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dance [Old High Ger. danson=to drag, stretch], the art of precise, expressive, and graceful human movement, traditionally, but not necessarily, performed in accord with musical accompaniment. Dancing developed as a natural expression of united feeling and action.

The Origins of Dance

The earliest history of human dance is a continuing mystery. From the evidence of illustrated ceramic fragments, some archaeologists have speculated that dance originated some 5,000 to 9,000 years ago in early agricultural cultures located in a swath running from modern Pakistan to the Danube basin. Others, however, have expressed caution regarding the reconstruction of social behavior from such sources. Speculation aside, specific knowledge of prehistoric dances is lacking, and thus many experts have extrapolated dance history from the preserved ritual dances of various preliterate societies.

Ritualistic and Ceremonial Dance

Native American dances illustrate most of the purposes of dance that is of a ritualistic or ceremonial nature: the war dance, expressing prayer for success and thanksgiving for victory; the dance of exorcism or healing, performed by shamans to drive out evil spirits; the dance of invocation, calling on the gods for help in farming, hunting, the fertility of human beings and animals, and other tribal concerns; initiation dances for secret societies; mimetic dances, illustrating events in tribal history, legend, or mythology; dances representing cosmic processes; and, more rarely, the dance of courtship, an invocation for success in love. The dance of religious ecstasy, in which hypnotic or trancelike states are induced (a characteristic phenomenon of Southeast Asia and Africa), was represented in America by the remarkable Ghost Dance.

Native American dancing is always performed on the feet, but in many islands of the Pacific and in Asia some of the dances are performed in a sitting posture, with only the hands, arms, and upper parts of the body used. Ancient Egyptian dances, often of a religious character, were derived from earlier African forms. In Greece the choral dance in honor of Dionysus played a part in the development of the drama and in religious worship. Many early religious or celebratory dances have survived in the folk dance of modern times.

In India dance and drama have usually been related, both generally having religious significance. An elaborate code of movements of the arms and hands (mudras), expressive use of the face and especially of the eyes, and a sinuous posturing of the body are important features of Indian classical dancing, among the best-known examples being Kathakali and the Bharata Natyam, both of S India. The early dances of Japan, probably influenced by ancient Chinese forms, became institutionalized with the establishment of a national school of dancing in the 14th cent. Soon the dance became associated with the famous No drama (see Asian drama). Secular dances are performed by the geisha.

The Development of Dance in Europe

In medieval Europe the repeated outbreaks of dance mania, a form of mass hysteria sometimes caused by religious frenzy and usually associated with epidemics of bubonic plague, are reflected in the allegory of the dance of death (see Death, Dance of). Dancing as a social activity and a form of entertainment is of relatively recent origin. During the Middle Ages, especially in France, dancing was a feature of the more enlightened and convivial courts. Some medieval dances, such as the volta, precursor of the waltz, became the sources of modern dance steps. In the 16th cent. two types of dance were popular, the solemn and stately dances performed at the court of Charles IX and the lively peasant dances.

The ballet first appeared in Italian courts in the 16th cent., and it became popular in France, especially during the reign of Louis XIV. Among the formal dances of the 17th cent. were the courante, saraband, pavan, minuet, gavotte, quadrille (or contredanse), and cotillion. Music, which had developed to accompany dancing, had, by this time, evolved many forms and rhythms no longer associated with the dance. French dances made their way to England in the 17th cent. where variations of the morris dance were frequently performed in villages and small towns.

Popular national dances include the mazurka and polonaise from Poland; the czardas from Hungary; the fandango, bolero, seguidilla, and flamenco from Spain; the tarantella and saltarello from Italy; the waltz and galop from Germany; the polka and schottische from Bohemia; the strathspey and Highland fling from Scotland; the hornpipe from England; and the jig from Ireland.

Dance in the Americas

The United States initiated the barn dance, Virginia reel, clog dance, cakewalk, and Paul Jones in the 19th cent., the two-step c.1890, the turkey trot (one-step) c.1900, and the fox-trot c.1912. The popularity of jazz in the early 1920s produced a number of new social dances, of which the most popular was the charleston. From South America came the Argentine tango and the Brazilian maxixe and samba; from Cuba, the rumba, conga, and mambo.

