La Ronde: The Dance of Life

Inspired by the Willett collection of popular pottery depicting social dance in decorative art.

Dance of Death 1491, detail
Dance of Death 1491, detail

From the earliest times dance has been used to express humanity’s fundamental needs and emotions. People danced in groups to invoke the spirits of the animals they wished to hunt or to placate the gods in times of drought, famine and war. Rain dances flourished in many cultures, and are still performed by Native American peoples, such as the Cherokee, who use them to induce precipitation and to cleanse evil spirits. A rain dance, known as Paparuda, is also performed in Romania.

The Maenads, or ‘raving ones’ of ancient Greek mythology, used to dance with wild abandon, working themselves into a state of frenzy. They were the female worshippers of Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman mythology), the god of wine and intoxication. Perhaps they are the source of ritual dances of self sacrifice, such as The Rite of Spring, performed to ensure the fertility of the fields? In later folk literature dance could be used to punish evil characters, who were forced to dance themselves to death. Such phenomena may have been the result of ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s Fire. Between 1200 and 1600 there were several outbreaks of dance mania prompted by this painful, toxic condition, which was caused by the Claviceps purpurea fungus on rye grain, used for making bread.

The medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre is often shown as a line of dancers, people alternating with skeletons. This blackly humorous allegory, showing the omnipresence of Death, the great social leveller, helped people to cope with the uncertainties of existence. Dance is also integral to certain religious rituals. Chinese Opera probably originated in performance to appease the spirits. Its music, dance and ritual gesture date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) but during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s it was used as a channel for Maoist ideology. Kathakali, the classical dance-drama that developed in Kerala, South India, in the 17th century, is traditionally performed in Hindu temples and is rooted in Hindu mythology. The Mevlevi Order of Sufi Muslims in present day Turkey still employ their famous practice of ecstatic whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of God).


Folk and Country Dancing

Specific dance forms evolved in different parts of Britain. Scottish country dances include reels, jigs and slower strathspeys developed from the courtly dances of the Renaissance. The Irish céilídh and set formation dancing probably came from the same sources. Meanwhile sword, clog and morris dancing, renowned for its use of bells and handkerchiefs, flourished in England. Morris may derive its name either from the Latin mores, meaning a custom, or from Moorish, referring to the period of Muslim rule in Spain before 1492. Philip Stubbes, an Elizabethan Puritan, condemned the frivolities of morris dancing:

‘They strike up the Devil’s Dance withal, then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen.’

Philip Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, 1583

In 1600, the actor William Kempe famously morris danced from London to Norwich. In 1651 John Playford published The English Dancing Master, a collection of country dances performed by students at the London Inns of Court.

Morris dancer, 1600
Morris dancer, 1600

Until the 18th century there was little distinction between the types of dance performed at court or by peasants. Dance has always erupted spontaneously on social occasions. In the Middle Ages people would carole, joining hands in a line or circle and singing to regulate their dance. Musicians, playing percussion, pipes and bowed instruments, began to provide the rhythmic and melodic accompaniment for the dancers. The hornpipe, which emerged in the 17th century, indicates this blend of music and movement. A staple of Scottish country dancing, it is often associated with sailors. Perhaps they used it for exercise on deck during long passages at sea? Hornpipes were also danced at harvest time as part of the festivities of harvest home.

Some delightful accounts of country dancing have been published:

‘The lines which a number of people together form in country or figure dancing make a delightful play upon the eye. One of the most pleasing movements is what they call the hay; the figure of it altogether, is a cipher of Ss, or a number of serpentine lines interlacing.’

William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, 1753

Here is Dickens’s description of Mr Fezziwig’s Ball:

‘Away they all went, twenty couples at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place, new top couple starting off again’

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843


Formal Dance

During the 16th century formalised dances, like the Allemande, the Courante and the Galliard, the Minuet and the Pavane were popular throughout Europe. The Allemande was assumed to come from Germany, the Galliard and Minuet from France while the Pavane took its name from Padua in Italy. Queen Elizabeth I was particularly fond of the Galliard with its daringly intimate lavolta movement, where the male leader lifts his female partner high into the air. In the 18th century new dances entered the repertory, often from folk origins. These included the Gavotte and Galop from France, the Ländler and the Waltz from Austria and the Mazurka, Polka and Polonaise from Poland.

Dances and balls contributed strong social glue in polite society throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. They became the focus of the social season when well-connected debutantes were launched into the upper-class marriage market. Lord Byron realised the possibilities for illicit liaisons:

‘Blest was the time the waltz chose for her debut;

The court, the Regent, like herself were new;

Hoops are no more, and petticoats not much;

Morals and minuets, virtue and her stays,

And tell-tale powder all have had their days,

Round all the confines of the yielded waist,

The strangest hand may wander undisplaced,

Thus front to front the partners move or stand,

The foot may rest, but none withdraw the hand.’

George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Waltz, 1816

In providing an arena where young men and women could meet freely and were permitted to engage in intimate contact, dances excited alarm amongst the moralists. The diarist and novelist Fanny Burney, writing in 1782, considered dancing barbarian exercise, and of savage origin. Mrs Beecher stressed the risks to health:

‘If young and old went out to dance together in the open air as the French peasants do, it would be a very different sort of amusement, from that which is witnessed in a room, furnished with many lights, and filled with guests, … where the young collect, in their tightest dresses, to protract for many hours, a kind of physical exertion, which is not habitual to them. During this process, the blood is made to circulate more swiftly than ordinary, in circumstances where it is less perfectly oxygenized than health requires.’

Catherine E Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1846

And the cynical R S Surtees wrote:

‘These sort of boobies think that people come to balls to do nothing but dance; whereas everyone knows that the real business of a ball is either to look out for a wife, to look after a wife, or to look after somebody else’s wife.’

RS Surtees, Mr Facey Romford’s Hounds, 1865

Balls are mentioned frequently in the novels of Jane Austen where encounters at balls often provide a catalyst for plot development and relationships. A masked ball also provided the venue for the assassination of Gustavus III of Sweden in 1792, an event that inspired Verdi’s opera of the same name, first performed in 1859.



From earliest times, dance has been a solo art form. It has been used to inspire, to move and to seduce the watcher. The best-known and most highly evolved dance form in Western Europe is ballet. Ballet had its origins in Renaissance court spectacle in Italy but developed in France where court ballets reached their peak under Louis XIV, nicknamed The Sun King, a role he played in a ballet. In 1661 he founded the Académie Royale de Danse. He stopped dancing in 1670 and thereafter dancers became professional, highly trained athletes. To this day most ballet terminology remains French.

La Sylphide, first performed in Paris in 1832, initiated the period of Romantic ballet and introduced innovations in theme, technique and costume. Marius Petipa, a Frenchman, became the chief choreographer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. He developed the full-length, narrative ballet and his best-known works are Swan Lake (1877) and The Sleeping Beauty (1890) both set to commissioned scores by Tchaikovsky. Despite the revolution of 1918, Russia dominated ballet world for much of the 20th century. The migration of Russian choreographers, like George Balanchine in the 1930s, and dancers such as Rudolph Nureyev in 1961 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, helped revitalise ballet in Europe and the United States.

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