A Brief History of Dance (3,500 years in under 4,000 words)

Although dancing has no-doubt been an important part of human experience from the beginning, the earliest dancers and choreographers have sketchy details. The first recorded dance in the Bible (occurring between 1500 and 1400 BC by many scholars’ estimations) is after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to escape the pursuing Egyptian army. Moses sang a song to the Lord, as recorded in Exodus 15:1-19, and then in verses 20 and 21, it says, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them:
‘Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea.’”

Other instances of dancing in the Bible include:
-The Israelites dancing around the golden calf (Exodus 32:19)
-Japthah’s daughter dancing upon his return from battle (Judges 11:34)
-The Benjamites choosing wives from the daughters of Shiloh while the women were dancing in a festival (Judges 21:20-23)
-The prophets of Baal dancing futilely before the altar of Baal before Elijah called down fire from God to roast his burnt offering. (1 Kings 18:26)
-References to a song and dance the Israelites did to celebrate David’s victories. (1 Samuel 18:6-7, 1 Samuel 21:11, 1 Samuel 29:5)
-David’s dance of thanksgiving upon the safe return of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:14 and 1 Chronicles 15:29)
-The request for the Shulammite to dance in the Song of Solomon (Song 6:13)
-Solomon’s statement that there is a time to dance (contrasted with mourning, which also has its time) in Ecclesiastes 3:4
-A prophesy about dancing at the restoration of captive Israel (Jeremiah 31:4, 13)
-Psalm 149:3 and Psalm 150:4 both talk about praising God with dancing.

So, there are many ancient instances of dancing in the Bible. Even still, many Western scholars consider the Ancient Greek master Euripides (480-406 B.C.) to be the first published choreographer when he incorporated dance into his plays. The last words of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, were penned around 460 B.C., so all the previous references to dance in the Bible obviously pre-date Euripides. Still, he is considered the first choreographer because his work was made for a stage performance, instead of spontaneous, and because some of his works survive (although the actual choreography does not survive). Other Ancient Greek playwrights, such as Aeschylus and Aristophanes, followed suit by choreographing dance parts into their plays as well.

Above: A sculpture of Euripides holding a mask that was a common part of Ancient Greek drama.

In the early Middle Ages, dance was discouraged by the church because moving the body was thought to bring on pride, one of the seven deadly sins. Some church leaders pointed out that Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6, Mark 6:22,), and there are few New Testament mentions of dancing at all. (In addition to Salome mentioned above, only three other places mention dancing, and two are recounting the same incident: Matthew 11:16-17, Luke 7:31-32, and the dancing to celebrate the return of the prodigal son in Luke 15). Many church leaders took this silence on the subject of dance as a Biblical rejection, and they also cited the idea that dancing evokes eroticism, not modesty, and may even be condemned in 1 Corinthians 10:7, depending on how the word “revelry” is interpreted.

Still, even with the church’s disapproval, some Christians tolerated it and participated in it. The musical accompaniment at this time was probably some sort of percussion such as a drum or tambourine, and possibly a lute, depending on what social class was dancing. Eventually, even in the Middle Ages, the church accepted dance for religious purposes and even used dance in sermons. Today, there are some dance troupes that specialize in Medieval dances, but since there are no surviving dance manuals from the time, the dances they perform are extremely speculative and based on drawings and the rare journal. Some of the names of these dances are the ductia and carole, estampe, trotto, and saltarello.

A simple dance that you can try from this era follows:

Form a circle with all dancers facing inwards.

Dancers take four steps to the left, crossing legs, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot (bring feet together). This should take four beats.

Dancers then take four steps to the right, crossing legs in the same manner, but opposite direction.

Dancers take two steps to the left (right foot, left foot bringing feet together). This should take 2 beats.

Dancers move towards center of the circle taking three steps: left, right, and left.

They should have their hands raised as they move toward the center. Each step should take 1 beat, so this movement should take 3 beats total. On the fourth beat, dancers should clap their raised hands three times.

Dancers then move backwards out of the center of the circle back into their places in the same manner: left, right, left, clap three times.

The dance is repeated again, but the speed increases. Dancers can also kick instead of clapping when moving in and out of the center.

