Sunday, August 04, 2013

History of Dance Shoes - Priveval to Polka

From antiquity dance was associated with amatory and sexual manifestations. From the beginning of recorded history man seems to have enjoyed dancing, first by himself, then with other men and eventually, and sensibly, with women. The earliest dances were celebratory, probably to enhance fertility, to honour a victory in battle, or rejoice in a bountiful harvest. Dance is an important part of civilisation and became an integral part of social ritual, ceremony and celebrations. Throughout modern history dance crazes brought with it its own language and many current colloquiums and idioms originated from this source.

The first recorded depiction of dance can be seen in cave paintings dating 12,000 years ago. Dance predates written culture and was thought to function as a key way to communicate identity and custom and in this way preserve the tribe’s continuity. Staged chorography (i.e. gestures and movement) demonstrated social mores which included feelings for the opposite sex and traditional dance and clothing contained reference to sexual movement. In many primal cultures music and dance formed part of wedding ceremonies and it may be assumed contained reference to appropriate nuptial behaviour. Early dance was also used as part of healing with ecstatic trance dances found in many early cultures. Two main dance forms evolved with social dance used to celebrate births, commemorated deaths, and mark special events in between; and magical or religious dances to ask the favour of the Gods’ favour.

The association is manifest in ancient temple worship, in Greece, in the Middle East and in India.

Egyptians used dance as a form of divination and performed ornate dancing rituals to bring luck to the hunt. Priest-dancers oversaw the chorography to ensure all was done properly. In the festivals held for worship of Isis and Osiris, and Apis, (the bull associated with fertility rituals) followers would openly dance and an assortment of stringed, wind, and percussion instruments including different sorts of whistles and harps were used. Eventually travelling troupes of professional dancers performed in public squares of great cities. The Awalim (Belly Dancers) were Egyptian dancing girls who would combine their womanly charms with prostitution.

By the 5th Century BC, the Greeks dance transformed dance into an art form which expressed all manner of human passion. Greek dances were not based on the relationship between men and women but instead were performed by either one sex or the other. Aristotle ranked dancing with poetry and said that certain dancers, with rhythm applied to gesture, could express manners, passions, and actions. Greek sculptors studied dancing to capture the expression of passions. Dance became very popular among the Greeks and they considered it a healthy pastime akin to aerobics. Greek comedy frequently commented on the swaying and writhing of the female body as an erotic excitation and was referred to as periproctian.

In the early centuries of the Roman Empire dancing was frowned upon especially for women because it was considered an erotic and licentious inducement. By the 3rd century BC, the Romans developed their own dance form which emphasised less aesthetic and spectacle and mime. Gestures become cruder as social dance declined and religious dance continued. Cicero had little to say to support dancing :
"no man, one may almost say, ever dances when sober, unless perhaps he be a madman; nor in solitude, nor in a moderate and sober party; dancing is the last companion of prolonged feasting, of luxurious situation, and of many refinements."

Later Ovid (43 BC – AD 17/18) recommended dancing to all girls who were in love and dancing has remained a major part of courtship ever since.

Dance was initially used as part of Latin mass by the Christians but by the Middle Ages these dance sets were moved out of the church in to public spaces and become a form of entertainment. Both dance and song were used to express the full range of human emotions as travelling troubadours and other wandering minstrels entertained.

Social Dancing
Social dancing, as we understand it, became a feature of European life in the late twelfth century. Distinctly the pastime of nobility it featured only on special occasions. The most documented form of dance during the Middle Ages is the carol also called the "carole" or "carola" It consisted of a group of dancers holding hands usually in a circle, with the dancers singing in a leader and refrain style while dancing. The first detailed descriptions of dancing date from 1450 in Italy, which is after the start of the Renaissance in Western Europe.

