Arts Arts Features Muse

Dancing Straight Into The Future

Amelie Rothwell discusses the history of dance and the footprint that is has left on our art and popular culture

‘The Greatest Dancer’ and ‘Flirty Dancing’ are airing on our screens this January making dance more relatable, accessible and fashionable. Most people only see a dance performance once a year, often through watching Strictly Come Dancing. Where we watch the Waltz, Cha Cha Cha, Quickstep, Rumba, Tango, Jive and many more dances that we are incapable of performing ourselves. With the aid of social media, dance has become an art form that has reformed the traditional ballroom dance into media art. Therefore, the increased circulation of dance on shows and social media has revived our perceptions and our access to it.


The glitz and the glam of the ballroom are the closest most of us get to seeing dancing year to year. This revival of dance shows on television has presented a few questions. None of us really know the true story of dance. Dance has always been a part of our culture, where archaeologists have found evidence of it originating nine thousand years ago. 


From folk to now a dramatic and elegant sport, ballroom dancing originates from the Latin word “ballare” that means to dance. As a product of time, dance was notably explored in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, where people danced in lines and in groups moving in circles rather than dancing as a couple, from then it evolved through the Renaissance with Italian and French influences into the European courts of the sixteenth century. Its drastic progress played an important role in cultures of many societies where it became the centre of social gatherings, dances and balls in courts and later on in assembly rooms (York’s Assembly Rooms are where Ask Italian stands today). 


The romantic aspect of dancing emerges in the French courts of Louis XIV (my dissertation is written about him and he is amazing). In 1650 there was an important turning point in the movement of dance, adopted in public by King Louis XIV himself, with the arrival of the Minuet that slowly glided across courts all the way to the eighteenth century. Several decades after the introduction of the Minuet, Louis XIV formed the Académie Royale de Musique et de Danse (a royal academy of dance) this renovated dance for the first time. Individuals study dance here and were encouraged to become professionals that perform a new type of dance in court and ballrooms, famously known as ballet. 


Dancing from strength to strength, dance waltzed into the Victorian era as a product of time and as a social concept that involved every faction in the nation. This movement is significantly recognised by the wonderful instruction book called “Invitation to the Dance” by Carl Maria von Weber in 1819.


At the turn of the twentieth century, many new dances were introduced to the ballroom scene. The tango derived from Spain, the Argentinian Tango (you guessed it from Argentina) as a courtship dance considered as a taboo among polite society, the American foxtrot, quickstep, Afro-Cuban Rumba, Spanish Paso Doble, Brazilian Samba, Cuban Cha-Cha and so on.


As dance continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century it was significantly altered by the greatest social upheaval of the century, the period between the First and Second World War. At this time of social disturbance, the life of pre-war became a memory and class distinctions began to break down. From this, the birth of a more relaxed form of dancing. With the end of the prohibition and depression across the globe, ballroom dances began to form a relationship between American social life, popular entertainment, and the music industry. Dancing became a phenomenon in public settings. 


The swinging sixties introduced more popular culture. Dance followed the entertainment industries in the pursuit of a more youthful audience. Ballroom moved away from courtly dances and towards rock-and-roll dances, the twist, disco dances (i.e. Saturday Night Fever), and towards the end of the century eventually break dancing. All performed in clubs and dance floors that we still love today. 


Dance tiptoed onto our screens on the 3rd April 1953, in a television version of 'Les Sylphides' danced by Alicia Markova, Svetlana Beriosova, Violetta Elvin and John Field, broadcast and recorded to the nation. This first performance of ballet inspired British ballet companies, including the Royal Ballet to broadcast over the next 30 years, recording memorable productions such as 'The Rake's Progress', 'Petrushka', 'The Firebird', 'The Dream', 'Les Noces' and 'La Fille Mal Gardee'. The digital revolution changed television and altered the way the viewer perceived dance on the screen. Choreographers were able to simplify their performances and record pieces themselves, it is from this age that Strictly Come Dancing was born. 


Over the last decade, more and more focus has been placed on dance and its entertainment value. The new show The Greatest Dancer this January is seeking to find “the greatest dancer” in soloists, duos and large dance troupes. Could this be a new era for dance?


Image: Nazareth College

Dance has an amazing history. Hip-hop has inspired the birth of street dance which we often see on television, in the likes of Diversity on Britain’s Got Talent. From these dancers, the nation is learning how to find their feet again. Television is not the only place dance is being explored. The introduction of channels such as ‘satisfying videos’ on snapchat and Instagram allows dancers to create performances for worldwide viewers. Not only that, the hashtags and share buttons enable dancers to demonstrate their art in a way it has never been seen before. 


As people remember eighty per cent of what they have seen and twenty per cent of what they have read (thank you for still reading) dancers no longer have to book out venues to showcase their talent, they can capture their performances on social media where they focus on the visuals, posting unique and inspiring images that capture a political or social perspective. 


York Mediale is international media arts festival that ‘celebrates York as the UK’s first and only UNESCO city’ highlighting digital creative practice is ‘omnipresent in popular culture’. As a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, it is supported through public funding from the National Lottery through the Arts Council England and Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership. Not only did Mediale have outstanding dance performances, but they had also artwork produced from all over the globe. Still We Rise celebrated femme and non-binary artists in work from South Africa, Kenya and the US; Music from Just Jam, Skinny Pelembe and Pearson Sound and celebrated talent on our doorsteps through the Yorkshire Artists Installations; and many many more.

As dance has become more interpretative and contemporary Mediale influenced a turning point in dance history where York was invited to watch Alexander Whitley Dance Company perform ‘8 Minutes’, ‘Celestial Motion’ and their ‘Stranger Stranger Performance’ that incorporated dance, music and film to create an innovative artistic performance that represents science and evolution in an ever technological environment. It is from experiencing their live performance that I have realised dance is everywhere we just have to attune our eyes to see it and discover the beauty in its narrative.

So next time you want to see something exciting, take a step away from your work screens and look at a dance video on YouTube. You will see how dance is being used as an agent for social change.

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