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

American Contributions to the History of Dance

Although Europeans were considered the originators of dance culture, a number of innovations took place in the United States. One example is featured in "Jig, Clog, and Breakdown Dancing Made Easy" (1873) when the author proclaims, "Jig Dancing is peculiarly an American institution and had its origin among the slaves of the southern plantations," (page 1).

The complex rhythmic patterns of jig dancing were a precursor to the influences of ragtime at the end of the nineteenth century. As the Special Presentation, "Western Social Dance: An Overview of the Collection," explains, "Ragtime had become a popular American style of music . . . that flourished between 1890 and World War I . . . [and] . . . ushered in an era of expressive ballroom dancing, with dances that did not need formal training but which encouraged individualism," (page 7).

The growing interest in these dances prompted Albert Newman to proclaim in "Dances of Today" (1914) that it was an era in which a rebirth of dance (and the human heart) was occurring: "And youth was reborn in the hearts and bodies and minds of men and women of all ages, and the transformation wrought is marvelous--in nothing so much as in the near elimination of non-dancers,"(page 16).

A search on modern dance produces Newman's guide and other works such as Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle's "Modern Dancing" (1914) and Caroline Walker's "The Modern Dances, How to Dance Them" (1916).  These manuals provide directions and diagrams for ragtime-era dances while this collection's Video Library contains examples of dances such as "The Castle Walk" and "The Maxixe."

  • How do these ragtime-era dances differ from their European predecessors?
  • Do you think that these dances could have originated somewhere other than the United States?
  • What is distinctly American about ragtime dance?
  • Why do you think that these dances appealed to people who were otherwise "non-dancers"?
  • Why do you think that ragtime-era dances "did not need formal training but . . . encouraged individualism"?
  • How do you think that ragtime-era dances influenced future dance?

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