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Dance may be the oldest art form. Drawings found on the walls of prehistoric caves show masked dancers imitating the movements of animals, possibly in the hope of taking on their strength or ensuring the success of the hunt. From very early times, dance has been used as a means of communication--to tell stories and to entertain. It has also been considered to possess religious and magical properties. Primitive societies have often used dancing to celebrate the harvest or in rituals surrounding birth and death. Trained dancers entertained the Pharaohs, but the priests of ancient Egypt kept the steps of their temple dances a secret, so that their magical powers would be preserved.
The ancient Greeks used dance in their complex ceremonies and religious rites, because they believed that dancing brought the mind and body into perfect harmony. The philosopher Plato thought dancing so important that he wrote, "to sing well and to dance well is to be well educated. Noble dances confer on the student not only health and agility and beauty, but also goodness of soul and a well-balanced mind." The festivals honoring the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, featured wild and spirited dancing, as did the plays that were presented at the foot of the Acropolis during these annual spring rites. Originally these dramas were performed by a chorus, dancers who sang, chanted, and moved in rhythmic patterns; later, playwrights added first one, then several actors to respond to the chorus and act out dramatic episodes.
The stage for the plays was known as the orchestra, or ?dancing place," a large, flat circular area that was a feature of Greek theaters. Although only men could beactors and members of the chorus, the patron of dance, the Muse Terpsichore, was a goddess. She was one of nine sisters, all daughters of Zeus, each of whom presided over a different art or science.
Across Europe in the Middle Ages (c. A.D. 500-1300), the Catholic Church associated dance with pagan rituals and considered it the work of the devil. The church did not use dancing as part of its religious services. People at that time, however, used village festivals, such as May Day or weddings, as occasions for celebratory dancing, and communal dancing was often used for courtship as well. Medieval knights and their ladies learned more refined versions of these boisterous folk dances from the minstrels and troubadours who visited the castles of Europe bringing news and entertainment as well as the latest dance steps.
During the Renaissance (c. A. D. 1300-1600), culture and the arts--including dance--flourished throughout Europe. For the entertainment of the common folk, traveling pageants, featuring singers and dancers, went from town to town in highly decorated carts or floats. But it was the lavish theatrical entertainments and courtly dance forms viewed and practiced by the aristocracy during this era that were to provide the first glimmers of what would later become ballet.
At court banquets, the nobility was entertained by disguised players and dancers called mummers. By the end of the fifteenth century, these feasts often included a series of interludes called entrées, or entries--dancing, singing, poetry, pantomime, and special mechanical effects presented between the courses of the meal. Special effects included clouds that descended from the heavens and changed color; revolving stages created scene changes. The singers and dancers were usually costumed as the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology.
In 1489, such a series of entrées, based on scenes from classical mythology, was prepared in honor of the marriage of Isabella of Aragon and the duke of Milan. At the wedding banquet, each dish was accompanied by appropriately costumed performers. Players portrayed Jason and the Argonauts capturing the Golden Fleece as the roast lamb was served, and dancers dressed as sea gods performed for the fish course. [The word entrée, meaning a main course, is derived from this form of Renaissance entertainment.]
Participatory dancing was also a significant part of the social life of the courts and noble houses of Europe during the Renaissance. Many nobles employed their own dancing masters, who were also expected to set the standards for etiquette and deportment. The ability to dance was an important part of an aristocrat's repertoire of courtly skills. Most dancing masters were Italian; one of the fifteenth century's most famous masters was Guglielmo Ebreo (William the Jew). In 1463, he wrote A Treatise on the Art of Dancing, which detailed the steps and movements for courtly dances and balls and described the qualities that skillful dancers should possess, including a sense of rhythm, a good memory, and a graceful manner.
The dances done by courtiers during the Renaissance were of two kinds. The basse danse, or low dance, included many poses and used gliding and hip-swaying steps. The feet never left the floor, as in the stately, ceremonial pavane, which may be named for the peacock (paon in French). Haute danse, or high dance, required quick leg movements and tiny running steps; the men did jumps, the women little hops. Men also did the more virtuosic movements--leaps, kicks, and the crossing of the feet in midair. Examples of haute danse were the lively triple-time galliard, the branles (our word brawl is derived from the name of this round dance, which involved violent shaking), and the volta. An early forerunner of the waltz, the volta was considered risqué in its time. In one of its movements, the gentleman lifted his partner by placing one hand under her bottom, then whirled her around, skirts flying in the air.
Dancing and spectacle had become so much a part of aristocratic life in the Renaissance that it would not be long before they joined together in ballet de cour, the ancestor of modern ballet.