of youthful optimists who imagine a color-blind utopia of dance, and the NYCB choreographer George Balanchine’s Requiem Canticles (1968), set to music by Stravinsky, which honored the memory of the recently slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Balanchine continually expressed an interest in African American– derived jazz rhythms and movement sensibilities, often adopting a propulsive attack in his choreography that suggested the melding of neoclassical and social dance styles. Balanchine allowed black children to train at the School of American Ballet that fed his company, and in 1955 he hired Arthur Mitchell, who became the first principal African-American dancer with a major ballet company. Balanchine featured Mitchell in several original works including the plotless 1957 masterpiece Agon. Set to a commissioned score by Stravinsky, the work traded in a precise modernism and, in its central pas de deux, explored the color dynamics of the black and white skin tones of Mitchell and the white ballerina Diana Adams. Balanchine often lobbied for racial integration in ballet, and he refused to accept television engagements that would not allow black and white dancers to partner each other. Still, the ranks of ballet dancers continue to be largely segregated well into the twenty-first century.


Modern dance forms offered a more hospitable climate for black dancers in the United States. The racial division of Americans led to the formation of several separatist,

all-black dance companies, which have offered performing opportunities for growing numbers of classically trained dancers. Hemsley Winfield’s New Negro Art Theater Dance Group brought concert dance to the New York Roxy Theater in 1932, effectively proving that black dancers would be accepted by largely white audiences. John Martin of the New York Times noted the dancers’ refusal to be “darkskinned reproductions of famous white prototypes,” and termed the concert “an effort well worth the making” (Martin 1932, p. X11). Winfield’s company performed with the Hall Johnson Choir in dances of his own making.

Modern dance that explores African-American life has tended to valorize religious practice, particularly in myriad versions of dances set to Negro Spirituals. Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations (1960) set a standard of exquisite choreographic imagination in telling the story of the African-American progression from slavery to freedom. The work includes scenes that depict profound social resilience in an abstract group prayer, an enactment of an Afro-Caribbean-derived riverside baptism, scenes of solitary penitence, and a gospel-inflected service in a rural southern sanctuary. This work, which suggests a vibrant and closed hegemonic universe of African-American perseverance, has been seen by more audiences than any other modern dance work. Among contemporary artists, the dance company of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, founded in 1982, stands apart in its willingness to confront uncomfortable racial perceptions in large-scale works. Jones, an African American, and his Italian-American partner Zane offered audiences a study in physical contrasts in several duets. As their company’s acclaim grew, Jones continued to work as a soloist, and his powerful performances sometimes included improvised movement layered with freely associated autobiographical text. In 1981, he danced an untitled solo built upon spoken oppositional statements such as “I love women; I hate women” and “I love white people; I hate white people.”

Jones and Zane were both diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986, and Zane succumbed to AIDS in 1988. After Zane’s death, Jones continued to make large-scaled works that addressed themes of racial identity, sexuality, and cultural memory, as in the epic Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990). This four-part, three-hour fantasia is loosely based on the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel and included an intergenerational cast, rap poetry, and scores of nude dancers in its final utopian vision. At the premiere of Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger (2003), Jones and actor Susan Sarandon read aloud as the multiracial company shifted in and out of the various characters detailed in Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Artificial Nigger, underscoring the mutability of race in theatrical dance. O’Connor’s story of a bigoted white southern farmer and his grandson’s journey to the big city provided the narrative background for a charged exploration of race, gender, and theatrical representation.

Several contemporary dance companies resist racist presumptions surrounding dance technique, including Complexions Dance, founded by two former Ailey dancers, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. Based in New York, Complexions features a multiracial ensemble of ballet-trained dancers who work in sleek accord performing Rhoden’s abstract choreography.

Dance on the Broadway stage has always embraced transformed African-American social dance forms as the preferred idiom of movement. Jazz dance, acknowledged as the foundational technique of contemporary Broadway-style dance, is built on the codification of eccentric African-American dance movements culled during the early part of the twentieth century. At intervals, segregated, “all black” companies of performers have been assembled to perform energetic or titillating fare on Broadway, from the Charleston dances of Runnin’ Wild (1923) to the disco-inspired bump choreography of The Wiz (1975). Those shows reinforced the truism that African-American social dance forms, best embodied by African-American dancers, could easily entertain audiences of cultural outsiders. Some musicals attempted to confront race: The 1957 hit West Side Story pitted an Italian street gang against a Puerto Rican one in a series of danced battles inflected by ballet; while in 1992 George C. Wolfe’s Jelly’s Last Jam (1992) used tap dance and blackface to underscore a ironic narrative of racial jealousy among African Americans of different pigmentation.

By 2005, tap dance, like its footwork and rhythm-based kin flamenco and Bhartya Natyam, had become respected as a classical form in the United States. This shift in attitude must be related to expanding information regarding the artistic nuances of the form for all American audiences. The elevation in status, reflected in a shift of venues from variety stages and community centers to concert halls, mirrors a rise in middle-class patrons of color able to support various art forms.

Another change in racist ideologies surrounding dance derived from its increased media representations. In film, from Birth of a Nation (1915) to You Got Served (2005), African-American dance has offered audiences an outrageously odd array of physical sociability. Many films of the 1930s and 1940s featured dance to enliven otherwise dull proceedings, as in the flamboyant maneuvers of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the 1941 feature Hellzapoppin. Another popular narrative strain offers black social dance forms as a passageway to individual salvation, as in Flash-dance (1983), Footloose (1984), or Save the Last Dance (2001), in which white teenagers find their mature social voices through their mastery of African-American dances.

Television programs, including American Bandstand and Soul Train, also introduced black social dances into the living rooms of whites and others who would never have seen them otherwise. More recent television shows include culturally diverse casts of dancers, such as Dancing to the Hits (1980s), Debbie Allen’s several award show choreographies (1990s), and the syndicated competition show Dance 360 (2000s), in which dancers of every ethnicity try to imitate each other in African-American– derived social dance forms.

The discipline of dance studies, which came into focus only after the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, contributed to an expanded humanitarian sensibility of dance documentation in terms of race. The 1993 video series Dancing, created by Rhoda Grauer for PBS and accompanied by an oversized book written by Gerald Jonas, offered an essential, cross-cultural assessment of dance as a realm across geographies and cultural traditions. The video series includes many examples of rarely seen dance cultures, such as Yoruban egungun dances, that might have served as exotic spectacle for earlier generations. Documentary films about African-American dance cultures, including Paris is Burning (1991) and Rize (2005), have introduced wide audiences to specific scenes of racialized lives deeply invested in dance practice. These films highlight the difficulties of everyday life for young people of color, as well as the ways in which dance mediates some of those struggles.

As the scholarly study of dance has grown, so have the variety of its representations. A vibrant literature that complicates assessments of race in dance has emerged in journals, books, and Internet sites. Outstanding offerings from dance historians such as Lynne Fauley Emery, Richard Long, and John Perpener have detailed African-American dance practice; while the performance theorist Brenda Dixon Gottschild routinely writes about the role of race as a lens that clouds perceptions of dance among African-diaspora people. A cohort of other authors and artists continues to address the persistence of particular cultural practices in dance framed by racial stereotyping.

