Steps in Time: A History of Dance!

Time moves along and we keep dancing to the rhythm of life.  Things change every day, and that definitely includes dancing!  It has always fascinated me to look back in history and see how dance has evolved over the centuries.  In order to share this love of dance and history, I have created a new article – Steps in Time!

Each ‘Steps in Time’ post will be a monthly article where I pick a time period and discuss what dancing looked like back then.  I will cover everything from styles of dance, steps and etiquette for each era.  As there is a lot (and I mean A LOT) of information for each time period, I will limit it to a brief overview with general notes on the most common and popular dances.

So, to get the ball rolling, I have decided to start all the way back to the Middle Ages.  This gives us the first real look at organized dancing for competition and entertainment’s sake rather than as part of a ceremony or for religious contexts.  Dancing way back then was quite the topic of morality, and many people (especially religious folks) viewed dancing as heathenistic, inappropriate and lewd.  However, over time, more and more people came to find dancing enjoyable, and by the 12th century, dancing had become quite popular.   Dances became customary for holiday festivities, celebrations, and when royalty or nobility were in town.

Now, the Middle Ages cover a long stretch of time, so suffice to say a few common forms of dance became popular and were danced for several centuries before things began to change in the early Renaissance.  There were three main styles of dancing – circle, line and partner.  In addition to those styles, there were two main types of dance – court and country.  First, we’ll cover the styles of dance.

Circle dances are one of the oldest and most common dances in history.  Just like it suggests, people would form a circle, all facing inward or outward, and move in unison to the beat, all performing the same steps.  The steps were combinations of rudimentary chasses, taps, turns, claps and stomps.  Typically the dancers would sing while they dance, usually to a simple tune and easy lyrics.  As time went on, instruments like a drum and horn were added in place of the singing.  The most popular circle dances were the Carol, Estampie, and Maypole dances.

Much like the line dances of today, medieval line dancing had the dancers set up in rows with everybody facing the same direction and doing the same steps.  It took the same steps of circle dances and just applied it to multiple directions.  Line dances allowed for the steps to not only move side to side, but gave them the freedom to move around forward, backward and diagonally without interfering with the shape of the dance.  Line dances also included kicks, spins, leaps and toe steps to their movements.  Again, dancers would either sing or instruments would be used to keep time.  Favorite line dances were the Prince William, Morris Dance, and La Spagna.

Partner dancing was considered a bit more scandalous in its early stages due to the “intimate” nature of a man and woman touching hands.  However, the style persevered and gained popularity amongst the lower class and eventually made its way into the courts of nobles.  Partner dancing had the dancers form couples, and each couple did the same steps.  Partners were not in dance frame, but would instead use their hands and body positions to dance with, apart from, and around their partner.  Kicks, turns, jumps, chasses, taps and toe steps made up the majority partner dancing.  Common partner dances of the times were the Basse Dance, Black Nag, and Rufty Tufty.

Some dances combined elements of two styles into one, having a circle or line dance with partners like the Estampie and La Spagna respectively.  These changes and combinations continued to keep the dances interesting and fun, eventually solidifying partner dancing as an acceptable and commonplace practice.  Next, it’s on to the types of dances – court and country!

Both court and country types utilize all three styles of dance.  They incorporated circle, line and partner dancing as part of their steps and performance, but it is the purpose and attitude of the dance that differentiates between the two.

Court dances were done to really show off your talent and skill. Like the name implies, these dances were typically performed at court by nobles.  As these types of dancing were meant to impress, they were definitely done when people of power were in the area.  If your dancing caught the attention of somebody with influence, you could very well be invited to dance with them, which was quite the honor!  The higher you could kick, the faster you could spin, the lower you could bend, the more impressed spectators would be.  It was all about confidence, showmanship and proving who the best dancer was.  There were also dances used as processionals – like the Pavan and Black Alman – that were simple, stately, walk-like dances.  They were designed for entering the room elegantly while giving the audience a chance to see who was dancing.

Country dances are on the opposite end of the spectrum, being akin to the folk dancing done today.  Different cultures and music helped to determine the style and steps of the dance, but most were very lively and upbeat with lots of spinning and clapping.  These were the dances that were done mostly by the common folk.  The attitude was casual and fun, not haughty or stuffy like court dancing.  Country dances were done for entertainment and as social functions for the gentry.  They were energetic and allowed for variations, sometimes getting quite wild.  Some even made for silly sport, like the Egg Dance, in which eggs would be spread on the ground and dancers would have to dance between them, trying to crush as few eggs as possible.  Sounds like an egg-celent challenge!

Despite the differences between the styles and types of dance, etiquette remained the same across the board.  It was proper that the men always asked the lady to dance, never the opposite.  When asking, the gentleman would show deference to the lady if she was of higher rank or station.  Otherwise, a small nod would be made to acknowledge the lady.  The lady could not refuse the gentleman if he was of higher rank than she, but if she had the higher title, she could refuse.  The man would offer his hand palm-down to the lady, and if she accepted, she would place her hand on top of his and he would escort her to their place to dance.  As the dance begins, both partners give a small bow or curtsy to the other.  The same happens as the dance comes to an end, and the fellow always escorts the lady back out of the dance area.

As I mentioned, this is just a brief overview of Medieval dance, with VERY brief highlights.  I encourage you to explore the dances I have mentioned above – you’ll find some pretty neat things and you can learn all about the origins of each dance.  Check into your cultural background, too!  You may find some traditional dances passed down through your nationality!  It is really interesting and definitely worthwhile to discover what your ancestors danced to!

What a long way dancing has come from these humble beginnings!  It boggles my mind to see how different dance has become throughout the ages, but it boggles my mind even more to see that there are still so many similar steps!  We use chasses all the time in Cha-Cha; we kick in Jive; we use toe steps for things like rise and fall in Waltz… it is all simply awesome to see the roots of dance still alive today!

Well, that’s it for this first ‘Steps in Time’ post!  Be sure to join in each month as I continue to travel through the ages and trace the evolution of dance!  The time period I’ll cover next month is the Renaissance, so don’t miss out!

Happy Dancing!