Dance Career Field

Dance Careers Background

Dance CareersDance is one of the oldest of the arts. Anthropologists believe the first formal dances were probably symbolic dances performed by early tribal societies as part of ritual ceremonies held to ask spirits or gods for success in hunting or in battle. Some anthropologists think that dancing and music originally came from the same mating-display impulses that occur in other species. The Egyptians used dance to honor their leaders and during parades, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Israelites performed circle dances, processional chain dances, and energetic stamping- and-jumping dances at religious festivals. Greek children learned to dance as part of their education; adults performed dances in festivals honoring the god Dionysus and as part of Greek comedy and tragedy. Many of these dances were adopted and developed by the Romans as well.

During the Middle Ages, the church banned pagan ritual dance, but dance was performed in the Mass and in miracle and mystery plays. Social dancing also was important in court activities.

Dance flourished with the other arts during the Renaissance. In Italy in the 15th century, dance helped tell stories in conjunction with celebrations. The balletto combined dance, poetry, song, and elaborate scenery, and a performance could last for hours or days. King Henry II of France married Catherine de Medici, who brought the balletto to France, where it was renamed ballet. The French court’s ballets de cour led to the development of ballet as theatrical dance, distinct from court ballroom dancing and folk dancing. During the mid-1600s, King Louis XIV of France was a great supporter of ballet. He also was known to participate in ballets. He founded L’Academie Royale de Dance, where classical ballet positions were first codified under dancing master Pierre Beauchamps.

By the beginning of the 18th century, ballet became a serious profession, moving out of the court and onto the stage, with its own schools, theaters, paid dancers, and choreographers. Noted choreographers and dancers were Jean Philippe Rameau, Franz Hiverding, Jean Georges Noverre, and August Vetris. One of the oldest ballets still performed today is the French La Fille Mal Gardee choreographed by Jean Dauberval.

Meanwhile, ballroom dancing remained popular with the aristocracy. The first public dance halls, called assembly rooms, opened in London in the mid-1700s, eventually spreading throughout Europe and America.

Point shoes and dancing on the toes became part of ballet toward the middle of the 19th century. As the Romantic movement developed, some of ballet’s greatest masterpieces were written and debuted: La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker Suite, among others. Russian ballet became the center of attention late in the century.

Among the great modern masters of ballet were Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Mikhail Fokine, Serge Diaghilev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rudolf Nureyev.

Modern dance, developed in the early 1900s, began as a reaction against what was viewed as the formal, set techniques of ballet. Modern dance stressed a less-structured, more personal approach to dance. Many modern dances did not tell a story, but expressed abstract concepts such as time, space, emotion, or movement for movement’s sake. Among the American pioneers of modern dance were Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. Later dancers from this school included Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham, and their more contemporary successors, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, and others.

In the United States, African-Americans developed tap dancing in the 1800s by combining traditional African dances with English and Irish dance steps that emphasized the sounds the shoes made during the dance. Tap dance was among the many variety acts incorporated into vaudeville and musical revues, which were quite popular in America in the early 1900s. The first choreographed tap dancing routines were performed by the Floradora Sextet in 1900. Later popularizers of tap dancing included Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire, Ruby Keeler, and more recently, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

As ragtime and jazz found their way into the musical lexicon, they affected ballroom dancing as well, popularizing such dances as the Castle walk (named for Vernon Castle and Irene Castle), fox-trot, tango, and the maxixe, a Brazilian dance. In the 1930s, Americans danced to the swing music of big bands, including the Lindy hop or jitterbug, as well as novelty group dances like the Lambeth walk, conga, and big apple. In the 1950s, Latin American dances, such as the mambo, cha-cha, and merengue, were popular, and with the advent of rock and roll in the 1960s and disco in the 1970s, social dancing became more and more free-form and improvisational.

The evolution of musical theater and musical comedy, both live on stage as well as in film and television, resulted in the popularity of many kinds of modern and classical dances, including ballet, modern, tap, jazz, folk, ethnic, and ballroom. Popular stage and film choreographers have included Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, and Michael Bennett.

People from around the world use folk dances as an expression of cultural pride. In the United States, for example, the square dance represents a form of folk art expression. Folk and ethnic dances, once primarily social events that everyone could participate in, have taken to the stage and become performance art as well. Flamenco, tango, Irish step dance, West African dance, Native American dance, and Indian classical dance are just a few of the dance forms that are performed on stage, and they have also had a significant influence on ballet, modern, tap, and Broadway choreography.