More recently, queer and feminist activists and scholars have worked to enlarge perceptions surrounding identity in dance, as in the work of feminist choreographer Chandralekha, from India, and the group ethic of the U.S.-based Urban Bush Women, led by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Still, even as dance moves beyond its obvious boundaries of performance and social practice to become a valued agent of aesthetic and social change, race becomes a guiding trope that defines its appreciation. “Classical” forms of dance, recognized as the highest forms of physical expression, are often regulated to whites, while dancers of color are often thought to be experts only at “lower-value,” social dance forms. It seems that race, alongside sexuality and gender, constructs difficult barriers for artists and audiences to surmount as they approach the realm of dance.

SEE ALSO African Diaspora; Black Popular Culture.


Abrahams, Roger D. 1992. Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South. New York: Pantheon Books.

Browning, Barbara. 1995. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chatterjea, Ananya. 2004. Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. International Encyclopedia of Dance. 6 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Daniel, Yvonne. 1995. Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. 1995. “Ballet.” In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Colin Palmer, 236– 242. New York: Macmillan.

———. 1996. “The Black Body in Question: Scarce on Ballet

Stages, African Americans Nevertheless Pace American Dance.” Village Voice 23 (April): 9–32.

———. 2004. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Desmond, Jane. 2001. Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Emery, Lynn. 1980. Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. New York: Books for Libraries.

Garafola, Lynn. 1989. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. 2003. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Greskovic, Robert. 1998. Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet. New York: Hyperion.

Manning, Susan. 2004. Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Martin, John. 1932. “The Dance: A Negro Art Group.” New York Times, February 14, p. X11.

Murphy, Jacqueline Shea. 2000. “Lessons in Dance (as) History: Aboriginal Land Claims and Aboriginal Dance, Circa. 1999.” In Dancing Bodies, Living Histories: New Writings about Dance and Culture, edited by Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn Banff, 130–167. Banff, AB, Canada: Banff Centre Press, 2000.

Perpener, John. 2001. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. 2003. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Thomas F. DeFrantz


views updated May 21 2018


Dance is broadly conceived as physical movement organized into patterns in time and space. Writings on dance grounded in the European intellectual tradition have tended to distinguish dance from other systems of organized movement (such as sport, military drills, synchronized labor, festival processions, and sometimes ritual) by identifying a dimension of conscious craft or artistry. The discipline of anthropology has shown that this distinction is not universal by investigating how organized human movement functions in different cultures, as well as how it relates to music, theater, pantomime, storytelling, and other kinds of performative behavior.

Dance in Intellectual Traditions

The idea of dance varies within intellectual traditions. Two ancient treatises serve as examples. Where ideas are treated as a function of language, and knowledge is derived from analysis of phenomena, the body is often written out of epistemological projects. Aristotle's Poetics (fourth century b.c.e.), for example, analyzes the plot structure, poetry, and ethical issues presented by fifth-century Athenian tragedies. The Poetics mentions only briefly the physical movement of the tragic chorus as a contributor to the effect (emotional or intellectual) of a theatrical experience or as a component in knowledge. In contrast, where cognitive processes, observation, and abstract thinking include bodily experience, physical movement is thought to generate and represent abstract concepts. The body and corporeal experience have a more prominent place in the formation of ideas. The Indian treatise Natyasastra (c. second century b.c.e. to second century c.e.), describes in meticulous detail how correct performance of hand gestures, eye movements, posture, steps, coordination with music, and posture will affect an audience's comprehension of the narrative and its meaning.

The Poetics and Natyasastra both assume dance to be inseparable from the performance of music, theater, poetry, and dress (including masks and makeup). Both treatises also assume that performance takes place in a ritual context, where form and content are already dictated by established conventions. Even so, the relationship between movement, emotion, and cognition is conceptualized differently in each treatise, which suggests the need for continued attention to the intellectual formulations that define the interpretation of human movement.

Until relatively recently, dance has been on the margins of the modern Western intellectual tradition. Dance appears as an object of study in two particular domains of modern Western thought: aesthetic criticism and anthropology. Aesthetic criticism, emerging in eighteenth-century dictionary projects and then taking root in nineteenth-century philosophy parallel with the development of the romantic ballet, considers dance to be an artistic practice. As performance, dance is distinguished from folk, social, or ceremonial dancing (though it may represent them) and requires formal training. The idea of dance as a formalized performance tradition is usually associated with industrial economies, urban societies, and a culture's economically secure or educated classes. Appreciation of technical mastery and performance conventions is considered evidence of cultural sophistication or artistic sensibility; meaning is communicated primarily in the visual realm of symbolic representation, mimesis, and technique. Dance criticism is an intellectual project involving analysis of choreography, performers' skill, aesthetic conventions, historical developments in dance styles, innovations in genre, and the success of performances.

Aesthetic Criticism and Analysis of Culture

In dance practice, at the beginning of the twentieth century Sergey Diaghilev's (18721929) experimental productions with the Ballets Russes famously challenged the aesthetic sensibilities of classical ballet by introducing parallel feet, ambiguous story lines, a lowered center of gravity, and representation of "primitive" cultures. The creation of new forms of art dance, such as expressionistic modern dance in Europe after World War I and Butoh in Japan after World War II, deliberately defied ballet's conventions of beauty but stayed within the domain of artistic performance. Aesthetic criticism accounted for and dealt with the creation of new dance genres. The purpose of aesthetic criticism remains a greater understanding of established and new dance styles, choreography (recorded in notation systems such as Labanotation), individual performances, and criteria on which stage performances can be evaluated.

The emergence of anthropology as a scientific discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, parallel with aesthetic criticism's elevation of dance as an art form and tensions in experimentation with the form, expanded a Western idea of dance to non-Western cultures and societies, often treating dance practices as folk traditions. Franz Boas (18581942), A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955), and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (19021973) included social dancing, ceremonies, and rituals in their field studies. Curt Sachs's World History of the Dance (English translation, 1937) offered an evolutionary and universalizing theory of world dance forms and was followed by Franziska Boas's collection, The Function of Dance in Human Society (1944). Though guided by the scientific commitment to objectivity and evaluation of empirical data, early anthropological studies interpreted dances from non-Western cultures as less aesthetically developed than those on the European stages and presented the dance traditions of North Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, and the Americas as more primitive forms of dance. The images provided by early anthropologists were reproduced as artifacts of exotic cultures in World's Fair exhibits and romanticized in exoticized, popular stage performances such as those of Ruth St. Denis (18791968) and Ted Shawn (18911972).

Since the 1960s and 1970s, this early anthropological work on dance has been significantly revised. The idea of dance, expanded to the broader notion of movement practices, allows for greater attention to the categories that define movement systems within individual cultures, nations, or societies, as well as for comparative studies. For anthropology and its related disciplines (folklore, ethnomusicology, ethnology, and ethnography), aspects of culture are revealed in dance practices. These disciplines also look at dancing itself as a culturally constructed activity that offers information about human behavior and, by extension, culture. These interrelated disciplines, along with methods drawn from sociology, kinesthetics, and linguistics, operate with a heightened sensitivity to the imposition of Western values and desires on non-Western, indigenous, or nonindustrial cultures.

