January 20, 2024

About the Author: Urpi

Urpi is the lead dance instructor at S&C Dance, where her passion for movement knows no bounds. Alongside her captivating dance classes, she also teach singing!

Whenever we ask ourselves when dance originated, it seems that dance does not have a beginning as dance has always been a form of art that has always been between us, a form of expression inherent to the human being.

Indeed, the physical expression through movement follows the same evolutionary timeline of human beings, and although it is practically impossible to locate the origin of dance in space and time, art historians have been tracking its origins, understanding first the history of dance as the chronological account of dance and dancing not only as an art but also as a social ritual.

Bushmen (San) rock carve painting of human figures

Dance in Prehistory

In the same way as other forms of communication, such as the performing arts or even the plastic arts, demonstrated by the cave paintings, dance has been an act of socialisation in all cultures, carried out with multiple means of expression. Since prehistory, human beings have needed to communicate physically through movements that express feelings and moods, and these first rhythmic movements also served to ritualize important events such as births, weddings or even deaths.

Besides this, dance had a ritual component as it was executed for fertility ceremonies, religious, hunting, war, or other ritualistic ceremonies.

Having looked at dance as a social and ritual act, the question of when dance started to be conceived as an art arises. So, to answer this question, let’s have a look at some Western classical civilizations that provided more written or artistic testimonies in painting and sculpture of dance. Let’s travel in time and get situated in the wonderful times of the greatest philosophers of all times, the Greeks.

Ancient Greek dancing

Sacred and Serious Dance in Greece

As we mentioned before, it is practically non-viable to locate the origin of dance in space and time due to its ephemeral nature; nevertheless, since there has always been a dichotomy between dance as a folkloric and popular expression and dance as art and spectacle, according to the testimonies it seems it was in ancient Greece when dance was considered first as an art.

Everything seems to indicate that the idea of dance as an art started in Greece as it integrated dance and music, choreography, and scenography to be performed in front of an audience.

As Greeks had a vast array of deities who were supposed to be in charge of specific areas of human life, it could not be missing the one in charge of dance. For the Greeks, Terpsichore was the muse dedicated to dance, the goddess of dance and chorus. These first vestiges of dance as art around the 5th century BC. come from the cults of Dionysus called “Dithyrambs”, which were Greek lyrical compositions that were originally part of the rituals to the God of Wine where dance appeared as a technique to execute each of the rhythmic movements of the chorus.

However, the Greeks stated that they already knew this art from time immemorial. Even in one of the passages of the Odyssey, the one in which Homer narrates that the son of Laertes arrives at the court of Alcinous, Homer narrates that he arrived with a dance performed by a troop of young people to the sound of the harmonious lyre of Demodocus, who danced with such elegance and lightness that Ulysses was totally captivated by the charming mobility of his feet.

Certainly, one of the Greek philosophers who contributed a lot to the art of dance was Plato.

Due to his wise laws, dance reached the last degree of perfection among the Greeks as Athaeus, a Greek rhetorician, tells us that the most skilled sculptors were going to study and draw the different attitudes of the dancers so later they can copy them in their works.

What’s more, Plato recognised three types of dances. The first consisted of pure imitation, which adjusts to the expressions of song and poetry. The second intended to ensure health, lightness and good grace in the body, and the third one was that, under the pretext of complying with certain religious rites, they could imitate drunkenness and indulge in all kinds of excesses. Therefore, he judged the first two to be very useful for his idea of a republic, and he banished the last one to avoid damaging morality and good customs.

In this way, dance in ancient Greece had a lot of relevance and respect from the citizens as dance was present and performed in almost every aspect of Greek life, and it was considered an art part of education in the same way sport was. Dance was introduced into most of their sacred and secular ceremonies in well-designed figures to the beat of harmonious tunes and through measured steps.

It is also believed that the concept of choreography, which is the art or practice of designing sequences of movements of physical bodies in which motion or form or both are specified, also started in Greece.

Among the most famous dances mentioned in the Greek testimonies are for example, the “Menaphitic” the dance dedicated to the Goddess Minerva in which people celebrate the victory of gods and the defeat of the titans.

The Spartans, well-known for their fighting spirit, also had the “War Dance” performed by the warriors before battle. Another famous Greek dance was the “Dance of Innocence” which was performed in Lacadaemon by the city’s maidens completely naked in front of the altar of Artemis, with graceful and modest attitudes and slow and serious steps.

As a matter of fact, it is said that Helena was exercising in this dance when she was seen by Paris, who fell in love after watching her dance, stole her, and took her to Troy.

Definitely, dance in ancient Greece had a very special place in society, it was considered an art worthy of study and practice and in order to obtain a very high level of education and also as a trait of a person of high status, dance needed to be studied and practiced.

Nonetheless, this was about to change a bit with the arrival of the greatest engineers of Western civilization, the Romans.

Etruscans dance

Entertaining and Pleasing Dance in Rome

As it is well known, the Romans were influenced a lot by Greek culture, and they even took some of their traditions and costumes and adapted them to their own culture. Regarding dance, in the early times of the empire, Romans continued to see dance as a very important art and not all citizens could take part in sacred dances, and dancers were honoured as heroes.

Later, around the year 70 BC. Dance was introduced into the scene, and this invention is attributed to Bathyllus of Alexandria and Pylades, both famous Roman dancers and performers who lived during the period of Emperor Augustus and combined dance with comedy and tragedy.

This amusement, which is certainly one of the main pleasures of youth, could not help but please the Roman society. Bathyllus and Pylades came to influence the business of the Republic with this combination of dance with elements of theatre, and a little later, dance came to form a special genre of declamation, the pantomime, a spectacle unknown to the Greeks and consisting of comic or heroic pieces expressed by gestures and dances.

This genre was then called “Italic Dance”.

In the long history of the Romans, several periods are distinguished when it comes to dance:

The first one is from the 8th to the 6th century BC, when the Etruscans dominated Rome, and most religious rhythms were introduced, although the original meaning of these dances is lost.

Latin authors describe the ancient Roman dancing customs to us as dances especially celebrated to their God Mars, a three-beat dance called “Tripudium”, which was also sung and danced to completely forget the meaning with which they were born and forget their origins, in other words, dance at that time started to be more a pleasurable.

Later on, dance started to have a lot of expectations, and it began to be practised by ladies of high social status, although it triumphed the most above all in the circus, where dance predominated, exploding its entertainment character. In that same period, the dances also started to have a character more of indecency than dance as dances were performed by courtier women, among whom were Syrian and African women brought as spoils of conquest to men.

From this period on, dance left aside its sacred and more serious artistic character, which was practised by Greeks to become a more entertaining form of art, which would prepare the ground for the evolution of dance.

So, we invite you to read part 2 of History of Dance as this has just started, and here at S&C Dance, we will gladly tell you more about the history of this wonderful art.

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