Expression Through Dance: A Cultural History

Thu, Oct 22, 2020 5-minute read

Dance is a part of human culture, it has been so for recorded history. The Magura Cave in Bulgaria contains nearly 700 painting, some depicting dance. These cave painting are dated from 8000-4000 year ago. Did it have a meaning? Certainly, though we will never learn what meaning these early painting entailed.

In ancient Egypt, twenty centuries before Christ astronomical dances had already been established in honor of the god Osiris.

The religious and deeply symbolic character, of high spiritual content, was, in one way or another, common to Oriental dance and is still evident in the classical dances of Asian culture, which are preserved and rigorously executed.

Classical antiquity held dance in high regard. In ancient Greece, dance appeared frequently linked to the games, and singularly to the Olympians. In these manifestations, more than any other time, the wise balance of body control, of breathing and circulation, in which sports and dance combined, became apparent. Among the various choral dances of classical Greece were differentiated and splt into multiple modalities such as the warriors (Gymnopaedia in ancient Sparta and the pyrrhic, a war dance spread throughout ancient Greece) or those performed in honor of the wine god Dionysus who, known as dionysian, took place in commemoration of each of the seasons of the year.

In the Roman realm, the religious rites-in which dancing was a main element-began in the manner of the Greeks, although they degenerated to become the so-called orgiastic dances, which were characteristic of the feasts of Bacchus, the bacchanals. With the emergence and consolidation of Christianity there was a radical remission of such manifestations, which practically disappeared, although popular dance was progressively introduced into Christian celebrations, even within the temples, as in the case of the dance of the sixes of the cathedrals of Seville and Cordoba, Spanish tradition still in force. Other popular festivals, uniquely carnivals, kept the secular choreographic tradition alive.

Courtesan dance became popular with the Renaissance, theatrical dance, virtually extinct in previous centuries, was revived by the courtier and palatial settings. From the sixteenth century onwards, the elaboration of treatises on the art of dance began. The aesthetic ideal of the time transcended the scope of the Italian courts in which it was born to spread throughout Europe. In what can be considered the first era of development of modern dance that adopted a predominant role the pantomime that, derived from mime, achieved its maximum expression in the comedy of Italian art.

Each country, and more specifically every European court, was creating its peculiar forms of dance. Thus, the French branle, a running dance in which everyone who arrived could participate, and the volta, which was liked by Elizabeth I of England, while apparently scandalizing the court’s clerics. Spain made pavana (a slow processional dance) and sarabande fashionable, and chaconne and passacaglia were also appearing and popularizing. Great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart incorporated dance rhythms into their compositions, almost always taken from folklore.

One of the most complex European dances in its execution was the minuet, of moderate movement and which constitutes the representation of the courtly refinement of the eighteenth century. Then later evolved into the waltz, which was the courtesan dance par excellence, and with it began the transition from group dance to couples dance; great composers such as the Strausss contributed to the popularization of this dance, which nonetheless had only a brief period of adoption. Something similar happened, already in the first quarter of the twentieth century, with the tango, the dance imported out of Argentine, which came to be forbidden as immoral by the ecclesiastical authority. Equally discussed was Charleston which, although of ephemeral life, reached high levels of popularity in that short time and that in a way it preluded modern rhythms, and initiated what would later become rock and roll.

History has greatly influenced the development of dance, as dance was progressively detached from its primal ritual and religious sense for the benefit of a playful and aesthetic functionality that led to the passing of the centuries in two different social and cultural forms of conceiving the spectacle of dance. On the one hand, its character of collective manifestation contributed to the adoption of its consolidation as a festive, popular and folkloric expression, while at the same time through its aesthetic and visual values favored the appearance of a dance of a theatrical character, ballet, characterized by a clearer differentiation between spectator and dancer.

Dance must, in any case, be valued not only as the artistic result of a historical course, of constantly evolving civilizations, with their religious concerns, their customs, their social behaviors and their leisure, but also as a reflection of the expressive and cultural capacity of each people.

In this regard, the growing interest of public administration and some private foundations in defending, preserving and disseminating indigenous dances as one more way to rescue the valuable cultural and artistic heritage legacy of the past should be noted. Likewise, areas of human knowledge such as anthropology, sociology or psychology have found more importance in dance as a fundamental source for the knowledge of the societies present and past.

If, as has already been mentioned, dance is the reflection of a cultural past, it is no less true that this artistic form should not be anchored only in traditional or academic forms and presentations, analyzing it to some extent yet leaving it at that. It must also be a living show and to do that it must correspond to the aesthetic concerns and tastes of the new times incorporating all technical, rhythmic, visual, expressive and aesthetic innovations happening both in the dance plot itself and in other artistic shows with similar languages and expressive possibilities.

Dance is very much a part of who we are, and it has developed with us from the beginning.