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A History of Dance

by Chris & Terri Cantrell

I. From the Beginning

WHAT'S IN A NAME? The words "dance" and "dancing" come from an old German word "danson," which means "to stretch." All dancing is made up of stretching and relaxing. The muscles are tensed for leaping and then relaxed as we make what we hope will be a gentle and graceful landing. Dancing must be organized; it is not enough to jump around the floor with anger or excitement. Dancing is a way of expressing one's emotions through a succession of movements disciplined by rhythm.

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT DANCES? One reason suggested why there are so many dances lies partly in the dancers' environment: the natural surroundings in which they live. Compare the life of a dweller in a mountain village with the life of a farmer in the wide valley below.

The mountain dweller lives among hills too steep, too rugged, and too stony for crops to grow in; yet the hills support sheep, goats, or cattle nimble-footed enough to scramble for scattered tufts of grass among the rocks. To survive here, the hillman must be a hunter or herdsman, walking many miles a day over the roughest country, his eyes raised to the hill slopes ahead. He develops alert, springing steps and walks with his weight on his toes. The dances he would most likely invent would be springing, jumping dances or dances where the men would throw the women high into the air. Their dances would take up very little room (we often call these "living room routines" because they take up very little room on the dance floor and were probably choreographed in someone's very small living room).

The plainsman lives on a flat expanse of rich soil where crops grow abundantly. His whole life may be devoted to tending the same few fertile acres, his eyes cast down to the earth beneath his feet, as he plows, sows, or reaps. The plainsman develops a slow, heavy tread and walks with his weight on his whole foot. He might develop running dances that take up a great deal of ground.

ANCIENT ROUND DANCES: In ancient round dances, the dancers formed a circle around something or someone believed to hold special magical power -- a stone, a wooden object, or a witch doctor (modern-day Cuers?). As the dancers move in a ring, power is believed to flow from the object outward to the ring and back again. The dance becomes so absorbing that often dancers felt neither fatigue nor pain. As they whirl around, the performers believe that they themselves have become spirits. These round dances date from earliest times and are found almost worldwide. They flourish wherever people believe that power can leave one object and enter another object by magic (kind of like that helpless look some dancers give the Cuer before a routine to help them remember what was in that new routine taught the week before). Long after their ritual origins had been forgotten, the round dances continued on. Round dances invaded the ballrooms of the 18th-Century Europe. Original "Round Dances" are still popular with the country people of eastern Europe, and survive today in the children's game of "Ring A Round the Rosie."

II. North American Dances

Did you ever wonder where dance rhythms originated? Though many of the current Round Dancing rhythms originated int the Caribbean, South America, and Europe, several have their true origins in North America. A few "North American Originals" are below.

  • BARN DANCE: A nineteenth-century American couple dance in 4/4 time, taking its name from the rural custom of dancing to celebrate the completion of a new barn. Known also as the pas de quatre and the military schottische, the steps involved walking, hopping, sliding, turning, and foot stamping, which shocked many who believed all dancing should be decorous.

  • BIG APPLE: A party dance that appeared around 1935 in New York, taking its name from the Big Apple Club of Columbia, South Carolina. Couples arranged themselves in a large circle and performed figures according to the instructions of a caller.

  • BLACK BOTTOM: A dance employing strong African- and Caribbean-style hip movements, which first appeared on Broadway in 1926, and which scandalized older dancers on both sides of the Atlantic because of its gliding, skipping, leaping, and stamping -- not to mention its flaunting of the backside.

  • BOP: American solo dance popular in the mid-1950s, consisting of a sort of marching in place to music that emphasized the upbeat. Variations were the scooter, the flea hop, the swister, and the rock and around.

  • BOSSA NOVA: A combination of American jazz rhythms and Brazilian samba, popular in the USA in the early 1960s.

  • CHARLESTON: Originated in Charleston, South Carolina, where black dockworkers danced to amuse themselves. Transported to New York, it became a hit in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923, and was quickly adopted by the flappers.

  • CONTRA: Contra is an American form of country-dance perfected in the late 17th century. Sets of couples faced each other, usually in a square or rectangular pattern, and exchanged positions using various figures. The name also refers to the fact that the dancers performed counter to, or opposite each other. May have originated from Court Dances.

