A Brief History of Ballroom Dancing

While a dance instructor and professional dancer, Debbie Cook has always been interested in the history of dance and how it has become a part of our culture.
Debbie Cook History of Dance

Ballroom dancing is derived from the Latin word "ballare" meaning "to dance." While going to the dance may remind a person of painfully awkward times in middle school, going to the ball evokes a sensation of magical grandeur. The location (the ballroom) and the dancers (the elite) once were the defining difference between ballroom and the folk dancing of the common people. Fortunately, today ballroom dancing is a bit more egalitarian and is defined by the form: couples dancing independently of anyone else.
In the Middle Ages, dances in and out of the ballroom did not differ much. People generally danced in lines and circles. Switching partners was common. The first account of ballroom dancing was written by Thoinot-Arbeau in Orchésographie in 1588, but these techniques are not included in modern ballroom dance. In the 16th century, the French court adopted and formalized the Minuet, a folk dance. Similarly, polka began as a Bohemian folk dance that was adopted by the courts of Prague and spread throughout the ballrooms of Europe. Both are generally considered historical dances, not ballroom dances.
Created in England in about 1812, the Waltz is one of the oldest of modern ballroom dance. The elegant movements were made possible by smoother floors and the disposal of clunky shoes. Soon enough, the dance rose in popularity. Most importantly, waltz pioneered the independent movement of each couple rather than a dancing as a group.
Modern ballroom dancing came into full swing in the 20th century. Jazz music inspired many new dances that became part of ballroom dances like the Foxtrot, Lindy hop, and Swing. Famous entertainers, like Irene and Vernon Castle, popularized these new ballroom dances on stage and later on screen. The standardization of moves by dance professionals allowed dancers to be able to dance with anyone that they met. Dance societies and studios brought ballroom dancing to a broader audience. In the 1930s, the on-screen ballroom dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers became iconic.
Like the waltz, the Tango was first received as a scandalously intimate, but social standards relaxed. The national dance of Argentina is a mix of solo dance from Spain and a courtship dance from Argentina. Ballroom Tango is a standardized form of the original Argentine Tango, which is improvisational.
Four styles are recognized as ballroom dancing: International Standard and Latin Standard were first recognized, and then American Smooth and American Rhythm categories were formed in Canada and the United States. Elsewhere, dances are classified only under International and Latin Standard though the American styles have different figures than their parent styles. Sequence dancing is considered to be ballroom dancing, but participants dance in circles or lines unlike modern ballroom dance. Some newer dances from nightclub to Brazilian to Cajun styles are sometimes considered ballroom.

Ballroom dancing has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to routines, movies, and televised competitions. Though never in the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee recognizes competitive ballroom dance as a sport. 


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