In 1489, Italian Bergonzio di Botta hosted a dinner party to celebrate a wedding in Tortona. He presented a dance performance that many scholars consider the very first actual ballet performance. The individual dances matched the courses of the dinner. The dance was about the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. This ballet was received so well by those in attendance that many other people then hosted their own dinner parties and included ballet.

Above: The landscape near Tortona, Italy, photo taken in 2005. It was in this environment that the idea of dancing for a show or theatrical event got its start.

But, before ballet could become theatrical more than just a trendy thing to do at a party, there had to be a patron to champion it. Enter Catherine de Medici (1519-1589). Born into the richest non-royal family in Europe, she had a rather tragic childhood. She was orphaned when she was a baby, and her relative Pope Leo X moved her to Rome to live with another family. At six years old, she was brought back to Florence, her birth city, but when she was ten, her family was forced to flee. She ended up in a convent and got a good education there. At the tender age of fourteen, she was married off to Henri, the Duke of Orleans, the French king's second son. Despite the fact that the king openly had a mistress who rode buggies by his side while his wife Catherine walked behind, Catherine gave birth to ten children, seven of which survived to adulthood. Her husband eventually became the king of France, but then he was killed in a freak jousting accident. Catherine became the Queen Mother to the next three kings of France. She is perhaps best known for the St. Bartholomew Day's Massacre where over 50,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) were murdered.

Above: a portrait of Catherine de Medici.

Catherine de Medici may have been the Queen Mother in France, but she never forgot her Italian heritage. She held many dinner parties with dancing, in the same trendy way the Italians were doing it, and she required all of the children in her court to attend dance class. Her son, Henri, eventually became Henry III of France. He seemed to be her favorite child. He was brilliant, eccentric and erratic. When Henry's favorite duke got married, Catherine arranged "Ballet Comique de la Reine," costing more than a million ecue, to celebrate. This is considered by many to be the first ballet de cour because it had a central theme that told a story, and because the libretto and music were written down. The world was so impressed with this ballet that they tried to put on similar ballets. Even in Italy where it all started, the French style was all the rage. They replaced their Italian ballet masters with the French, and from then on the language of ballet was French.

Above: An engraving of what Catherine de Medici’s ballet might have looked like.

In 1570, Count Giovanni Bardi debuted an Elizabethan Masque to the aristocracy. This form of entertainment featured music, dance, and elaborate costumes. But even in England, the French ballet soon took over and the English courtesans wanted to be trained by French masters. Still, it wasn't until 1661 that Louis XIV officially recognized dance instruction by establishing the Academie Royal de Danse. Louis XIV, the "Sun King," had studied dance since the tender age of seven. People can agree with or disagree with his politics, but as an artist he was a famous and gifted dancer. People enjoyed grandiose festivals and productions, but the normal day-to-day entertainment for nobility was court dances such as the pavan, galliard, jig, and minuet. Still, with the riches he enjoyed as king of France, Louis XIV grew fat and could not dance well anymore. Not wishing to offend their king, his courtiers also retired from dancing. Louis XIV, wanting to be entertained by dancing, could not find any of his courtiers who would dance for him. So, he established the Acadamie Royal de Danse to train up dancers. From that point on, ballet became an entertainment to watch, and a wedge was driven between social dancing and theatrical dancing. Pierre Beauchamps, Louis XIV's dancing instructor, later codified the five foot positions in ballet.

Above: a portrait of Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” painted by Rigaud.

Jean-Baptiste Lully, a musician, composer, and dancer, took charge of the Academie in 1672. He danced with Louis XIV and Pierre Beauchamps, and he produced the first ballet with a female dancer in a girl's part. That first female dancer was Mlle. Lafontaine, and the ballet was Le Triomph de l'Amour (The Triumph of Love), which Louis XIV also danced in.

Jean Balon (also spelled Ballon) was a French dancer at this time who went through the Academie, and he became a member of the Paris Opera in 1691. He was appointed choreographer for the King and appeared so light on his feet that the dance term ballon, to this day, describes a dancer’s elevation and softness of his or her jump.