Awareness of Western ethnocentric tendencies in dance research generated different categories of analysis and new questions. Researchers began to work toward a deeper understanding of the language, customs, social structures, and modes of thinking governing localized "dance events" before attempting to interpret them. Adrienne L. Kaeppler's work on Tongan dance in the late 1970s did much to advance the study of structured human movement in a specific cultural context. In the late 1980s Paul Stoller advocated the importance of a sensual dimension in ethnographic work. Major contributors to the assessment and development of anthropological approaches to human movement in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s include Gertrude Prokosch Kurath, Anya Peterson Royce, Helen Thomas, and Judith Lynne Hanna.

The treatment of dance as a social practice and a form of expressive culture goes beyond descriptions of local customs, ceremonies, and movement idioms. Through proscribed methods of observation, data collection, documentation, interviewing, participant observation, and interpretation of data, these methods analyze how human movement relates to culture. Many studies analyze the function and meanings of dances or dancing in situated contexts. Others track changes in the performance and interpretation of dance styles such as the tango, rumba, samba, flamenco, and hula as they are transmitted across cultures, including in the inquiry of the mechanisms of transmission. Still other studies are concerned with visual and kinesthetic communication, or how dance communicates as a kind of language. Behaviors surrounding a dance performance, such as audience participation and dancers' preparation, may be as important as the performance itself. Religious beliefs, political restrictions, integration of dance with other performance forms, and vocabularies used by practitioners to describe movement are all significant to interpreting data gathered in fieldwork.

Theory and Praxis

In the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the critical concerns of feminism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, new historiography, cultural studies, semiotics, race and ethnic studies, and queer theory have brought to light a wide range of issues that remain crucial in studies of dance and human movement systems, namely, how dance constructs or challenges gender and sexuality, how dance practices negotiate power relations, the effects of colonialism and cultural imperialism on dance practices, exoticization of cultural "others," institutionalization of dance practices, how dance is used to demonstrate cultural or ethnic difference, cultural ownership and authenticity of dance idioms, dance as a display of national identity, dance in marketing and tourism, the effects of stylistic hybridity on individual or group identities, performers' agency, multiple meanings in complex symbol systems, how dance practices link to social class, dance as a means of building ideological consensus, and dance as a medium of resistance and social change.

The work of scholars such as Jane Cowan, Cynthia J. Novack, Ann Daly, Sally Ann Ness, Jane C. Desmond, and Susan Leigh Foster has opened interdisciplinary territory in the effort to address these and other issues in the study of human movement in culture and as a means of cultural production. Their theoretical work has broken down the notion that Western art forms are a model of aesthetic progress. Studies of female dancers in Egypt and Morocco in the 1990s, for example, have used methods from sociology to examine performance in social conditions that define both dance and dancer. More recent attention to these concerns through ethnographic methods has shown how social control was exercised in the costuming, movements, songs, and visual spectacle in women's dances at rallies for political candidates in Malawi.

Methods of inquiry rooted in anthropology take aesthetic conventions as culturally determined rather than as marks of progress or as by-products of modernity. Aesthetics can thus serve as an entry point, whether the project is to understand culture through human movement, or human movement through culture. Applying anthropological methods to the aesthetics of classical ballet reveals, for example, that control of the body and individuality against uniformity are Western values. Cross-cultural comparisons of ballet's reception as scandalous in non-Western cultures, in contrast, show how ballet performs a desire to expose and transcend the body in contrast to local movement practices that value a body's individuality and are grounded in everyday activities. Joann Kealiinohomoku's (1983) work on ballet as ethnic dance has been followed by studies of ballet's adaptation in non-Western cultures and of how ballet choreography structures desire in its narratives.

Information made available through anthropological approaches has also led to popular appropriations of local dance forms within new cultural or social contexts. National dance troupes, such as Ballet Folklórico de México, present indigenous social dances as commercial art with aesthetic aims, often with an educational mission. Ceremonial, ritual, and communal dances may be taken out of context, adapted for the stage, and performed as a recuperation or preservation of "traditional" cultures. Scholars have interrogated the affected aesthetics, claims to national identity, and cross-cultural mis-interpretations at work in such performances. While dance forms identified with specific cultures are staged for international audiences, the same dance forms might be reinterpreted and invested with new meaning within the home culture. Kathak and Bharata Natyam as popular dance practices in India, for example, have been analyzed as resistance to the colonial legacy and as recuperation of the precolonial past. Such analyses show how adaptations of traditional dances within a culture can be used to define national, cultural, or class identity.

Reciprocity between theory and practice is evident in other areas as well. By the mid-twentieth century, ethnic fusion forms such as Afro-Cuban-jazz combined Western dance styles with those of other cultures, sometimes raising issues of cultural authenticity and appropriation. Dance forms identified with ethnicity within a dominant culture, for example African-American dance, have been analyzed as distinct and unique and, conversely, as in the process of adapting or challenging movement idioms from the dominant culture. Contemporary Western "belly dance" has been shown to remain deeply bound to nineteenth-century European Orientalist fantasies.

Dance as Experience

Though their methods, goals, and objects of inquiry differ, both aesthetic criticism and anthropology deal at some level with the fundamental question: What is being communicated, to whom, and how? This disciplinary imperative takes the human body as an agent of communication in an interpretive community or as an embodied subject acted upon by social forces. The psychological experience of dancing is generally irrelevant to aesthetic criticism's analysis of dance as a visible medium and tangential to research grounded in kinesthetics or linguistics (though audience response can be analyzed). Beyond Romanticism and notions of the sublime in art in the Western philosophical tradition, phenomenology has offered the most appropriate frame for the ephemeral qualities of human movement, as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone demonstrated in 1966. First-person descriptions of movement as a conduit for spiritual or metaphysical experience are, however, not easily adapted to Western modes of thinking and analysis, even in studies of mainstream liturgical dance.

Paranormal experiences, dissociational states, expressions of deep inner feelings, mystical experiences, and intense emotion generated by participating in a dance are usually associated with non-Western, nonindustrial, or indigenous cultures. Movement practices that produce such experiences are identified by terms such as shamanic dancing, trance dancing, exorcism, healing dance, voodoo, spirit possession, and ritual dance. In the Western stage dance tradition, such states may be represented in artistic performance, as with the expressionist choreography of Mary Wigman (18861973). Numerous dance forms in Western popular culture, for example Gabrielle Roth's "Ecstatic Dance," the appropriation of African dances as "healing dance," and so-called "spiritual belly dance" do emphasize altered states of consciousness and/or physical healing. Such practicesespecially those that identify with practices of nonindustrial or non-Western cultures in their costuming, symbols, stories, and idiomsoffer rich sources for cultural analyses. Though some work has been done to integrate experiences of altered states of consciousness into scholarly discourse, this area requires attention.

As suggested by the example of how the ancient Greek Poetics and Sanskrit Natyasastra frame dance, understandings of human movement are not uniform across cultures. In the early twenty-first century, collaboration among researchers from different intellectual traditions reveals differences in research methods, modes of interpretation, analytical vocabularies, descriptive categories, and goals in dance research. International conferences such as the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) and the World Dance Association (WDA) insure that ongoing research will reflect a diversity of intellectual as well as movement systems.

See also Anthropology ; Cultural Studies ; Ethnography ; Theater and Performance .


Buckland, Theresa J., ed. Dance in the Field: Theory, Methods, and Issues in Dance Ethnography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Cowan, Jane K. Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Daly, Ann. Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Desmond, Jane C, ed. Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press 1997.

