The Early Dance Lecture 2004

The Image in the Mirror:
Social Dance as the Reflection of its Society

By  Ellis Rogers

The Early Dance Lecture has previously been given by specialists expanding one’s knowledge of their subject.  This talk is rather different.  I want to direct your thought and speculation to the question of why some dances attain a popularity far above that of their contemporaries.  In giving the lecture I made use of several video clips to illustrate my point which unfortunately cannot be included now.

I suggest that the popularity of any type of dance depends on the dancer receiving two rewards from its performance:  First, it must give an immediate and conscious reward – for example, he or she must like the tune or the figures.  Second, it must give the dancer another, unconscious reward in the form of a common denominator, relating the dance to a reflected aspect of the social life of the day.

While searching for this common denominator I came across a book written in 1810 – “The Mirror of the Graces”, written by A Lady of Distinction.  In this work the author suggests that the social dancer should attempt to mirror the best that can be found in society of deportment, grace, dress and good manners.  Thus the dance, as the title of the book suggests, should be a mirror of the graces.

It occurred to me that there might also be a mirror in the unconscious mind of the dancer that reflected the surrounding social environment.  When the dance in some way mimics some aspect of this environment it would trigger a feeling of familiarity.  This would make the dancer feel safer and the feeling of safety would be transferred to the dancer, inducing euphoria and relaxation, increasing the pleasure and ensuring the popularity of the dance.

If my theory is correct, it follows that a popular dance in one social environment cannot be successfully introduced into another without major changes being made.  To remain popular, the mirror – the dance – must reflect the new environment and if it fails to do this it falls from popularity.  I will now try to support this contention by examples drawn from the history of popular social dance but before I start, I would like to clarify your idea of a ‘popular dance’.

Any dance or dance form may be popular with a restricted group of people.  Today, historical dance, line dancing, Irish set dancing, Scottish dancing, salsa and ceroc all have their devotees.  This is not what I am talking about.  The popular dance of the period is what is danced at the clubs, at a family wedding, at the school leavers’ ball.

Let us now begin with so-called primitive societies.  These, before the introduction of agriculture, were hunter-gatherer communities.  Their lifestyle would be circumscribed by the need to gather food and to defend themselves from human or animal predators.  To be successful hunters they would need to make a careful study of animal behaviour and habits.  They would, I suggest, be aware of the importance of circular movement – the repetitive cycle of the seasons, the apparent circular movement of the heavenly bodies around the earth.  Hunting trips would tend to move in a circle to avoid covering ground already disturbed by their earlier passage.  Defensive barriers around their homes would be circular, since such a form encloses the greatest area with the least effort.  In a society with no written language, important information would have to be passed on by word of mouth.

My ‘reflection’ theory would surely predict that in such communities popular dance would incorporate a mimicry of animal or bird movement and the passing on of essential information by means of mime, reinforced perhaps by chants or songs.  One would also expect some dances in a circular formation.  Such forms of dance are known to have existed among the original ethnic population of North America.  The video clip shown at this point illustrated Australian aborigines performing just such dances.

We now move to Europe in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  Mediaeval people were no longer hunters;  they survived by agriculture and trade.  Their knowledge of animals was now, in the main, restricted to those that had been domesticated.  They were, however, still acquainted with the cyclical nature of the seasons and life in general, and their towns were still defended by roughly circular walls.  Above all, they were familiar with the concept of co-operation:  the idea of everybody working in concert to achieve any major task.  Lacking any form of powered machinery, major works such as drainage projects, diversion or damming of rivers, construction of sea defences, even getting in the harvest – all these required the active co-operation of many people, all performing the same, simple, repetitive tasks.  Some degree of synchronisation of effort to achieve maximum efficiency might be imposed by an individual leading and dictating the timing.  Ordinary people, of course, as today, would have been interested in the activities and behaviour of their neighbours or strangers brought into town by the increase in foreign trade, whose behaviour, as today, might be held to ridicule.

All this is reflected in the popular dance of the day, the branle.  In the branle’s circular formation all are visible to each other;  there is no possibility of deviation;  all must co-operate for the greater good.  The steps are simple and repetitive.  All can, and do, take part.  The movements in a branle might mimic a familiar chore, such in Branle des Lavandieres, or be taken from the movements of domestic animals, as in Branle des Chevaux.  In the Branles des Hermites the dancers mimic the actions of their priests, who, after standing before them in church muttering long passages of unintelligible Latin, then turn their backs to perform equally unintelligible gestures before the altar.  Foreigners whose command of English was poor might resort to waving their arms about and shaking their fists, as in Branles des Maltes.

