The History of Ballroom Dancing

Ballroom dancing like any other form of dance mirrors the social and moral attitudes of society particularly those regarding sex. Gender as expressed in ballroom dancing has always led to upset and censure.

There are various standardized categories. The two main styles are known as American and International. American style is performed mainly in the US and is not as standardized as International style. Each style has two categories. In American style, the categories are known as SMOOTH and RYTHM and in International style they are called STANDARD and LATIN.

American Style comprises:- Smooth = Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Rhythm = Cha Cha, Rumba, East Coast Swing, Bolero, Mambo.

International Style comprises – Standard = Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep Latin = Cha Cha, Rumba, Samba, Paso Doble, Jive.

All these ballroom dances involve a man and a woman. As the man leads and the lady follows it is the man who is responsible for the choreography and direction of travel.

THE VIENNESE WALTZ is performed to music with three beats to the bar. The waltz probably has a connection to the Volta popular during the 16th century in the royal courts of Western Europe.The word “volta” means “the turn” in Italian. Thus even in its earliest days, this ballroom dance appears to have involved the couple turning as they danced. In order to perform certain steps the partners had to hold each other in such a close embrace that many declared it immoral. Louis X111 (1601-1643) had it banned from his court.The Waltz has a limited number of steps. In 1797 Wolf published a pamphlet entitled “Proof that Waltzing is a main source of weakness of the body and mind of our generation.”

This form of Ballroom dancing became very popular in Vienna where large dance halls were opened. It was to enter England under the name of the German Waltz. The music of Johann and Josef Strauss was to make the dance even more popular.

THE MODERN WALTZ is a more sedate form of the fast viennese waltz. Todays ballroom dance is believed to have evolved around 1910 in England. More figures were added which increased the interest of both performing and watching the dance.

MODERN TANGO The origins of this form of ballroom dancing lie in Spanish Flamenco. This dance was taken by spanish settlers with them to the New World. There it became merged with the TANGANO an African dance imported with the African slaves. In Argentina, in the slums of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, the tango became merged with the HABANERA (a folk dance from Havana in Cuba.) This in its turn led to the developement of the MALONGA and later to the TANGO. By the turn of the 20th century tango had gained acceptance by upper class Argentinian society. France’s great music-hall star Mistinguett introduced it in Paris in 1910. From there tango became the ballroom dancing rage from London to New York.

The dance changed dramatically in Paris in the 1930s when it was combined with the proud drawn-up torso of the other ballroom dances and was given a staccato action.This moved the visual emphasis to the torso and head a characteristic which remains to this day.

ARGENTINE TANGO The rhythm of the guitars playing the Tango Flamenco or Andaluz could not be reproduced in orchestral instuments or on the piano, so the Tango Andaluz or flamenco was modified with the habenera rhythm. The Tango Habenera was heard in 1883 but died towards the end of the century. The Tango Habanera has been entirely associated with the first forms of Argentine Tango.

To-day in Buenos Aires or Rio de la Plata, there are three forms of Argentine tango:- Salon, Fantasia, and one for scenario (stage). The form known for stage, sometimes is referred to as “for export” was aimed at english speaking people.Outside Argentina, people from North America had their first exposure with Stage Tango brought by the show and ballroom dancing companies from Buenos Aires.At the end of the shows, people asked for classes on what they had seen on the stage. The performers found it very difficult to explain that the correct form was to learn ballroom Argentine Tango from Buenos Aires rather than what they had seen on the stage.

SLOW FOXTROT The popularity of this form of ballroom dancing is due to Harry Fox in the stage show Ziegfeld Follies in New York in 1913. Some say he gave his name to this dance. The term “foxtrot” had previously been used by the military for a very smooth equestrian gait which could have been selected to describe the dance. There is also a breed of horse called the Missouri Fox Trotter with a very smooth gait. The fox itself also has an unusual way of moving amongst animals. It can walk with its feet under its body, so forming a single track of pawprints.

Early on, the Foxtrot was danced in this way, with the left and right feet falling on the line of dance, each being placed directly in front of or behind the other. It was fashionably regarded as a rebellion against 19th century dancing as it used parallel feet (rather then the turned out feet of the Victorian dances).Around 1922 the trotting steps were discarded for a less energetic movement called the Saunter.

By 1927 the dance was called the SLOW FOXTROT and was characterized by smooth, gliding movements. The Slow Foxtrot and the QUICKSTEPhave similar origins.