Dils, Ann, and Ann Cooper Albright, eds. Moving History/ Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

Foster, Susan Leigh, ed. Choreographing History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Fraleigh, Sondra Horton, and Penelope Hanstein, eds. Researching Dance: Evolving Methods of Inquiry. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance, Sex and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. "Dance in Anthropological Perspective." Annual Review of Anthropology 7 (1978): 3149.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. "An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance." In What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism, edited by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, 533549. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch. "Panorama of Dance Ethnology." Current Anthropology 1 (1960): 233254.

Ness, Sally Ann. Body, Movement and Culture: Kinesthetic and Visual Symbolism in a Philippine Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Novack, Cynthia Jean. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Royce, Anya Peterson. The Anthropology of Dance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. The Phenomenology of Dance. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

Spencer, Paul, ed. Society and the Dance: The Social Anthropology of Process and Performance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Thomas, Helen. Dance, Modernity, and Culture: Explorations in the Sociology of Dance. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Donnalee Dox


views updated May 29 2018


The human body as instrument means that dance is always gendered. The dichotomy between mind and body, primarily though not exclusively a Western notion, has generally privileged the mind. The Enlightenment body was the locus of emotion, not reason. The danced body, with its elaboration of human movement using repetition and redundancy to heighten the experience, has particularly antagonized those who favor the mind, and more often than not, negative perceptions have centered on sexuality. The power of the body in dance stems from two different sets of attributes: One, dance has the capacity to generate a kinesthetic response in the observer; two, embodied forms speak through a variety of voices and channels, creating multiple meanings that may be ambiguous and contradictory. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1994 [1962]) describes the human body being in the world as the heart is in the organism; in this position, the body keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive. It breathes life into it, he says, and sustains it inwardly, and with it, forms a system.

Movement has always been controversial and associated with both goodness and evil. In the medieval notion of the Great Chain of Being, light, warmth, and movement are associated with the higher orders of beings. Ordered movement takes on even greater importance in the Elizabethan concept of the Cosmic Dance. In the Inferno, the poet Dante elaborates on life and movement. He puts the most evil sinners, the traitors such as Lucifer, in the eleventh circle of hell where they are frozen immobile for all eternity. They are forever removed from those angels who are moving, dancing, and singing around a God who is a point of light in constant motion (Royce 1984). In contrast, those whose sin was one of reckless passion are fated to be blown about forever by the ceaseless winds of the second circle, out of control after death just as they were in life.

The theatrical productions of the English dramatist Ben Jonson (1572–1637) reflected his conception of movement as the disposable shell of a masque, while the poetry of the text was its abiding essence (cf. Barish 1981). He gave form to his ideas by using formal, serene, mathematically perfect movement in the masques to portray goodness and a sense of proportion and jerky, backward, unnatural movements in the anti-masques to convey the opposite.

Dance reifies movement and the body, which is its instrument. It is useful to examine the presentation and perception of gender in dance by isolating three arenas. One is the arena of formal qualities, the technique and aesthetic choices that direct which forms, out of a vast range of possibilities, represent a particular genre. A second centers on the meanings or narratives implicit or explicit in a genre or in a dance composition. The third refers to meanings and assumptions that come from the larger context, which may be as narrow as a performance or as broad as society (Royce 1987b). None of these aspects exists independent of the others, but focusing on each, then on the ways in which they interact, reveals something fundamental about how cultures regard and manipulate the body.


Form can usefully be divided into body, technique, and style. Most cultures and virtually all dance genres have notions about the ideal body for dance, which may or may not be the same ideal for the body generally speaking. Even in societies in which everyone is expected to dance, such as some of the Tewa pueblos in the American Southwest, the featured dancers have bodies regarded as more pleasing for the dance than the corps. They are also regarded as "better" interpreters of the ritual. There is some relationship between the attributes of the body and the technique of the genre, but it is difficult to say which way the influence goes. For example, both Cook Islands and North African Muslim women's dances focus on the pelvic area, and the ideal form to show off the movements is a womanly torso, hips, and pelvis. But while the desired body type is the same, both the technique and the context are quite different. In Cook Islands dance, women and men dance together in opposing lines, whereas North African women dance for other women and not in the presence of men. Cook Islands women swing their hips from side to side, never in a circular fashion, and their shoulders remain motionless. Moroccan women rotate their hips in a series of circles that gradually involve the whole torso.

This "womanly" body, quite distinct from its male counterpart, is far from the one demanded by twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century classical ballet in which the ideal is the androgynous or gender-neutral body. The ideal state for the ballet dancer, male or female, is as instrument, athlete, abstraction—neutered and celibate. Whereas the classic "story" ballets have clearly designated male and female roles, the more contemporary repertoire does not rely on such narratives. The technique, then, for women and men, has become less distinct. With the exception of dance en pointe and to a lesser extent, supported adagio, women and men are expected to be equally at home in most of what used to be two separate techniques.

A resistance to the androgynous, thin, long-necked and long-legged, small-headed female ballet body so beloved by George Balanchine (1904–1983) appeared in modern dance as a symbol of its total separation from ballet. Coincidentally with the acceptance of a wider range of acceptable and gendered bodies came the declaration of equal status for women dancers. The American choreographer Twyla Tharp (b. 1941), who can best be characterized as a crossover choreographer and a rebel, created a company in which there was no standard body type. Any and all shapes and sizes were accepted so long as the dancers could master the grueling technique and choreographic demands. Her company looked like a cross-section of the American public. Indeed, some of her pieces invited local audience members to participate. She would also frequently choreograph pieces for a cast of three women, only to change the cast at a later performance to three men. While the bodies were gendered, the choreography was not.

The American company Pilobolus (named for a fungus) not only has no standard body type, in its fundamental repertoire all bodies are used as building blocks for a choreographic architecture that has little or no reference to gender. In its beginning years in the 1970s, the Pilobolus creators depicted the subhuman and the fantastic, not using the body as dance normally conceives it. Their choreography denied the shape of the human body as well as the body's capabilities when used independent of other bodies. The shapes were mesmerizing but not human (Royce 1987a). As the company developed, its members began creating thematic pieces that allowed the human body to reappear, although the gendered body still remained in both form and narrative subsumed in the humanity, rather than the humanness, of the choreography. Their themes, then, are those reflecting humanity—love, conflict, sorrow, happiness, relationship—and while they are interpreted by gendered bodies, the focus does not lie with the bodies themselves.

Men's bodies have often stood for both men and women. Prior to the late seventeenth century, men danced both male and female roles in the ballets of the French court. In Kabuki theater, women's roles are played by males known as onnagata. The development of the onnagata provides an interesting commentary on the interchangeability of men and women. Kabuki in the 1600s was a popular form of theater performed by women as well as men. By 1629, the rowdiness that Kabuki seemed to generate in its audiences prompted the government to ban women from performing. Young men replaced them. People continued behaving in a scandalous manner leading the government to ban Kabuki altogether in 1652. Kabuki was "reborn" by an implied connection to Nō theater, a traditional and respected form of dance-drama, and, like Nō, Kabuki was exclusively male. Onnagata regard their portrayal of women as somehow archetypical; they use gestures and postures taught to geishas, including slow, sculpted, deliberate movements, hips tucked under and forward, knees slightly bent and held together, and turned-in toes. It is a codified technique that signals "woman." It does this so well that it can be referenced when actors want to signal this kind of hyperstylized feminine principle.