Jean Balon discovered a new talent named Marie Camargo, who turned heads in 1734 as she danced because she dared to raise her fashionably oppressive, modest skirts above her ankle for more freedom of movement. Camargo had a rival named Marie Salle, who, not to be outdone, created a dance called Pygmalion wearing only a tunic.

Above, top: Marie Camargo turned heads by daring to raise the hemlines of her skirts above her ankles so she could be less restricted as she danced. Above, bottom: Marie Salle poses with her tunic and robe.

At that same time period, in 1735, Englishman Henry Holt sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, and produced the first European-style ballet in the New World. European style dancing would be the only dances produced in the colonies and the new nation until 1828, when Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice appeared as Jim Crow in a song and dance set which began minstrel dancing in the States. The oldest ballet surviving with choreography intact in the present repertoire was produced in 1786. La Fille Mal Gardee (The Poorly Watched Girl) was choreographed by Jean Dauberval. He was schooled in the Paris Academie and he cast his wife, dancer Marie-Madeline Crespe (also known in history as Madame Theodore), in the role of Lise.

Although France was the flashpoint of ballet, it was now spreading all around Europe and across oceans. 300 years earlier, Catherine de Medici had come to France from Florence, and now, in the late eighteenth century, another famous Italian-French family emerged on the dancing scene, but this time in Florence, not France. Tommaso Maris Ippolito Vestris had seven children, three of whom contributed to ballet. Theresa Vestris studied in Naples and made her debut in Palermo. She went to the Paris Opera in 1746 and was in great demand as a solo dancer for twenty years. Angiolo Vestris danced in various Italian theaters and was a guest artist in many cities. Gaetano Vestris made his debut at the Paris Opera in 1748 and was appointed Premier Danseur in 1751. Reportedly conceited, he took Europe by storm. When he went to London, members of Parliament reportedly interrupted its sessions so members could attend all the performances at Covent Garden. Gaetano retired a national hero in England in 1782, but not before he fathered a son, Auguste, with his mistress Marie Allard. Auguste was considered by the nobility all over Europe to be the greatest dancer of his time. Sometimes referred to as Vestr’Allard, he made his debut in La Cinquantaine in 1772. He became the Premier Danseur in Paris in 1778 and retained that title for 35 years. Auguste danced in the first production of Noverre’s and Mozart’s Les Petits Reins. By all reports, he was short and knock-kneed, and yet quite conceited like his father. When he was 75 years old, he performed with his famous student Marie Taglioni.

Above: Auguste Vestris dancing.

This was the height of the Romantic period of dancing (1830-1850) when ballerinas made technical and artistic strides in the art form. Until this period, men dominated the stage, but after this time, women became the principal stars. Dancers Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito, who trained in France, became superstars in Italy. Taglioni was the first recorded dancer to dance en pointe in the ballet La Sylphide in 1832. Fanny Cerrito was the prima ballerina at the famous La Scala for two years (1838-1840). In 1843, Taglioni and Cerrito danced on the same program in Milan, dividing the city between the rivalry of the two ballerinas. Later that same year, Queen Victoria in England requested Fanny Cerrito and another rival, Fanny Elssler, to perform for her. Cerrito toured all over Europe, including an unsuccessful jaunt in St. Petersburg. She married and divorced, and had a few affairs all around Europe, eventually giving birth to a daughter in 1853. Although Cerrito, no longer in her prime, gave her farewell performance in Lyceum, England in 1857, she managed to live until 1909, when she died at the ripe old age of 92. In 1842, Johansson Christian and Marie Taglioni traveled to Russia and stayed to become Russia’s greatest teachers at the time. Their groundwork would later emerge in the Ballets Russes, which officially began in 1909.

Above: Photographs of two rivals. A picture of Fanny Cerrito is on the left, and a picture of Marie Taglioni is on the right.

Around this time, by decree of His Majesty, any French female (young girl, unhappy wife, widow, a girl who wanted to get away from her parents, or a girl who was in service) could escape her fate by officially entering the rolls at the Academie as a music or dance student. It didn’t matter if she ever performed. If she entered the school, she was forever free. This brought a broad variety of personalities into the dance world.