I have said that a popular dance must reflect the lifestyle of the participants and one of the main occupations of people throughout history has been the killing of other people.  During the Renaissance period this was predominantly performed with swords so we would expect dances involving swords to be popular, and so they were.  In fact, they proved so popular that even today most European countries still have a tradition of those dances.  For the historical dancer, Buffons is my example.

There was, of course, a difference between the dances that were popular in closed communities such as court circles and those in the country as a whole.  If we take, for example, the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, we find that instead of co-operation to achieve major tasks, we have exactly the opposite.  All the major tasks that the Queen desired to achieve were accomplished by choosing, to expedite them, men at court whose physical strength and determination to serve her seemed likely to lead to success in their task.  Thus all at court were competing for the Queen’s attention.  Our mirror shows a true reflection of this in the general popularity of the Galliard, not only in England but in other, similar European court circles.  In this dance the gentleman endeavours to outshine the others and draw all eyes to himself.

The type of dance popular during the Commonwealth was, as one might expect, very different from that at Elizabeth’s court.  The new Puritan ethic did not banish dance altogether, only theatrical dance and similar dances that glorified the individual.  In the Puritan town, a rowdy assembly of large numbers of people would seem a security risk to the authorities and, in any case, the public holidays of saints days disappeared and, with them, the opportunity to dance branles, farandoles or carols.  In addition, there was no longer room for the individual – all were to be equal under God (although some, of course, were more equal than others!).  In this levelling of society, not only must one dress soberly but one’s actions must also be sober:  no wild, extravagant kicks or jumps.  Just a quiet walk to church, a sober procession down the aisle, neighbours greeted with abbreviated bows, friends held at arm’s length – no clasping or kissing.  All this is reflected in the popular dance of the day – the progressive country dance.  Processional figures are common, the circles and chains of the branle and farandole are there but greatly reduced in size, and all the dancers are ‘levelled’ by their progression from top of the set to the bottom and vice versa.

In the court of Louis XIV, in France, this type of dance made no headway at all.  Despite the efforts of Isaac de Orleans, in 1684, and M. Lorin, in 1688, to introduce the English country dance, it found little favour there.  This was because Louis’ court was obsessed with the concept of precedence.  In England, when we want to hold up a decision in government, we set up a parliamentary commission.  At Louis’ court they raised a question of precedence and months could pass before any decision was made.  This obsession with one’s rank in the closed society of the court means they could not come to terms with the idea of equality in the longways dance, or the idea of moving from a high to a lower position in the dance.

As a reflection of this society, we might expect to find the couple dance a favourite, as one never has to dance with someone of rank lower than one’s chosen partner.  Because the Puritans were not in power in France, kicks and leaps were still in fashion and the only great difference from dances of the galliard style would be in the use of contemporary music and the equality of attention given to the woman’s part, as precedence required equal treatment for a woman of equal rank.  The baroque dance á deux is a wonderful illustration of this.

You may wonder at my omission from this talk of any mention of the minuet.  My main consideration in choosing examples was a dance’s popularity and while the minuet was in the repertoire for eighty years or so, I have found no evidence that it was popular.  One learnt it, not for enjoyment but because a personal performance of this dance was the equivalent of submitting one’s curriculum vitae to be examined by the society around one.  A good performance showed that one could afford expensive dance lessons.  A graceful performance gained one’s acceptance in a society that valued outward show:  one’s liking for the dance was immaterial.

The next major event to change the popularity of a particular dance in Europe was the French revolution.  The general and immediate effect of the revolution in France was for people to disassociate themselves from anything pertaining to privilege or the court.  Thus, the ‘noble’ style of the dance á deux disappeared.  There was a return to simple circular dances where one was anonymous and unnoticeable:  it was safer that way!  It was also safer to dance in smaller groups, where you could know all the dancers and be sure they were friends.    The most popular dance of this time, the cotillon, reflected this attitude.  In a small square formation for eight people, using less flamboyant steps than those used in the court dances, one felt far more secure from the notice of the dreaded Committee for Public Safety that had sent so many to the guillotine.

When Napoleon came to power he was surrounded with what was, in fact if not in name, a court of his own.  As in previous courts, to gain advancement one had to be noticed and thus the form of the cotillon was modified to reduce communal repetition and increase the prominence given to solo dancers or pairs of dancers;  and so the quadrille was born.  When the quadrille moved out of high society and down the social scale, as I said in my introduction, in order to remain popular the dance had to change:  the image in the mirror must be a true reflection of the new society in which it found itself.  The new society, and the dance venue, was crowded with the ever-increasing middle class brought about by the industrial revolution.  The old, square formation was too exclusive and took up too much room in the ballroom.  The form was thus modified to long lines of couples dancing with the couple opposite them.  Far more people could in this way be crowded onto the dance floor and a popular dance once again reflected the conditions in the society around it.