Lindsay Kemp used the onnagata figure in his 1974 production of Jean Genet's Notre-Dame des Fleurs (1944; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949) in order to make the audience comprehend immediately the transvestite nature of Divine. As he made his slow way across the balcony, dressed in a long, white, close-fitting gown, Divine did so with the sliding step of the onnagata—sliding the foot forward, raising the toes up, then pointing them down again, sliding the other foot forward. His hips were tucked under, knees bent, and his head cast down and to one side (Royce 2004). The power of the female contained in Kabuki onnagata technique, posture, and style conveys itself directly and with absolute clarity. Genet, in Notre-Dame des Fleurs, speaks to the elusiveness of masculinity and femininity in everyday gesture, when he describes Divine responding to a delicate lover by trying to be more masculine: "She tried for male gestures, which are rarely the gestures of males" (Genet 1963, p. 133). Kemp relied, not on exaggeration of ordinary gestures and movement, but rather on a form that everyone knows to be emblematic of woman.


Formal qualities of the body and the movements codified into techniques and genres have a long history of dividing peoples into civilized and other—in cultural, class, and gender terms. While there are vast cultural differences across societies in terms of which particular movements are thought to be appropriate, some fundamental qualities of movement seem to have universal resonance. Ordered, economical, redundant, and inevitable—these are all qualities associated with movement that is pleasing, that is, civilized. Disordered and cluttered movement is unpleasant and a sign of a person or culture lacking discipline and aesthetic sensibility. One of the best demonstrations of this mode of thought comes from the Renaissance courts of Italy and France where to be a member of the court—a courtier—an aristocrat depended on the unmannered grace with which one moved through life. Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) describes this in his book The Courtier when he speaks about art, mundane and otherwise: "true art which does not seem to be art; nor must one be more careful of anything than of concealing it, because if it is discovered, this robs a man of all credit and causes him to be held in slight esteem…. Art, or any intense effort, if it is disclosed, deprives everything of grace" (in Royce 2004, p. 22). Sprezzatura, or nonchalance, was his term for this essential quality of the courtier class.

In the fifteenth-century Italian court, proper grace was the key to one's social standing. The children of the court were taught this in dance lessons, but it carried across all other areas of deportment. Those who moved without grace—effortless grace—clearly did not belong to courtly society. Clumsiness in movement was also equated with spiritual failing: Movements of the body mirrored movements of the soul. If one was clumsy so was the other, and clumsiness of the soul meant corruption, vice, ugliness, and evil. A distinction was made between the clumsy, ugly dances of the peasants and the grace-filled, noble dances of the court (Nevile 2004). Court dance was elevated to its high status not only because of its formal properties and general deportment but also because of its link to intellectual and moral engagement. Properly performed and based solidly in the humanistic philosophy of the court, dance achieved salutary moral results, unlike the rude and riotous dancing of the peasant class, which was totally divorced from any philosophy whatsoever (Nevile 2004). In one sense, the activities of the court humanists of the fifteenth century can be viewed as prefigurements of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1977) and his notions of making the body docile through discipline. Dancing masters of the courts molded their pupils' bodies into graceful, virtuous, moderate symbols of an ordered universe that saw those particular qualities as a pinnacle of accomplishment and their opposites as examples of the basest forms of life.

One of the paradoxes of this division into ordered, graceful courtly dance and lewd and rowdy peasant dance was that there was always an interchange between the court and countryside, with borrowings going both ways. The most famous example is that of the waltz. This dance was originally a variant of the German and Austrian ländlers, voltas, and wellers, all fast-moving, closed-couple dances done in the countryside. Aristocratic attitudes labeled these dances as sexually explicit because of the intimacy of the closed position and the rapid turns, which were thought to excite the passions of the performers. Under its late-eighteenth-century name, the waltz became a popular dance at court where the context of its performance, the wider stance between partners, and, above all, the ordered choreography made it morally and sexually acceptable. Eventually, when it left the courts and became the property of a broader class of people, it maintained this elite image, becoming a dance that was used to mark solemn occasions such as debutante balls, graduations, and weddings. By the late nineteenth century, waltzing societies sprang up as institutions whose members pretended to high social status. The members of these societies agonized over whether or not polkas could be included, the polka never having lost its rowdy, sexually provocative image.

Another dance that has undergone similar changes of status is the tango. If anything, it has become even more highly charged in terms of sexuality. The tango originated in the lower-class sectors of Buenos Aires in the 1880s. The population of these areas was primarily composed of descendants of African slaves. The tango became a popular salon dance by the 1920s when it was danced by middle-aged and older dancers as well as by the younger set. In this form, it was considerably more subdued and less sexually overt than contemporary tango performances. From the 1940s on, the tango has been exported around the globe—to France, to Japan, to Finland—while becoming a staple of international ballroom dancing. As it traveled, the sexual aspects were exaggerated—partners were locked in tight embraces; legs snaked in and around partner's legs and body; the famous "dip" with the women bent backward, head almost to the floor became an essential feature. These are also features of the tango as it is performed in competitive ballroom dancing. This form of tango functions as a nonverbal shorthand for unbridled sexuality and passion in advertisements, in films such as Last Tango in Paris (1973), Scent of a Woman (1992), and True Lies (1994), in touring companies such as Tango Argentina, and, in an early manifestation, Rudolf Valentino's signature tangos of the 1920s.

In this exaggerated form, the tango also stood for male domination and female submission. The man directs his partner who is expected to submit and follow. As a couple, they are as alienated as the Argentine notion of mufarse—dwelling on one's inability to affect anything and the sense of exile from self and society. As Julie Taylor (1998) comments, the tango was the perfect symbol of the long civil war that Argentines experienced: "The tango did not give us any rules or a representation of anything. It gave us a space to reflect on rules, to despair or to feel our bodies recognize, sometimes with a disconcerting solace, the way things are" (pp. 84-85). During these difficult years of civil unrest when one might simply "disappear" without leaving a trace of ever having been, the citizens of Buenos Aires were drawn to milongas, underground gatherings where one could dance tangos. These milongas were banned but continued to be held as underground, illegal gatherings. In this regard, tango has become a national symbol of Argentina both for the Argentines and for the rest of the world. Argentines, according to Taylor, understand the potential of the tango for self-indulgent reflection, but it is the tango form and its responses—"related meditations on exile, identity, cultural vitality, gender, and the various forms of death" (p. 44)—that she explores.


Because of the power in the elaborated, dense, and multi-vocalic form of movement that is dance and because the body is the instrument of that power, dance has been viewed across time and cultures as inherently sensual. On some occasions, dance is allowed to function in that uncontained way—fertility rites, rituals of reversal in which the proscribed becomes prescribed, shamanic practices in which the body becomes a vehicle for the gods and the shamans are possessed, rites of passage, or celebrations of marriage that mimic the sexual obligations of the partners. These opportunities are not randomly distributed; indeed, they are carefully constrained, representing marked-off spaces and time. Their use is disciplined and allows societies to recognize human sensuality and sexuality in a manner that does not disrupt community.

