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The History of European Dance

Ballet gains popularity in the 16th century.
CDBALL13 image by Paco Ayala from Fotolia.com

Since the 16th century, European dance represented a dichotomy between classes and between local and regional village life and foreign culture. While many countries (England, in particular) went through periods where dance styles of foreign origin, especially France and Italy, were frowned upon, these styles permeated all of Western Europe, enriching and complementing local English dance traditions, and vice versa. Dance remains an evolving art in Europe, and its outside influences come from even further away, nurturing and strengthening a living tradition.

Early Dances

Early dances included follow the leader dances, partner dances where the man led, couples turned clockwise and the woman stood at the man’s right side. Ritual dances and choreography for court masks were common.

16th Century

For the first time, dance was considered art. Fabrio Caroso created the first instruction manuals for a series of complex “upper class” dances. Among these were the galliard and volte, a precursor to the waltz. These dances had great impact on England, which fused them with indigenous dances. Shakespeare made references to "La Volta" in several of his works.

17th Century

Italy and France dominated the dance scene. Caroso’s manual, "Nobilita de Dame", was translated into Spanish. Ballroom masques became popular in England, and choreography continued to grow in complexity. Unlike the rigid contrast that defined Italian and French court dancing with village or country dances, country dances were very popular among all castes in England. The Cushion Dance, The Hunting Fox, and Tom Tyler were notable. Under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, dancing was frowned upon. It was seen as provocative. Despite this, social dance thrived, and in 1651, John Playford published "The English Dancing Master or Plaine and Basic Rules of Country Dances". The use of the word English was significant here, as the English generally frowned upon French and Italian inspired dances during Cromwell’s reign. This remained until Charles II came to power.

18th Century

In England, country dances thrived, though dance styles and influences varied. Longways dances were popular, and dance halls were built as such to cater to this style. Dance Masters appointed by the courts choreographed dances for special occasions and ceremonies. In the latter half of the century, Dance Masters held country dancing in high esteem, more dance halls opened, and each year manuals were produced with instructions for popular dances performed in court that year.

19th Century

Dances such as The Baker’s Wife, La Bolangere and Scotch Reel were ball mainstays, and the longways country dances were certainly the focus of the ball. This period is referred to as the Regency period. Dance composition was vital to its tradition during this era. Later on, drastically different dances were introduced: the waltz, polka and quadrille. English citizens condemned the waltz in particular because of the close stance the couple holds and its foreign origin. It was eventually accepted as a common ballroom dance, as was the polka.

20th Century

Couples’ dancing continued to thrive, but quadrilles and square dancing were popular in the beginning of the 20th century. The 1950s through the 1970s brought a folk dance revival, and the U.S., dances began to be determined by what the band was playing, as opposed to having a set dance to go with a song, which was still common in Europe. At the end of this century, a revival of couple’s dancing took place, focusing on improvisational techniques and incorporating influences of newly learned European folk dances.

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