When the Americans used naval warships to impose trading posts in Japan in 1861, they also introduced the quadrille to a culture that had no tradition at all of social dance between the two sexes, nor of any meeting that did not involve elaborate formal introductions.  For these reasons the Japanese mirror showed an image of the dance that contrasted sharply with the contemporary American music that accompanied it.  Dancers bowed to one another and passed without touching or making eye contact.

One of the most popular dances of the Victorian age was, of course, the waltz.  I was at first quite puzzled as to what aspect of ordinary life was reflected in the dizzy whirl of this dance.  However, investigation revealed that the Victorians were a nation of drug addicts.  From the moment of their birth until the day they died, all were addicted to opium, consumed mainly in the form of laudanum.  Having almost no medicines specific for common ailments or diseases, all pain was relieved by swallowing doses of this black liquid.  Used more widely than aspirin is used today, laudanum was taken for everything from toothache to cancer.  It was given to crying babies, and by the time one was middle-aged, cupfuls of the liquid were taken to overcome the tolerance built up in the body through constant use.  Many died of overdoses, including Elizabeth Siddal, wife of the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  I suggest that the rotary waltz, with its power to relieve fatigue and induce dizziness, was a true reflection of the effect of laudanum and produced similar feelings of euphoria – without the bad side effects!

At the end of the Second World War and in the years immediately following, the popular dance favourite was the so-called English style of ballroom dancing:  the quickstep, the foxtrot and the modern waltz held the floor.  Venues such as the Hammersmith Palais were packed every night with crowds of young men pushing young ladies backwards round a room in subdued lighting, enlivened now and then with a rotating flash of light coming from a silvered ball near the ceiling.  Why, one might ask, was the ballroom so dim in contrast to balls of former times when one endeavoured to have one’s ballroom as brightly illuminated as possible?  Why introduce the occasional dazzling flash of bright light in the eye?  Why did the young women accept the apparently servile role of being constantly pushed backwards?

This was all a true reflection of life during the war.  Shuffling around in semi-darkness was akin to life in the blackout.  Beams of bright light sweeping the heavens reminded one of the searchlights during air raids.  Demobbed survivors were finding that many jobs thought before the war to be a male prerogative were now occupied by women, and they actively supported moves to push the women back into subordinate positions in the post-war employment market.  All this is reflected in the mirror.

We now come to the situation today.  The large ballrooms are fast disappearing, being converted to ten-pin bowling alleys or conference centres.  Social dancing has moved into the clubs, or into old warehouses.  Participants no longer socialise, they frequently dance solo or in groups of the same sex.  Their ‘partner’, if they have one, stands apart and they seldom interact.  The main movements are no longer made by the feet:  the body trembles and jerks in various directions, the arms and hands appear to clutch at invisible supports.  The accompanying music is very loud, with regular, rhythmic thumps.  I puzzled for some time as to what aspect of modern society this popular form of dance might mirror and then I realised that I was actively engaged in it myself.  I was travelling by London Transport in rush hour!

Let us now consider the possible popular dance of the future.  We require a reflection of some major aspect of future life – and of course, that is the problem:  what will be a major factor of future life?

The trend at the moment seems to be for all young people to become more and more isolated from each other.  No longer do groups of children play together in the streets or even in the parks, it has become too dangerous.  They now spend long hours alone in front of the television or computer or text messaging each other on their mobile ‘phones.  Even if watching television together, they do not communicate but watch mainly in silence.  As they grow older these periods of isolation are interspersed with short periods of wild and uncontrolled behaviour in pubs and clubs.

If this trend continues, the mirror will no longer be able to reflect common aspects of the day but only the fragmented images of small groups of specialists – historical dancers, folk dancers, line dancers, etc. – no one group large enough to produce a single coherent image.

You may not have been convinced by my arguments for The Image in the Mirror but I hope you have found something to intrigue you, to cause you to speculate and form your own theory.  As I do not want to conclude with a somewhat sad view of dancing in the future, may I tell you of one example of a dance being altered to remain popular when put into a new social setting.

In the latter part of the 19th century, students in Paris took a much less reverent attitude to the most popular dance of the day and inserted into the quadrille the speed, lively movements, some of the steps, and undoubtedly also the shouts and screams, of the can-can!