Did you know that dance (social/partner) might never have existed? Read on and find out why this is so.
To really understand how serendipitous (and objectively astounding) social dance is let’s first consider about the nature of dance in a few random different cultures from around the world.
This might seem like an odd place to start, but it was a Sri Lankan friend, also a dance, I know a few Sri Lankan social dancers actually, that got me thinking about this topic. We started talking about how he had danced for years, but no longer due to his wife slowly, but surely, removing female friends from his social network. He then went on to note that in Sri Lanka the tradition was to dance to please and celebrate the Gods. It was only when the foreign “white devils” came with this sexualised partner dancing that the notion of what dance could be changed. I should not that he used the phrase “white devils” to indicate the cultural shock. However, it makes it very clear that social dance in his eyes came from the West!
Indigenous dance in Australia was a tool to explain the Dreaming (a culmination of social law and explanation of existence). Dance places would sometimes be viewed as sacred, and one can see how there is a similarity with Sri Lanka by using dance in a more spiritual manner.
Traditionally in the Americas dance was spiritual, but would also often have a purpose. It could be used to increase the success of a hunt or a harvest. It could also be used ceremonially to celebrate and give thanks. The spiritual nature is seen again.
There is a plethora of dances in Thailand. Their purpose ranges from religious to drama to pure entertainment to combat training to comedy and on. However, there is nothing, despite the variety of dances like social/partner dancing. There is Ramwong, but that is seems more like a choreographed dance that pairs men with women as opposed to being something social. It might be the nascent stages of a social dance culture, but it is not a social dance and the only one close to what we call partner dancing out of the huge number of dances in Thailand.
Anyone who has taken time to look at a map of the world will notice 2 things about Africa: it is very bog and it has many countries. This means that it is difficult to generalise and that there has been a large number of dances developed within the continent for different purposes. However, the majority of dances are communal in nature with little focus on couples or individuals. It was not until colonial times when those “white devils” arrived with the concept of partner/social dancing. Considering the significant influence of African culture on many styles of modern partner dancing and the large number of dances developed in Africa it is remarkable that of all those dances there was nothing akin to partner dancing.
For one reason or another in Europe the colonial dances evolved into partner dancing and tripped off the Viennese Waltz (the oldest of modern ballroom dances). It was only in Europe where we see the origins of partner dance. Europe does not make up the majority of the world’s population so it can’t be argued that it evolved there due to large sampling or statistics.
This might make you think that there was something about Europe that produced social dancing. If this is the case, then there should be evidence of it from early on in the culture.
So let’s now consider dance throughout time.
In Ancient Greece dance was considered a civilising art form. And while being civilising, and thus treated with great respect, which made it popular, there is no evidence of anything like social or partner dance evolving.
The romans were pragmatic people, and not ones to engage in frivolity like others of the time. Thus much of the art music and dance in Rome came from others like the Greeks. The result was that dance during this time in Europe was like that before, and there was no social/partner dance.
The dark ages
In the dark ages there were numerous dances that could be described as social – groups of people in a circle dancing together – but even though this might have been the foundation of partner dancing there is no record of such things existing. It was social, but the partner aspect had not yet evolved.
It is here that we finally see something resembling balls and dances that are social and partner based. There were 2 types: court dancing and country dancing. The former was rigid and for display, while the latter was fun and open to all. This was the beginning of partner dance as we know.
We would like to think this was the beginning and it was all upwards and onwards from there. However, there were ups and downs. Some despised the waltz when it entered London. However, Queen Victoria was a fan so that helped. But after that, partner dances waned again. Still it managed to hold on.
Even at its peak social dancing was only dominant in one part of the world for a relatively short period. Today, it is not the majority of people who dance, but it seems secure in our culture – it is now present the world over and in many different forms. It is there, but not really the norm. Thus, despite how secure it might seem, it could still be lost.
Social dance as we know it only developed in one part of the world and has only been with us for a short period. This means:
- That while dance itself seems very human and ubiquitous, there is little to suggest that partner dancing is something that would naturally develop.
- Given the oddity of the development of partner dance, if the world were to be started over again, then there is a good chance that partner dance would never have develop.
- Nevertheless it did, but we are lucky to be living on this side of the time when it developed; partner dancing has not been around for more than 5% of human history (taking ancient Egypt as the start, which is debatable). Most humans never even hear of partner dancing let alone have a chance to experience it.
Because partner dance was such a chance event and me experiencing it even more of a chance event, I now appreciate it even more than I used to.