Long before there was a written record of most cultures, there was dance. For primitive
cultures, dance commemorated births, marriages, religious occasions, deaths, political
victories, wars and other events.
We normally think of dance as one of the fine arts, and so it is. But dance requires
athletic as well as artistic ability. Whether we choose ballet, modern dance, jazz or ethnic
dance, the movements required in dancing demand stamina, strength and endurance.
HISTORY OF DANCE
In ancient Egypt, dance was an important
part of daily life. Drawings done in the
fourth century B.C. suggest that Egyptians
had a fairly advanced concept of dance.
Some Egyptian dances were similar to our
ballroom dancing; others were like modern
Ancient Greece also had its dances, somequite similar to those of the Egyptians. Onedance in particular became famous—a ritual in which Greek women stamped on grapes
and whirled about in honor of the god Dionysus. The Greek dramatist, Euripides, wrotea play about the ecstatic dimension of dance. The play was called “The Bacchae.” In it,
an overly-serious man, Pentheus, did not recognize the dangers of being caught up in
wild dances, and was torn limb-from-limb by the women, who mistook him for an animal.
Rome was a little slower to incorporate dancing into daily life, using dance mainly in
choral processions until about 200 B.C. Many Romans considered dancing a dangerous
activity and felt that only the insane would dance by choice. Yet by the second century
B.C., Romans were using pantomime dance in dramas.
During the Middle Ages, dance as an art form spread
all over Europe. Italy with its many festivals and
celebrations, made use of jugglers and offered instruction
in social dance. During the late Middle
Ages, the earliest form of ballet emerged as part of the
Italian commedia del arte or in England, as part of the socalled“mystery cycles” of religious dramas that traveled from
town to town with minstrels and jugglers.The word “balletti,” originally referring to dances performed in
ballrooms, was first used to refer to productions in the theatre. In1581, the first ballet, “Circe,” was written and produced by an Italian-
born Frenchman. Another Italian who was living in France, Jean
Baptiste Lully, established a dance department at the Royal Academy
of Music in 1661. Lully was responsible for influencing the
music, scenery and movements used in classical ballet.
By the 1600s, the center for ballet moved from Italy to France where
the Academie Royale de Danse was founded. With the advent of
the Academie, there was now a special school for ballet. Dance was a discipline taught
and administered by specialists.
By the 1700s, ballet had progressed to the point where the well-to-do felt that dance was
simply part of any well-rounded general education. It was also thought to teach good
manners and character. Consequently, many rich European children were taught to dance.
America brought a somewhat different attitude to the art of dance. Colonists in the southwere generally more tolerant of dance than those in the Puritan-dominated North. How
ever, there were plenty of dancing teachers in both North and South to teach the dances
remembered from the Old World. African-American slaves also brought their own dances
from Africa which later became an influence on dancing in the nineteenth and twentieth
The nineteenth century saw a tremendous growth of interest in ballet. The Italian Marius
Petipa left Italy to work in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1847; he choreographed such worksof classical ballet as “Don Quixote,” “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” Promoter
Sergei Diaghilev imported ballet from Russia to America, bringing with him such dancers
as Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky and choreographer George Balanchine.
Balanchine established the New York City Ballet and eventually helped to change the
face of dance in America.
As ballet gained a foothold in America, another form of dance
was created in direct opposition to the principles of ballet.
Innovator Isadora Duncan had a ballet background, yet found
that the strict movements of classical ballet did not allow her
sufficient freedom of expression. She created her own danceform based on the spontaneous expression of feelings—whatwe later came to call “modern dance.” Inspired by Isadora
Duncan, dancers such as Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn created
a school and company to train the next generation of
modern dancers, among them Martha Graham. She in turn
trained Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp,
all of whom have helped to make America the center of modern
Jazz dancing is a form closely related to modern dance. It was originally inspired by
African-American slave music which eventually developed into jazz. The syncopated
rhythm of jazz music enhances the jerky, high-energy style of jazz dancing.
Aerobic dance involves doing a variety of stepping, jumping, spinning and twistingmotions, following the rhythms of music. It is a fairly recent addition to dance, and
started simply as a form of rhythmic exercise to increase the
heart rate. Yet it quickly developed into a form of its own, borrowing
many of the steps and movements of ballet, jazz and
Although dance had frequently been used as part of a drama or
an opera, only with the twentieth century production of “OKLAHOMA!”
did dance theater take on a new dimension. Agnes
deMille choreographed the dance sequences in this musical and
made them an integral part of the story. She used ballet, folk
dance and modern dance to carry the story line. Similar contributions
were made by Jerome Robbins, choreographer of the
dance sequences in “WEST SIDE STORY.”
THE LIVES OF DANCERS
Dance is an excellent form of exercise for both women and men of all ages. Dance never
remains stagnant; it is always changing, always incorporating new movements and
rhythms from many cultures and lifestyles. Today the well-rounded dancer studies ballet,
jazz, modern, tap dance and aerobics in his or her quest to learn the language of
Unfortunately, only a few highly talented professionals are
able to make a living exclusively by dance. Funding in
the arts is scarce and many dance companies have
folded for lack of public support.
