The history of ballroom dance is a fascinating story of music and creative movement melding synergistically over time, producing what we know and love today as social ballroom dance and dancesport. As dancers or aspiring dancers, an understanding of the origins of our craft can help bolster our appreciation for where ballroom dance is today, and also derive inspiration from the stories behind our favorite dance styles.
While this blog post could truly be a novel, we want to offer you a short outline to explore the general idea of the history of ballroom dance. Since its origins, ballroom dance has been inspired by historical music choices, and music inspired by what the dancers created. This unique partnership is a great reminder that these histories are full of culture, stories, and lifestyles from across the globe.
The origins of ballroom dance first appeared in 16th century Europe—French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, wrote of a dance that he observed in 1580 in Augsburg, Germany, where dancers moved together so closely that their faces touched. Waltz, considered the oldest traditional ballroom dance, originated as a dance style enjoyed by lower classes. Around 1750, a couples’ dance called “Walzer,” was popularized by peasants of Bavaria, Tyrol, and Styria. Danced in ¾ time, it eventually spread from the countryside, to the suburbs, and finally into European cities.
As ballroom dance entered cities, upper classes danced the minuets (stately ballroom dances from the 18th century) to music by Mozart, Haydn and Handel. The styles of upper and lower classes blended when noblemen, bored by the minuets, stepped away to partake in the balls of their servants; as peasants and noblemen danced together, novelists took count and incorporated elements of this Waltz into their writing, often depicting it as both shameless and indecent.
However, perhaps startling to aristocrats and writers, Waltz grew in Vienna, quickly reached England, and was introduced to commoners by infantry soldiers in the early 1800s. As composers picked up on the popular dance style, those such as Johann Strauss and Franz Lanner helped increase the popularity of the ¾ time Waltz, throughout Austria and Germany. No longer was Waltz considered scandalous or indecent, the dance was most popular at social gatherings and parties across Europe, complimented by authors for it’s grace and beauty.
Across the globe, other forms of social dance emerged. While the origins of the Merengue are disputed by historians, some attribute its creation in the early 1700s to African slaves of the Dominican Republic, who combined both African and French minuet dances. After watching aristocrats dance stoic, waltz-style dances during parties, they mimicked these dances, taking bits of what they liked, increased the tempo and added 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
Around the turn of the century, many dance styles blossomed across all parts of the world.
In the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the dance and the music of Tango developed together, increasing its popularity at a rapid rate. In fact, many instruments even became known as traditional “Tango” instruments—guitar, Bandoneon (tango accordion), and ensemble bands including violins, piano, flute, and bass. In the early 1900s, Tango reached New York City and Paris, expanding into both lower class dancers in these areas, as well as wealthy Argentinian youth traveling in other parts of the world, seeking the comfort of music and dance from their home country. Tango became a trendy dance and style of music, and was soon danced across Europe and North America frequently. 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 and typically a 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm.
In the United States, inspired by ragtime dances, a smooth and 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, an energetic dance inspired by contemporary jazz music and popularized by Black Americans became known as the Swing. Like tango, the music and dance evolved together, and Swing came to include many other styles—Lindy Hop, Shag, and Charleston. Fast, bouncier swing dancers, such as Norma "Queen of Swing" Miller, came to introduce 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 Ballroom today, the most popular styles of swing are defined as “East Coast” and “West Coast” Swing.
As all of these new forms of partner dancing began to evolve around the beginning of the 20th century, there was a new birth of ballroom dance, inclusive of many of these styles. 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 only the start of a dance partnership making the world fall in love. Between their connection on the dance floor, ability to move as one with music, and creation of routines that viewers remember for years to come, dancers such as these are the fulcrum of our country’s passion for partner dancing.
In the 1940s, the origins of Mambo showed great collaboration between dance and music. Bandleaders, starting to play a new form of music called Mambo, developed a very creative and expressive dance based off of their new music style. While this dance provided people the freedom to move their bodies to the flow of the music, it was also characterized by complicated footwork and interesting patterns. Mambo became so popular that a Puerto Rican dancer, Pedro Aguilar, who came to be known as “Cuban Pete” even had songs written about him and the way that he finessed the Mambo, making himself a household name. Although he was not from New York, he brought his dance style and eccentric dance ability to the Palladium club in New York city. He is known historically as the “greatest Mambo dancer ever”, presented this title by Tito Puente, a superstar in Latin dance music.
Alongside the Mambo, the Cuban Rumba was an extremely popular dances within a club setting or on the streets, danced to the music of local entertainers in Latin America. Similarly to the Mambo, Rumba is both a style of musical rhythms and a dance. Originating in Africa, this dance and music style was brought to Latin America through 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”, a popular Cuban dance, was a similar dance style to the Rumba, but was slower and more compressed. The wealthy Cuban class also danced a different style to Rumba music, called the “Danzon”, where the hip movements were much smaller and 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.
Ballroom Dance Today
Within the successive years, governing bodies of ballroom dance were formed across the United States and the entire world in order to collaborate internationally and produce competitive dancing events. Today, ballroom dance is a phenomenon as a social activity, as well as a competitive entity, delivering some of our country’s most talented athletes as they blend elite execution of skill with a beautiful art form. This growing trend of ballroom dance has only been increased as television shows like Dancing with the Stars have increased in popularity. Ballroom dance is a unique opportunity to move, share movement with others, and showcase creativity.