Thursday, December 4, 2008
Dance: From Pre-history to the Middle Ages
Dance is an important part of civilisation and became an integral part of social ritual, ceremony and celebrations. The first recorded depiction of dance can be seen in cave paintings dating 9,000 years ago. Dance predates written culture and was thought to function as a key way to communicate identity and custom and in this way preserve the tribe’s continuity.
Staged chorography (i.e. gestures and movement) demonstrated social mores which included feelings for the opposite sex and traditional dance and clothing contained reference to sexual movement. In many primal cultures music and dance formed part of wedding ceremonies and it may be assumed contained reference to appropriate nuptial behaviour.
Early dance was also used as part of healing with ecstatic trance dances found in many early cultures. Two main dance forms evolved with social dance used to celebrate births, commemorated deaths, and mark special events in between; and magical or religious dances to ask the favour of the Gods’ favour.
Egyptians used dance as a form of divination and performed ornate dancing rituals to bring luck to the hunt. Priest-dancers oversaw the chorography to ensure all was done properly.
In the festivals held for worship of Isis and Osiris, and Apis, (the bull associated with fertility rituals) followers would openly dance and an assortment of stringed, wind, and percussion instruments including different sorts of whistles and harps were used.
Eventually travelling troupes of professional dancers performed in public squares of great cities. By the 5th Century BC, the Greeks dance transformed dance into an art form which expressed all manner of human passion. Greek dances were not based on the relationship between men and women but instead were performed by either one sex or the other. Aristotle ranked dancing with poetry and said that certain dancers, with rhythm applied to gesture, could express manners, passions, and actions. Greek sculptors studied dancing to capture the expression of passions.
Dance became very popular among the Greeks and they considered it a healthy pastime akin to aerobics.
By the 3rd century BC, the Romans developed their own dance form which emphasised less aesthetic and spectacle and mime. Gestures become more crude as social dance declined and religious dance continued. Cicero had little to say to support dancing:
"no man, one may almost say, ever dances when sober, unless perhaps he be a madman; nor in solitude, nor in a moderate and sober party; dancing is the last companion of prolonged feasting, of luxurious situation, and of many refinements."
By the time of the Christians, dance was used as part of Latin mass but by the Middle Ages these dance sets were moved out of the church into public spaces and become a form of entertainment. Both dance and song were used to express the full range of human emotions as travelling troubadours and other wandering minstrels entertained.