In addition, dance is a demanding career, requiring
dancers to begin their training at an early age.
Many talented dancers drop out of school before
they have developed other skills. Professionaldance in America is a young person’s game and
those over thirty often find it difficult to find work.
Sadly, dancers may train for fifteen years to dance
for only a few years. In an entire career, a talented
dancer will make only one-quarter of the
salary that a pro baseball player will make in oneseason.
HOW DANCES ARE PERFORMED
THE FIVE FOOT POSITIONS OF CLASSICAL BALLET
The five positions of the feet in classical dance are the basic moves around
which all ballet and other dance movements are developed. Ballet students
must first become proficient in the five positions and learn to do
warmup exercises in these positions. In all forms of dance, warmup exercises,
stretches and flexes are always the first movements done before
anything else is attempted:
First position: Legs are side by side with the heels of both feet touching.
Second position: Legs are slightly apart with the feet turned outward.
Third position: The front (right) leg is partially in front of the left leg, with the heel
of the right foot in front of the left arch.
Fourth position: The right leg and foot are placed in front of the left leg and slightly
separated from it. The weight of the body should fall evenly over
Fifth position: The same as the fourth position except that the legs and feet are positioned
In each position, the dancer must remain erect, maintaining good posture, with stomach
muscles pulled tight, head up and knees straight.
EQUIPMENT AND CLOTHING
For practice and rehearsals, clothing ranges
from grubby leotards and sweat pants to full
costumes for dress rehearsals. The essential
property of any dance clothing is that it provides
for a full range of motion of all bodyparts.In short, you can’t dance if you don’t have freedom of movement.
DANCE NOTES AND NEWSUsually, when one thinks of dance competitions, one thinks of old movies like “Saturday
Night Fever,” in which John Travolta competed in disco dancing contests, or “TheyShoot Horses, Don’t They,” in which Jane Fonda competed in marathon dancing, where
contestants danced until they dropped. The last couple standing won the prize.
Reality is much more interesting. For example, every three years, the New York International
Ballet Competition draws contestants from all over the world to compete, show
their talents, and enhance their career opportunities. Winning dancers are awarded medals
based on their cumulative scores.
On the collegiate level, International Collegiate Ballroom Dancing Competitions attract
student dancers from all over the world, to compete for awards and opportunities after
In case you still think that dance is limited to the Senior
Prom, the United States and Canada combined
list hundreds of collegiate dance teams on the Internet.
The actual number is much greater. A quick glance at
College Course Guides shows the increased popularity
of dance as a field of study. There are not only
many dance classes you can take for college credit,
but also many courses which focus on dance and
movement as therapy for those with mental and/or
physical problems.Gene Kelly, one of the world’s greatest movie dancers
died on February 2, 1996. Kelly was amongAmerica’s premiere performers, both as a dancer and
as an actor. His role as D’Artagnan in “The ThreeMusketeers” has never been equalled.
Other dancers often compared Kelly with FredAstaire. While Astaire’s dancing style was seen as restrained and sophisticated, Kelly’s
was seen as flamboyant and romantic. His movie, “An American in Paris,” climaxedwith a 17-minute ballet with Leslie Caron. But his glorious dance number,“Dancing inthe Rain,” is remembered by everyone as his crowning achievement.
You can stay abreast of dance performance and competitions by checking out sites likethis one on the internet: http://www.dancescape.com/
WHAT TO DO:
The following questions will help you to have a greater appreciation and understanding
of dance. Write your answers in the spaces below the questions. If there is not enough
room, write on the backs of these sheets. Be neat, spell correctly, and write in complete
1. How was dance used in primitive cultures?
2. Name at least four types of dance practiced today.
3. What physical benefits can be derived from dance?4. What is “aerobic dance” and how did it develop?
5. Why is dance such a demanding and difficult career for many young dancers?
6. What are the five positions of classical ballet?
7. Describe the posture that must be maintained in each of the five positions.
8. Who developed modern dance and why?9. What is “theatrical dance” and how did it originate? 10. What was the musical inspiration for modern jazz dancing?
Short Answer Questions:
1. Developed modern dance
2. Number of foot positions in classical ballet
3. Romans thought dance was _____
4. Italian who choreographed Don Quixote and Swan Lake
5. Early Greek who wrote about ecstasy of dance
6. Established the New York City Ballet
8. Dancing as part of a drama or musical
9. Type of dancing closely related to modern dance10. During this age dance became an art form
11. The choreographer of “West Side Story”
12. Ballet position with feet turned out
13. Ballet position with heels of both feet touching
14. Type of dance develped in America
15. She was a contemporary American modern dancer
16. Combination of exercise and dance
17. Early dance productions in the theater
18. Brought ballet from Russia to North America
19. Producer of some of the modern ballet conventions
20. She was a great American modern dancer