I know of some people who always like to know that they are dancing “properly”.
But what is “proper” dance?
Some people I know who want to know that they are doing it right will gravitate toward dance sport. It has a world authority that lays down rules and directions on how each dance figure is to be performed. Then there are trained judges who evaluate dancers and rank them according to the quality of execution.
This certainly conveys a sense of what is proper.
If it is proper, then it must be the highest class. Surely the classiest of dancers do things properly.
Or do they?
Other dancers can’t stand the notion of doing things properly. They would rather dance to their own rules. They do not like the “elites” or “upper class” types laying down rules to be followed. It is more fun to shake things up with raw talent and innovation than to try to adhere to stuffy old rules. That’s how the working class people choose to dance.
Or is it?
If you want to learn more about how different elements of society have viewed social dance throughout history, then take a look at Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living by Richard Powers and Nick Enge. It is a rare book in that it covers a lot about the history of social dance. It’s good for all dancers to know this, but there is little out there about it.
One of the interesting aspect is how each class viewed dance.
Before I talk too much about this, I want you to take a moment to think about the origins of social dance.
Some of the earlier recordings of what we would call social dance go back 1000 years. It has been with us for a long time. Recordings of how they differed between the classes typically went along the lines of the nobles dancing in a more dignified manner while the farmers and such were a lot more boisterous.
They were different styles, but each was focused on simply dancing.
So where did the notion of laying down rules and judging dance so formally come from?
Can you imagine someone trying to judge a European aristocrat?
“YOU, a servant who teaches dance, wishes to judge ME, a nobleman?
“Off with his head!”
There would probably be a quick shortage of dance judges.
People who were living such lives were probably more interested in politics, war or hedonism. They were unlikely to have any interest in someone judging them on how well they danced. Certainly there would have been those who wanted to be the one that others wanted to dance with, but the notion of formulating and regulating dance did not really fit their lifestyle.
However, for the working class in Victorian England many were tradesmen. They knew that they were qualified, that they were talented and who they were (if trade was part of one’s identity), because they had been assessed.
And they had passed the test!
In this environment, when social dancing was popular, it was only a matter of time until the notion of codifying dance and then judging it would develop.
And this, according to Richard Powers and Nick Enge, is the origin of modern dance sport. Tradesmen laying down solid rules on how to dance so that all could “know” that they danced well and how well compared to others.
So what do we make of this?
It’s just something to ponder if we ever want to know that we dance “properly”.
There are some aspects of dance that are based on something objective: The efficiency of movement for example. However, it is arbitrary that we think it should be efficient. Why not set a challenge and see if people can still do it inefficiently?
Thus, dance is a mix of subjectiveness, objectiveness and arbitrariness. Which makes it hard to define what proper is.
Much of it is all in our heads.
However, the same still goes for those who think that they can shake things up by not dancing to those rules laid down by others. Really, you’re just dancing to a different set of standards: standards that you likely just made up.
This is the paradox of dance – there probably really isn’t a proper dance class.
However, some of us just like to know that we have met a standard. And dance is a way of achieving that.
Others don’t care for this so much.
Still, you can’t dance anyway you like. You do have a partner to dance with. And no matter what happens, people like what they like, and thus there will be some dancers that more people like than others.
Standards are mostly arbitrary in dance, but there will always be some standard that you will be judged by in some way by someone when you do dance.
If you want to learn more about this side if dance, and I think you should because historical context can help so much when thinking about what you want from dance, then I can happily recommend Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living by Richard Powers and Nick Enge. Just click the image below.
If you do by this book, then there is a good chance that I will get a commission. Just so you know.