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APPENDIX I : Rhythm in Dance

 

The Story of the Dance by Margaret Fleming

The poetry of motion as a law of nature and as an element of all human history - Dances of many ages and many nations, from the Bacchic revel of Greece to the waltz of the modern ball room.

When a full, perfect chord is struck upon an instrument of music, matter dances. It is a law of nature. When a harmony is made, the world about it thrills in motion. The vibration that awakens the circumambient air is conveyed to the solid object, and its particles move in rhythm.

The fauns and dryads of the Arcadian woods, being part of nature’s self, danced with a grace that was poetry. They swayed like the young tree in the wind, or whirled like the leaf as it falls. As human souls were born, as men and women met the obstacles and duties of life, they began to embody in their dances passions and events.

Dancing was perhaps the first great expression of human intelligence, of human imitation, of the ability of the human mind to create variations upon the simple theme of bare living. It must have been created before music, because we find the lowest and most savage races, who have no music, with a dance. They find their blood, the atoms of their body, vibrating in time to the sweep of the wind, the cry of the wild animals, the splash of falling water. The North American Indians have a buffalo dance; the people of Kamtschatka the bear dance, and the Australians the kangaroo dance. The New Zealander, who loves the sea, imitates in his dance the movement of the waves.

As civilization came on, the nature and habits of the people came out in their dances. In Sweden there still lingers in remote corners the old “weaving dance.” The company was drawn up in two divisions, and the pairs crossed each other, now with hands uplifted, now with heads bowed under, representing the warp and woof, while little children ran between to represent the shuttle.

The Greeks were passionate dancers. They who worshiped the body with loving care, brought this movement into their most sacred rites. The dance in honor of Artemis, where beautiful, graceful, swaying maidens balanced baskets of flowers upon their heads, formed the model of the sculptured figures known as Caryatides. Dances were favorite subjects with their painters, their sculptors, their poets. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Socrates, and Plato, were all dancers, and revilers of those too ignorant to put their bodies into forms and movements of harmony. All the primitive religions were sensuous; all were founded upon a mental exultation which came from bodily excitement.

The religious dance was not considered out of place in the early Christian church. St. Basil told his followers that dancing would be their principal occupation in heaven, and they had better practice it upon earth.

The Christians in Abyssinia still regard dancing as a vehicle of inspiration, and the Corpus Christi dance of Seville, where boys dance in the cathedral to joyful sacred music, is still as full of exaltation as a chorus of young voices. In our own Southern States, too, the Negro dances as he worships.

But the most wonderful sacred dance is the zikris of the Turkish dervishes. It is a circular dance, beginning very slowly, but increasing in rapidity until every dancer is seen with closed eyes and extended hands, turning with great velocity. In our latter day analysis of everything, we see how they unconsciously hypnotize themselves, bringing to their bewildered, whirling brains visions made up of the music and the motion just as pictures are formed in sand when it is shaken in regular vibrations.
As climate and the growth of civilization regulate all things, they regulate the dance. When we see a national dance surviving from an earlier age, it is a distinct proof that the spirit which it originally embodied still exists, although the love of the dance may be its only loud expression.

The sword dance, now associated with the Scottish Highlanders, Tacitus describes as the national dance of the ancient Germans. It was common to the Saxons and the Danes, and to the Spain of Cervantes, where men danced it in loose white clothing with colored handkerchiefs on their heads. But in other countries it degenerated, until it was lost; only in Scotland was it still kept as a dignified representation of valor. It has many figures, and danced with sharp swords, to the wild music of the bagpipes, with exciting cries and sharp turnings, it is as dangerous as it is beautiful.

Another dance which was originally designed to display men instead of women is the polonaise. It was the most magnificent of pageants in the days when Polish lords and ladies led the column. It was always the distinguished men, the warriors, the great dignitaries of the church, who were chosen for this dance. The kontuza, trimmed with jewels and fur, was an element in it, movements of rare grace and coquetry being introduced where the long and flowing sleeves were thrown back. The velvet and jeweled cap was put off and on, and its manipulation constituted an art, for it was by its sweep that the glittering train was led. The step was undulating, and each movement of the foremost couple was imitated by the whole line. The train swept by to the sound of music, the ring of jeweled armor, and the dragging of heavy damasks on the floor. The polonaise could only have been the expression of a people mad with a love of splendor, and with poetry and grace and martial glory to give it form and beauty.

The mazurka and the polka belong also to the Slavs. As they survive in our latter day western civilization, they have become toned down, but in their own time and place they represented the vivacity of a nation which still held the oriental idea of women.

It is a study of nations to go back into the history of a dance, and note how time and place have controlled its character, and how its whole expression has changed in trying to tell the same story to a different people. Every epoch has its interpreter. The dance, like the music and art and literature of a country, catches the peculiar temperament and passion of a people, and may be said to vibrate in tune to the hour.

The erotic dance, which has been so much discussed in America during the past few months, is of illimitable antiquity, old as humanity itself, old as the satyrs and nymphs whose expression it was. It has been preserved in modifications, with a passionate universality, in almost every country where the warm sun shines. It came originally out of the furthest East into western Asia, Greece, and Rome, where the poets of the imperial epoch touched it with their satire. Centuries before, the Phoenicians had carried it into Spain, and the dancers of Gades (Cadiz) had a world wide reputation.

