- Claude Conyers
A broad category of Social dance in which two people dance as partners, one leading and one following, to popular music, independent of other couples on the dance floor. The term came into general use in the 20th century with two meanings: (1) social dances for partnered couples done for recreation and personal pleasure or (2) specific sets of couple dances performed in national and international competitions. Ballroom dances are also often performed in a theatrical context and are enjoyed as entertainment on stage, in films, and on television.
1. Modern ballroom dance.
Early in the 20th century, modern ballroom dance firmly took root America. Primarily, this was due to the increasing trend away from sequence dances and toward dances where couples moved independently, such as the Waltz and the Two-step, a kind of quick march with a skip in each step. A second important development came with a wave of new popular music, such as ragtime and jazz, much of which was based on the ideas of African American musicians. Since dance is to a large extent tied to music, this led to a burst of newly invented social dances during the period 1910–30. (See Ragtime dances.)
Prior to World War I, interest in ballroom dance was boosted by the celebrity of exhibition dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. Their good manners, decorum, and charm as well as their lightfooted dancing helped to popularize the One-step, the Castle Walk, the Maxixe, the hesitation waltz, the American Tango, and the Foxtrot. The Castles also opened studios for dance instruction, realizing that, if popular dance was to flourish, participants had to learn basic movements that they could confidently perform with any partner they might meet. One of the Castles’ students and early employees was Arthur Murray. In 1924, he opened a school in New York City and began to develop an effective business plan for teaching ballroom dance. As a leader of dance professionals who analyzed, codified, published, and taught a number of standard dances, Murray eventually became the proprietor of a worldwide chain of dance studios and the most successful dance instructor of all time. Today, the curriculum at the Murray studios includes the classic ballroom dances—foxtrot, waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, and Quickstep—as well as Swing dances such as Lindy hop and east coast swing; rhythm and Latin dances such as the Hustle, Rumba, Cha-cha, Mambo, Paso doble, Bolero, and Samba; Country-western dance; and specialty dances such as the Polka (ii) and the Argentine tango.
Another chain of dance studios, stretching across America, was founded in the 1950s in the name of movie star fred Astaire, with a curriculum similar to the Murray studios. Astaire’s influence on ballroom dancing came, however, from his movie roles. His on-screen pairing with Ginger Rogers in their movies of the 1930s set ideal standards of ballroom dancing around the world. Although carefully choreographed, staged, and rehearsed, their filmed dance sequences have iconic status as the epitome of elegance, grace, and high style in ballroom dance.
2. Competitive ballroom dance.
Traditionally, ballroom dancing has been a recreational pastime for privileged social classes, but in recent decades it has become a competitive activity akin to sport, popular in developed countries around the world. Sometimes referred to as dancesport, competitions range from world championships, regulated by the World Dance Council, to national championships to contests at various lower levels of proficiency. Most competitions are organized into professional and amateur divisions, although “pro-am” competitions are sometimes held in the United States. In America, amateur dance proficiency levels are defined by USA Dance, formerly the United States Amateur Ballroom Dance Association.
At the international level, there are ten competitive dances, designated International Standard (slow waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot, quickstep) and International Latin (cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, jive). In the United States, there are nine competitive dances, organized in two divisions, American Smooth (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz) and American Rhythm (cha-cha, rumba, east coast swing, bolero, mambo). The Peabody was once included in the American Smooth division but has now been dropped. In Standard and Smooth divisions, the music is normally popular music from the mid-20th century. In competition, couples usually wear formal attire—ball gowns for ladies, tailcoats or tuxedos for gentlemen—and dance counter-clockwise around a rectangular floor following the line of dance. In Latin and Rhythm divisions, dances are performed to contemporary Latin American music. In competition, women often wear revealing, short-skirted outfits and men wear tight-fitting shirts and trousers, so as to emphasize leg action and body movements. With the exception of traveling dances such as the samba and the paso doble, couples perform their routines more or less in one spot on the dance floor.
