Popular and Social Dance

Popular and Social Dance

Popular and Social Dance


Popular and Social Dance, overlapping terms referring to dances performed by the participants for their own enjoyment and apparently not belonging to any folk tradition; such dances characteristically emerged among the aristocratic or wealthy in past societies and developed in the urban, mass-media-influenced cultures of the 20th century.

Different scholars vary in their usage of the terms “popular dance” and “social dance”. Some apply the former to dances of the 20th century. Some reserve the latter for the dances of the more urban and sometimes more affluent members of society who gather to see and be seen. Still others consider “social dance” to encompass not only urban or elite dances but also recreational folk dances (as opposed to ceremonial or ritual folk dances). The focus here, however, is on non-traditional (that is, non-folk) social dances popular among the elite of past centuries as well as among members of 20th-century, largely urban, society. The steps and patterns of such dances tend to reflect the values and attitudes of society during a given period. The dances often cross geographic boundaries and, particularly in the 20th century, are enjoyed by large numbers of people. Many are rooted in folk dance, and, like recreational folk dances, they can be contrasted with theatrical dance (which is meant for an audience and is performed by highly skilled and trained individuals). Like folk dances, however, popular social dances have often been employed and transformed by choreographers for use in the theatre. Although popular and social dance forms exist to some extent in non-Western cultures, they are particularly prominent in Western culture, and throughout their documented history, they have influenced Western music and theatre. Through colonialism and the globalizing tendencies of mass media, a number of Western forms may be found throughout the world.

Popular and Social Dance


The earliest specific documentation of the social dances popular in western Europe is from the Middle Ages. The predominant dance forms of the early Middle Ages were chain dances, in which the participants, linked in a line, accompanied themselves with singing. Carol, reigen, branle, and farandole are the dances most frequently mentioned. In the later Middle Ages, members of the feudal nobility concerned themselves with chivalry, knighthood, and troubadour songs about courtly love. In this environment, couple dances began to achieve popularity. The estampie was one of the first formal couple dances; it was a slow, stately dance performed to instrumental accompaniment in the courts of Europe.

During the Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries), the members of the nobility were joined as cultural leaders by a powerful mercantile class. As humanism and an interest in Classical Greece and Rome became powerful ideas, dances tended to reflect secular values. In their ordered patterns, the dances of the Renaissance seem to mirror the contemporary philosophical fascination with the harmonious movements of the planets and other celestial bodies. Many of these dances were created by professional dancing masters hired by the nobility. For the first time, instruction manuals became available, showing the steps and patterns of the various court dances—the trend-setting dances of the 15th to the 18th centuries. The 15th-century manuscripts of such dancing masters as the Italians Domenico da Piacenza and Guglielmo Ebreo are available for study, along with a dance manual published in the late 1490s by the French printer Michel de Toulouze. The dances taught were balli and balletos, the bassadanza, and its northern counterpart, the basse danse. Danced with simple movements and gentle shifts of weight by couples who touched hands at arm’s length, the basse danse proceeded round a hall in a quiet, stately manner, led by the highest-ranking couple. When the Italian noblewoman Catherine de Médicis became Queen of France in 1547, she brought to the French royal court not only Italian influences, but also her Italian dancing master.

The dance manuals published between 1550 and 1630, written by the Frenchman Thoinot Arbeau, the Italian Cesare Negri, and other dancing masters, describe dances such as the pavane, galliard, allemande, courante, saltarello, and volta, as well as circular branles and progressive longways dances (for a line of couples, in which each couple repeats the pattern with one new couple after another; see Country Dance). The sense of order and harmony that was so important during the Renaissance gave rise to formalized suites of dances; pavanes, for example, were followed by galliards. The pavane replaced the basse danse as the usual processional dance. The galliard, with its springy leaps and kicks, became a dance of male display to a more subdued female partner. See also Suite.


In 1643 Louis XIV became King of France, then the centre of world power. Pavanes and galliards began to die out, and dances such as the sarabande, chaconne, gavotte, musette, hornpipe, gigue (see Jig), rigaudon, and bourrée became prominent. During the 1660s at the French court the minuet appeared; its hierarchical format, complex patterning, and contained elegance reflected a world of order, convention, and extreme emphasis on detail. Instruction in its performance by dancing masters was essential, and it was danced as a social display by one couple at a time, in order of rank.