In the far East, as the Nautch girls still dance it, it is slow and dreamy, languid, mesmerizing. The music is monotonous; it lulls, it fills the mind with visions of sleep.

Going west, it became more active, livelier. The dancing girls in the Cairo theater show it to us as the Greeks and Romans saw it: as Telethusa, the famous dancing girl of that time, made it famous in Cadiz. It is pictured on Egyptian monuments, older than the Exodus of Israel. Its modern exponents belong to a distinct class, and probably their ancestors amused the earliest Pharaohs.

In the Christian, or what we are accustomed to call the civilized world, we have this erotic dance in three distinct forms - the fandango of Spain, the czardas of Hungary, and the gypsy romalis.

There is in the fandango, even at its wildest, a reserve and a pride which are essentially Spanish. But the click and tinkle of the castanets and guitar make quicksilver of the Spanish blood. The music begins in a minor key. The step is light, the sway of the body is alluring. It is a passionate love song, interpreted by motion. The glance, the smile, the advance, the retreat, the triumph, make the story of the dance, and it is told as variously as there are dancers to tell it.

Bourguet relates that the great heads of the Spanish church once declared the fandango a performance disgraceful to so religious a country as Spain. Its formal interdiction was about to be signed when a cardinal suggested that they should see what they were condemning. A company was brought in, and the dance began. Alas! The priests had the blood of Spain in their veins. They rose from their seats as the music swayed their hearts and minds, and were soon advancing and retreating in the seductive figures.

The czardas strongly resembles the fandango, except that it partakes of the ferocity of its creators. A gypsy band always plays the music for this dance, even at the grandest balls. Their wild eyes light up, their dusky fingers touch the strings, the wild music sings, and excitement takes every Hungarian heart.

The romalis preserves one of the great features of the Eastern dance, inasmuch as it is danced by women alone. The music, which is accompanied by clapping hands, is almost savage in character and full of dash. Sometimes it is performed by one gypsy girl alone, and sometimes by many together. It is plainly the gypsy version of the erotic dance of the Orient. It must have been this dance which Herodias danced before Herod, this dance which so charmed his senses that he could see nothing except her wish.

In the past few years we have brought from Spain a variety of this dance, which bears most of the characteristics of the far East, and but little of the wildness of the gypsy. It is a shudder, a shiver, full of the languor of Spain, more sensual than the tarantelle, and danced, as in the East, by one woman alone. But it has not been engrafted upon the northern dances. While English and French dancers have seen it and have tried to make for themselves a dance of the same character, they have not succeeded, for the one reason that they are made of different material. They move differently to the same chords. The dance that has been evolved is merely eccentric, and in many cases as ugly as wonderful. Its performers do more, but are able to convey to the audience nothing save a sense of their cleverness.

The conventional ballet of opera has none of the characteristics of the Eastern dances. It has a formality, an etiquette, a coldness, a conventional decorum. There may be some ballerine, like Fanny Ellsler, who are passionate dancers, but they are the geniuses, the women who make themselves great by creating traditions instead of following them. Ballet dancing was born under the Grande Monarque, when La Fontaine danced before the court. But Taglioni created the ballet as it is danced today. It is not a thing of much soul, or of much sense, but simply a diversion for the eyes.

Dancing has grown to be, in a great measure, a branch of gymnastics, where students are taken very young and taught certain exact and artificial steps and postures. It is only when there comes one with fire enough to give meaning to these dead forms that a great dancer is born. She must know how to execute the postures and the steps, and must excel in this mechanical side; and then, too, she must speak to soul or sense. When one of these has come, history has given a page to tell the mark she has left on her time. She has flown by with her companions, but unlike them she has left her shadow upon the screen. The first ballerina, La Fontaine, became Marquise de Saint-Genies. Florence, another great dancer of the seventeenth century, was the mother of the Archbishop of Cambrai, whose blood was royal. There are dozens upon the list who married famous and noble men. Fanny Ellsler married a Prussian banker, and her sister Theresa became the wife of the brother of the King of Prussia.

The minuet, that most stately and beautiful of dances, is also French. It is the dance of ceremony, of politeness, of chivalry. The greatest and most dignified have been proud to walk through a minuet. That most distinguished gentleman, George Washington, was an accomplished minuet dancer, and so was Benjamin Franklin.

The high spirits and the great bodily health of the English have always made them dancers, but dancers of the fun loving and romping sort. Their country dances, from the revel around the maypole to the Sir Roger de Coverley, are gay and wholesome and hearty, eminently characteristic of the people.

There has been an effort made of late years - the last twenty five - both in England and America, to substitute other amusements for social dancing among the middle and lower classes. One of our famous American writers draws a pathetic picture of life in New England villages since the great ball rooms of the inns have been closed. He says that the young people sit around the room against the wall and look at photograph albums, and that the refreshments consist of apples and water; that he has assisted at some festivities where the apples were omitted.

Dancing is natural in a healthy human being; it is social and it is wholesome. Yet there is more and more an inclination, as civilization becomes super refined, for the upper classes to give dancing over to professionals. Year by year it grows less popular as an amusement, except with very young people. As people become more artificial, more deadened to their natural impulses, more hedged in by acquired and hereditary self control, their bodies, like their hearts and brains, will move less easily to the thrill of outside sounds.

Source: Munsey’s Magazine, Volume VIII, 1893-94, pp. 287-97 (November, 1893)

See Appendix 2

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