3. Exhibition ballroom dancing.
Also known as showdance, adagio dance, and cabaret dance, exhibition ballroom dancing as a theatrical form of entertainment arose in the early 20th century when the French team of Maurice Mouvet and Madeleine d’Arville introduced their combative, acrobatic danse apache and an authentic tango at the Café de Paris in New York in 1911. Around the same time, Vernon and Irene Castle began a series of appearances in hotels and nightclubs to publicize their schools of ballroom dance. Although they performed many different social dances, perhaps their most popular was the cheerful Castle walk, a one-step danced first to “Trés Moutarde” (“Too Much Mustard,” 1911) by English composer Cecil Macklin and subsequently to “The Castle Walk” (1914) by James Reese Europe and Fred T. Dabney.
In the wake of the Castles came Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza who, as Veloz and Yolanda, became a celebrated exhibition dance team of the 1930s and 1940s. Among their most popular numbers were those danced to “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” (1917) by Shelton Brooks, “I’m Just Wild about Harry” (1921) by Eubie Blake, “The Charleston” (1923) by James P. Johnson, “Black Bottom”(1926) by Perry Bradford, and “Jeepers Creepers” (1938) by Harry Warren. Tony and Sally de Marco were also well known in the 1940s for their exhibitions of the waltz, acrobatic adagio numbers, and various Latin dances. Even more famous in later years were Marge and Gower Champion, who began performing a cabaret act in hotel ballrooms and nightclub floorshows and went on to become stars of the Broadway stage and Hollywood films. Inheriting the mantle of all these teams are pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, founders of American Ballroom Theater.
4. Ballroom dance on film and video.
The earliest film record of exhibition ballroom dancing may be the nightclub scene of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), in which Rudolph Valentino and Beatrice Dominguez dance an Americanized version of the Argentine tango. Although the film is silent, Valentino’s musicality is clearly evident. His pantherine dancing and sultry masculinity catapulted him to stardom and created a national fad for the tango. A few years later, the advent of sound in motion pictures ushered in the age of the Hollywood musical film, featuring song and dance. Certainly the best known films depicting ballroom dancing are those of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Of the ten films in which they dance together, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) is an homage to the pioneers of exhibition ballroom dancing in America.
Other remarkable movies featuring ballroom settings include Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975), starring Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning, and Roseland (1977), a Merchant-Ivory film anthology of three stories that all have the same theme: finding the right partner at the fabled Manhattan ballroom. Shall We Dance? (2004), starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, is a remake of a 1996 Japanese film known by the same English title. Because of inept casting and heavy-handed direction, it lacks the charm and artistry of the Japanese original, which depicts learning ballroom dancing as a life-affirming, life-altering experience.
More successful are two films dealing with competitive ballroom dancing: Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Mad Hot Ballroom (2005). The former, written and directed by Australian movie-maker Baz Luhrmann, is a mock documentary about an accomplished male ballroom dancer who selects a frumpy girl to be his partner and sets out to win a championship competition by “doing his own steps.” Defying competition regulations leads to some hilarious situations and an exhibition of a triumphant paso doble. Similarly informative and entertaining is Mad Hot Ballroom, a true documentary of children from several New York City elementary schools who learn various ballroom dances in order to enter a city-wide competition.
Various kinds of dance competitions have also been shown on television and, since the 1990s, have proved to be among the most popular of the “reality shows” that have won millions of viewers in numerous countries around the globe. In the United States, Dancing with the Stars, a competition pairing celebrities of varying degrees of fame with professional ballroom dancers, has attracted a huge television audience for many seasons. It does not, however, represent a high level of ballroom dancing: the “stars” are often inept, despite weeks of training; the costuming is usually blatantly provocative; the music is often rhythmically inappropriate; and the choreographed routines are often tawdry and/or acrobatic, more suitable to a cabaret than to a ballroom.
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- B. Quirey: May I Have the Pleasure?: The Story of Popular Dancing (London, 1987)
- J. Malnig: Dancing till Dawn: a Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance (Westport, CT, 1992)
- K. Van Winkle Keller: If the Company Can Do It!: Technique in Eighteenth-Century American Social Dance (Sandy Hook, CT, 1992)
- V. Silvester: Modern Ballroom Dancing, 3d rev. ed. (North Pomfret, VT, 2005)
- American Memory. An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490–1920. Library of Congress, 2006. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html
- J. McMains: Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Industry (Middletown, CT, 2006)
- C.J. Picart: From Ballroom to Dancesport: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Body Culture (Albany, NY, 2006)
- J. Malnig, ed.: Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: a Social and Popular Dance Reader (Urbana, 2009)