The minuet had a lengthy popularity among the upper classes, and its demise overlapped with the beginnings of the waltz and with significant historical events—the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the middle class. In parallel with the fascination of literary and musical Romanticism with folk music and folk life, the waltz was derived from a folk dance (the Austrian ländler), as were other 19th-century couple dances such as the mazurka and polka. Everything about the waltz was new and different—the impetuous tempo, couples dancing simultaneously with others in random patterning, partners facing each other instead of side by side, and the radically new embracing hand positions—reflecting the collapse of the old aristocratic order. It retained extensive popularity through the 1870s and continues to be danced in various styles today.


Not long after the first performance in 1867 of the “Blue Danube” waltz, by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss the Younger, dominance in the development of popular dance shifted from Europe to the United States. Previously, American emphasis had been on imported English country dancing and the French contredanse and cotillion. In 1889, however, the “Washington Post March” of the American bandmaster John Philip Sousa gave birth to the two-step in ½ metre, with a quick marching step with skips. Ragtime, with roots in black American music, emerged in the late 1890s. With its lively, syncopated rhythms, it gave rise between 1911 and 1915 to a popular craze for dances imitating animals, such as the turkey trot (in which syncopated arm gestures simulated wing movements, and the feet moved with one step to each beat), the grizzly bear, and the bunny hug. Also popular during this time were the tango and the maxixe. In Europe, the tango developed distinctive styles, and it continues to be popular in parts of Finland and Japan. Radical changes in dance styles mirrored the changes in society—motor cars and aeroplanes, radios and telephones, women’s suffrage, the rise of trade unions, the writings of Sigmund Freud, the Russian Revolution. The dances of the 1910s and 1920s, such as the Charleston, with its kicks, swinging arms, mobile torsos, and blaring rhythms, reflected a euphoric sense of prosperity and freedom. The Jazz Age of the 1920s was brought to an end with the stock-market crash in 1929. In the 1930s swing emerged as the new musical sound, played by big bands led by musicians such as Benny Goodman and others. Wanting respite from the Great Depression, Americans eagerly watched film extravaganzas by the dance director Busby Berkeley as well as the films of the dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. To swing music, teenagers danced the jitterbug, an outgrowth of the 1927 lindy. The foxtrot, a fast, trotting dance from about 1913, came back in a slower, smoother version. In its anglicized form, tamed like many other “exotic” dances, the foxtrot was perhaps the most widespread of the inter-war ballroom dances. In 1939 at the World’s Fair a samba orchestra played at the Brazilian pavilion. Soon, popular culture was swept with a rage for South American dances such as the rumba, mambo, cha-cha, and conga line.


In the 1950s, further appropriation of African-American dance styles was signalled by white pop stars such as Elvis Presley, with rock and roll becoming a national phenomenon when Bill Haley and His Comets were featured in the film Rock Around the Clock (1956). The television show American Bandstand presented a new means of disseminating dance styles in its broadcasts of dancing teenagers, and the format was copied elsewhere. In the 1960s, Western society underwent fundamental upheavals, and this thrust towards democratization was reflected in the jettison of formalized dances by the younger generation in favour of individualistic, mostly improvised dances that could be learnt by imitation. The most significant of these in terms of its mass appeal was the twist, popularized by Chubby Checker in 1960. This solo form, in which the dancer twisted from side to side on the spot, highlighting the hips, was followed by a succession of novelty dances hyped by the record industry and media, but the principle of people dancing alone yet together in darkened clubs and discotheques has remained a dominant feature of most social dance forms practised by young people. In the late 1970s, the disco scene was popular, epitomized by the film Saturday Night Fever (1977), starring John Travolta. This was followed by media interest in street and club forms such as break-dancing and voguing, all practised in the United States, but spread through television and video.

The late 1980s and 1990s have brought the development of rave culture, where young people dance to electronically produced music throughout the night, often in a trance-like manner. Unlike much popular and social dancing, it does not seek to court the opposite sex. Nonetheless, a wide range of styles, including couple dances, particularly in continental Europe, can be seen today, reflecting the choice and diversity of late 20th-century society.

Popular and Social Dance

Reviewed By:
Theresa Jill Buckland