Dancing Plague and the Dance of Death
Between the 13th to 16th century large populations of Europe were afflicted with frenzied dancing. People would gather together and dance until they dropped with exhaustion or sometimes death. The Dancing Plague or choreomania was a significant challenge to public health as it pervaded through the populations of Germany, Holland and Italy for three centuries. First described medically by Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). The cause of the dancing plague (or dancing mania) remains unknown. Paracelsus, Philippus Aureolus, was a Swiss physician, chemist, alchemist and metallurgist, he gained wide popularity, although his contemporaries often opposed him. Paracelsus classified variants of the disorder according to whether the underlying cause was lust, an abnormal mental state, or some unidentified physical factor. Davidson (1867) later defined the condition of choreomania as a psycho-physical disease in which the will, intellectual faculties, and moral feelings are more or less perverted, with an irresistible impulse to motion, and an insane love of music, often sporadic, but with a tendency in certain circumstances to become epidemic. The essential features of the disease were it could occur sporadically or in epidemics. It was a psychological disease distinguishable from modern chorea, and from organic nervous diseases. Choreomania was always characterised by an uncontrollable impulse to dance, and a morbid love of music. Physical contact with an affected person was not a prerequisite for contracting the disease (the sight or sound of someone already afflicted could be sufficient). In its epidemic form, an attack was generally preceded by premonitory nervous symptoms and the disease was commonly manifest by physical symptoms including death. Many claims were made as to the actual cause including demonic possession, epilepsy, tarantula bites, ergot poisoning as well as social adversity. It is unlikely to have been caused by any one single event but instead due to multiple factors combined with predisposition such as cultural background, and triggered by adverse circumstances. (Donaldson, Cavanagh and Rankin, 1997) Corrupt clergy claimed baptism prevented the disease and hence, by reverse logic, claims were made the dancing plague was caused by demonic possession. Because the involuntary movements during an epileptic seizure appeared similar to dance like movement many contemporaries confused the condition but it is unlikely the dancing plague had any connection with epilepsy. In Italy from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries as deforestation took place a large population of tarantulas appeared in the Apulian region. Many claimed spider bites were the cause of choreomania but due to the nature of the disease this is also thought unlikely. The most plausible cause was poisoning due to eating rye contaminated with a fungus, claviceps purpura. This resulted in ergot poisoning which gave symptoms such as nausea, abdominal cramps, itching, muscle pain, spasms, and visual and hearing disturbances, all of which may precede epileptic convulsions. Larger quantities of rye were consumed during periods of hardship when people could not afford meat. The Christian church was determined to stamp out old and pagan religions and would brand previous forms of worship as the behaviour of the ill and disturbed. Another reason for the Dancing Plague was a spontaneous release from the bleakness of the Middle Ages. The Church realised the danger of dancing and a council meeting in Paris (1212) declared that "dancing was a worse crime than ploughing the soil on Sunday" (Hennig, 1995).

During the 14th to the 16th century in Europe there was an important ritual called the Dance of Death. The parade was led by a figure representing death and became established after the Black Death in 1373. It is thought the dance of death reflected rituals performed by primitive peoples, who had also danced to acknowledge the passing of the seasons of the year and of a human life on Earth.

Folk Dancing
Other dances in the Middle Ages did the same. In the spring dances, village people performed fertility dances including Morris Dancing and during certain saints' days women danced in churches. Battle dances including the sword dances were performed throughout Europe.

Dance Shoes
Apart from ceremonial shoes which were found in tribal dancing from North America to Australia there appears to be no special shoe requirement for European dancing until after the 11th Century in Europe where more and more social dancing became the prerogative of aristocracy. By the sixteenth century court dancing was well established and the tune Green Sleeves was popular at this time. Green Sleeves is considered by many to be the oldest dance tune to have survived in modern times.

The Waltz: Dirty dancing
During the 16th century ballrooms became popular and being dressed for a ball all the more so. The best finery was the order of the day and more and more the noblemen and women wore special ballroom slippers. These became known as the “dancing shoes” or “pumps.”

