Dance, the movement of the body in a rhythmic way, usually to music and within a given space, for the purpose of expressing an idea or emotion, releasing energy, or simply taking delight in the movement itself.
Dance is a powerful impulse, but the art of dance is that impulse channeled by skillful performers into something that becomes intensely expressive and that may delight spectators who feel no wish to dance themselves. These two concepts of the art of dance—dance as a powerful impulse and dance as a skillfully choreographed art practiced largely by a professional few—are the two most important connecting ideas running through any consideration of the subject. In dance, the connection between the two concepts is stronger than in some other arts, and neither can exist without the other.
Although the above broad definition covers all forms of the art, philosophers and critics throughout history have suggested different definitions of dance that have amounted to little more than descriptions of the kind of dance with which each writer was most familiar. Thus, Aristotle’s statement in the Poetics that dance is rhythmic movement whose purpose is “to represent men’s characters as well as what they do and suffer” refers to the central role that dance played in classical Greek theatre, where the chorus through its movements reenacted the themes of the drama during lyric interludes.
The English ballet master John Weaver, writing in 1721, argued on the other hand that “Dancing is an elegant, and regular movement, harmoniously composed of beautiful Attitudes, and contrasted graceful Posture of the Body, and parts thereof.” Weaver’s description reflects very clearly the kind of dignified and courtly movement that characterized the ballet of his time, with its highly formalized aesthetics and lack of forceful emotion. The 19th-century French dance historian Gaston Vuillier also emphasized the qualities of grace, harmony, and beauty, distinguishing “true” dance from the crude and spontaneous movements of early man:
The choreographic art . . . was probably unknown to the earlier ages of humanity. Savage man, wandering in forests, devouring the quivering flesh of his spoils, can have known nothing of those rhythmic postures which reflect sweet and caressing sensations entirely alien to his moods. The nearest approach to such must have been the leaps and bounds, the incoherent gestures, by which he expressed the joys and furies of his brutal life.
John Martin, the 20th-century dance critic, almost ignored the formal aspect of dance in emphasizing its role as a physical expression of inner emotion. In doing so, he betrayed his own sympathy toward the Expressionist school of modern American dance: “At the root of all these varied manifestations of dancing . . . lies the common impulse to resort to movement to externalise states which we cannot externalise by rational means. This is basic dance.”
A truly universal definition of dance must, therefore, return to the fundamental principle that dance is an art form or activity that utilizes the body and the range of movement of which the body is capable. Unlike the movements performed in everyday living, dance movements are not directly related to work, travel, or survival. Dance may, of course, be made up of movements associated with these activities, as in the work dances common to many cultures, and it may even accompany such activities. But even in the most practical dances, movements that make up the dance are not reducible to those of straightforward labour; rather, they involve some extra qualities such as self-expression, aesthetic pleasure, and entertainment.
This article discusses the techniques and components of dance as well as the aesthetic principles behind its appreciation as an art. Various types of dance are discussed with emphasis on their style and choreography. The history of dance in various regions is treated in a number of articles; see dance, African; music and dance, Oceanic; dance, Western; arts, Central Asian; arts, East Asian; arts, Islamic; dance, Native American; arts, South Asian; and arts, Southeast Asian. The interaction between dance and other art forms is discussed in folk dance.
Dancers are not just performing artists; their bodies are also the instruments through which the art is created. The quality of this art, therefore, necessarily depends on the physical qualities and skills that dancers possess. The stronger and more flexible a dancer’s body, the more capable it is of a wide range of movement. Nearly all professional dancers start training at a young age in order to shape and develop their bodies correctly. Strength is built up in the right muscles, for example, and the bone-connecting ligaments on which flexibility of the joints is so dependent are lengthened early before they begin to harden.
As well as strength and mobility, a good dancer must also possess great coordination (the ability to work different parts of the body together), a highly developed kinesthetic awareness (in order to know and control the position and state of the body), control over weight and balance in motion, a developed awareness of space, a strong sense of rhythm, and an appreciation of music. Particularly in dramatic dance, the dancer must be able to project movement clearly and make its expressive qualities intelligible to the audience. Grace, fluidity, and harmony of body are also frequently desired in the dancer, as is physical beauty, but these are subjective qualities that differ from one culture to another and change according to fashion. (Today’s physical ideal of the ballerina—long-limbed and slender—is quite different from the late 19th-century preference for a more rounded figure.)
The importance of training
Though modern avant-garde choreographers sometimes work with untrained dancers to take advantage of the qualities of natural, untutored movement, most dancers in the West are trained either in a strict technique based on classical ballet or in techniques introduced by the 20th-century modern-dance choreographers Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. (Other kinds of dance, such as jazz or tap, are usually taught in conjunction with these techniques.) Training generally begins early, between 8 and 12 years of age for girls and 14 for boys, although some ballet dancers and many more modern dancers begin later. Ballet training closely follows the rules published in 1828 by the Italian dancing master Carlo Blasis in his Code of Terpsichore. Blasis advocated at least three hours of dance classes a day, involving exercises that progressively developed different parts of the body.
