Until recently, most people haven’t thought much of ballroom dancing. It has become a popular worldwide pastime, thanks to the media bringing it back into the spotlight with shows like “Dancing with the Stars.” It wasn’t long after the first season that the dance craze soon swept over America, with more and more people choosing to learn to dance. However, ballroom dancing is certainly nothing new and has quite an extensive background.
Let’s start by discussing the meaning behind the world “ballroom”. In simple theory, it means a place where balls may be held. The English language adopted this term from the Latin word “ballare”, meaning “to dance”. Ironically, this also serves as a base for words like “ballerina” and “ballad”. Ballrooms were a very popular source of entertainment before the days of cable television, internet, or satellite radio. Often couples would congregate here to socialize and dance with other couples, and it wasn’t long before dance competitions gained popularity.
There are many different dances and versions of ballroom dancing. Each of these unique dances has specific steps and characteristics that make it different from other dances – but there is one aspect that remains constant throughout each style of dancing. No matter what dance style is being performed, you can bet they are being performed by a couple. Every ballroom dance involves a man and a woman, usually remaining in contact throughout the entire routine (although there are some ballroom dances where contact is broken, but the couple reunites by the dance’s end). As common as it seems, this style of dancing was developed in Western Europe in the early 1600’s. Dances were often held the evening prior to men going off to battle, as a way for the men to go off to war in good spirits.
Men often wore their swords while dancing with a woman and it is believed that this led to a woman placing her left hand on her partner’s right shoulder, while grasping his left hand for additional balance. This is also where the concept of men leading on the dance floor was developed.
As time passed throughout the centuries, many styles of ballroom dancing were born. Each particular dance has its own history, but the Waltz and Foxtrot were the first to gain popularity in the realm of ballroom dancing. Dancing soon became a growing trend in several countries, and other styles of ballroom dancing were formed based on the various cultures. For example, the paso doble was developed in Spain in the 1700’s to demonstrate bullfighter’s agility and strength. In Italy, the mambo became a popular dance at weddings and special events, while the quickstep became the trend in America after World War I.
By the 1970’s, all of these different dances had made their way to America’s ballrooms and dance competitions soon became popular. Today, ballroom dancing is the number one form of dance among adults and is widely covered by the media. It is also now being offered as an alternative to physical education to high school and college students – a good indicator that ballroom dancing will remain a favorite activity for years to come.
Ballroom dancing conjures up images of beautiful women in flowing gowns and tall dark handsome men in tuxes waltzing their way around the dance floor. Ballroom dance is not just the Waltz. Ballroom dance can be elegant and sophisticated (like the Waltz) but it can also be hot, sultry and sexy (like the Tango or Paso Doble), or a good bit of lively fun (like the Fox Trot Jive or Quick Step).
Webster defines ballroom dancing as simply “Any of various, usually social dances in which couples perform set moves”. The word “ball”, when referring to a social gathering as opposed to a child’s toy, comes from the Latin “ballare” meaning to dance. This is the base for ballroom (a room for dancing), ballet (a dance), and ballerina (a dancer).
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries ballroom dancing was very popular among the upper classes of England. It didn’t really catch on with the working class until the late 19th and early 20th century. In the early 1920’s competitive ballroom dancing was gaining popularity so the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (formerly known as The Imperial Society of Dance Teachers) formed a Ballroom Branch whose function was to standardize the ballroom dances.
Modern ballroom dancing revolves around five dances, the Modern Waltz, the Viennese Waltz, the Slow Foxtrot, Tango and the Quickstep. The Latin American ballroom dances are the Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble, Cha-Cha and the Jive. Latin American ballroom is short for Latin and American – not a reference to Latin countries. .
The modern ballroom dances vary in tempo (beats per minute) and rhythm (structure); however, they all involve a couple dancing in a closed hold. A closed hold involves 5 bodily points of contact between the couple. Three of these points involve the hands, his left hand holding her right, her left hand on top of his right upper arm (for the Tango her hand would go behind his arm) and his right hand on her back resting on her left shoulder blade. The other two points of contact are her left elbow resting on his right elbow and the right side of her chest touching the right side of his chest. This dance posture goes all the way back to the ballroom dancing in the European royal courts and makes for a very elegant look as the couples float around the dance floor.
This right side-to-right side contact of the closed hold may have originated from a time when men danced while wearing their swords, which were hung on their left sides. This would also explain the counter clockwise movement around the dance floor as the man would’ve stood on the inside of the circle so he wouldn’t inadvertently hit any of the people watching the dancers with his sword as he danced past.
In Latin American ballroom the postures vary from dance to dance with some using the closed hold and others where the partners hold each other with only one hand.
Like the Modern Ballroom the Latin American Ballroom has been standardized for teaching purposes and has a set, internationally recognized vocabulary, technique, rhythm and tempo.