Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Every culture developed some form of dance, usually related to harvest or hunt celebrations, marital or maturity rites, or victory over an enemy. In Europe, dance associated with pre-Christian rituals survived the medieval church by becoming secular folk dances. As Christianity spread globally, converts were more easily procured if familiar elements of their culture were retained alongside their new religious belief. From the Scottish Fling to the Hawaiian Hula, dances that were once pagan rituals became secular folk dances. Some dances even became associated with Christian rites like the religious parades of Latin America where the Samba was born.
The Pavanne, c. 1500
The other catalyst for the development of dance was in the distinguishing of class. Masques (balls) became popular Renaissance entertainments at the Italian and French courts. Dances such as the Farandole and Pavanne were presented in participatory performances to display the dancer’s finery and refinement through erect backs and precise processional movements – the exact opposite of bawdy peasant dances that were usually danced drunkenly, in circles.
The Sun King Louis XIV as Apollo
By 1700, court dances were developing into a new form of performance art called ballet. Professional dancers trained for regular performances at the French court. King Louis XIV even performed as a dancer, for which he became known as the Sun King, after Apollo, whom he portrayed in one of the ballets. Dancing masters taught ballet to improve deportment and foster conspicuous refinement. Most aristocratic dancers were not ballet dancers, but emulated simple ballet steps in high-heeled shoes through the fashionable dances of the time – the Minuet and Gavotte. However, when the French aristocracy fell in 1789, so did the minuet. Dance in Western Society now grew in two separate directions - professional and social.
Shoes suitable for dancing, French, c. 1720, Bayerische Museum, Munich, Germany
“It is with regret that for many years past, the Minuet has, almost, totally fallen into disuse . . . a dance essential for youth to learn, on account of its utility as a foundation for the superstructure of those graces which distinguish people of fashion, and good breeding . . .” Francis Peacock, 1805
Ballet was originally danced in fashionable dress. Square-toed shoes with ribbon laces were already in fashion by 1832 when Maria Taglioni danced the ballet La Sylphide on the tip of her toes, setting a new standard in ballet - en pointe. The ballet slipper has remained a similar shape ever since.
Square toes shoes, French, c. 1850
While the French court danced the Minuet, the English preferred the simpler and livelier ‘country’ dances such as jigs, reels, and cotillions that were usually performed in sets of four or eight people. These dances quickly spread throughout Europe in the 1790s when ‘Anglo-mania’ became the rage after the French Revolution. They are the origin of today’s square dancing and country line dances and gained popularity in the early 19th century as the middle class grew in size because these dances could be learned after a few lessons and did not require years of dance training.
“Country dance is the most common of all dances now practiced. It is so simple, that the most illiterate are in some measure able to perform it . . .” A Treatise on Dancing, 1802
Various stages of the Waltz, c. 1815
A wave of vernacular European dances followed English country-dances into the ballroom beginning with the Waltz. Derived from the Landler, a Bavarian folk dance, the Waltz developed into a couples dance by 1812 that was considered scandalous at the time because partners faced each other with the man’s arm about the woman’s waist. However, under the watchful eyes of chaperons, the dance became acceptable as long as light could be seen between the couple while they whirled about the floor. More couple dances took to the floor during the mid 19th century including the Polka from Bohemia and the Mazurka from Poland.
At the end of the 19th century Black American rhythms were synthesizing with European musical forms, resulting in a new syncopated beat called Ragtime. Dancing to Ragtime required a close hold of the partner, bent knees, and a walking gait – very different from the previously required stance of dancing on the balls of the feet with an erect back and straight legs.
By 1912 in North America, Ragtime dances were often named after animals, like the foxtrot, turkey trot, or bunny-hug. At the same time in South America, the sensuous Tango developed in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Society was not ready for dances that looked like recipes for sin. However, in palm-filled hotel courts at afternoon teas, the latest dances gained acceptance when sanitized versions were demonstrated by dancing stars like Irene and Vernon Castle.
Tango shoe, c. 1912, Bally collection
“Unspeakable Jazz Must Go! …We reprove those dances which are lascivious, such as the Fox-trot, the Tango, the Turkey-trot, and others of the same kind, by whatever name they may be called . . . Rapid and jerky music is condemned and with any form of improper dancing is disapproved of as degrading tendency.” Ladies Home Journal, December, 1921
While afternoon ‘Tango Teas’ were being held in acceptable venues for socialites, it was in the urban night clubs and speakeasies of the early 1920s that Jazz and Latin rhythms really began to take off.
From Ragtime developed a number of Jazz dances, beginning with the Charleston and Black Bottom in the mid 1920s. These were energetic dances that only entered the general population when reinterpreted by white dance bands. A modified version of the Charleston was combined with a fast-tempo Foxtrot to become the Quickstep – a dance created specifically for the purpose of competition dancing in the late 1920s. The Lindy, named after Charles Lindbergh, also grew out of the Charleston, and was later known as the Jitterbug when danced to Swing music. After the war, Jive and eventually Be-bop (the early steps of Rock ‘n’ Roll) evolved from Jitterbug.
Evening sandals perfect for a Rumba, by Bally, c. 1939
The success of the Tango brought interest in other dances from Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s, when the evening sandal was coming into popularity. The Rumba was a hit with wealthy Americans who wintered in Cuba; it was brought to America by Xavier Cugat’s band in the early 1930s. The Samba, Conga, and Mambo followed and were joined later by the Cha-Cha, Bossanova, and Salsa.
In the 1960s dancers literally let go and no longer danced with their partners, instead performing numerous ‘go-go’ steps and upper body movements that were given names like the Twist, Watusi, Frug, Fly, Pony, Hitchhike, Hully-Gully, Monkey, Swim and Mashed Potato, to name a few. By 1970 the popular hippie mantra of ‘do your own thing’ could be interpreted on the dance floor as unstructured, free form movement, with no defined steps.
Go-go boots, 1965/66
Then in the mid-1970s, a dance called the Hustle brought about a renaissance in partner dancing. This touched off the disco fever craze that ended in 1980 as abruptly as it had begun. While Disco blended Latin and Black rhythms on the dance floor, Latin and black cultures blended on the street in the form of competitive street dances, performed in sneakers that took the place of gang fighting. Break-dancing, popping, and vogueing developed into hip-hop, house and krumping at the end of the 20th century.
“This has been a monumental year for Discomania . . . 15,000 new clubs have opened across the country . . . including roller discos . . . and franchise clubs like 2001, Tramps, and Club 747 featuring discos housed in old Boeing 747 airplanes . . . Paramount’s film Saturday Night Fever grossed over 32 million after only 26 weeks . . . and New York City declared the first national disco week in June.” Disco – The Official Guide, 1978
Boogie-Oogie-Oogie-Oogie Dancin' Shoes, c. 1977