When societies with minimal knowledge of each other come into contact, the cultural meanings and contexts of their dances are not understood, and the dances are seen for their form alone. In this way, missionaries, reacting to the hip-swinging dances of the Cook Islanders, clothed them in Mother Hubbard outfits (form-concealing long dresses), and admonished them not to dance. Polynesian societies in general learned rather quickly that the way to retain their dances, given the presence of Christian missionaries, was to define what they did as illustrating with hand and body gestures the hymns taught them. The ring-shout dances and "patting juba" of the Africans enslaved and brought to the American South were similarly ways to maintain important modes of expression while obeying the restrictions against dance. The ring-shout was a dance done in a circle and consisted of shuffling and parallel movements of the feet that stayed close to the ground; voices provided the music. "Patting juba" was a form in which the individual made music by patting her arms and other parts of the body while chanting.

So long as their feet did not lift off the floor or cross each other, as in the ring-shout dance, so long as they did not use drums, as in "patting juba" where the body itself became the musical instrument, what they did could be considered "worship" or harmless diversion. In a wonderful example of misperceptions on the part of both societies, the English who colonized vast regions of Africa were disgusted by what they interpreted as the flagrant sexuality of the multiunit torso form of much of West African dance, while the colonized Africans viewed as lewd the colonizers' closed-couple dances, such as waltzes, in which men and women danced together in close embraces. Africans' disgust with white European dances stemmed from the fact that men and women danced together touching each other, something not ever done in African dances where men and women danced separately. Similar reactions occurred in the early-twentieth-century United States when the multiunit torso of the African Americans met the single-unit torso of the North Europeans. Dances such as the black bottom, the Charleston, the big apple, and the turkey trot initially elicited shocked reactions on the part of white society (and were banned by the Vatican), but then were adopted by the youth who were the heart of the post-World War I enthusiasm for life.

Moving from the realm of social dance to theatrical dance in the United States, one sees the same cultural notions about what dance was ordered, civilized, and proper and what was not. Not surprisingly, gender and race influenced general perceptions and the responses to them. Comparing the responses of both public and critics to the dancer-choreographers Katherine Dunham (1909–2006), Pearl Primus (1919–1994), and Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968) reveals the effect of race and related ideas of propriety. Dunham and Primus were both African-American dancers who wanted to portray the dances of Haiti and the Caribbean, in Dunham's case, and of West Africa in the case of Primus. St. Denis, a white dancer from New Jersey, created oriental-style choreographies, based loosely on Indian, Egyptian, and Japanese themes. The public welcomed her flowing white costumes and highly stylized poses as the epitome of femininity, albeit somewhat exoticized. Despite undulating arms and hips, her dances were lauded as tasteful and elegant. Dunham and Primus were criticized for the sexuality of their dances and the "primitive" nature of their costumes. At that time in American theatrical dance, African Americans were relegated to tap, the Black Broadway musicals, and caricatures of themselves in early Hollywood movies. Dunham and Primus defied these categories and were criticized for it. Interestingly, their contemporary African-American male colleagues in dance, such as Asadata Dafora (1890–1965), and later, Alvin Ailey (1931–1989), were welcomed more uncritically both as dancers and choreographers (cf. Foulkes 2002).


Dance has been banned, feared for its power, criticized for corrupting morals, embraced as the symbol of the right order of the universe, lauded for providing release and entertainment, used as a medium for connection with the spirits, and seen as necessary for the efficacy of rituals of transformation, healing, and thanksgiving—all these being responses to the rhythmic, kinesthetic-appealing, ordered elaboration of movement known as dance. There are no neutral responses, no way to avoid reacting. We are tugged along despite ourselves. When the meaning inherent in the body and the form is compounded by explicit narrative meanings, and both of these are given additional meaning by the cultural context in which dance is performed, dance becomes a language much like that of ritual or prophesy. One can like it or dislike it, but one cannot argue with it. Dance exists in the moment, in the bodies of its performers, as designs in space and time. It does with us what it wills, and therein lies its seductive power.


Barish, Jonas. 1981. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon.

Foulkes, Julia L. 2002. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Genet, Jean. 1963. Our Lady of the Flowers, trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1994 (1962). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. New York: Routledge.

Nevile, Jennifer. 2004. The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 1984. Movement and Meaning: Creativity and Interpretation in Ballet and Mime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 1987a. "Limits of Innovation in Dance and Mime." Semiotica 65(3-4): 269-284.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 1987b. "Masculinity and Femininity in Elaborated Movement Systems." In Masculinity/Femininity: Basic Perspectives, ed. June Machover Reinisch, Leonard A. Rosenblum, and Stephanie A. Sanders. New York: Oxford University Press.

Royce, Anya Peterson. 2004. Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Taylor, Julie. 1998. Paper Tangos. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

                                        Anya Peterson Royce


views updated May 23 2018


DANCE. The history of American dance is as varied as the numerous dance forms that compose it. Dominated by competing senses of athleticism and grace, the American dance form came of age during the twentieth century, perfecting a combination of European and African roots. In colonial America dancing was popular wherever religious sanctions did not prevent freedom of expression. Primarily primitive in nature, colonial American dance reflected the juxtaposition of numerous immigrant groups and Native American tribes. Nevertheless, it was a blending of traditional western European and western African dance forms that provided the backbone of American dance in the twenty-first century. This amalgamation began at the end of the colonial era and continued slowly until the end of the nineteenth century with the dawning of the jazz era.

From the mid-eighteenth century to the latter part of the nineteenth century, American dance progressed from minuets and country-dances to cotillions and quadrilles. These dances were almost ritualized; they required grace and knowledge of the complex steps. Regional or country-dances, such as the Irish step dances, the Scotch-Irish jigs, or German reels, reflected the cosmopolitan nature of American dance. Incorporated into this category were the various African dance forms, such as the religious ring shout, funeral and processional strut dances, and seasonal dances. Thus, American dance combined old-world technique with new environmental and social trends to create a new hybrid of dance and music.

Perhaps the best example of this hybridization is the "jig," a step dance that was popular first in Europe, and then in America. This foot-stomping dance extended beyond class boundaries and, when combined with the African step dances, became the precursor to the twentieth-century American dance form, tap. This hybridization became the hallmark of American dance, combining a sort of individualism and improvisation that was distinctly American.

Incorporating this distinctly American style was the first "ballet" style dance. Using techniques similar to pantomime, this ballet was presented in 1735 by Henry Holt, a British dancing instructor who had opened a dancing school in 1734 in Charleston, South Carolina. The first classical performers in America were English, French, and Italian touring companies, which presented operas, operettas, and pantomimes. Dancing also made its way into circuses and variety shows, where the first notable American dancer, John Durang, made his debut. As a blackface comic, he combined comedy, acting, acrobatics, and rope dancing—again, a uniquely American style. Durang began his career in Philadelphia with the Old American Company, one of the earliest theatrical touring groups. His popularity paved the way for the joint debut in Philadelphia of two American ballerinas, Augusta Maywood, who danced primarily in Europe, and Mary Ann Lee, who danced the first American Giselle in Boston in 1846. However, these dancers were exceptions, as European dancers dominated the American scene in the nineteenth century.

Theatrical dancing, including ballet, pageantry, and melodrama, peaked in 1866 with the production at Niblo's Gardens in New York of The Black Crook, which became a fixture on the American stage for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Prior to this performance, William Henry Lane, whose stage name was Master Juba, was the only black singer-dancer to perform in white minstrel shows. The ingenuity of his improvised dance steps created a sense of interaction between dancer and audience, and his footwork originated the form known as tap dance.

