The History of Ballroom Dancing

  • The history of ballroom dancing has its roots deep in human history. Dancing, in one form or another, has likely been part of the human experience for thousands of years. Early forms of dance contributed to ritual and celebration revolving around spiritual beliefs, sustenance, courtship, conflict, and rites of initiation. During the 13th and 14th centuries, when the hearth was the center of European homes, dance necessarily developed into a ring-structure found in the “May Pole” dance. With the advent of the chimney, a home’s source of warmth and cooking could be moved to a side wall and the resulting space allowed for the development of linear, processional dancing. Processional dance was a hit in royal society, where status dictated one’s place in the procession.

    What we consider ballroom dancing today involves several distinct styles that evolved throughout Europe and the Americas over the past few centuries.  Although the precise origin of ballroom dancing is difficult to determine, dancing as a means of social interaction progressed in 15th Century Europe during the cultural rebirth of the Renaissance. At this time social dance was known as “court” dancing and was primarily reserved for the ultra-elite and involved groups of dancers performing complicated, synchronized movements not unlike an extremely precise version of modern-day “line” dancing. By the 16th Century, social dance morphed into a partner system (usually a man and a woman) with at least some physical contact between the two. England’s Queen Elizabeth I notoriously adored dancing and favored the rigorous Paillard, which includes frequent leaping, and the Volta, in which the man hoists and turns the woman in the air.

    The oldest ballroom dance in existence today is the Waltz, which began as the “Viennese Waltz” for the location where it became fashionable in the late 19th Century. The style erupted from the “turning dances” popular with Austrian and Bavarian peasants. High-society’s acceptance of the dance’s fast-pace and continual whirling movements was likely encouraged by new, highly-polished dance floors and the falling from fashion of men’s hobnailed boots.

    However, the waltz wasn’t welcomed by everyone. It was the first dance to feature a “closed hold” requiring five-points of contact between partners and many deemed the new form vulgar and scandalous. Yet the hold was actually necessary because unlike dances previously popular dance, the Waltz is not choreographed and the physical contact of a closed hold allows one dancer to lead the other. 

    The unseemly new sensation debuted in the United States in Boston in 1834, where upon it was promptly deemed, "an indecorous exhibition.” Nevertheless, the times marched on and by the mid 1900’s the Waltz was widely accepted on both continents. Today, two styles of Waltz are danced, the original Viennese Waltz and the slower, less-twirly version known simply as “The Waltz.”

    Today ballroom dancing is divided into two broad categories – American and International. The American style developed in the early part of the 20th Century when ballroom dancing was a national pastime and entertainers such as Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray brought dancing to new artistic heights. Both Murray and Astaire franchised dance studios across the country, whereby they standardized a teaching syllabus. These became the standard for American ballroom. At the same time, dancers “across the pond” were exploring ballroom dancing and formalizing standards of their own. The two styles differ in areas of posture, hold, and the execution of some patterns, however the foundations remain the same.

    Both styles are divided into two sub-categories which are called Smooth and Rhythm (American) and Standard and Latin (International). Smooth/Standard describes dances such as the waltz, tango, and foxtrot while Rhythm/Latin style describes dances such as the cha-cha, rumba, swing, and mambo. Competitions usually feature the International style but some competitions in the United States may feature both styles.