  • FOXTROT: Foxtrot was originally a Ragtime dance best credited to Harry Fox, a music-hall entertainer who performed a fast trotting dance that electrified the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914. Tamed by dancing teachers, it became a popular ballroom dance to ragtime music. The English smoothed out its jerks and originally called it the saunter; it is now termed the Slow Foxtrot (also called English or International Foxtrot). Today, Social Foxtrot (also called American Foxtrot or Rhythm Dancing) closely resembles slow quickstep, due to the influence of Arthur Murray. It involves various combinations of short, quick steps.

  • JITTERBUG: In the jitterbug (another name for lindy) athletic couples moved energetically, alone and together to a rapid beat, originally to 1930's boogie-woogie and swing music. There are two types of basic steps, those in which the feet stay on the ground, and the "air steps" in which the dancer leaves the floor entirely.

  • JIVE: Jive is a tamed version of the jitterbug that came into fashion in the 1950s.

  • ONE-STEP: Also known as the turkey trot,the most ubiquitous ragtime dance. It was universally popular among the young during the early twentieth century. The one-step simply required a single step per beat.

  • RAGTIME: Dances performed to syncopated, jazzy music of ragtime, popular in the late 19th century. Ragtime also includes the mimic/animal dances (e.g., black bottom, bunny hug, cakewalk, turkey trot) popular in the first two decades of the 20th century.

  • ROCK 'N' ROLL: Frenetic, solo or occasionally couple dances performed to the simple, compulsively rhythmic style of pop or rock music originating in the 1950s. These developed out of jive.

  • ROUND DANCE (ancient definition): Prehistoric groups would dance around a central object or totem. In the 19th century, these became country dances in a round or circular formation (as opposed to a square), in which the couples exchanged positions. The term is also used for the 19th-century, couple dances such as the waltz or polka, which feature a constant turning of the partners.

  • SQUARE DANCE: An American form of country dancing, developed from the early 19th-century contras and quadrilles. Couples face each other in a square formation and exchange places in relation to their partners and to the other couples. Another addition is that of a caller who announces the figures or floor patterns they are to perform.

  • TWO-STEP: A dance requiring two steps per beat, first performed to John Philip Sousa's Washington Post March (1891), and rapidly applied to other dances of the period, until ousted by ragtime and the one-step. An ancestor of the foxtrot.

  • TWIST: Solo rock dance that first appeared in 1961, performed by Chubby Checker.

III. International Dances

Did you ever wonder where dance rhythms originated? In Part 1 (last month), we discussed several "North American Originals." This time, we will discuss the origins of several other popular dance rhythms in Round Dancing.

  • ARGENTINE TANGO: Originally an erotic dance from the Caribbean and Argentina. The dance was tamed in France in the early 20th century, and became a craze in England and the US, where "tango teas" took place, offering a small space for fashionable dancers to show off their skill. It was further refined in England and a new dance was created, the INTERNATIONAL TANGO. There were innumerable different tango steps in 2/4 time, although the dance was standardized, at least for ballroom performers, in the 1920s. The Argentine tango is one of the Latin dances while the International tango is one of the Smooth/Modern dances. AMERICAN TANGO is a combination of Argentine and International figures and techniques. It is generally classified as a Smooth/Modern dance, too.

  • BALLROOM DANCE: Social dancing usually performed for pleasure at "balls," in dance halls, and the like. Ballroom dancing competitions, for couples or for groups, are a popular form of entertainment.

  • BOLERO: Spanish dance in 3/4 time that came from Provence in the Middle Ages, but which by the 19th century had developed into a folk dance to a throbbing rhythm from vocal or guitar and castanet accompaniment.

  • CHA CHA: A Cuban dance derived from the mambo, possibly named after the noise made by the slippers of Caribbean women (2 slow and 3 quick steps), to the Latin American sound in 2/4 or 4/4 time. First popular in the middle 1950s.

  • CONGA: A Cuban dance in which performers formed a long chain by holding onto the waist of the person in front, and snaked their way around the floor, house, or even town, performing a 1-2-3-kick to Latin American music. First popular in England and the US in the 1930s.

