Ballroom dance is a set of partner dances, which are enjoyed both socially and competitively around the world. Because of its performance and entertainment aspects, ballroom dance is also widely enjoyed on stage, film, and television.
Ballroom dance may refer, at its widest definition, to almost any recreational dance with a partner. However, with the emergence of dance competition (now known as Dancesport), two principal schools have emerged and the term is used more narrowly to refer to the dances recognized by those schools.
- The International School, originally developed in England and now regulated by the World Dance Council (WDC) and the World DanceSport Federation (WDSF), is most prevalent in Europe. It encompasses two categories, Standard and Latin, each of which consist of five dances—International Waltz, International Tango, International Viennese Waltz, International Slow Foxtrot, and International Quickstep in the Standard category and International Samba, International Cha Cha, International Rumba, International Paso Doble, and International Jive in the Latin category. A “Standard” or “Latin” competition encompasses all five dances in the respective category, and a “Ten Dance” competition encompasses all ten dances. The two styles, while differing in technique, rhythm, and costumes, exemplify core elements of ballroom dancing such as control and cohesiveness.
- The American School, also called North American School, is most prevalent in the United States and Canada, where it’s regulated by USA Dance and Canada Dancesport (CDS) — the respective national member bodies of the WDSF. It also consists of two categories analogous to the Standard and Latin categories of the International School, respectively called Smooth and Rhythm. The Smooth category consists of only four dances—American Waltz, American Tango, American Foxtrot, and American Viennese Waltz, omitting American Peabody (the American School equivalent to Quickstep) — while the dances selected for competition in the Rhythm category are American Cha Cha, American Rumba, American East Coast Swing (the American School equivalent to International Jive), American Bolero, and American Mambo. A “Smooth” or “Rhythm” competition encompasses the dances in the respective category, and a “Nine Dance” competition encompassing all nine of these dances is analogous to the “Ten Dance” competition of the International School. USA Dance additionally recognizes American Peabody, American Merengue, American Paso Doble, American Samba, American West Coast Swing, American Polka, and American Hustle as ballroom dances in which sanctioned competition may take place.
Note that dances of the two schools that bear the same name may differ considerably in permitted patterns (figures), technique, and styling.
Exhibitions and social situations that feature ballroom dancing also may include additional partner dances such as Lindy Hop, Night Club Two Step, Night Club Swing, Bachata, Country Two Step, and regional (local or national) favorites that normally are not regarded as part of the ballroom family, and a number of historical dances also may be danced in ballrooms or salons. Additionally, some sources regard Sequence Dancing, in pairs or other formations, to be a style of ballroom dance.
Definitions and History:
Galliard in Siena, Italy, 15th century
The term ‘ballroom dancing’ is derived from the word ball which in turn originates from the Latin word ballare which means ‘to dance’ (a ball-room being a large room specially designed for such dances). In times past, ballroom dancing was social dancing for the privileged, leaving folk dancing for the lower classes. These boundaries have since become blurred. The definition of ballroom dance also depends on the era: balls have featured popular dances of the day such as the Minuet, Quadrille, Polonaise, Polka, Mazurka, and others, which are now considered to be historical dances.
Early Modern Period:
The first authoritative knowledge of the earliest ballroom dances was recorded toward the end of the 16th century, when Jehan Tabourot, under the pen name “Thoinot-Arbeau”, published in 1588 his Orchésographie, a study of late 16th-century French renaissance social dance. Among the dances described were the solemn basse danse, the livelier branle, pavane, and the galliarde which Shakespeare called the “cinq pace” as it was made of five steps.
In 1650 the Minuet, originally a peasant dance of Poitou, was introduced into Paris and set to music by Jean-Baptiste Lully and danced by the King Louis XIV in public. The Minuet dominated the ballroom from that time until the close of the 18th century.
Toward the later half of the 16th century, Louis XIV founded his ‘Académie Royale de Musique et de Danse’, where specific rules for the execution of every dance and the “five positions” of the feet were formulated for the first time by members of the Académie. Eventually, the first definite cleavage between ballet and ballroom came when professional dancers appeared in the ballets, and the ballets left the Court and went to the stage. Ballet technique such as the turned out positions of the feet, however, lingered for over two centuries and past the end of the Victoria era.
Vernon and Irene Castle, early ballroom dance pioneers, c. 1910–18
The waltz with its modern hold took root in England in about 1812; in 1819 Carl Maria von Weber wrote Invitation to the Dance, which marked the adoption of the waltz form into the sphere of absolute music. The dance was initially met with tremendous opposition due to the semblance of impropriety associated with the closed hold, though the stance gradually softened. In the 1840s several new dances made their appearance in the ballroom, including the polka, mazurka, and the Schottische. In the meantime a strong tendency emerged to drop all ‘decorative’ steps such as entrechats and ronds de jambes that had found a place in the Quadrilles and other dances.
Early 20th Century:
Modern ballroom dance has its roots early in the 20th century, when several different things happened more or less at the same time. The first was a movement away from the sequence dances towards dances where the couples moved independently. This had been pre-figured by the waltz, which had already made this transition. The second was a wave of popular music, such as jazz. Since dance is to a large extent tied to music, this led to a burst of newly invented dances. There were many dance crazes in the period 1910–1930.
The third event was a concerted effort to transform some of the dance crazes into dances which could be taught to a wider dance public in the U.S. and Europe. Here Vernon and Irene Castle were important, and so was a generation of English dancers in the 1920s, including Josephine Bradley and Victor Silvester. These professionals analysed, codified, published, and taught a number of standard dances. It was essential, if popular dance was to flourish, for dancers to have some basic movements they could confidently perform with any partner they might meet. Here the huge Arthur Murray organisation in America, and the dance societies in England, such as the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, were highly influential. Finally, much of this happened during and after a period of World War, and the effect of such a conflict in dissolving older social customs was considerable.
Later, in the 1930s, the on-screen dance pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers influenced all forms of dance in the U.S. and elsewhere. Although both actors had separate careers, their filmed dance sequences together, which included portrayals of the Castles, have reached iconic status. Much of Astaire and Rogers’ work portrayed social dancing, although the performances were highly choreographed (often by Astaire or Hermes Pan) and meticulously staged and rehearsed.