QUICK STEP Elements of the Charleston, Shimmy, and Black Bottom became absorbed into a faster version of the Foxtrot giving us theQUICKSTEP.This ballroom dance retains the walks, run, chasses and turns of the original Foxtrot with some other fast figures added.

The Merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic.There are a number of popular versions as to the origin of this dance.One story claims the dance originated with slaves who were chained together, and, of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar cane to the beat of a drum.
The second story maintains that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of the many insurrections in the Domican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and out of sympathy everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot.

The Dominicans themselves maintain Merengue is a combination of two dances, one African and the other the French Minuet, from the late 1700’s – to early 1800s.The Black slaves saw the ballroom dancing in the Big Houses and when they had their own festivities started mimicking the “masters dances”. But the European dances were uninteresting so the slaves added a special upbeat (provided by the drums), which was a slight skip or a hop.

The original Merengue was not danced by individual couples, but was a circle dance, men and women faced each other, holding hands at arms’ length. They did not hold each other closely and the original movements of this dance were only the shaking of the shoulders and swift movements of the feet. There was no blatant movement as there is today as ethnic African dances do not move the hips. In fact, African dances consisted of complicated steps and arm movements. Ethnic dance does not have sexual shaking of the hips this is only done in Hollywood movies.Not only is it performed on every dancing occassion in the Republic, but it is very popular throughout the Caribbean and South America.It is one of the standard Latin American ballroom dances.

A lot of variety exists in Merengue music. Ideally suited to small, crowded dance floors, it is a dance that is easy to learn and very enjoyable to perform.

Mambo originated in Cuba where there were substantial settlements of Haitians.In rural Haiti a “mambo” is a priestess, spiritual advisor and diviner who has considerable influence on village life. It was the fusion of Swing and Cuban music which produced this fascinating rhythm that created a new sensational ballroom dance.

The ballroom Mambo dance is attributed to Perez Prado in 1943. Originally the Mambo was played as any Rumba with a riff ending. There is a break or emphasis on 2 and 4 in 4/4 time. The Mambo craze did not last long and today the Mambo is confined to more advanced ballroom dancers. The Mambo was to lead on to the development of the Cha Cha. The authentic night-club style of Mambo dancing in the 1990s increasingly became known as Salsa.

The Samba is also known as the Brazilian Waltz. The roots of Samba lie in Africa but it developed in Brazil. It is a dance of street festivals and celebrations. It has been danced at Carnival, the pre-Lenten celebrations, for almost 100 years.

Pre 1914 the dance was known by the Brazilian name of “MAXIXE”. Samba has a very specific rhythm highlighted by characteristic Brazilian musical instruments. The principal characteristic of the Samba are the rapid steps taken on a quarter of a beat and the pronounced rocking motion and sway of the dancing couple.There are a great many hip movements which are difficult of do and the dance is nothing without them. The ballroom Samba or CARIOCA Samba is derived from the rural “Rocking Samba”.

As early as 1923 dance teachers took note of Samba’s popularity in France. The dance was introduced to the US audiences in 1933 when Fred Astaire and Dolores Del Rio danced the Carioca in “Flying Down to Rio.” Several years later Carmen Miranda danced the Samba in “That Night in Rio.”

Rumba is a generic term and the dance is also known as SON, DANZON, AND GUARACHA. There are two main source of the dance, one Spanish and the other African. Although the main growth was in Cuba similar dance development took place in the Caribbean and Latin America generally.

The music is played with a staccato beat in keeping with the vigorous expressive movements of the dancers. Accompanying instruments include the maracas, the claves, the marumbola, and the drums.

As recently as the Second World War “son” was the popular dance of middle class Cuba. It is a modifid slower and more refined version of the native Rumba. Still slower is the “DANZON” the dance of wealthy Cuban society. Very small steps are taken, with the women producing a very subtle tilting of the hips by alternatively bending and straightening the knees.

CHA CHAThe Cha Cha originally known as the cha cha cha became popular about 1954. It has developed as an offshoot of the Mambo. In the slow Mambo tempo, there was a distinct sound in the music that people began dancing to, calling the step the “Triple” Mambo. Eventually it evolved into a separate dance. The dance consists of three quick steps (triple step or cha cha cha) and two slower steps on the one beat and two beat.


