A look at dance in the United States must first acknowledge the existence of dance among Native Americans, where it played an important role in social and religious life. Dance provided a form of social affirmation and a means of expressing national or tribal loyalty and power, and it was a part of religious ritual, providing a direct means of communicating with the spirits. Similar to tribal cultures around the world, Native Americans valued dance as an expressive and bonding experience, creating well-developed systems of communication. These forms have survived and continue to preserve an important part of the history of what is now the United States. Like other types of dance, those of the Native Americans have continued both as a means of cultural preservation and expression within the tribal communities and as intercultural display and a source for contemporary choreographers. Tribal powwows and the work of companies such as the American Indian Dance Theatre and individual artists such as Raoul Trujillo demonstrate the rich heritage of the Native American dance forms from traditional as well as contemporary perspectives.
While the European art form of ballet did not take immediate root in the United States owing to simple hardships and the intentions and religious philosophies of the first settlers, dance did indeed travel from Europe to the colonies. Early writings railed against "profane and promiscuous dancing," particularly condemning mixed-gender activities. Even the Puritans, however, found ways to allow expressive movement if it was designed according to strict scriptural guidelines. Some religious sects, such as the Shakers, valued dance as a central part of religious experience but not in their general lives.
Theatrical dance found its way to the colonies in the mid-1700s through touring European companies. In 1767 the John Street Theater opened in New York, which, along with Philadelphia, became a center of theatrical dance into the nineteenth century. Unlike Europe, however, there were no formal academies for training professional theatrical dancers in the colonies. Professional stage dancers continued to be supplied from the European and Russian dance schools founded under royal patronage. John Durang is considered the first American theatrical dancer to win wide recognition. Known mostly for his version of the hornpipe, he was a member of the ballet company at the Bowery Theatre in New York around 1827.
Social and recreational dancing took many forms in the early years of the Republic, providing opportunities to demonstrate physical skills, meet a possible life partner, celebrate such events as weddings or harvests, and build communities. Social, folk, and square dances both carried on and created variations of European dances. Dance reflects the social, economic, and political climate in which it exists, and the culture of the Southern colonies offered somewhat more support of dancing in the social arena. However, European styles of dance dominated; African forms of dance, brought by the slaves, were considered seditious and dangerous, to be restricted at least and eradicated if possible (if they were acknowledged further, it was through exaggeration and ridicule).
Social dancing was widely popular at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Most religious objections had been put aside, and in the larger cities instructors were available to offer classes in what increasingly was seen as a requirement for social training and mobility. In more rural areas, while there was considerable social dancing, it was less formal and was an important part of fairs, quilting parties, celebrations, after-dinner entertainment, and social interaction. Religious objections continued to appear from time to time, but they did little to stem the general tide of enjoyment of dance, which continued to be of European descent. Little or nothing was known or appreciated about the dances of Native Americans or of African slaves.
Congo Square in New Orleans was an important scene for black dances during the nineteenth century. There were considerable efforts by whites to discourage communication among blacks. However, the slaves developed new instruments and styles of movement to bypass these efforts; thus emerged the bases for new musical and dance forms that developed into soft shoe, tap dance, and jazz dance. Unfortunately, even when black dances appeared on stage, they were exaggerated and most often performed by whites in blackface, with the intention of poking fun at the African slaves with little understanding of the long and varied cultural history of dance and music on the African continent. If and when blacks were allowed to perform, they were placed in stereotypical roles and considered to be exotic in nature. Both black and white performers performing in blackface were to reflect the " happy" slave and other stereotypes—always coal black with grotesquely exaggerated lips and kinky wigs. While this provided limited opportunities for performance by African Americans, it also served to perpetuate, and in many ways justify, continued prejudice and discrimination within the social and political structure. Such dancing images were used to support the Jim Crow laws enacted to keep the African American population out of the political process. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the influence and contribution of African music and dance was recognized in popular or theatrical dance as well as in modern dance and ballet.
Master Juba (William Henry Lane) was a popular African American performer in the nineteenth century. The "juba" was an African step dance that resembled a jig, and it occurred wherever enslaved Africans settled. A variation included crossing and uncrossing the hands against the knees, which was later incorporated into the popular Charleston social dance. "Juba" and " Jube" were slave names popularly associated with dancers and musicians.