Since the 1920s the United States has seen a wave of dance crazes, among them the Lindy Hop of the 1930s, the boogie woogie and jitterbug of the 1940s, the cha cha and rock 'n' roll of the 1950s, the twist, frug, and various frenzied discothèque and go-go dances of the 1960s, the disco dances of the 1970s, and in the 1980s hip-hop, which was tied to rap music and evolved into an energetic style of street dancing, called break dancing. Tap dancing and ballroom and adagio dancing have won wide popularity as entertainment and have been featured frequently in musical stage shows and movies.

See also modern dance.


See L. Kirstein, Book of the Dance (rev. ed. 1942); C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (tr. 1937, repr. 1963); W. Sorell, The Dance through the Ages (1967); W. Terry, The Dance in America (rev. ed. 1971); G. Vuillier, A History of Dancing from the Earliest Ages to Our Own Time (1898, repr. 1973); P. Magriel, Chronicles of the American Dance (1978); J. H. Mazo, Prime Movers (1977, repr. 1983); F. Bijester, Dancing Is Pleasure for Two: The Story of Ballroom and Social Dance (1985); S. Barnes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance (1987); N. Reynolds and M. McCormick, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (2003); B. Seibert, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (2015); A. Chujoy and P. W. Manchester, ed., The Dance Encyclopedia (rev. ed. 1967), S. J. Cohen, ed., International Encyclopedia of Dance (6 vol., 1998), and D. Craine and J Mackrell, Oxford Dictionary of Dance (2000).

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Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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Masked dancer from a cave painting, Dordogne, France. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

From earliest times, dancing has been an integral part of religious worship and of magical practice. The dance was, in many ways, considered a prayer, a spell, or an invocation. Gertrude Prokosch Kurath, in Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, says, "Folk dance is communal reaction in movement patterns to life's crucial cycles." Pennethorne Hughes describes dance as "an extremely early expression of the emotional and rhythmic unity of the group." Throughout the world, humankind has celebrated life and communion with deity in dance. Its origins can probably be traced to early human mimicking of the stalking and slaying of game, perhaps as part of a hunting magic ritual.

Dancing around the Maypole on May Day is an example of an ancient dance custom. The phallic symbolism of the Maypole or Tree is generally accepted. Fine examples of such Maypole dancing are depicted in the stained glass windows of churches in England, such as the one at Batley, Staffordshire, dating from the reign of Henry VIII. One window depicts a figure astride a hobbyhorse. A similar hobbyhorse figure is included in the group that performs the ancient Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance, still enacted in the county of Staffordshire, England. Performed on the first Sunday after September 4, the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance is the oldest such surviving ceremony in Britain, possessing shades of the shamanic magical workings of prehistoric times.

Dance was a part of Christian worship up into the seventeenth century, especially in Spain. In 1282, at Inverkeithing in Scotland, the village priest was admonished (but not punished) for leading his parishioners in a dance about a phallic symbol as part of the Easter celebrations. According to Pennethorne Hughes, dancing still occurs in the Church of Abyssinia.

It is no surprise, therefore, that dancing should have been an integral part of a religion so full of life as Witchcraft. Leaping dances, astride pitchforks, poles, and broomsticks were a part of fertility rites to promote the growth of crops (see broomstick). Dancing was also a big part of Witches' sabbat celebrations. Margaret Alice Murray suggests that there were two main types of dance at these: the ring dance and the followyour-leader type. Pierre de Lancre (Tableau de l'Inconstance des Mauvais Anges, Paris, 1613) described such a ring dance, saying, "once the banquet was finished the dancing began around a large tree, the participants dancing back to back in a ring." Thomas Cooper (Pleasant Treatise of Witches London, 1673) reported, "The dance is strange, and wonderful, as well as diabolical, for turning themselves back to back, they take one another by the arms and raise each other from the ground, then shake their heads to and fro like Anticks, and turn themselves as if they were mad." There is a detail of this back-to-back dancing in the painting The Entry of Isabel of Bavaria into Paris as Bride of Charles VI in the Bibilothèque Nationale, Paris.

