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History of Dance



Dance has been around for as long as humans have walked the earth, although it is hard to say, and probably we will never know when we started to dance, as it does not leave any tangible traces that we can discover through archaeology. However, the earliest recorded dance can be traced to a series of cave paintings dated an amazingly 30,000 years old. They can be found in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters in India, where it depicts some of the earliest known representation of dance, music and culture. In Ancient times dance had been associated with various purposes, be it part of a religious ceremony such as in Ancient Egypt, celebrating the gods and their stories, or to open the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, or in China and shamanistic rituals.

Dances requested rain or a successful hunt or battle, opened paths to gods and other spirits, promoted fertility and gender identity. They taught “our young the meaning of sexuality as they entered adulthood... Dancing sanctified our space.”Harvard Magazine


Queen Elizabeth I dancing the lavolta with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester


Although, not all dance was for religious ceremonies, or requesting wishes from the gods. They were also performed by the ordinary folks to have fun and celebrate, but also to communicate stories and express oneself. Aristotle’s Iliad talks about an Ancient Greek form of dance called a chorea, a form of circle dance. In Ancient Greece dance was also used to communicate one’s feelings, including love and bonding.

Over the centuries dance has evolved, just as much cultures, styles, forms, ideas and tastes have changed. In Europe, it wasn’t until the Elizabethan and Renaissance period that dance really got recorded, such as the one above where you can see a painting of Queen Elizabeth I dancing. In these periods, dance become really popular with the royal courts and aristocracy. It was only in the 18th century that court dance moved to stage to be shown to a public audience, such as ballet when it was first performed in an opera house in Paris. Ballet, in a way, went back to the old roots of ancient Greek dance in that it was a form of expression. Clothing too helped, as there was less restrictive attire which allowed a variety of different manoeuvres to be performed in Ballet.

But music helped in continuing the development of dance both on stage and off-stage, and across traditional class boundaries, especially in the 20th century where the popularity of genres such as jazz - see this link for a genealogical chart of dance - helped to establish new popular dances like West Coast Swing.

Though we must not forget the influence that outside cultures that played in the development of dances too, such as Salsa, which itself is from traditional West African dance, mixing with 17th century European waltz to form our modern Ballroom dance.

Dance is arguably an intrinsic and important human activity. It connects, uplifts, entertains, and bonds us with our fellow people. As Wynton Marsalis says:

“Unlike rowing a boat or chopping wood… in dancing you became more of yourself as you became one with others. You almost never got tired because your spirit soared the more you danced… Dance is and was and will always be community in action. Although life is no cakewalk, people are going to dance no matter what, because it makes us more alive.”