Sarah Johnston explores the history and cultural significance of regional dances
Dance has been a central part of culture for millennia. Before written language, dance was used to tell stories, worship deities, and honour leaders. Cave paintings in India record dances being performed as early as 6000BC. However, when we think of dance now we often think of young, peppy girls in sparkly leotards, bopping their hips to pop hits or graceful ladies balanced on their toes spinning across a stage. I would argue that we should not erase the origins of the dance we are familiar with today, and in fact, that dance history should be openly spoken about in dance classes.
As a dancer myself, I have to say I was ashamed that I did not know anything about the origins of the styles of dance that I practice. I would turn up to classes for a few hours a week, do the exercises, learn the combos, and leave. I was living in blissful ignorance of the history of my art.
The Black Lives Matter protests in June brought dance history into the spotlight, as campaigners sought to gain recognition for the people of colour who shaped dance into what we know it as today. Black artists shaped many forms of dance, but in particular, they are to thank for tap dance.
In the early 19th century when slavery was prominent, African slaves would celebrate their culture by performing traditional songs using percussion instruments, and when slave owners took away their drums they adapted. Percussive dancing became a huge part of African American culture, with slaves using early tap shoes – which consisted of wooden soles with pennies attached to the heel and toe – to recreate their cultural music. Unfortunately, as soon as tap dance was created by slaves, it was taken away. After the American Civil War, traveling minstrel shows adopted tap dance and used it to belittle black people by portraying them as dumb, comical, and animalistic.
It wasn’t until the emergence of jazz music in the 20th century, that tap began to be appreciated as a dance form again. The dancers incorporated syncopated rhythms into their steps to complement the tempo of jazz using tap steps. This renaissance of tap brought us the modern tap shoe and brought tap to the masses on the Broadway stages. However, even though tap was flourishing, the African-American dancers who created this art form were not allowed to perform it to white audiences. Tap continued to grow throughout the 20th century, with stars like Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly bringing it to television screens across the world. Broadway shows like 42nd Street became infamous, and as the fame of tap dancing grew, its origins were lost.
Until personally researching it for a BLM initiative, I myself did not know any of this. I feel a strange melancholy putting on my tap shoes now, knowing that a style that I love so much was used to mock its creators, and recognising that so much of the tap dance I am used to erases the style’s origins as a percussive tool. If you research into the ‘greats’ of tap dance, you will find that many of them are black dancers, like Bill Robinson and John W. Bubbles, as they pioneered tap as a discipline. And yet, I’m sure like many people, when I think of tap I am instantly drawn to images of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, and lines of smiling, white dancers in musicals like Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie
It would be very easy to blame such erasure of dance history on the cultural discrimination of the times, but if you look beyond tap dance there are many other styles in which the true origins have been lost.
If we want an example closer to home, you can look no further than Scottish highland dance. A now-infamous part of Scottish culture, most can picture highland dance in their minds – girls with hair in neat buns, lining up in matching outfits to hop gracefully to the blaring noise of bagpipes. However, once again, time has skewed our perception of highland dance.
Originally highland dance derives from Gaelic folk dance, and in particular war dances. Forms of the sword dance, a very famous highland routine, were performed by warriors across Europe in the prehistoric and medieval periods. These dances were ritualistic and combative, aimed to intimidate the enemy by showcasing the Scots’ strength and skill, and were performed entirely by men. Passages from the Scotichronicon (an account by Scottish historian Walter Bower in the 1440s) describe processions of warriors performing a ceremonial war dance at a wedding.
It is, counter to modern practice, historically men who performed highland dance. Highland is a difficult dance style that requires excellent balance, strength, and stamina, and I can fully appreciate why it would have been a mark of pride for a warrior to be able to perform. The significant shift in highland comes from the 19th century and Queen Victoria, as a romanticised version of highland culture was brought back into focus due to the queen’s love for it. The modern-day highland games were created, and along with that came highland dance performances. However, the selection of dances performed was narrowed significantly, leaving only those which were deemed more ‘artistic’ and less ‘brutal’. As the style gained influence from ballet it fell out of favour with men, leaving only women competing in it. This transition from a war dance to a competitive art led to the loss of many older dances that fell out of practice as they were not required for competition. This eventually led to the erasure of the original aims of highland dancing. Many modern highland dancers are fighting to regain their lost history and encouraging men to become involved again. The sword dance still remains a popular and central part of highland dance; however, the purpose of the style, especially in the media, has been washed out.
There are many more examples scattered throughout dance, from ballet actually originating in Italy before becoming synonymous with France, to the origins of contemporary dance coming from Zen Buddhism and yoga, to hip hop taking its foundations from swing dance. Much of the history dance has been tragically lost, and we only have knowledge of it due to the hard work of enthusiastic historians.
By highlighting this, I don’t mean to say that dancers should have to learn dance history by sitting in a formal lesson for an hour a week, but I do think it is important for teachers to acknowledge the roots of the styles they are teaching. It would be incredibly easy for teachers to drop the occasional historical fact into their lesson, or once in a while choose traditional music to dance to instead of modern pop. Appreciating our history as dancers doesn’t stall the art form. Instead, it allows dancers to grow and develop more effectively. Dance started out as a way to tell stories and to celebrate and we should try and keep that basis. We should use dance classes to tell the stories of those who created our art form and celebrate where we came from. To truly appreciate dance, we must appreciate everything that has gone into it, which includes struggle, injustice, and erasure, and we must amplify the voices which have been lost over history. When we as dancers step into the spotlight, we should also redirect the spotlight on those who were kept in the dark for too long.