You can trace the history of social dance back as far as primitive cultures dancing to celebrate a birth or mourn a death. In later years, social dance continued to develop and evolve, mingling the dances of other cultures such as the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
The Development of Ballroom Social Dance
The early social dances of the fourteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries involved processional dances with subtle, relatively simple steps. The dances usually involved couples interacting with each other, or long lines of dancers. The dances were lively, filled with flirtations, conversations, and even "poaching," where partners would switch in the middle of the dance. Groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism still enjoy these dances at their gatherings.
The Rage of the Seventeenth Century: The Waltz
The popularity of this dance has lasted for centuries, and it is still one of the first dances taught by ballroom teachers. It began in Vienna, where, by focusing on the graceful movements of the couple instead of large group patterns, the Waltz set people free from the restricted movements and set poses of the earlier courtly dances. However, it also was considered "...riotous and indecent" well into the 19th century, which only proved to make it even more popular. You can still see the Waltz performed in social dance halls today.
Social Dances of the Late Eighteenth Century
In England and the United States the late eighteenth century witnessed a beginning of a blend between the rigid group dances and the intense coupled dances like the Waltz. Called "contra dances," "cotillions" or just "square dances," the lively music would include "calling," as the moves were announced just before they happened. The flirting and partner-swapping made these amazingly social happenings, and they survived into the modern day, both in their original form and in country line dances and hip-hop such as "Unk 2 Step."
The Many Dance Forms of the Nineteenth Century
During the early part of the nineteenth century, group dances remained extremely popular. The English Country Dance grew more popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. In addition to the Waltz, there were many other popular dances of the period, including:
- Scottish Reel and the Quadrille
- Two Step, referred to as the Washington Post
As the century came to a close, the influence of African-based dance grew as dances such as the Cakewalk and South American forms such as the Argentine Tango were introduced to audiences in the United States.
The History of Social Dance in the Twentieth Century
The twentieth century was "scandalous" according to many, with its dances using strong rhythms and strutting style, starting when a modified version of the Cakewalk found its way into the stately ballroom dancing of the time.
The dances reflected the freedom felt by the people, freed from the dress constraints of the earlier years, and the growing role of women in the work force. Dances such as the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug included a lot of hugging, swaying and grinding to the strong rhythms of the music.
The two world wars of the time helped cross-pollinate dances such as the Charleston, Lindy Hop, Fox Trot and Twist between Europe and the U.S. and South America. Motion pictures featured dances, which allowed choreography to spread faster than ever. Every decade created its own set of dance fads such as swing, the Twist, the Jitterbug or even disco dancing.
Social Dancing into the Present Day
Thanks to advances in media, social dancing has remained one of the most popular pastimes of people all over the world. You can go ballroom dancing in Moscow, dance to blues legend Buddy Guy in Japan, and find an Argentine Milonga to tango the night away in Madison, Wisconsin. New forms such as hip hop dancing and contact improvisational jams are becoming the new social dances, but the older forms from medieval times, as well as their descendants, are still immensely popular.
A Living History
As the dances continue to evolve and influence each other, one thing is clear: humans love using movement to interact and be social with each other. Along with music and the language of lyrics, social dancing is one of the few things that can unite the globe: mankind loves to dance.