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Learning from the Past to Define the Future: The Importance of Dance History

Author: Christina Young Yoder

Who is your favorite historical tap dancer and why?

This one question still brings fear and panic to my heart. When I was 14, I was a competitor in a dance pageant that included an interview. I was rocking that interview until the last question: Who is your favorite historical tap dancer and why? I broke out in a sweat. I still remember the clammy palms, and hives, hurried breathing and nervous squirming. Tap was my favorite genre of dance, the one I had studied the most, I should know the answer… I should know a name, any name! The only dancer I could think of was Shirley Temple, and I didn’t have a good why, either!

Dance history is as ingrained in human history as any language, art or religion. It does not, however, leave behind clear identifiable physical artifacts, so it is nearly impossible to pinpoint when dance began. We do know that dance has been an important part of ceremony, ritual, celebration and entertainment since the earliest civilizations. Dance can be seen depicted in paintings in Indian and Egyptians tombs dating c. 3300 BC. It was a tool of social interaction, promoting proper relationships between individuals, castes, or gender. It was celebratory, used to rejoice a birth, harvest or wedding. Many dances are religious in nature, such as the Chinese Shaman rain dance. Ritual dance also has a place in Indian, African and Tibetan societies, among others. Medieval Europe used the danses macabres to protect participants from disease (unfortunately, the dancing often led to death due to exhaustion!) But one of the earliest reasons for dance, and perhaps the one that is most true for us in Western dance culture, is dance as a method of expression. It was a performance for telling myths, or for sharing feelings to the opposite gender. Dance was how stories and feelings were conveyed before language. Have you experienced a dance that truly expressed a story or emotion? We are able to do this seamlessly through dance, because it is what dance has always done, how it has always been.

Dance history is deeply tied to music, art, and fashion history. These influences can be seen in dance costuming and uniform, and its evolution throughout ages. From the 1550s, classical Roman dress influenced dance costuming. The full skirts were an exaggeration of the clothing of the time (and later became the tutus we know today). In the seventeenth century, satin, silk and precious stones were added to costumes to help denote character or occupation, which is why dance costumes are so ornate now. In the early twentieth century, Isadora Duncan freed women from the confines of a corset and ballet slippers. Duncan was influenced by Greek traditional dance, and abandoned the corset in favor of tunics and scarves, adding femininity. Her bare feet broke tradition and gave her a freedom of movement pointe shoes could not. This was at a time in history when boundaries were being tested in society and artists were searching for their individuality. We, as dancers, still strive for this feeling of freedom and individual expression.

As dancers, we have a very rich and deep history spanning centuries, across every culture and race. We live in the present, we are told to forget the past, look ahead, and work towards the future. So why is it important for us, as dancers, to have a knowledge and understanding of dance history? History allows us to gain a better understanding surrounding the events, challenges, and celebrations that helped to form the people who developed our art form. History is the study of change, the understanding of what has evolved, what has remained the same, and what has fallen to the wayside. It helps us to understand how change has affected the past to help us determine how similar change will affect the future.

History Can Serve as a Laboratory:

Knowledge of what others have done and why can help fuel or influence what we do and how. History prompts thoughts about dance in other societies and cultures, to help us expand our lives and life view. History helps to broaden the purview of our knowledge base, the interests we have, and the potential influences on our lives. Understanding the influence of African dance on jazz opens up an entirely new movement vocabulary, reminds us to remain grounded and loose without compromising center control and flexibility.

History Teaches By Example:

Dance has a background in challenge: challenging societal norms, challenging what has always been expected of dancers, even challenging authority. Understanding these challenges and other influences allows us to connect with dance on a deeper level, to draw from the experiences of those who came before. Testing your boundaries against those that have previously been set or previously broken gives scope and depth to your work as a dancer or choreographer. Maintaining a connection to the battles that have previously been fought brings an honesty to your work, and the choice to continue with an ongoing battle shows your understanding and care for your art.

Historical Past CAUSES the Present:

Dance has grown, developed and changed exponentially across many cultures. Imagine you are walking a tightrope. One end is the past and the other is the future. You have been dropped in the middle and are expected to continue along the rope. You need to know that the rope is connected on both ends, that you will be safe on your journey. Seeing how dance has developed allows you to further explore how to continue on your path. To know how we arrived at our current culture in dance, we need to understand what happened before. Without one end of the tightrope being connected, there is no way to continue forward… you will certainly fall.

History Provides Identity:

Dance genealogies are as rich as any family tree and can often be traced for many generations. Understanding this lineage and how the individuals interacted with events in their world and time give you greater understanding on the why. When new artists are constantly emerging, we can look to their dance lineage to see their influences. We can go back in time through dance generations to explore problems those individuals faced and how they reacted to them. We can discover their values and how those values influenced their art. Why do ballet dancers maintain an upright posture? Why do tap dancers allow their arms to swing naturally/maintain a highly choreographed upper body? Why do hip hop dancers wear sneakers? These most basic of questions can only be answered by having a basic knowledge of dance history and the people who came before us.

When we study our rich history, we establish new patterns and habits as well as a knowledge of the basic forces that affect our approach towards dance. What drives you to dance? Who in your dance lineage does that reflect? This allows us to gain a real understanding of how dance works, why it survives and why it is what it is today.

In the tap dance world, history is often a part of festival weekends and tap conventions, and intertwined in our classes. We pass on historical dances like the Shim Sham and BS Chorus. We find importance in passing on tap dance as an American art form with multicultural influences. This connection is not as prevalent in other genres of dance, so students must often search for the knowledge themselves.

My 14 year old self could not articulate a favorite dancer, but the problem was much deeper than that. I was unfamiliar with those that formed the art I so deeply loved. My ignorance showed more than a lack of person, but a lack of understanding. This moment led me to begin studying dance history. My parents purchased the book, Tap, by Rusty E. Frank which allowed me to learn about the origins of tap dance through the dancers who were responsible for its growth. In college I was able to study dance history on a deeper level, reading Dancing Through History by Joan Cass and Moving History/Dancing Culture edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. These books really began to show me how dance originated, how it is so ingrained in society, and how important my understanding of it was. I was able to take Indian and African dance classes which further expanded my knowledge base.

So, who is my favorite tap dancer? I currently have too many to count, and many of my favorites I can now call my friends. So let’s revisit the question from the pageant:

Who is your favorite historical tap dancer and why?

My favorite historical tap dancer is Bill Bojangles Robinson. I appreciate the fact that he used tap dance to rise above. I am inspired by his “Stair Dance” (below) and the fact that he was able to tune each step to a different pitch, speaking to his understanding of acoustical engineering. He is credited with bringing tap dance “up on its toes;” his sounds were delicate, articulate, and clean. He brought a sense of whimsy to his work, which, given the social tension of the 1920s, was a welcome escape to audiences. “Bojangles” broke racial tensions by performing with a young white dancer (Shirley Temple), and the influence of his style and grace is still seen in tap dance technique today.

Bill Bojangles Robinson "Stair Dance" - 1932


Christina Young Yoder is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and adjudicator, originally from Portersville, PA and is now based in Walkterton, IN. She received her BA in Dance and Psychology from Muhlenberg College.

#dancehistory #tapdance #moderndance #history #technique

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