Daily classes are necessary not only to mold the body and develop the necessary physical skills but also to maintain the body in its proper condition and prevent injury. Many dance movements make strenuous and unnatural demands on the joints, muscles, and tendons, and it is easy to strain or damage them if the body is not properly maintained. Some bodies are more suitable for training than others, and in the West many aspiring dancers undergo extensive medical scrutiny to ensure that they have no weaknesses or disabilities, such as a weak or crooked spine, that would make them unfit for dancing.
The exercises involved in a dancer’s training depend on the style of the dance. Ballet dancers have to work hard to attain a full turnout (the outward rotation of the legs in the hip socket so that the heels touch back to back and the feet form a 180° angle), which enables them to lift their legs high in the air in jumps or arabesques. While ballet dancers rarely use the torso, African dancers and certain modern dancers have to be extraordinarily supple in the torso and pelvis in order to execute the ripples, twists, and percussive thrusts that their particular dances require. Indian classical dancers, while developing great strength and flexibility in the legs, must also achieve great control over the face and neck muscles and flexibility and control in the joints and muscles of the hands. This is necessary to execute their elaborate mudras, conventional symbolic gestures, with accuracy and grace.
Differences among dancers
However rigorous and uniform training may be, each dancer always has a personal style of dancing. Certain skills come more easily to some dancers than to others: one may be an excellent jumper, while another may have exquisite control and balance in slow, sustained dance passages. The same choreography may also look completely different when executed by two different bodies. Thus, a dancer with very long limbs will make high leg extensions look exaggeratedly long while appearing slightly awkward in fast, intricate footwork. Another dancer may have a great deal of energy and speed but be unable to produce a sustained and beautiful line in held positions.
Finally, dancers vary a great deal in the way they articulate and project movement. Some dancers move in a way that is tense, energetic, and even aggressive in its attack, while others appear soft and fluid. Some phrase their movements so that every detail is sharp and clear; others so that one element flows into another. Some move exactly in time with the phrasing of the music; others phrase their movement slightly independently of it. One dancer may produce movements that are dramatically charged and expressive, while another may be cool and detached, concentrating on technical perfection. Such qualities may vary so markedly that certain dance roles become inextricably connected to the dancers for whom they were created, for example, Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan, created by Michel Fokine in 1907, or Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn’s Marguerite and Armand, created by Frederick Ashton in 1963.
In modern dance the dancer may be highly esteemed for individual style and technique but is generally expected to submit his own personality to the demands of the choreography. Some of the works by the American choreographer Alwin Nikolais went so far as to conceal the dancer altogether under a panoply of props, costumes, and lighting projections.
The display of individual style is inevitable in theatre dances such as ballet and modern dance, where trained professionals perform for the pleasure of an audience. Some participatory dances also allow individual dancers to display their talents, as in ballroom or disco dancing, but in many folk dances, particularly those derived from ancient rituals, the sense of unity within the group usually outweighs the importance attached to any one dancer. In primitive religious dance such unity tends to be even more strictly observed. The point of the dance is not the display of the dancer’s or choreographer’s talents but the perfection of the ritual.
From amateur to professional
Exacting standards and rigorous early training are common where dance has become an art performed before an audience. Such scholars as the German musicologist Curt Sachs have pointed out that in very early cultures, where dance was something in which everyone in the tribe participated, dancers were not regarded as specialists to be singled out and trained because of their particular skills or beauty. Once religious worship (the original occasion for dance) developed into ritual, however, it became important for dancers to be as skilled as possible, for if the ritual was not performed well and accurately, the prayers or magic would not succeed. Dancers were thus selected for special training, which may have taken place either through the family or through skilled individuals who lived and taught outside the community. The dancer’s performance now became subject to the most rigorous judgments; indeed, Sachs mentions a tribe on the island of Santa Maria in the New Hebrides (present-day Vanuatu) where, it was said, “old men used to stand by with bows and arrows and shoot at every dancer who made a mistake.”
Frequently, in religious dances, the dancer is subjected not only to intense physical training but also to spiritual discipline. Such dancers have often formed a special caste set apart from the rest of the community. In the religious hula dances of Hawaii, the dancers observed important taboos and took part in sacred rites in order to be fit to dance. The traditional religious dancers of India also had to remain pure; they were regarded as brides of the gods and were taught by masters of the highest caste. (Frequently such practices became corrupt, and female temple dancers were also paid to perform in the houses of the wealthy, thus acquiring a reputation for sexual license and promiscuity.)
In Europe professional dance was for many centuries restricted to joculators, wandering bands of jugglers, dancers, poets, and musicians, who were generally regarded as social inferiors. The early ballets were performed almost exclusively by amateur dancers at court (though instructed by professional dancing masters) for whom dance was a means of demonstrating their own grace, dignity, and good manners. The comic, or burlesque, parts alone were performed by professionals, who were not so concerned about their dignity. It was Louis XIV of France, himself an enthusiastic amateur dancer when young, who realized that the art of dance could not advance unless dancers were properly trained professionals. To provide standards for this training, he set up the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, merging it with the Académie Royale de Musique in 1672. (The Académie survives to the present day as the Paris Opéra Ballet.) Through the work of masters such as Pierre Beauchamp, first director of the Académie Royale de Danse, the main principles of dance technique were codified, and dancers rapidly reached much greater heights of virtuosity. Before Louis’s innovations, the split between court dancing, with its carefully cultivated style and patterns of movement, and the less refined peasant dances was already marked, but from this point the gap between professional and amateur dance in Europe really came into being.