Universal Mentors Association

Dancing across time and space


I am not a dancer. Just ask anyone who has ever seen my awkward and embarrassing moves on a dance floor. Yet I consider dance the most important, yet understudied and undertaught, performance art and form of physical cultural expression.

There are obvious reasons why dance doesn’t receive the scholarly respect it deserves. Apart from specialists, most humanists lack the language or concepts to describe and analyze dance. Just think of the technical vocabulary used to describe ballet steps: plié, pirouette, arabesque, battement, chassé, grand jeté, bourrée, pas de basque, cabriole, penché, entrechat, glissade, sissonne, devant, pas de valse, piqué, petit saut and more.

Also, dance is ephemeral and evanescent. Much of what we know about dancing in the pre-video era consists of written accounts or still images incapable of conveying dance in its full complexity.

In addition, dance takes so many disparate forms that it defies simplistic generalizations. There are court dances, folk dances and religious dances, communal, ceremonial, artistic, spiritual, ritual, dramatic and recreational dances. There are line dances, round dances and square dances, as well as belly dancing, step dancing, break dancing, pole dancing and social dancing. There’s the gig, gioube, buck-and-wing and juba. There’s couple dancing, solitary dancing and group dancing.

How can one possibly make generalizations about cultural forms that range from Indian classical dance and Japanese Noh dance-drama, to the pavane and the minuet, the quadrille and the waltz to the hula, swing, flamenco, tango, rumba, tap, the jig, fox-trot and the Texas two-step, performed in courts, ballrooms, dance halls, night clubs, discothèques and raves or at high school sock hops?

Dance can be communal and coordinated—a powerful force to bind communities or collectivities together—or highly individualized, whether the ecstatic dance-trances of shamans and dervishes or the swagger and spectacle of Tony Manero, the Brooklyn paint store clerk, in Saturday Night Fever. Dance can offer a way to shed social masks and inhibition or it can be formal and highly stylized.

What, you might well ask, do these various forms of dance share in common?

But the biggest problem for many who are not dance scholars, I suspect, lies in dance’s physicality. Dance is visceral, kinesthetic and often sensual. Puritans and their latter-day counterparts tend to dismiss dance as crude, offensive, irrational, primitive and even obscene—an ecstatic or Dionysian form of expression that needs to be repressed. At the same time, those preoccupied with texts tend to regard dance as ineffable, even anti-intellectual. Then there are those who equate dance with calisthenics, as merely a matter of aerobic, muscular and motor fitness.

And yet, dance, whether as art, ritual, celebration, performance, mode of physical expression, cultural form or release of energy and emotion, is one of those distinctive traits that defines us as humans and distinguishes us from other living beings.

The standard dictionary definitions treat dance as rhythmic movement set to music, typically following a set sequence of steps. But such a definition is, of course, narrowly ethnocentric and fails to do justice to the dance forms that are improvised or spontaneous (as opposed to choreographed), euphoric or ecstatic, rapturous or delirious or ways of expressing spiritual ideas or communicating with the divine or a mode of dramatic storytelling.

Better, I think of dance as movement with a purpose or as embodied language. Therefore, it’s best to define dance in terms of purpose, style, steps, movement, positions, rhythm, pace, gestures, postures, facial expression, mood, setting, kinetics and other distinctive elements.

Take dance’s function and purpose. It can be part of a ritual or religious worship. It can also be a form of celebration, entertainment or self-expression.

Or take movement. This can take the form of shuffling, strutting, shagging, shaking or shimmying, boogeying, hopping, hopping, jiving, prancing, tapping, twisting or waltzing.

Or kinetics, including the vestibular—the shifts off-balance through swings and spins, sways, jumps, weight transfer, leaps, lifts and skips; the percussive—choppy and jagged; the vibratory—shakes, quivers and wiggles; and collapses—pauses, sags, slumps and falls.

