Pardon me, may I watch this dance?

In non-Western cultures, dancing is usually part of a long, ongoing tradition, often rooted in religion and passed from generation to generation. Over the centuries, many of these traditions have remained remarkably intact and impressively integrated into everyday life.

In Western civilization, however, there has been a sharp division between the dance of everyday people - recreational dance as a participatory event - and professional dance performed for spectators.

Folk and social dancing have changed gradually. They're not dependent on classes and professional training, but on the participatory experience and the attitude that all are welcome.

However, on the level of dance as art (dance performed by trained artists for specific audiences) there always has been the perception of elitism - not always unfounded, as formal dance began in the rarified confines of the European courts. The past 1,000 years has seen a radical transition of style, from the tightly controlled and highly formal dance that mirrored the similarly ordered and refined world of the royal courts to the modern dance of today, in which nearly anything goes and nothing is taboo.

It can be seen as one long stretch toward liberation of the body. In this way, dance seems to be slowly making its way back to a more accessible and resonant place.

Prior to the Renaissance, dance was usually part of ancient ritual - fertility rites, courting displays, or agricultural ceremonies. Among the peasantry, it was a relatively informal, usually high-spirited affair. When the church began to lose its stranglehold on government and culture, Italian courts saw a way to codify social dancing into a more genteel pastime for the aristocracy and hired dancing masters to teach lessons to the upper classes beginning at a very young age.

Though these social dances often took inspiration from the creativity and vibrancy of folk dances, the two forms began to be seen as distinctly separate. A sharp divide arose between dances that were appropriately modest and mannered, as to be suitable for public occasions, and those that arose from natural, spontaneous exuberance and were best done in private.

As the aristocracy's formalized dancing became more stylized and demanding, ballet, which needed specially trained professionals, was born. It opened a huge gap between participatory social dancing and dance created for the stage (a rift that remains today).

Fetes, masques, and spectacles all over France, Italy, and England began incorporating elements of ballet. In 1661, France's Louis XIV established the Royal Academy of Dance, which created a specific technical vocabulary allowing for more intricate, advanced choreography.

Ballet gradually became an art form separate from court entertainments. During this time, the ballerina was born - female roles previously had been the purview of men, due to considerations of modesty. At first, they danced in heavy skirts and high heels. As soft slippers and more graceful costumes were developed, the technique changed from being based in grounded, gliding movements to a more airborne one.

The fabled Marie Taglioni, the first to perfect dancing on her toes, helped usher in an era of ballet known as the Romantic Age, in which the mythologies of earlier productions were eschewed for stories of love and magic.

Dance took a major leap forward in the mid-19th century. Frenchman Marius Petipa went to St. Petersburg, Russia, and took command of the Royal Imperial Ballet, creating a trove of major classical ballets. He sowed the first seeds of Russian dominance that were to come to full bloom under the genius of impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

Diaghilev's tours, until his death in 1929, brought choreographers Vaslav Nijinsky, Lonide Massine, Michel Fokine, and George Balanchine, as well as composer Igor Stravinsky, to the attention of the world. They created a new, more contemporary aesthetic for ballet, and fostered international validation and appeal.

Arguably the most important and radical influence on dance came around the turn of the 20th century. That's when the visionary Isadora Duncan singlehandedly laid the groundwork for a second major stream of dance, which we generally refer to as modern dance.

In reaction to ballet's artifice and constriction, Duncan forged a style of dance that she believed was the direct expression of human emotion. Instead of whalebone corsets, stiff tutus, and hard-toed shoes, Duncan danced in simple Greek tunics and bare feet. She eschewed virtuosity and convention for a lush, flowing eloquence that seemed driven solely by spontaneous impulse, rather than any specified vocabulary of movements.

It took Mary Wigman in Germany, and the husband-and-wife team of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in America, to give form and coherence to Duncan's newfound freedom. They created a language of dance with dramatic context and structure, yet still capable of expressive urgency.

Martha Graham emerged as a titan in this field, creating a movement technique based on contraction and release and a stunningly dramatic theatrical style. Around the same time, Doris Humphrey began exploring the principals of balance and unbalance, fall and recovery, and she began to create highly dramatic works with a compelling vocabulary of gestures.

Out of those traditions came Jos Limn, experimental master Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and a host of talented, committed dancer-choreographers who have not only liberated the human body, but extended its expressive potential to an unprecedented degree.

As dance has evolved over the past century, there has been a push-pull between liberation of the body vs. control of the body, experimentation vs. codification, the contextual vs. the abstract. Theatrical dance has been influenced by ethnic dance from around the world and popular social styles. The cross-pollination between modern dance and ballet has become so thorough that some new works are difficult to categorize as one or the other.

Other media have been widely embraced as well - theater, text, film, video, and computer graphics. Now, dance is not only in theaters, but on the street. It is not only on the ground, but in the air, taking advantage of any number of gravity-defying apparatuses. And dance is not only real, but virtual, as computers offer the opportunity to experiment with yet another realm.

At the end of the millennium, dance is more rich and diverse than ever before. And with classes in everything from ballet to ballroom available to young and old, dance can be not only a spectator event but a participatory one, as it was in the beginning. We have only to keep our eyes open and our bodies willing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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