The history of ballroom dance is a story of music, culture, social gatherings, and movement, melding together over time. Whether you are a social dancer, a competitive ballroom dancer, or somewhere in between, understanding the origins of partner dancing can bolster your appreciation for the activity and let you derive inspiration from its expansive past.
The history of ballroom dance is massive as massive as it is diverse. The Mambo, of course, has a much different background than the Waltz. This blog post shares just a small selection of dances, and we encourage you to dive deeper into each style after you finish reading. If you're looking for more of a comprehensive guide to ballroom dancing, go here.
The origins of the oldest traditional ballroom dance, Waltz, first appeared in 16th century Europe. Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher, wrote about what he observed “individuals danced together so closely that their faces touched." Although initially popular amongst the lower classes, this 3/4-time dance eventually spread from the countryside, to the suburbs, and finally to metropolitan areas.
As ballroom dance entered cities across Europe, aristocrats danced the minuets (stately ballroom dances from the 18th century) to music by Mozart, Haydn and Handel. The styles of the upper and lower classes began to blend when noblemen became bored by minuets and decided to attend the balls of their servants. As peasants and noblemen danced together, novelists observed and incorporated elements of this dancing into their writing, often depicting it as both shameless and indecent.
Despite this, Waltz grew in Vienna, quickly reached England, and was introduced to commoners by infantry soldiers in the early 1800s. Composers, such Johann Strauss and Franz Lanner, took note of the dance’s rising popularity and developed more music in the 3/4 timing. No longer was the Waltz considered scandalous or indecent and the style was danced at social gatherings and parties across Europe.
Across the globe, other forms of social dance emerged. Some historians attribute the origins of the Merengue to African slaves of the Dominican Republic. After watching the aristocrats dance stoic, waltz-style dances during parties, they mimicked these dances, taking bits of what they liked, increasing the tempo, and adding their own music and rhythm. By the 1850s, Merengue was danced at every social occasion in the Dominican Republic and neighboring Caribbean and South American Countries. Well-suited for crowded rooms or small spaces, Merengue was introduced to the United States first in New York City, and was easy to dance in bustling bars or clubs.
Turn of the Century
At the turn of the century, many dance styles came to life across all parts of the world.
In the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Tango popularized at a rapid rate. The birth of the dance was so closely tied to music, that many instruments became known as traditional “Tango” instruments, including the the guitar and the Bandoneon (tango accordion). In the early 1900s, Tango reached New York City and Paris, expanding into all social classes. The North American Tango strayed slightly from the Argentinian at first, and became more unique over time. Today, the tempo of the music and movement of the dancers is must faster in this style at typically a 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm.
In the United States, a smooth, traveling dance called the Foxtrot was named after entertainer and Vaudeville, actor Harry Fox. Around 1914, Harry would typically perform trotting steps to ragtime music in one of his theater acts in New York City, earning his dance the name of “Fox’s Trot”. Husband and wife actors, Vern and Irene Castle, also helped popularize and refine the dance after appearing the the Broadway Show, Watch Your Step, in 1914.
In the 1920s, a lively dance called the Swing was inspired by contemporary jazz music and popularized by Black Americans. Like Tango, the music and dance evolved together, and Swing came to include many other styles—Lindy Hop, Shag, and Charleston. Talented dancers such as Norma "Queen of Swing" Miller, danced the Jitterbug and Lindy Hop, with incredible displays or jittering movements as they danced. While Lindy Hop and other styles of Swing are still danced across the country, in the ballroom world, the most popular styles of swing are defined as “East Coast" “West Coast” Swing.
Partner dancing began to evolve around the beginning of the 20th century. As the arts became an integral part of many American origin stories, dancers and other artists became popular within the media. The Hollywood stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, were one of many dance partnerships causing the American public to swoon in adoration. Between their connection on the dance floor, and their ability to move as one with music, these dancers became the fulcrum of the US's passion for partner dancing.
In the 1940s, bandleaders began to play a new form of music called Mambo. Mambo gave people the freedom to move their bodies and was characterized by complicated footwork and interesting patterns. A Puerto Rican dancer named Pedro Aguilar, also known as “Cuban Pete," became a household name as songs wrote about his impressive ability in this style. He eventually brought the Mambo to the Palladium club in New York city and became historically recognized as the “greatest Mambo dancer ever,” a title presented to him by Tito Puente, a superstar in Latin dance music.
Alongside the Mambo, the Cuban Rumba became popular within club settings and in the streets, as it was danced to to the music of local entertainers in Latin America. Originating in Africa, this dance and music style was brought to Latin America through the African slave trade to Cuba. In Africa, the Rumba began as a fast dance with large hip actions, said to represent the “chase” of a courtship. The “Son,” another popular Cuban dance, was similar to Rumba, but was slower and more compressed. The wealthy Cuban class danced yet a different style to Rumba music, called the “Danzon,” with smaller shipments created by bending and straightening of the knees. As Rumba increased in popularity in South America, the styles began to blend. The Rumba we know today is a combination of parts of each of these histories, and even is danced competitively across both the American and International categories of ballroom dance.
Ballroom Dance Today
Today, ballroom dance is a phenomenon as a social activity, as well as a competitive entity. Its popularity has only been increased as television shows like Dancing with the Stars have released. Ballroom dance comes with many benefits and is a unique opportunity to move, share movement with others, and showcase creativity. Are you ready to give it a try?