Dancing has been around for as long as humans have been on Earth (there are even some animals that do their own little “dances”, too). It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origins of dance as a whole since every culture has their own specific dances, but what we can do is explore the histories of some of these cultural dances. Many of these dances developed from people being influenced or inspired by other people, places, objects, or events. In today’s post, we are going to explore the development of some popular ballroom dances while also learning a few fun facts about them.
The Hustle is a general name for some disco dances which were extremely popular in the 1970s. The early hustle was created by Puerto Rican teens in the South Bronx and was primarily done at house parties. By 1974, it became known as the “Spanish Hustle” or “Latin Hustle”. It was also referred to as the “New York Hustle” (there is also a line dance version of the dance, so when people mention the “New York Hustle,” they are usually referring to the partner dance).
When most people think of “the Hustle”, they think of the Van McCoy song from the 70s, “The Hustle” (the tune is playing in your head now, isn’t it?). The song actually is related to the dance. In fact, it is inspired by it. McCoy’s music partner was watching patrons doing the Hustle in a nightclub when he thought of the title. The dance was made even more popular following the movie, Saturday Night Fever and is still danced in both nightclub and ballroom communities.
Where did the Foxtrot’s name come from? Was it actually inspired by foxes? Disappointingly, it has nothing to do with foxes…but it does have roots in an interesting form of entertainment! Vaudeville actors were stage performers that did all kinds of acts onstage, ranging from comedy to burlesque numbers. Harry Fox was a vaudeville actor who is credited as being the name-source to the Foxtrot. When he was seen doing trotting steps to ragtime music, people referred to his dance as “Fox’s Trot”, and the name stuck.
Even though Fox is responsible for giving the dance its name, other sources credit African American dancers as the originators of the Foxtrot. It has been said that Vernon Castle saw African Americans doing the dance in clubs. After that, Vernon and Irene Castle introduced what they called the “Bunny Hug” and later changed the name to “Foxtrot”. It was soon standardized by Arthur Murray into the smooth dance that we know and love today.
Many different styles of swing dance have popped up over the course of time, and each style has an interesting history. Swing is a broad term used to describe a variety of partner dances from 1920s to present day. With the evolution of jazz music came Lindy Hop which evolved from people mimicking other dance crazes like Charleston and Foxtrot. The name “Lindy Hop” was inspired by Charles Lindberg, who made his groundbreaking flight across the Atlantic Ocean around the same time the dance was developed. People said he “hopped” across the ocean, so “Lindy’s hop” became associated with the new dance.
From the Lindy Hop came East Coast Swing which was developed by various dance studios, including Arthur Murray’s studios in the 1940s. Since Lindy Hop was considered too difficult and unstructured to teach to new dancers, the footwork was altered and East Coast Swing was created and integrated into the formal and competitive ballroom world.
As for Jive; it was another form of fast-moving swing dance that became popular thanks to musicians like Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller. Eventually the dance made its way to Europe where the term “Jive” stuck as the generic term for all things involving swing dance. English instructors began developing a more “elegant” style of Jive for formal ballroom dancers, but the Jive is still characterized by high knees and happy, bouncy movements.
Merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic and is popular among those who live in or travel to the Caribbean. If you’ve been on a cruise ship or in Latin communities, you have most likely seen people doing this dance.
One version of the Merengue’s origin story connects the dance to an unnamed war hero who was wounded in the leg during one of the revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration, but whenever the soldier danced, he limped and dragged his foot to one side. Out of respect and sympathy, everyone felt obligated to dance just like him and also began to limp. This story is fascinating, but there is no evidence that it actually occurred. Another story says that Merengue originated from slaves who were chained together and were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums. The most likely story is that the dance was invented by slaves in the 1700 who would watch their European masters dance stoic ballroom dances and mimic them. However, after deciding those dances were too stiff and boring, slaves modified the dance by quickening the steps and the tempo of the music. It also started out as a group dance rather than a partner dance – dancers would form a circle and dance around each other. Regardless of its true origin story, Merengue is widely known as a fun dance that anyone can learn.
If you think of the Paso Doble, one of the first things that probably come to your mind is Spanish bullfighting. While this dance is inspired by bullfights, it was actually invented in Southern France. The dance is based on the typical Spanish dances of the 16th century and was a way for the French to portray the techniques used in Spanish bullfights. The French even copied Spanish music and movements, but named many of the steps in French (for example: “Sur Place” and “Huit”). The Paso Doble is believed to trace back to a French military march with a similar name, “Paso Redoble”, which was a march with a 2/4 beat at 130 beats per minute.
The Paso Doble showcases very quick, staccato steps with dancers dramatically shaping their bodies. Matadors are arrogant, so the lead always carries his body in a strong, masculine, manner throughout the dance. If you’ve ever wondered why dancers occasionally strike their feet on the ground, this is because it is a move called an “appel” which represents the movements matadors make to get the bull’s attention. The followers’ movements are normally soft yet large, representing a cape that flows around the matador.
There are obviously many more dances with interesting histories to learn about, but it would be a very long read if we tried to get through all of them right now. We’ve only just scratched the surface, but we will definitely revisit dance history at another time!
Happy Dancing! ^_^