How it’s Evolved

History of Ballet

Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance during the 15th century.  Ballet de cour began as a past time for Catherine de Medici, a patron of the arts from Florence, who helped to evolve ballet into a cohesive performance. She funded ballet in a French court where King Louis XIV, a ballet dancer himself, promoted ballet into a professional  art form that required severe training. Louis XIV’s personal instructor, Pierre Beauchamps, standardized the five positions of the feet which are fundamental to ballet.

Ballet in the Italian Renaissance

In the mid-1700s, French ballet master Jean Georges Noverre deviated from the standard opera ballet to create ballet d’action, emphasizing the storytelling element of the form. Romantic ballets emerged in the 19th century, at which time dancing on the tips of toes, called en pointe, became the standard for ballerinas. During this period, ballet became very popular in Russia, where both choreographers and composers collaborated to create some of the world’s most lasting ballets – For example, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake. As movements became more difficult, the original romantic tutu consisting of a calf-length tulle skirt was replaced by a short, stiff tutu which revealed the complex footwork and exact lines of the dancers.

Ballet was revolutionized in the 20th-century George Balanchine, a choreographer from Russia, immigrated to America and founded the New York City Ballet. There, Balanchine transformed the art form by creating neo-classical ballet, which aimed for the simplicity of expression by removing theatrical elements that were considered distracting. He also introduced the contemporary ballet, where movement was used rather than a storyline or plot to convey emotions.

History of Ballroom

The first record of ballroom dance is found in Thoinot-Arbeau’s 1588 Orchésographie, a study of French Renaissance social dancing. Throughout the next two centuries, courtroom social dance was featured prominently during high society events. These dances were always performed facing the throne, since subjects weren’t allowed to turn their backs to royalty. As the etiquette of the court relaxed, so did this style of dance.

In the 19th century, the waltz and polka rose to eminence in Europe and America. By the beginning of the 20th century, ballroom had become a popular pastime and form of leisurely entertainment. Partner dancing moved well beyond the aristocratic parties of royalty, and became accessible to the general public. As a result, more jazz-influenced “low” styles of ballroom – two-steps, trots, lindy hop – began to develop as jazz music found its way to the culture.

Late 19th century waltz

As ballroom dance became democratic, many tried to bring standardization to the genre. The most important example is the Imperial Society which was created in 1904 to “safeguard” ballroom. This standardization helped pave the way for later ballroom competitions, which began in the 1920s.

History of Tap

Tap originated from a blend of European and West African cultures. In the mid-1600s, slaves in the South began to imitate the jigs and social dances of the Irish and Scottish, combining them with the West African dance called the Juba. This style involves slapping of the arms, legs, chest, and face. This became popular after the Negro Act of 1740, which made it illegal for slaves to play drums. Slaveowners were worried that blacks were using drumming as a code to communicate with others in planning an uprising. Hitting their bodies was a way for slaves to create the rhythms lost due to the drumming ban.

In the middle of the 19th-century, this evolving style of dance made its way onto the stage with the rise of entertaining shows, which featured white performers dressed as black people, imitating the song and dance of slaves. Though these shows meant to feature “authentic” black culture, they were performed by mostly white artists. The single exception was William Henry Lane, a free African American. Lane’s dance skills propelled his fame. His name received top billing over white performers, and Charles Dickens even wrote about him in his travel book American Notes. Lane became known as “Master Juba,” and is thought to be the most important dancer of the 19th-century, and the inventor of American tap dance.

Tap dance continued to evolve through the end of the century, and was performed either in hard-soled wooden shoes or soft-soled leather shoes. In the 1920s, metal taps were added to dancers’ shoes, which helped to differentiate the emerging style of dance from its ancestry. With the rise of the musicals on stage and screen, tap dance became a part of America’s culture. Its popularity saw a brief decline during the rise of rock-and-roll in the 1950s. Thirty years later, the genre saw a renewed interest among dancers, especially black dancers who looked up to hoofers like Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., and Savion Glover.

History of Jazz

Jazz dance became popular in the early 20th-century. Though jazz dance has mixed roots extending back through both African and European culture, it’s actually an American creation that developed with jazz music in New Orleans. Unlike in other parts of the United States, slaves in New Orleans were allowed to retain and practice traditions of their African heritage.  On Sundays, they would gather in the Place des Nègres — later called Congo Square — to sing and dance.

Eventually, this kind of social song and dance became popular beyond African Americans, especially as Southern blacks migrated to Northern cities during the Great Migration. Social dances like the Charleston and the Jitterbug were favored by many. In the 1940s, the social aspect of jazz dance began to be replaced with intricate choreography as more dancers with training in ballet and modern attempted the dance form, especially on Broadway stages. This new style of technical jazz became in the movement of Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, and Bob Fosse.