Early in the nineteenth century, dancers born in the United States began to achieve fame in classical ballet. The first was Mary Ann Lee, although her training was done in Paris and she retired in 1847 at the age of twenty-four. Augusta Maywood achieved international acclaim and made her debut at the Paris Opera in 1839 at the age of fifteen. George Washington Smith was the first premiere danseur native to the United States. He first danced in public around 1838 and produced ballet and theater until the late 1880s. For the most part, however, the United States continued to rely on imported stars in ballet, and ballet remained a realm of the social elite.
As the nineteenth century closed, ballet relied more and more on acrobatics and "tricks." Dancers, along with their fellow artists, began to question the validity of such display in creating an expressive work of art. Challenges to such ballet conventions as toe shoes and fairy tales inspired artists to create new perceptions of the genre, mirroring the changing outlooks of the Industrial Revolution. The new combustion engine made for a more mobile population, the use of electricity changed perception of time and activity, and scientific discoveries questioned the status quo of existence and the place of humankind in the universe. Each of these transformed how artists looked at their work, providing new ideas and inspiration. With the growing power of the United States, there was a new curiosity about the world. Many Western artists became interested in and fascinated by what they considered the exoticism of African and Asian cultures. Along with the rapid changes in technology and science, there was a growing element of escapism and experimentation in the arts. Parallel to social and political movements was a search for a new form of dancing based on free and personal expression.
Loïe Fuller (1862–1928) brought both a new theatricality and an abstraction to dance, relying on images rather than storyline. Supposedly Fuller found a trunk of long flowing cloth in a garret in London and thus was inspired to create her swirling, imagistic dances. She experimented with radium, recently discovered by the Curies; new lighting technology; and manipulation of yards of fabric to create solo dances in which she appeared to be engulfed in flames or a glowing butterfly. Maud Allen and others looked to theatrical texts to create movement scenarios based on plays and literature. Just as the United States was asserting itself on the world scene, these new solo artists emphasized personal expression and individuality. Although Fuller and others often found more European support for their new dance, the ideas and the perspectives were decidedly American.
Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) created a lineage that includes such luminaries as Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. Duncan's life was as irreverent as her approach to natural movement. She enjoyed tremendous acclaim in Europe and Russia where she established schools to share her philosophy of dance and approach to life. Even following Duncan's early tragic death, her influence is considered a focal point in the development of what was to become American modern dance, based on the personal artistic vision of the choreographer rather than on a traditional system of training and aesthetics. Her influence was to be seen in approaches with such names as "natural dance" or "aesthetic dancing," based not on strict systems of training but rather on discovery of the human body as an expressive instrument. Dance was once again reflecting the new freedom found in the wider changes in society.
While many of these new "moderns" were to borrow or appropriate dances from other cultures, here and abroad, their approach grew out of a Eurocentric philosophy of art. As ballet continued and modern dance developed, the moderns had intermittent contact with the musical but little or no obvious contact or cross-influence with social forms, which had indeed begun to merge with or develop from African dance elements.
The new philosophy of modern dance in the twentieth century was greatly influenced by the development of the emerging world power of the United States. The freedom of wealth and power revamped the arts as it did society, at least for the privileged and middle classes. Educational writer John Dewey inspired physical education teachers (who were already including "natural dance " in their teaching) to make contact with the professional artists and develop dance education as a separate discipline, with the first degree in dance offered in the late 1920s at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, under Margaret H'Doubler.
In 1915 St. Denis and Shawn established the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, developing a style of training and choreography that drew heavily on other world cultures for ideas, costumes, and movement motifs and creating exotic themes while still emphasizing individual expression and vision. Shawn eventually created the first U.S. dance company composed entirely of men, which gained acclaim here and abroad for its strength and vitality. St. Denis and Shawn trained some of the most influential dancers and choreographers of the first generation of American modern dance, all of whom broke away to create their own personal approaches.
With the threat and disruption of World War I, the arts reflected a radical questioning of values and a frantic search for new outlets for individual expression and a more dynamic way of life. Just as Eugene O'Neill and Elmer Rice did in theater and T. S. Eliot did in literature, dancers were searching for a new expression of contemporary society, which faced instability in the world scene, constant social changes, and increased industrialization.
Dissatisfied with the vision of Denishawn and its lack of connection to contemporary American life, Graham was one of the first dancers to leave. Born in 1894, Graham performed in her own works until age seventy-six and continued choreographing until her death in 1991. She created a repertory based on a training technique that was known around the world for its strength, breadth, and expressiveness, much of it coming from her use of percussive movements. Her works embraced and reflected the theories of Sigmund Freud in psychological explorations through dance, drawing heavily on her perception of and interest in American themes (Frontier, 1935, and Appalachian Spring, 1944) and Greek mythology (Clytemnestra, 1958, and Errand into the Maze, 1947). Graham believed that the function of dance was communication, speaking to the emotions and the body of the spectator, as well as to the mind. Graham collaborated with other great artists of her time, including Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Isamu Noguchi, Rudolph Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, and Liza Minelli. Hers was one of the first racially integrated major companies, and it spawned a lineage of important choreographers and companies and a host of schools to train dancers.
Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman presented their first concert in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928. Humphrey was known as a humanist, reflecting broad social concerns and the theories of Carl Jung and seeking expression through symbolic images of movement. Humphrey is especially known for her skill in choreographing for large groups. She created her training technique known as "fall and recovery," based on releasing into and opposing gravity. Humphrey's work reflected the increasing concern for understanding the self and the relationship of the human being to a society (with My Red Fires, 1936, and Day on Earth, 1947). Weidman eventually created his own body of work and was particularly known for his theatricality and comic sense. Humphrey, like Graham, inspired younger artists such as José Limón, who integrated his Mexican heritage into his personal vision, perhaps even foreshadowing future population shifts and cross-cultural developments in American society.
Other artists also expressed the spirit of the changing times. Each presented a personal blend of traditions and individual perspectives in movement. Just as society was restructuring itself in the United States, so were artists searching for their voices within that new cultural awakening. Helen Tamiris, with a background in theatrical dance and a strong social conscience, brought that balanced perspective to the developing genre of modern dance. Dancing to Negro spirituals in How Long Brethren (1937), she was the first major choreographer to acknowledge this music from the African American community. Tamiris also choreographed Broadway hit musicals such as Showboat (1927).
Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham were two major figures who brought their experience and perspectives as African Americans to modern dance. Primus was both a dancer and an anthropologist and her research heavily influenced her creative work. Dunham created a body of work and a training system in a distinctive style. In the 1930s Dunham created works based on Afro-Caribbean dances and popularized them in revues such as Ballet Negrès. In 1969 Dunham settled in East St. Louis, Illinois, where she dedicated herself to offering dance training to help young people. As part of a revival of African and Afro-Caribbean culture throughout the United States, Dunham's training system inspired other African American dancers and choreographers such as Geoffrey Holder, Donald McKayle, Arthur Mitchell, and Alvin Ailey, all of whom were to be major influences in the U.S. dance world.
Germany also created its own form of modern dance that was eventually intertwined with the American system. Hanya Holm studied in Germany with Mary Wigman, known for her expressionist style. Holm founded a school in New York based on Wigman's training technique, remaining in the United States and teaching professionally and in college programs as well as providing choreography for Broadway musicals such as My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960).
The wider revolution in dance was inevitably to influence ballet in the United States. The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev became the leading visionary of dance in Europe. His Ballets Russes created a total theater experience and his company and collaborators included Anna Pavlova, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, George Balanchine, and the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev's company incorporated two-dimensional effects in body movements and unusual footwork, reflecting the same artistic challenges at work in the United States. The Ballets Russes toured internationally, and remnants of the original company influenced the American dance scene through inspiration or by individuals settling and teaching throughout the United States. Balanchine created the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet), which also challenged the look of classical ballet, reflecting and incorporating the energy and speed of the industrial and political climate of the United States. Professional regional ballet companies were established in such cities as Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco, signifying concentrations of wealth, and perhaps a continued preference for the European-based art form. Mitchell, deeply affected by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., created the Dance Theatre of Harlem to provide opportunities in ballet for African Americans who had been mostly excluded from the classical dance form.
Slowly but surely the quality of performance in ballet was to rise across the United States. While the classical ballets such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker continued as staples in the ballet repertory, new perspectives from teachers and choreographers were to create works based on contemporary ideas. Along with Balanchine's explorations of speed, line, and abstraction were works such as Lew Christiansen's Filling Station (1938), Agnes DeMille's Rodeo (1942), Eugene Loring's Billy the Kid (1938), and Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free (1944). The inspiration for these ballets was distinctively the United States; the ballets reflected the stories and perspective of cultural lore.