The cakewalk, a black American social dance, became the first indigenous African American dance fad to spread to Europe. The cakewalk presumably began around 1850 on the plantations of the South, and its high-kneed strut was meant to parody the solemn decorum of the white masters as they promenaded in the formal marches that opened their balls. The white masters, apparently oblivious to the actual meaning, encouraged the development of this dance form.

Dance became more of a public affair in the mid-nineteenth century. In the early 1800s the popularity of the waltz, an import from Europe, and round dancing, including the polka, quadrille, and mazurka brought by new waves of eastern European immigrants, reflected the new public representation of dance. More public

ballrooms were built, and dances became egalitarian events, in contrast to the smaller, more private parties of the preceding century, which had demanded a sort of ballroom etiquette. Dance manuals published in the late nineteenth century devoted less space to ballroom etiquette, and more information to the images detailing the actual dance technique itself.

At the turn of the century a rash of "animal" dances became popular. Dances like the Turkey Trot, the Kangaroo Hop, and the Grizzly Bear continued the trend in couple dances by incorporating gestures and steps from African animal dances. All body appendages could be used; elbows would flap, and heads bob, as the dancers hopped around the dance floor like bunnies. The Charleston, which had originated in black neighborhoods around 1910, made it to the white stage in Runnin' Wild in 1922. This dance craze represented a complete break from all European elements. With its African American dance elements, including the flying kicks, shimmying shoulders, and swaying hips, the Charleston made a star overseas of its protégé, Josephine Baker.

The turn of the century also inaugurated an entirely new form of dancing: the expressive or interpretive dance, known as modern dance. With the popularity of such dances as the cakewalk or the Charleston, intensity of expression became extremely important in the world of American dance. Perhaps the best-known proponent of interpretive dance was Isadora Duncan. Born in 1877 in San Francisco, California, Duncan tried the commercial stage but found it restrictive and uncreative. In 1903 in Berlin she delivered a speech entitled "The Dance of the

Future," in which she argued, "the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise." When she returned to the United States, she went where no other solo dancer had dared to go; by dancing to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, she transformed the public arena of the stage. Her performances were poorly received by dance critics, who questioned her physical interpretation of symphonic music, as well as her simplistic approach to costumery. Duncan sponsored many young American dancers, and trained them in her expressive, "naturalistic" style of dancing. Her uninhibited approach to art set the foundation for the success of modern dance in America.

Similarly, the uninhibited dance style of Ruth St. Denis, originally a vaudeville dancer, ignited the imagination of her followers. She became very interested in the dance of eastern cultures and, inspired by an image of the goddess Isis in an advertisement for Egyptian Deities cigarettes, created her own unique form of dance. She began her career as a solo artist in 1905 with the dance "Radha," the story of the mortal maiden loved by the god Krishna. Like Duncan, she never felt she would receive the attention she craved in the United States, so she moved to Europe, where she built her reputation as an exotic dancer with a classical style. She returned to the United States, where she began to work with Edwin Meyers "Ted" Shawn, a stage dancer who later became her husband. Together they founded the Denishawn Company, which soon dominated the modern dance arena.

One of the protégés of the Denishawn Company, Martha Graham became one of the most influential figures of the first half of the twentieth century. She learned to discard the strict choreography and footwork that had restricted her desire for innovation. She formed her own company in 1925; her programs featured exotic solos, and her dances attempted to draw attention to the plight of the human condition. She worked closely with Louis Horst, a major figure on the American dance scene in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, who encouraged her to work with contemporary composers rather than with eighteenth-and nineteenth-century music, as had previously been done. By 1930 Martha Graham had identified a method of breathing and relaxation she called "contraction and release," in which the movement originated in the tension of a contracted muscle and continued in the flow of energy released from the body as the muscle relaxed. This method gave Graham's dancers an angular look, one completely incongruous with the smooth dance styles of her predecessors. Before her death in 1991, she was often accused of making dance an "ugly" art form, but she ignited an interest in freedom of expression.

With the 1916 arrival in New York of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, ballet actually began to be taken seriously in the United States. However, it was not until the Russian dancer George Balanchine and the American Lincoln Kirstein formed the New York City Ballet in 1948 that American ballet became a recognized and valid entity. Initially based in New York's City Center, it moved to the New York State Theater at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1964. Balanchine extended the range and symbolism of American ballet; by infusing traditional and classical steps with contemporary techniques and energy he created a uniquely American ballet. While the New York City Ballet attempted a return to neoclassicism, reveling in its simplicity, dancers Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant in 1940 formed the beginnings of a company that incorporated a variety of choreographic techniques. The Ballet Theatre, which became the American Ballet Theatre in 1957, provided a stage for such works as Agnes de Mille's Fall River Legend and Antony Tudor's Romeo andJuliet, as well as for classic works of the nineteenth century such as Giselle and Swan Lake. The main focus of the American Ballet Theatre was to provide a forum for both classical and contemporary works.

Concurrently, in the post–World War II era, another group of dancers focused on choreography that emphasized idiosyncrasy and physicality, a formula that became the modern dance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Acting independently, these were modern dance choreographers such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Glen Tetley, and José Limón. Cunningham in particular began to use chance devices to structure the movement and program the timing of movement of the performing space, which gave the dance stage a new set of possibilities. Alvin Ailey created his own touring troupe in 1958, when the idea of a modern dance company, and specifically a black modern dance company, was practically inconceivable. At the time, Broadway theaters were not hospitable to the concept of modern dance, nor were modern dance companies stable enterprises. However, Ailey encouraged the enjoyment of dance as a vibrant form of theater, and his company's style focused entirely on physicality. His dancers seemed to slide across the stage with an emphasis on ecstasy. Ailey noted that he wanted to create a black folkloric company that would combine bawdy humor, earthy emotion, and honesty with the intense physicality of pelvic thrusts and long body-lines.

New dance forms are continually evolving, particularly in terms of self-expression, thanks in part to the groundbreaking work of Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and their contemporaries. For example, choreographer Mark Morris attempted to challenge preconceived notions, just as did his predecessors. He is perhaps best known for his 1988 work, L'Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, set to the Handel score. He also continued in the tradition established by Martha Graham of combining well-known composers and musicians with choreographers, working with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composer Lou Harrison. Modern dance seeks a social context, and even ballroom dancing, which has evolved as a sport in its own right, incorporates the dances popular in the nineteenth century, such as the waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep, with a contemporary pulse.

In the latter part of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century, dance acquired a sense of athleticism and was touted for its health benefits. Dancing in clubs only increased in popularity with American youth; movements are centered in pelvic rotations, swiveling hips, bobbing heads, and stomping and sliding feet. Popularized by the syncretic choreography of "boy bands" such as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, popular dance was very much infused with the musical performance. The focus was as much on the music as on the choreography. Similarly, Oriental dance (commonly known as "belly dancing"), square dancing, Latin rhythms such as the merengue and samba, and such popular forms as

jazz and tap, each focus on the combination of "feeling the music" and the choreography itself. Many popular films, including Dance with Me or Center Stage, also prompted an obsession with dance in modern culture. Dance in America is closely synonymous with everyday life, and is inspired by social and cultural issues.