In 1841, Giselle, choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, was performed for the first time. The title role was danced by a young up-and-comer named Carlotta Grisi. Growing up in a family that had been involved in opera, Grisi enrolled in the famous La Scala Academy at the tender age of seven. Multi-talented, she had a beautiful voice and was a wonderful dancer. She later became a favorite dancer at Her Majesty’s Theater in London. Her friend and occasional dancing partner, Marius Petipa, later revived Giselle and made choreography changes. The version of Giselle that is performed today is usually the Petipa version from the 1870’s.

Above: Carlotta Grisi and Jules Perrot

In Russia, the school started by Taglioni and Christian was producing some pretty good dancers. On February 12, 1881, a little girl named Anna Pavlova was born. At the age of ten she entered the Imperial Ballet Academy. She studied at that school for eleven years and graduated in 1902, joining the Maryinsky Theater as a second soloist. Maryinsky Theater was famous for dancing to many of Tchaikovsky’s pieces (or rather, Tchaikovsky wrote scores for many dances), including the first performance of Petipa’s The Nutcracker on December 18, 1892. Within one year, Pavlova was promoted to first soloist, and promoted to Prima Ballerina in 1906. Mikhail Fokine choreographed The Dying Swan for Pavlova, and it became her signature solo throughout her life. In 1909, Serge Diaghilev signed her for the first Paris performances of The Ballets Russes, and her famous name on the bill helped ensure success of the new company. Pavlova left the company because of Diaghilev’s preference for male dancers. Fokine choreographed The Firebird for her, but when Pavlova heard Igor Stravinsky’s music she pronounced it nonsense and refused to dance to it. She formed her own company and toured Europe and even toured America in 1913. In 1931 she contracted pneumonia. “Prepare my swan costume,” she requested from her death bed. The next night the company performed as usual, and when it came time for The Dying Swan, the curtain opened to an empty stage.

At this time, there was a rebellion of dancers who refused to be tied down to the traditional balletic moves and ideas. In 1881, the first cabaret opened in Paris, and in the 1890’s “Modern Dance” emerged. In 1900 Floradora opened at New York’s Casino Theater, which introduced the “Floradora sextet,” a predecessor of the chorus line. In 1905, Isadora Duncan established the first school of modern dance in Berlin. In 1907, Florenz Ziegfeld introduced his legendary musical extravaganzas.

Still, most scholars put the beginning of “modern ballet” square on the date of May 19, 1909, to coincide with the opening of Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev at the Theatre Chatalet in Paris. The opening show was Prince Igor. Moving away from full-length ballets characteristic of the Romantic era, he created new, shorter ballets, with Mikhail Fokine as his principle choreographer, and, briefly, Anna Pavlova as his star dancer. Fokine also choreographed his versions of Les Sylphides and Cleopatre that same year. The Ballets Russes employed the most forward-thinking dancers, choreographers, composers, and artists of the day. Pablo Picasso was the set designer for three of their shows, and Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, and Ravel are but a few of the many notable composers the company employed.

In 1911, stinging from Anna Pavlova’s departure from the company, Diaghilev named Vaslav Nijinsky as his principal dancer. Nijinsky entered the Imperial School in St. Petersburg at ten years old. He was short and stocky, and reportedly shy and reserved when offstage. He met Diaghilev at a party, and under the influence of Diaghilev’s strong personality, he became his lover and protégé. Diaghilev dictated Nijinsky’s every move, both on- and offstage, making sure Vaslav read the right books, went to the right concerts, and so on. Although Nijinsky danced with many great ballerinas through the years, he was most associated with Tamara Karsavina, with whom he danced in Le Spectre de la Rose in 1911. Nijinsky also danced with Isadora Duncan, who influenced him both as a dancer and choreographer. His ballets were controversial. 1913 was a busy year for Nijinsky. He choreographed L’Apres-midi d’un Faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) in which the choreography suggested a two-dimensional bas relief and the dancers were barefoot. Later that year, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) had the audience shouting obscenities, tearing out theater seats to throw, and, as the audience left the theater, created riots on the streets of Paris. Then, that same year, the Ballets Russes toured South America, but Diaghilev did not accompany them. Without the controlling Diaghilev around, Nijinsky fell in love with a Hungarian dancer in the company, Romola de Pulszky. They were married in Buenos Aires, but when Diaghilev learned about it, he fired both dancers. Still, during World War I, Nijinsky, a Russian citizen, was interred in Hungary and Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out of jail. Later, Diaghilev employed Nijinsky’s little sister, Bronislava Nijinska, as his principal choreographer. Vaslav Nijinsky began showing signs of dementia. He became afraid of other dancers, and he constantly hallucinated that a trap door on stage was left open for him to fall into. He spent many years in mental institutions and was cared for by his loving wife Romola until his death in 1950.