Social dance sometimes mixed with theatrical dancing, particularly in the movies. One example of this was the work of Vernon and Irene Castle, who were to serve as precursors to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and other famous dancing pairs of the movies. The movies drew from a broad range of dancing styles and employed a number of stage dancers, including Anna Pavlova, Shawn, and DeMille. Rudolph Valentino and Joan Crawford were also coaxed into dancing for a script. Certainly the films of Busby Berkeley brought dancing into the foreground with their emphasis on spectacle and their famous overhead kaleidoscope shots. Astaire and Gene Kelly brought male dancing to the wider public in their musical numbers, displaying virtuosity and skill, both alone and with famous partners. Although not as widely acknowledged, such artists as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers brought the African American influence to popular film. As musicals became a force in Hollywood, including transfer of Broadway hits, dancing found a stable place in the film industry. For the most part dance was used as a relief from the Depression and World War II. Not until such hits as An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Brigadoon (1954), Oklahoma (1955), and West Side Story (1961) did movies include powerful dramatic dancing. Later, such films as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Fame (1980) were to reflect both social mores and personal struggle, inspiring moviegoers to pursue dance training, whether for social or professional reasons.
The Black Crook was performed in 1866, the first version of what was to become the American musical. As the musical stage grew, it drew from any appropriate source and in the twentieth century Broadway produced some of the finest and most exciting dance in the United States. Jack Cole, DeMille, Bob Fosse, Michael Kidd, Onna White, Gower Champion, Robbins, Peter Gennaro, Patricia Birch, and Michael Bennett created dances for musicals that are now household names: Oklahoma!, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, Hello Dolly!, West Side Story, Annie, Grease, and A Chorus Line. The movement in each reflected the slice of American culture on which the story was based and the time period in which it was set. The history of the United States could be danced through a series of musical numbers such as Savion Glover's Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk (1996), which explores the African American experience through tap.
As the first half of the twentieth century came to a conclusion, modern dance found itself heading in many directions. Limón, while striking out on his own vision, kept close ties with his mentor Doris Humphrey. Limón drew from his Mexican heritage as well as biblical and American themes. His company was chosen to tour South America as part of a political show of strength during the cold war. Other modern dancers revealed that the field was rebelling internally. Merce Cunningham left the world of Graham to explore a movement vocabulary that paralleled his interest in abstract visual art. Like Graham, Cunningham worked with other contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and John Cage. While Cunningham challenged Graham's style and philosophy of dance, he also worked to codify a training system and style. Alwin Nikolais, inspired by Holm's teaching, began to experiment with lighting and other theatrical elements in dance, often creating living sculptures from his dancers, visual abstractions accompanied by electronic music he himself composed. Eric Hawkins left Graham to form a company that explored a number of American themes. Although these artists investigated a range of emotions, they existed in a relatively stable social structure. That all changed beginning in the 1950s with the end of World War II and the return of the soldiers to the United States. Dance reflected the new exuberance and power of the United States.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s, dance once again mirrored the changing social climate. Groups and individuals began to question the increasing formality and codification of modern dance. Just as teenagers rebelled in music and dress, young choreographers declared that theatrical presentation in dance detracted from the pure emotion, while others, who found that the established techniques limited access for the nontrained dancer, chose to explore pedestrian movement such as simple walking, running, and falling. Yvonne Ranier summarized this movement in her manifesto that began with "No to spectacle, no to virtuosity. …" Happenings and dances avoided logical interpretation and embraced both the abstract and the absurd. Communelike groups sprang up that reflected the social climate of the times: Ranier (Grand Union), James Cunningham (Acme Dance Co.), Deborah Hay (The Farm), and Meredith Monk (The House). The lives and work of these artists were intertwined and explored spontaneous novelty and the human being involved with discovery and social interaction. The line between life and art began to blur, and the eclectic viewpoints mirrored the increasing complexity of individuality in the changing political and social landscape. As the writing of James Joyce and the painting of Rauschenberg challenged notions of life and art, such artists as Monk incorporated movement, singing, music, and multimedia elements into what became more and more difficult to define as a single art form. Such experimentation brought new importance to improvisation (including the development of "contact improvisation, " based on weight sharing with a partner) and offered a new perspective on the role of dance in U.S. society and culture, amid the disruption of social values and the factioning of the political system.
Dance, like all U.S. culture, has been deeply affected by the technology and growth of mass media. Dance has become a staple on television from the early variety shows to MTV (Music Television). Because the camera, both by design and through the editing process, determines the ultimate view of a dance, media technology played a powerful role in what and how dance movement was viewed, whether on the classical programs on public television's Dance in America series or on MTV. Merce Cunningham and others have incorporated television, video, and computer technology in their definition and creation of dance.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the pendulum swung back again and technical dancing resurfaced with the work of Twyla Tharp, which incorporated ballet, modern, jazz, and popular dance and music. Ailey created a major company that incorporated the influences of ballet, Dunham, and Graham. His repertory drew heavily on the African American experience in the United States. The technical base broadened and fusion became the dominant process. This fusion took street dance, social dance, ballet, modern, jazz, tap, cultural forms, and so on, and combined them into forms that were difficult to classify. As the cultural fabric of the United States continued to expand and weave itself into more and more complicated patterns, so dance acknowledged these new influences and ideas. Choreographers were no longer satisfied with drawing on the established " techniques" but searched for inspiration in the multiple cultures of the United States.
