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[Detail] Cover of "How to Dance," 1878

The materials in An American Ballroom Companion, ca. 1490-1920, provide an opportunity to assess the role of ballroom dancing in American culture through skills of comprehension, analysis, and interpretation. Dance manuals, related legislation, and anti-dance literature allow for an understanding of dancing as both a form of physical education and childhood recreation in the early-twentieth century. Video clips, illustrated instruction manuals, and guides chronicling the history of dance can be used to discuss how dancing has evolved as an art form and as a reflection of modern culture.

Chronological Thinking

The Special Presentation, "Western Social Dance," offers insight into the history of European ballroom dancing from the Renaissance through the early-twentieth century. This resource can be used in conjunction with the collection's Video Directory to see how dance styles changed over time.

Manuals such as "The Dance, Ancient and Modern" (1900), "A History of Dancing" (1906) and "Dancing Made Easy" (1919) also provide brief accounts of earlier culture and the art of dancing. Many of these guides, however, might be accused of romanticizing the past. For example, in "The Dance, Ancient and Modern," dancing is theorized to be "the first diversion of primitive humanity" with early men and women "forgetting for the moment the cares of the morrow . . . to charm away the profound ennui of cavern life," (page 5). Despite the occasional subjective account, these manuals provide enough information with which to create a map documenting the progression of dances across the world.

  • How did different dancing styles travel across the world?
  • How do changes in dance reflect changes in fashion? How do changes in fashion influence changes in dance?
  • What other factors have influenced dance and caused it to change over time?
  • Why do you think that some dance manuals described the past with terms such as "primitive humanity" and "profound ennui of cavern life"?
  • What might such characterizations suggest about the influence of the modern era upon some people's understanding of the distant past?
  • How might such characterizations be a reflection of dance culture?