  • MAMBO: Cuban dance popular in the US and Europe in the mid-1950s. The mambo is a combination of Latin American and jazz. There is one beat in each bar on which the dancer does not take a step.

  • MAXIXE: A ballroom dance, originating in Brazil as a festive folk dance with athletic dipping and swaying steps.

  • MERENGUE: The merengue has a "limp" step in which the right foot is brought up to the left to Latin American music. Legend claims that a Dominican Republic ruler/general who had a severe limp but loved to dance originated this dance. It was first popular in the US in the 1950s.

  • MINUET: A stately social dance developed in 17th-century France, involving short graceful steps, bows, and curtsies.

  • MORRIS DANCE: A folk dance originating in Spain (the name is a corruption of "Moorish") and developed in England. The dancers, wearing bells and waving scarves, move in patterns of skipping, trotting steps.

  • PASO DOBLE: Spanish one-step (a dance that requires a single step per beat of music) originally popular in the 1930s.

  • POLKA: The polka came from Czechoslovakia and Bohemia. The name is connected to the Czech word pulka, meaning "half" (half steps are used in the dance). It is a wild and whirling athletic dance, with fast hopping and running steps. The catchy rhythm in 2/4 time made the dance widely popular in Europe and the US after its performance on the Paris stage in 1844.

  • QUICKSTEP: English dance that gave birth to the quick fox trot (American Foxtrot/Arthur Murray Foxtrot). It was given the name "quickstep" in 1929 and is performed smoothly with gliding steps and turns.

  • RUMBA: From Cuba, originally an erotic dance combining African and Caribbean rhythms. It reached the US in the late 1920s in a tamed version in 2/4 or 4/4 time.

  • SAMBA: Brazilian dance in 2/4 or 4/4 time whose name came from the dances performed by African slaves. A modified version was introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair and became popular in Europe after World War II.

  • WALTZ: Probably the most famous of all ballroom dances, the waltz was originally a German turning dance. This dance, in 3/4 time, conquered the rest of Europe in the early 19th century, though it had to contend with fierce criticism because of the close hold required and the speed with which the dancers revolved around the floor. In the Viennese waltz, couples turned in only one direction; in the slower American version, the Boston, they could turn in any direction.

IV. Dance Terms

Did you ever wonder where the names of figures and other terms came from?


  • CHASS: (meaning chased) A ballet term for a gliding step, in which one foot moves forward and the other follows or "chases" it.

  • CHOREOGRAPHY: (literally, "dance writing") The creation and composition of dances, by arranging (or inventing) steps, movements, and patterns of movement to make individual routines, and arranging the routines to make an entire ballet. The choreographer must develop the dancing to reflect and express the music and, if there is one, the story.

  • DVELOP…: A movement in ballet, in which the dancer draws one leg up, with the foot touching the supporting leg, and then extends it.

  • JET…: In ballet, a jump from one foot to the other that throws the dancer a distance on the stage.

  • PROMENADE: (1) In ballet, a slow turn of the body (also called "pivot") on one foot; and the circling of the ballerina by her partner while he supports and turns her in an arabesque or attitude pose. (2) In ballroom dancing, the sideways movement of a couple to the man's left. (3) A formal ceremonial march that begins a ball or (in the US) a high-school prom dance.


  • BALL CHANGE: From tap dancing, transfer of weight, stepping onto the ball of one foot and then onto the ball or flat of the other.

  • FISHTAIL: From a ragtime animal dance popular in the early 20th century, and involving an erotic grinding of the hips.

  • FOLK DANCE: A general term for forms of dancing that originate among the common people and seem to express the particular nature of the people. Folk dances include the Central European polka, the Hungarian czardas, the Spanish flamenco, the American square dance, and many more.

  • MOOCHE: From a hip-grinding ragtime dance of the early 20th century.

  • TIME STEP: From tap dancing, steps performed to a steady repetitive rhythm at an even tempo.

  • WEAVING: From an old Swedish folk dance, involving two facing lines of dancers, between which one couple passes like a shuttle across a weaver's loom.

Compiled from "The Wonderful World of DANCE" by Arnold L. Haskell, from various personal contacts and other dance history sources, and published in ROUNDALAB Journal, Summer 1998. Reprinted DRDC Newsletter, April 2012. Visit Chris & Terri.


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