During all of the developments of theatrical dancing, there was also a continuous activity in social and folk dancing. Individuals, clubs, and schools organized opportunities to practice and perpetuate these forms in the everyday lives of the population. Dancing continued to provide outlets for physical activity, social interaction, personal expression, celebration, community building, and religious ceremony. Folk dances of the United States inherited cultural features of the English, Irish, and Scottish settlers. The dances, however, bear an unmistakable American look and energy and are of four general types: square dances, New England longways dances, Southern mountain dances, and party games that substituted for dancing where religious sects banned dancing.
The American Folk Dance Society, founded in 1916 and headquartered in New York City, is dedicated to the revival and preservation of folk dance. Many published collections of folk dances are available in libraries and bookstores, and folk dancing is sometimes a part of the physical education curriculum in schools and colleges. Many of the folk dances from Europe and around the world continue to be learned and practiced, and square dancing has a huge following, as do social and ballroom dancing. In addition, folk dances live through ballet steps and structures. The classical pas de deux, in which a couple dances alternately together and separately, is a formalized courtship dance. Many individual ballets have folk-dance themes or sequences as do musicals such as Oklahoma!
Social dance in the twentieth century was also breaking the rules. Since the early 1920s, new freedom in what body parts to move and how to move them have mirrored changes in social values and attitudes toward the body. Music with a Latin, African, or Caribbean influence inspired the cross-fertilization of dance in clubs and ballrooms with dances such as the Charleston, rumba, tango, samba, and cha-cha. The Harlem Renaissance brought the range of African American dances such as the lindy and jitterbug into the mainstream. The energetic partner dances of the 1930s and 1940s sought to escape from the Great Depression and World War II. As these threats faded dances became more individualistic, with rock and roll and dances such as the twist of the 1960s and later freestyle dances such as the frug and the jerk. Disco dancing of the 1970s and street-based dances of the 1980s (breakdancing, punk, raves, hip-hop) merged to form the social dances of the 1990s, incorporating both a personal style and a strong influence from the African-based hip-hop style.
Dance of the 1990s underwent another artistic revolution through the medium of music videos. Michael Jackson was a pioneer in the use of dance in music videos with his Thriller spawning a new wave of dance in the media. Millions of young girls sought to emulate Madonna and the dancing that shocked their parents, much as the swiveling hips of Elvis Presley had done decades before. Freedom and influence from the African American dance forms shaped the style and looks of dance (as well as the music) on television and in the clubs.
Choreographers for the stage in the 1980s and 1990s such as Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Elizabeth Streb, and Joe Goode incorporated multimedia, social, and political themes and issues, and even circus elements into a performance genre that is still considered dance based. Fusion continued to describe what choreographers created in their works. Professional choreographers incorporated and mixed street dancing, social forms, cultural dances, and traditional styles to create unique and evolving performance works. Communities supported all sorts of dance activities as outreach programs, educational forums, and ways of addressing social needs. Just as cultures mixed and meshed, dance reflected this through its search for expression of personal, social, and cultural values.
While dance history is often written about according to genre in order to provide continuity and perspective, dance styles and forms always cross boundaries. Ballet can be seen in the movie musical alongside tap and modern dance. Ballet companies have borrowed both from modern dance and from other world cultures for movements and themes. Social, folk, and square dances have threaded themselves through professional realms.
As the U.S. population grows more culturally and ethnically diverse, however, there is an increasing acknowledgment of other traditions. As with ballet, the other traditional forms continue, but as children grow up exposed to the multicultural world, they bring a broadened perspective to their work as social and recreational dancers and artists. This world view, along with increasing access to sophisticated technology, is producing works that defy genre. Young people continue to find ways to rebel and express themselves through dance. As generations age, social, folk, and square dance offer ways to remain physically active and continue social interaction.
Dance, which has always existed in far-flung corners of culture and society, now finds a home even in the virtual world of computers through animation software, digital cameras, and motion capture. If nothing else, the history of dance in the United States rests on its continuous embrace of plurality and change.
Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Miles Orvell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), s.v. "Dance" (by Luke C. Kahlich), http://eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=229 (accessed December 28, 2011).