Napoleon’s legacy to cultured Europe was the fashionable dress balls that were he held in his honour. As soon as Paris succumbed to dancing for pleasure then popularity for such occasions swept through the civilised world. This came at a time when militarism was engulfing the fashionable West and the uniform was the preferred male dress coupled with the new neo-Grecian styles for women. The superb opportunity to display the peacock arrogance of the male contrasted well against the delicate simple line of classic fashion of the female form. The new dancing steps were more vigorous than the previous minuets and the ladies shoes did suffer as a consequence. Men wore boots and women wore slippers every bit as delicate as modern ballet shoes. It was common enough for women to take a second pair to the ball. Ladies shoes, or Empire shoes, were low heel pumps sometimes with laces to wrap around the ankle. As a manual of etiquette put it "a ball is too formal a place for anyone to indulge in personal preference, and the massacre of one's shoes had to be borne with stoicism." After one wearing the Empress Josephine discovered a hole in her dancing slipper and complained to her shoemaker.
"Ah I see what the problem is, Madame" he exclaimed, "You have walked in them."

By far the most popular dance was the Waltz (German, walzen: to revolve ) which had been introduced to the Austrian court in the 17th century. The waltz was a new freedom for couples with its gliding, whirling movements. Whilst incredibly popular it was also considered the dirty dancing of its day. The older generation downright denounced it and young people danced it non-stop. There were three main problems, couples held themselves temptingly close; they moved into turns at high speeds which was intoxicating to the brain; and the music tempo was fast. In 1760 the performance of waltzes was banned by the church in parts of Germany and elsewhere. Part of condemnation may have been a reaction to the lower classes emulating their betters by taking to public displays of dancing. This may well have accounted for the outburst of moral indignation recorded by contemporaries in the higher strata of society. To its critics the Waltz was considered "will corrupting", "disgusting" and "immodest” and Lord Byron claimed 'Lewd grasp and lawless contact between dancers in public would not leave much to mystery to the nuptial night.

Strauss waltzes dominated popular dance music for the remainder of the nineteenth century. By the time it reached North America in 1816, parents forbade their children to dance it. Waltz instrumental music was outlawed and lambasted by orthodoxy. Needless to say the waltz established itself despite the moribund protestations and in 1855 it was the fad dance. The amazing popularity of the waltz was at least in part due to the opportunity it gave young people to touch intimately in public. New freedoms brought the need for change in clothing styles. In the shadow of the Great War, people stopped dancing it simply because it was mistakenly thought to be a German dance. The Waltz craze passed with the onslaught of the Great War. By the early 20th century the waltz as an art form was exhausted. It found a final admirer in the French composer Maurice Ravel, whose orchestral piece 'The Waltz' both celebrates the dance's traditions and mourns its passing out of fashion.

From the Polka to the Cakewalk

In the US the fashion for dance and the concentration on all matters military came to a crescendo at the turn of the 19th century. Coming of age politically, in global terms, meant the sons of America had experienced colonisation and the women wanted to be as fashionable as the Europeans. The invention of a dance style which incorporated marching and skipping was not by chance. John Philip Sousa introduced the world to the two step, a dance which displayed power. The origins of the Polka are still clouded but it may have been based on a Polish or Czechoslovakian step. The popularity of the Polka followed the waltz and was less intimate, more novel celebrating the new fashion for militaria. Royalty embraced the new dance and the top down order was again assured. The Duke of Wellington danced the polka six times to celebrate the Queen Victoria's birthday. The American newspapers papers commented on the dance's wonderfully militaristic, march like tempo.

In the southern states of North America, for the amusement of the rich, black folks were encouraged to lampoon the dancing styles of the formal balls. Prizes were offered to those dancers who displayed the greatest agility and creativeness. The prize usually consisted of a cake and the competitions became known as the cakewalk. These were true satire on the popular elegance of ballroom dancing styles and the steps encouraged individuality which allowed elimination during competition. Most significantly the cakewalk contributed to the birth of later dance trends based on jazz rhythms and its music influenced the growth of ragtime in the second decade of the new century. The term "taking the cake" refers to this dance craze, where quite literally the winner, took the cake. The physical exertion associated with dancing the cakewalk soon had the masses baying for "ragged" music which led to the craze for 'ragtime music" and the prominence of composers like Scott Joplin.

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