Glimpses of the Past
As long as men and women have lived upon this earth, they have danced. The art of movement is among the oldest of the arts. That is really not surprising, for so much about us is in perpetual motion. Rivers run, tides ebb and flow, leaves on the trees and grass blades in a meadow all bend or tremble in the wind. The seasons pass. Day gives way to night, and night to a new day. Just as people are always aware of the movement around them, so their bodies may instinctively respond to situations through movement before their minds and tongues have been able to verbalize a response. We cringe with fear, throw our hands up in surprise, or reach out to clasp someone we love.
Moving through a world that is itself in motion, people have always danced out their feelings about the world. The origins of dance are rooted in a prehistoric past. Long before dance became a complex art, people delighted in swaying, circling and stamping out rhythms, just as small children still do. Aware of the movements of the forces of nature, prehistoric people moved in ways they hoped would appease those forces or give them new powers of their own. Hunters danced before going off to pursue game, warriors danced before marching into battle. Tribes danced to banish evil spirits and to ask favors of the gods. There were dances to bring rain, dances to celebrate the harvest, dances of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. And there may have been dances that were just for fun.
In one sense all dances are made similar by the use of the human body in motion, but because the body can move in a multitude of ways, dances vary astonishingly from culture to culture. Nevertheless, it is possible to classify dances according to their intent: there are dances performed principally to please the dancers themselves, dances performed to please the gods, and dances performed to please other people. The first category - dances to please the dancers doing them- includes social dancing. It may often be entertaining to watch other people in a waltz or the latest pop dance craze. But most such dances are intended to be performed rather than watched, and many people who are lumbering and graceless can still enjoy themselves enormously on the dance floor. The category of dances to please the gods is that of spiritual, religious, or ceremonial dances. Although such dances may be fascinating to watch, they exist because they are done for some ritualistic purpose.
When the pleasure or edification of onlookers is at least one of the important aspects of a dance, that dance can be said to belong to the category of theatrical dancing. Such dances may not be presented on a stage or in any building that we might recognize as a theater. Yet if a dance performance in any way emphasizes the distinction between doer and spectator, then it is, at least to some degree, theatrical. Of course, many dances may fit into several categories simultaneously. Certain dances in certain cultures may begin with dancers moving in front of onlookers, only to conclude with performers and spectators all dancing together. And some ceremonial dances may be intended to awe worshipers in a temple as well as to honor the gods in heaven. Nevertheless, theatrical dancing- dances done by people while other people watch- constitute one of the major forms of dance in cultures around the world, and each great civilization produces its own.
The most influential of ancient world civilizations was that of Greece. Believing that dance was divinely inspired, the Greeks allowed the art to play an important part in religion, education and theater. Two great gods concerned themselves with dance. Apollo - who, in addition, was the patron of music, poetry, philosophy, and healing - was associated with light: the light of day and, symbolically, the light of the intellect that drives away barbarism. Dionysus was a god of fertility and wine as well as a god of dance. Like wine, his divine powers could induce both cheerful merriment and wildness, and many of his worshipers were known to break loose into riotous dance. Over the centuries Apollo and Dionysus have come to symbolize two types of art: art notable for its serene majesty and formal balance is often called "Apollonian" whereas art that is emotionally unrestrained or ecstatic is "Dionysiac" (or "Dionysian")
As an art, Greek dance was allied to both poetry and music, and dancers often interpreted poems by means of a complex system of rhythmic body movements know as cheironomia. Just as poetry and dance were allied, so instrumental music was not an autonomous art, as it often is today, but one linked to poetry, song, and movement. The Greeks viewed the union of dance, music and poetry as symbolic of the harmony of mind and body and, indeed, of civilization itself. At many religious ceremony everybody danced - the highborn and the lowly, small children and elderly adults - and professionalism tended to be discouraged. Instead, the idea was the cultivated amateur or well-rounded citizen, rather than the craftsman making a living through a single skill. Consequently, totally professional activities in music and dance were usually left to slaves, freedmen, and foreigners.
Among the Greek dances were vigorous male dances involving loud shouts and clanging of weapons that were performed not only to praise military prowess, but also to honor the powers of nature and to frighten evil spirits. Others were religious dances in a circle to invoke the gods, dances in which the participants carried snakes (which were considered sacred), harvest dances, and dances associated with mystic cults.
Although much research has been done on the Greek theater, it is impossible to reconstruct any actual Greek dances. Descriptions of dances survive, and dancers are depicted in sculptures and vase paintings; yet such verbal accounts and pictorial imagery are not necessarily literal depictions of specific dance movements.
However, several types of dances are known to have existed. The vigorous pyrrhic dance is said to have been inspired by of a soldier in battle such as forward- leaping attacks, withdrawals, and movements to the side to avoid blows. The gymnopaedia resembled the pyrrhic dance in vigor, but with movements derived from wrestling rather than warfare. Whereas many Greek dances were performed by only one sex, young men and women danced together in the hyporchema, singing choric poems as they moved. All these dances emphasized circular and spiral patters.
Dancing formed part of the fancy dinner-party entertainment know as the symposium. After a fine meal, the guests at such events were anointed with oil, and garlands (somewhat resembling Hawaiian leis) were placed on their heads and around their necks. Entertainment followed, including music on the lyre and flute and, often, performances by a troupe of professional dancers.
As Rome came to dominate the world and the Roman Empire expanded, dance - even in the Greek areas under its domination- became increasingly divorced from poetry. A theatrical form that developed in the late days of Greek culture and flourished until the sixth century A.D. in the Roman Empire was what was known as the pantomime. For the Romans, the pantomime was a program, introduced by a plot summary and accompanied by singers and musicians, in which a solo performer portrayed all the characters in a story taken from mythology or history. Often the performer would change costume to indicate the different characters, but the more clever mimes would simply rearrange the folds of their cloaks and convey changes of character entirely through their gestural skills.
Dance was an important part of life in the Middle Ages for aristocrats and common people alike. There was dancing by peasants at street fairs and by noble lords and ladies in castle halls. Medieval dances included dances to instrumental music and vocal dances, which were performed to songs sung by spectators or the dancers themselves. Indoor dances were accompanied by flute, lute, viola da gamba, and other stringed instruments prized for their softness of sound.
Among the festive medieval dances were the ductia, a particular favorite of the wealthy, and the stantipes, which, because of its complexities, was thought to prevent the thoughts of its performers from straying to vulgar matters. The estampie was a stately dance for couples that some scholars believe developed around 1400 into the basse dance (or bassadanze), a slow-moving dance with low elegant steps that derived its name from the French basse and the Italian bassa, both neaning "low".
In castles and palaces, dances served as party entertainments, and with the coming of the Renaissance, court dance flourished, particularly in Italy. At the time, Italy was not a unified nation but a collection of squabbling states. Their reigning princes continually sought ways to increase their prestige and impress their neighbors. One way to do so was to create a brilliant court life through the encouragement of art and learning. Ostentatious by nature, dance could easily proclaim a court's brilliance and taste, Thus it was in Italy that the first dancing masters appeared, among them Domenico of Piacenza, who around 1400 wrote the first surviving European treatise fbn dancing; his followers Antonio Cornazano and Guglielmo Ebreo (William the Jew) were often in demand as producers of dances for state occasions. The very word "ballet" is of Italian origin, derived from the verb ballare, "to dance".
From "Ballet & Modern Dance. A Concise History" by Jack Anderson