Above: Nijinsky playing the part of the faun in his piece "L’Apres-midi d’un Faune".
Below: a clip of Rudolph Nureyev dancing the same part to Nijinsky’s choreography. To understand the difficulty of dancing in this piece, try counting the beats in Debussy’s score. Also notice the flexed feet, very different than classical ballet.

In 1915, Ruth St. Denis and her husband, Ted Shawn, established the Denishawn Dance School. It was housed in a Spanish style mansion in the hills above Los Angeles. It became renowned as a school of modern dance, and both Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey studied there. In 1926, Martha Graham gave her first New York performance in which eighteen barefoot dancers danced evocatively on the stage. By this time, a new type of show was emerging called the Musical. It combined theater, dance, and music, but was more approachable than its predecessor opera. In 1927 Jerome Kern’s revolutionary musical Showboat opened on Broadway.

In 1933, the same year Sally Rand performed her fan dance at Chicago’s World’s Fair and the San Francisco Ballet debuted, the Ballets Russes (now titled The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, directed by Rene Blum, who would later be murdered at Auschwitz), toured America for the umpteenth time. One of their up-and-coming choreographers was a young man named George Balanchine. Balanchine moved to the United States after this and started the School of American Ballet in Hartford, CT. Thirteen years later (1946), Balanchine would team up with Lincoln Kirstein and establish the New York City Ballet, which made its home at Lincoln Center beginning in 1964.

Above: Martha Graham’s "Night Journey" (the dancing starts at about 1:15). Contrast that with Balanchine’s "Diamonds", below, performed by the San Francisco Ballet in 2009.

A partnership between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would create some of America’s best loved musicals. In 1943, they changed musical theater forever when they created Oklahoma! which combined entertainment with serious subjects. Agnes de Mille choreographed the musical, capturing the essence of American folk dance. De Mille also choreographed Aaron Copland's Rodeo and several other Americana pieces.

Above: Copland's "Rodeo", choreographed by Agnes de Mille. Notice how she captures American folk dance and rhythms. For further study, see if you can find a copy of "Appalachian Spring", also composed by Copland but choreographed by Martha Graham.

A good number of modern dance companies sprouted in America in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey and Elliot Field, to name a few, debuted their dance companies at this time. But, although modern forms of dance were now more accepted by the public, ballet was still a strong and entertaining art form. In 1954, the Robert Joffrey Ballet debuted.

Also in the 1950s, there was a new backlash against the modern forms of dancing within the church. Many elders and pastors condemned dancing in their buildings, and tried to get their congregants to stop attending dances elsewhere. Several major denominations created bylaws that called dancing depraved. But, as this line of thought was gaining a foothold, other Christians were returning dance to their churches as a way of spiritual worship. This argument continues half a century later, with certain denominations still forbidding dancing altogether while other congregations include dance as part of their Sunday services. While the dance debate may never be resolved within church circles, the art form continues to grow, evolve, and spark imaginations around the world.

Below: The Shepherd’s Field Youth Dance Team from Martin TN performs this dance to the song "Holy Fire" by Johnathan Stockstill.

1 comment:

JG said...

The photograph of Marie Taglioni, alongside that of Fanny Cerrito, is of Marie Taglioni the Younger, niece of the great dancer who had created La Sylphide. The younger dancer, who had a very successful career, was daughter of the dancer and choreographer Paul Taglioni and Amalia Galster, also a dancer. Photographs do exist of the older Taglioni, but in day dress and in old age. JG