Carbonneau, Suzanne. "Dance at the Close of the Century." USIA Electronic Journal 3, no. 1 (1998).

Cohen, Selma Jeanne. Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Mazo, Joseph. "Ailey and Company." Horizon 27, no. 6 (1984): 18–24.

Parks, Gary. "Critical Mass: Vintage Reviews: A Look at the Dance World through Seventy Years of Dance Magazine Reviews." Dance Magazine 71, no. 6 (June 1997): 14–35.

Riis, Thomas L. Just before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Thorpe, Edward. Black Dance. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1990.


See alsoAlvin Ailey American Dance Company ; American Ballet Theatre ; Ballet ; Discos ; Martha Graham Dance Company ; New York City Ballet .


views updated Jun 11 2018



Ambivalence. Dance in the United States developed largely in response to European dance culture, and Americans ambivalence about dancing revealed not only attitudes toward the movements of the body but also their feelings about European Culture and art. social dancing, for example, had many detractors and supporters. Some Methodists and Baptists Believed dancing to be a sin and threatened to excommunicate church members who attended balls or dancing schools. Antidance books written by ministers and moralists criticized wealthy Americans for spending too much time and money trying to outdo one another by giving lavish and ostentatious balls. Dancing was criticized as being physically as well as morally unhealthy since dancers were thought to suffer from the exhaustion produced by dancing until late hours, the stale air of the ballroom, the general mental and physical overexcitement of the ball. Others, however, believed that dancing was a natural and instinctive pleasure not to be denied the young people of America. The editor of Harpers New Monthly Magazine wrote, The gravity of the discussion of the morality of dancing is exceedingly amusing[critics] might as wisely quarrel with the song of the bobolink in the field as with the dance on the floor. Etiquette books designed for young men and women often included chapters on ballroom manners and techniques. In 1831 Godeys Ladys Book published a chapter from The Young Ladys Book (1830) that provided readers with a brief history of dance and illustrations of exercises to improve dancing skills. Godeys also regularly published descriptions and pictures of fashionable ball gowns, and Josepha Hale, the daughter of Godeys editor Sarah Josepha Hale, offered dancing as a subject in her Philadelphia boarding school.

Daring New Steps. Early in the nineteenth century the introduction of the waltz and the polka (known as round dances because of the circular pattern the dancers traced on the floor) raised the eyebrows of ministers and dancing instructors alike. In 1827 Senator (and future president) John Tyler wrote to his daughter that the waltz was a dance which you have never seen, and which I do not desire to see you dance. It is rather vulgar I think. In her popular The Gentleman and Ladys Book of Politeness (1833), published both in France and the United States, Mme. Celnart wrote, The waltz is a dance of quite too loose a character, and unmarried ladies should refrain from it in public and private. In spite of attacks the waltz gained popularity and respectability, especially when its loose character was restrained by certain rules that proper dancers followed when waltzing: the gentleman was not to encircle the ladys waist until the dance had begun, and he was not to touch her waist with his bare handsif the gentleman did not have his gloves, then he would use a handkerchief to cover his hand.

Polka. The polka was first danced in the United States at the National Theater in New York in May 1844 and was introduced into fashionable society that same year. Like the waltz, the polka was attacked for its alleged immorality. In England the prince consort had for bidden it to be danced in the presence of his wife, Queen Victoria. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer, described the polka as a kind of insane Tartar jig performed to a disagreeable music of an uncivilized character and wrote in his diary: Wish I had the man here that invented the polkaId scrape him to death with oyster shells. Less formal than earlier popular social dances such as the quadrille and the minuet, round dances such as the waltz and the polka were easy to learn and could be learned simply by watching, without formal training under a dancing master.

Dancing masters. The popularity of the new round dances changed the role of dance instructors in the United States. Having understood themselves to be teachers of manners as well as of movement and rhythm, dance instructors found themselves reduced to teaching steps rather than deportment. Wrote Alklen Dodworth, who opened his dance academe in New York in 1835 With the introduction of the waltz, galop and other round dances, a complete revolution in social dancing took place. these were so easily learned that the education in motion required was quite sufficient, manner becoming entirely secondary [The new teachers] were able to waltz expertly, and the teaching of the waltz and a few other dances was all they believed to be required of them; they were, therefore, simply dance teachers, not teachers of motion and manner. Yet dance instruction continued to flourish as etiquette and advice-manual writers as well as dance instructors urged Americans to take dance lessons and characterized social dancing as a necessary social accomplishment as well as a form of healthy exercise. According to the 1830 American Journal of Education, in some towns the dancing masters were better paid than the schoolteachers.

Ballet. Dance performance in the United States was strongly influenced by European developments. Although some ballets had been performed in the United States in the colonial and early republican decades, interest in the ballet was galvanized in the late 1830s and early 1840s when a series of prominent European dancers toured the United States. In 1839 Paul and Amelie Taglioni, first dancer and premiere danseuse, respectively, of the Berlin Royal Opera, gathered a corps de ballet in New York and staged the first complete American performance of La Sylphide, a ballet made famous in 1832 by Pauls sister marie Taglioni one of Europes premier ballerinas. Fanny Appleton, later the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote of taglionis performance in La Fille du Danube in 1837: She floats over the earth like a creature of a rarer element, and you fear, as you gaze at the weaving elasticity of her motion, that she will vanish away like a vapor and ascend to make the clouds her ballroom. Celebrated ballerina Fanny Elsser toured the nation from 1840 to 1842 with enormous success. Soon the United States was able to present its own ballet dancers, including balleries Augusta Maywood and Mary Ann Lee, both of whom trained in Philadelphia under P.H. Hazard, a former member of the Paris Opéra corps de ballet. La petite Augusta Maywood went on to a successful career in Europe. In 1846 Lee danced the first American rendition of Giselle at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston supported by George Washington Smith, the first American male classical dancer.

Music Halls and Minstrelsy. After 1845 dance in Europe came to be regarded more and more as an element of music-hall entertainment than a classical artform. Dance performance thus lost some of its aesthetic respectability and prestige and became increasingly associated with the more unsavory aspects of theater culture, both in Europe and in the United states. Although social dancing remained popular, performing as a dancer on stage became as socially and morally suspect as acting. At the same time stage dancing itself changed under American influences. Minstrel shows, for example, often featured cakewalking and other dances that white minstrels claimed to have learned from slaves in the South. Very few black dancers achieved the kind of recognition that white dancers in blackface did, but one exception was William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba. A free man originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Lane was discovered in the notorious Five Points District of New York, which housed free blacks and poor Irish workers, and Lanes performances reflected a blend of African and Irish dancing styles. In a series of widely published dance challenged in the 1840s Lane repeatedly defeated John Diamond, considered the greatest white minstrel dancer, and in 1848 he traveled to Europe with an American troupe, the Ethiopian Minstrels, to perform at Vauxhall Gardens in London. He died in 1852 while on tour in England.


Deborah Jowitt, Time and the Dancing Image (New York: Morrow, 1988);

Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988);

Joseph E. Marks III, America Learns to dance: A Historical Study of Dance Education in American Before 1900 (New York: Exposition Press, 1957);

Lillian Moore, Eches of American Ballet (New York: Dance Horizons, 1976).