How might we integrate the study of dance into classes on cultural history? We might adopt:

  • An ethnographic or anthropological approach, comparing and contrasting the functions, dance styles and techniques in differing cultural contexts.
  • A chronological approach, highlighting significant periods, styles and cultural contexts and examining how various social, political and economic factors influenced dance forms across time.
  • An interdisciplinary approach that looks at the connections, for instance, between the development of ballet and classical music or the treatment of dance in art and literature.
  • A cross-cultural exchange approach that looks, for example, at how African and Indigenous and European dance traditions influenced the development of American jazz dance or how European court dances evolved into modern ballroom styles.
  • A globalized approach that focuses on the fusion of different styles and traditions, such as Bollywood dance (a blend of Indian classical, folk and Western dance styles) and Afro-Latin dance (a combination of African and Latin American dance elements).
  • A cultural politics approach, exemplified by Victoria Phillips’s path-breaking Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy, which treats modern dance “as an emissary of … [American] soft power, in the midst of an international struggle for the mantle of political modernity.” Phillips’s study lays bare many contradictions in modern dance. Graham, for example, embraced womanhood while eschewing feminism; “claimed to represent abstract universal experiences,” while failing to acknowledge its deep debt to African American and non-Western dance traditions; and purported to be apolitical, even as it depended on government support and served as a cultural ambassador to promote American diplomatic interests during the Cold War.

For U.S. historians, dance offers an ideal vehicle for examining the central role of African Americans in the evolution of American and indeed global culture. Frequently denigrated or belittled as obscene or blasphemous or primitive—but also widely appropriated by whites—Black dance forms gave rise to much of what we think of as American dance. The juba and the cakewalk (itself partly a commentary on white dance styles), which had their roots in West and Central African dance, helped give rise to the energy, improvisation, syncopated rhythms and aesthetics that have come to characterize American dance.

Tap dance, among the most iconic American dance forms, has its origins in the blending of African and European dance traditions, with African rhythmic patterns, foot-stamping and expressive movements combining with Irish step dancing and English clog dancing to create a unique and dynamic form of dance. African and African American dance traditions also played a crucial role in the development of jazz dance, from the Charleston to the black bottom, the Lindy hop and later, the jitterbug.

In our own time, African American dance traditions were instrumental in the development of hip-hop, break dancing and street dance, with their intricate footwork, fast-paced acrobatic movement and spins, jerks, freezes, hand gestures, pops, locks, krumps and muscle tensing.

Dance also offers an ideal way to teach about the emergence of modernism, whether in the form of Vernon and Irene Castle (the prototypes for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), the extraordinarily influential Black dancers Bill Bojangles Robinson, John Bubbles, Josephine Baker, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, and Pearl Primus or the modern dance pioneers Loïe Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Katherine Dunham, Charles Weidman, José Limón, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham, with their emphasis on experimentation and natural, free-flowing modest of bodily expression.

In addition, the history of American dance offers insights into the growth of individualism, as group dancing gradually gave way to couple dancing and, then, after the introduction of “the Twist” in 1960, to unpartnered forms of dancing. We also witness the battle in which an emphasis on elegance and formality was superseded by a stress on energy, spontaneity and improvisation and in which partner interaction has given way to isolated dancers.

A new book by Mindy Aloff, a journalist, an essayist and a dance critic, entitled Why Dance Matters, “analyzes dance as the ultimate expression of human energy and feeling.” “A passionate and moving tribute to the captivating power of dance, not just as an art form but as a language that transcends barriers,” this volume offers a “smart, bracing book of reflection, analysis, memoir and history.”

Deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic, this book doesn’t offer a methodical history of dance, a thesis or a systematic examination of dance’s psychological, physiological or social functions. Instead, it combines personal anecdotes, reminiscences and cultural ruminations. But the book does answer the question its title poses.

Dance matters for the individual because it offers a physical way to express and release otherwise indescribable emotions. More than ever before, dance has become, for individuals as well as professionals, perhaps the most meaningful forms of creative self-expression. And dance’s medicinal and therapeutic value shouldn’t be underestimated. It is, after all, a vehicle for enhancing physical strength, coordination, spatial awareness, balance, discipline and endurance.

Dance is also a crucial if oft-neglected instrument for cultural and historical understanding. There are few more visceral ways to fully appreciate the rich varieties of cultural, artistic and religious expression.

As spring nears its end, it’s time to embrace Martha and the Vandellas’ generational anthem, written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter:

Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancing in the street
They’re dancing in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
In New York City
… Oh it doesn’t matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there
… Let’s form a big, strong line, get in time,
We’re dancing in the street.

Or in the words of Adam J Marano and Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb, “What you doin’ on your bed on your back? / You should be dancing, yeah!”

But don’t just dance. Make dance a part of your teaching.

Help your students appreciate dance’s cultural significance, understand its history and social functions and show them how to analyze dance as an art form that is among the oldest and most important ways that human beings communicate ideas, feelings and passions, give expression to cultural values and connect to one another and to the realm of the spirit.

Mindy Aloff is right: dance matters. It’s far too important to confine to highly specialized programs or to the dance floor. More than any other art form or mode of creative expression, it belongs to all of us.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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