The history of swing dates back to the 1920s when African Americans while dancing to contemporary Jazz music invented the CHARLESTON and the LINDY mid 1930 a six beat variation called the JITTERBUG by band leader Cab Calloway appeared on the scene. The Lindy Hop and Jitterbug communities began dancing to the contemporary Jazz and Swing music. Dancers also incorporated tap and jazz steps into their dancing. In the late 1930s and through to the 1940s the terms Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy , and Swing were used interchangeably to describe the same style of dancing.

In the United States, Dance Teachers Associations were anti-swing and it was not until the early 1940s that it was decided to document the dance as it was performed in different cities and to teach that particular style locally.

As music changed between the 1920s and 1990s, (Jazz, Swing, Bop, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Disco, Country) the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug and Swing evolved across the US with many regional styles.From the mid 1940s to today these dances were simplified for the less talented general public who paid for dance lessons. The ballroom dance studios fostered and developed a ballroom EAST COAST SWING and ballroom WEST COAST SWING. East Coast Swing is a 6 count style of Lindy popular in the ballroom dance school organizations. Ballroom West Coast Swing is also a style of swing popular in the ballroom dance school organizations and different from the style performed in the Californian night clubs and Swing dance clubs.

Jive is a dance style that originated among African Americans in the early 1940s. It is a lively and uninhibited variation of the Jitterbug i.e it belongs to the Swing dance group. Modern Jive, sometimes called French Jive is a dance style that originated in the 1980s. It derives from Swing, Lindy Hop and may include Rock ‘n’ Roll and others, the main innovation being to simplify the footwork. Moves from many forms of ballroom dance including Salsa and Tango may be included.

Modern Jive is generally danced to music with 4 beats to the bar from latest chart hits to Big Band music. Some styles may concentrate on particular musical styles, such as swing. Modern Jive is a male led dance but women are encouraged to ask men to dance. As there are usually slightly more women then men at a modern Jive event, it is not rare to see women dancing together. Men are discouraged from dancing the female role.

Paso Doble is a lively style of ballroom dancing to march-like paso doble music. It actually originated in France, but is modeled after the sound, dramas and movement of the Spanish bullfight. Paso Doble means “two step” in Spanish. It is a dance for the Man, which allows him to fill the “stage” with strong three-dimensional shapes and movements danced with “Pride and Dignity”.

The woman’s role varies depending on the interpretation of the dance. The woman can take the role of the matador’s cape, the bull or even the matador at different times within the dance. Characteristics of the Paso Doble are the “marching” flavour given to the steps and the cape movements creating tension between both dancers.

The CHASSEZ CAPE is when the man uses the woman as the cape in order to turn her around. APEL is when the man stamps his foot as if trying to attract the bulls’ attention. During the dance the use of castenets is simulated. The ARPEL is a commencement of a movement with the stamping of the feet where the man and woman walk in different directions.

Because of its inherently choreographed tradition, ballroom Paso Doble for the most part, is danced only competitively, almost never socially – at least not without sticking to some sort of previously learned routine. This said, in Spain, France, Vietnam and some parts of Germany it is danced socially as a lead (not choreographed) dance.

BOLERO Bolero is a smooth, sophisticated, sentimental ballroom dance. The emphasis is on smoothness, grace and communication between partners. Bolero has the same Afro-Cuban roots as the Rumba and is thought to have originated in Cuba. The music is frequently Spanish vocals with a subtle percussion effect.The dance is itself a slow salsa, with a taste of Tango and has easy patterns. The Bolero is a modification of the Fandango The original dance was invented in about 1780 by Sebastian Cerezo a celebrated dancer from Cadiz, Spain. It was danced singly or in couples, the dancers exhibiting complex and intricate movements while maintaining the rattle of their castanets. The dance should tell the story of a couple falling in love. The partners change from a very close hold to solo dancing, then come together as one.

At the moment ballroom dancing is enjoying a great rivival in popularity, partly brought about by TV shows where well-known personalities are paired with professional dancers.

In the United States health clubs are adding ballroom dancing to their exercise programmes. Many men seem to prefer this option to enrolling in a specialized dance studio. Instructors say ballroom dancing puts less stress on knees and ankles than other aerobic exercises like running and step-classes.

What all the foregoing makes clear is that the cultural influences in ballroom dancing and music of Africans brought to the Americas in chains and as slaves can never be overestimated. They bought complex rhythmic patterns, vitality, strength and creative imagination to the New World.This when blended with new influences gave us the most wonderful dance and music. To-day Africa influences the world scene directly as well as indirectly as present day african dance and music attracts attention.

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