In 1590 the North Berwick Witches (see Scottish Witchcraft) danced all around the churchyard. "Gelie Duncan played on a trump, John Fian, missellit, led the ring; Agnes Sampson and her daughters and all the rest following the said Barbara, to the number of seven score of persons," according to Robert Pitcairn (Criminal Trials, Edinburgh, 1833). Musical instruments varied, from Gelie Duncan's trump to trumpets, violins, drums, and tambourines. There was also much singing, as there is today at Wiccan gatherings.

Dancing Master or Dancing Mistress seems to have been one of the important positions in the old covens. Murray says, "One duty seems to have been delegated to a particular individual, who might perhaps hold no other office, or who might, on the other hand, be the chief official; this was the manager, often the leader, of the dance. As pace seems to have been an essential in the dance, the leader was necessarily active and generally young." One of the dances in use with most traditions is the meeting dance—a spiral dance that winds into the center and out again. As the Witches pass one another, males kiss females and females kiss males in greeting.

Many surviving examples of old Pagan dances can be found today, for example, in Morris dancing. The "dibbling" of sticks into the ground, as part of some of the dances, ties in with the planting of seeds, while the clashing of sticks and waving of handkerchiefs is intended to disperse negative spirits. In many of the Morris dances, the dancers leap high in the air in much the same way that the Pagans and Witches of old leapt high as part of imitative magic when showing the crops how high to grow.

Dancing is one of the ways for Witches to raise the power required to work magic. By moving rhythmically, clapping or slapping the body, and perhaps chanting, a state of ekstasis is brought on to direct the power raised to bring about the end sought. In Voodoo a similar ekstasis is achieved through dancing, which is done to the rhythmic beating of the drums. The ensuing ecstasy leads to the entry of the loa, the Voodoo deities.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an art form that employs bodily movements and gestures to express artistic images. Dance was first based on various movements connected with man’s work and man’s impressions of the surrounding world. The movements gradually became stylized, and the art of the dance evolved as one of the earliest examples of folk arts. Initially linked with speech and song, dance gradually acquired importance as an independent art form. Dance traditions have developed among all peoples of the world.

Stage dance, which is based on folk dance, became highly developed in the professional theater and was thoroughly systematized. Various schools of dance developed, including European classical dance, which is the basis of contemporary ballet, Asian dance, including the Indian kathak, kathakali, manipuri, tamasha, and African dance. Folk dance was also the basis of ballroom dance.

As an art form, dance is a means of intellectual and emotional expression. The artistic quality of a given dance is determined by its thematic content and the way it is performed. The chief means of expression used in dance are harmonious movements and poses, plasticity, and facial expression; important features of the dance are dynamics, rhythm, and design (arrangement of movements). Costumes and stage props are used to enhance the beauty of dances and to make dance visually real. Ballet is enriched by dramaturgy, which lends it particular expressive power. The most basic element of dance movement is the tempo. Individual steps are grouped into combinations. Dance is measured by the same rhythmic units as music.

The dance of antiquity exerted a great influence on the development of European dance, for example, the religious dances in Assyria and Egypt and various dances in Greece, including dances in honor of Apollo, Bacchus, and other gods, the pyrrhic war dances, and the gymnopaedic dances, all of which were an integral part of the Greek theater. Dancer-mimes appeared in the Hellenistic period, between the fourth and second centuries B.C. During the second and first centuries B.C., the Romans adopted Hellenistic dance, which they subsequently developed as pantomime in the second and fifth centuries A.D.

During the Middle Ages dance was discouraged by the clergy. Later, dance was gradually theatricalized by jongleurs, Spielmänner, and skomorokhi (Russian itinerant performers). In the 15th and 16th centuries, Morescas (narrative dance scenes) were performed and the first treatises and textbooks on the dance were written.

With the appearance of the first ballets in the early 17th century, a new dance technique evolved. The French Academy of Dance (founded 1661) codified what subsequently became known as classical dance. Reforms in music, for example, the opera reform of C. Gluck, influenced the structure of ballets, helping ballet emerge as an independent art form.

