The history of dance naturally covers a huge timespan and dances unique to thousands of different cultures. So a four-class course can do little more than scan the surface and report patterns and generalities. Whenever possible, I will provide further resources for reading.

I have broken up the sections as logically as I could. Some fit neatly into time periods - the medieval period, or archaic period. Others fit into cultural groupings, which may or may not have beginnings and ends. The most marked of this is tribal dance, which has gone on all throughout history and is still happening today in tribes around the world.

Indeed, there are so many different cultures and time periods that I will be able to do little more than gloss over most of them, marking similarities and generalities and little else. There’s a marked bias in the class towards European, and later American, dance (ballet, modern) and that is primarily because those are the subjects I know the most about. Some areas that I gloss over - such as Chinese or Indian dance - probably have volumes written about them. My brevity is in no way indicative of the importance or depth of a subject; I just went with what I know.

So it bears speaking just for a second about my background. I danced ballet for 18 years, culminating in a minor in dance in college. During that time, I also had bits of training in several other dance forms, including modern, jazz, tap, ballroom, latin, and square dancing, among others. As part of my dance minor, I had to take a class in the history of dance, and that’s where I got most of the information that you’ll read in this series.

I found quite a bit more online than I ever would have imagined. I used online sources for subjects where I didn't have other source materials. Otherwise, the primary texts I used were Modern Dance Forms, by Louis Horst and Carroll Russell, and Ballet & Modern Dance, by Susan Au, in addition to my notes from college and several handouts I got during the class.

This is a class about history, not choreography, so I tried not to stray too far into the latter, but there is necessarily some overlap, and sf/f writers might find choreography useful in creating their own dances for their worlds, so I did include a little bit.

In class 1, I’ll set the scene, and discuss tribal dance. Class 2 will cover dance in various cultures, including ancient Greece and Rome, and bring us quickly up to the present with everything except the areas for the last two classes. Class 3 will cover ballet from its inception in the mid-1500's to the present and class four 4 will discuss modern dance, and to a lesser extent tap and jazz.

General Notes

Until relatively recently, dance - indeed, all art - was considered a vital part of the spiritual and physical well-being of society. It is still seen that way in the local or “tribal” communities that exist today. But in the West, dance and other art forms have been removed from the fabric of our lives and set apart as something to be viewed, admired, and appreciated - but no longer vital.

Thus, dance forms seem to fall into two categories, one that I’ll call "integrated" and the other "art". (Please note that these are my own terms, not ones used by experts in the field.) Integrated dance is fully integrated into the culture, and is considered a part of everyday life. You’ll see more about that in the section on tribal dance. Dance-as-art is what we’re more familiar with - dance presented on stage, "dancers" as a separate group of people with a specific vocation or avocation. Many cultures (including ours) have both types of dance to a certain degree, but some have only integrated dance.

Dance tends to reflect the environment of the people who create it. This tends to hold true particularly for what I call integrated dance, and to a certain extent for dance-as-art. A notable exception is modern dance, which uses various cultures for source material, and so might reflect another culture’s environment more than its own.

Space is also a big factor - the more space the people have to live in, the wider the movements, with more leaps, sweeps, and big gestures. People who live in more cramped situations (even if the size is psychological rather than physical; oppression, for instance) will have smaller, tighter moves, shorter steps, with arms held closer to the body.

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