During the Enlightenment, ballet became emotionally and dramatically more profound. The pas d’action, a dance with narrative or thematic content, evolved and later was developed in the romantic ballet. During the second half of the 19th century, a new virtuoso dance style developed, facilitated by special point shoes, which permitted the ballerina to stand, move about, and execute rapid turns while on her toes. A great contribution was made to ballet in the late 19th century by the symphonic composers P. I. Tchaikovsky and A. K. Glazunov and the choreographers M. I. Petipa and L. I. Ivanov. Their innovations included the use of leitmotifs and the coordination of the choreography of soloists and the corps de ballet.

The character dance, a balletic stylization of folk dance, developed in ballet and was followed by an interest in genuine folk dance, elements of which were employed by many Russian choreographers, including M. M. Fokine, K. Ia. Goleizovskii, and F. V. Lopukhov. Experiments were conducted in new choreographic forms, and the traditional structure of the pas de deux, pas de trois, and grand pas was discarded.

By the late 19th century, a new school of dance had evolved. Conventionally termed “modern dance” (or “free,” “plastic,” or “rhythmic” dance), it was originally based on the methods of F. Delsarte and E. Jaques-Dalcroze. I. Duncan also exerted an influence on the development of modern dance. In Europe and the USA between the 1940’s and the 1960’s, modern dance borrowed elements from classical ballet, and ballet likewise adopted certain elements of modern dance. The dance of the variety stage, in which performers strive for virtuosity and striking, expressive technique, has also developed.

Dance has become especially popular in the USSR, where numerous amateur and professional dance companies have been established, including song and dance ensembles. National schools of dance have been founded by peoples who once lacked developed dance traditions or whose traditions had disappeared, such as the Turkmen, Kazakhs, and Kirghiz. Soviet choreographers utilize classical dance as the most highly perfected dance system. Distinctive schools of ballet are developing in the national republics on the basis of the Russian school of ballet. An integrated system of teaching has been adopted in the ballet schools of the USSR, and textbooks and teaching aids have been created for folk dancing, ballet, character dancing, and ballroom dancing.


Khudekov, S. N. Istoriia tantsev, parts 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1913–18.
Lucian. “O pliaske.” Sobr. soch., vol. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
Lopukhov, A. V., A. V. Shiriaev, and A. I. Bocharov. Osnovy kharakternogo lantsa. Leningrad-Moscow, 1939.
Vaganova, A. la. Osnovy klassicheskogo tantsa, 3rd ed. Leningrad-Moscow, 1948.
Ivanovskii, N. P. Bal’nyi tanets XVI-XIX vv. Leningrad-Moscow, 1948.
Vasil’eva-Rozhdestvenskaia, M. V. Istoriko-bytovoi tanets. Moscow, 1963.
See also under .


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about dancing?

Dancing is a rich symbol, capable of many different interpretations. Depending on the type of movement in which we engage, dancing may be associated with romance and sex, with the experience of freedom from constraints, with participating in life or in social activities (the dance of life), with frivolity, with gracefulness, or with group cooperation.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Carmichael, Essie
untalented girl who goes into her ballet routine with little or no encouragement. [Am. Drama: Kaufman and Hart You Can’t Take It with You in Hart, 955]
gypsy girl whose street dancing captivates onlookers. [Fr. Lit.: Victor Hugo The Hunchback of Notre Dame]
“Red Shoes, The”
bewitched shoes force Karen to dance unceasingly. [Danish Lit.: Andersen “The Red Shoes” in Magill II, 27]
precision dancers; a fixture at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. [Am. Dance: Payton, 576]
Roseland Ballroom
New York dance hall. [Pop. Culture: Misc.]
danced to obtain head of John the Baptist. [N.T.: Matthew 14:6–11]
St. Denis, Ruth, and Ted Shawn
(1877–1968) (1891–1972) husband-and-wife team, founders of Denishawn dance schools. [Am. Dance: NCE, 2395]
muse of dancing. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 849]
Vitus, St.
patron saint of dancers. [Christian Hagiog: Saints and Festivals, 291]
Ziegfeld Follies
beautiful dancing girls highlighted annual musical revue on Broadway (1907–1931). [Am. Theater: NCE, 3045]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a series of rhythmic steps and movements, usually in time to music
2. an act of dancing
a. a social meeting arranged for dancing; ball
b. (as modifier): a dance hall
4. a piece of music in the rhythm of a particular dance form, such as a waltz
5. dancelike movements made by some insects and birds, esp as part of a behaviour pattern
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005