A Celebration of Dance
To celebrate CPDW's return to live performance, we offer this special collection of dances, inspired by our historical roots. The styles familiar to CPDW students are common to most studios in the United Sates, but their roots and deep and diverse. This brief history of American dance forms, written by faculty member Caitlin Osborne, is presented chronologically. To find a specific class, click here.
Our story begins about 500 years ago, in the courts of Europe. There, royalty and nobility met in the ballroom and developed a style that would eventually become ballet. Lavish entertainments lasting all night featured singers, poets, and dancing. King Louis XIV of France was both a patron and ballet's first superstar, dancing the role of the Sun King and merging his stage persona into a political image that made him one of most powerful men in Europe.
Court Ballet is represented by "Baroque Quartet," choreographed by Caitlin Osborne and performed by the Adult Beginning Ballet class.
Image: King Louis XIV performs a balancé in Ballet Royal de la Nuit, which premiered in 1653.
Image: Choreographer Jules Perrot holds rehearsal at the Paris Opera. Painted by Edgar Degas, a French impressionist most famous for his painting and sculptures of dancers and his ability to depict movement in his art.
Romantic Ballet (1820 - 1870)
During the years that followed, ballet became increasingly professionalized and commercialized. Opera houses in European cities catered to the well-to-do, who flocked to see beautiful women dancing en pointe in ethereal roles as fairies, nymphs, and ghosts. Centered in Paris, Romantic ballet was immortalized by painter Edgar Degas, whose scenes of the Paris Opera still grace the walls of dance studios everywhere.
Romantic Ballet is represented by "Á La Degas," choreographed by Jill Brighton and performed by the Adult Intermediate/Advanced Ballet class.
Classical Ballet (1870-1917)
The end of the 19th century saw ballet in western Europe on the decline, but dancers and choreographers soon found a new home - the imperial courts of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russian czar poured resources into dance, and a seemingly endless supply of money allowed ballets to become "Bolshoi," a Russian word that simply means "Big." The story ballets of this period, with choreography by Marius Petipa and scores by Pyotr Tchaikovsky are still known to audiences today.
Classical Ballet is represented by "Not Your Mother's Swan Lake," choreographed by Jill Brighton and performed by the Children's Intermediate/Advanced Ballet Class.
Image: Soloists and corps in Swan Lake. Classical ballets featured large casts, all paid as government employees. Petipa was known to arrange dance sequences using small figures, to best showcase the highly-skilled dancers.
Image: Poster image featuring dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose (Spirit of the Rose), choreography by Michel Fokine with with costume design by Léon Bakst.
The Ballets Russes
In the waning years of the Russian Empire, discontent set in for a few young dancers. They felt that ballet had become stuffy and overripe. Receiving permission to go on tour, the Ballets Russes left Russia in 1909 and landed like a bombshell in Paris. Their choreography was avant-garde; their dancing, exquisite. Producer Sergei Diaghilev prioritized collaboration with famous artists, commissioning music from Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel; scenic and costume design from Vasily
Modern Ballet of the Ballets Russes is represented by "Sugarplum Fairy," choreographed by Karen Stoner and performed by the Intermediate Pointe Class.
The Ballets Russes
Audiences across Europe were gripped by ballet fever, but the Ballets Russe was plagued by interpersonal drama. It disbanded in 1929, and its youngest choreographer - Georgiy Melitonovich Balanchivadze - came to the United States with an outrageous idea: to reinvent ballet as an American dance. George Balanchine loved the United States - its energy and youth, its bustling cities, and its Jazz Era rhythms. He made ballets with the technical perfection of his Russian training, but with syncopation and themes drawn from the modern age.
Neo-Classical Ballet "Stars and Stripes," choreographed by Karen Stoner and performed by the Children's PreBallet Class..
Image: The New York City Ballet performs Stars and Stripes, choreographed in 1958 by George Balanchine as a “Thank You” tribute to his adopted country. Its unorthodox choreography features marching, high kicks, and circus-style tricks.
Image: The Birmingham Royal Ballet performs "Fancy Free."
American Ballet Visions
In the same era, Jerome Robbins - a native New Yorker with an eclectic dance education - offered a competing vision of American ballet. Robbins' break-out choreography for Ballet Theatre (later ABT) was Fancy Free - a ballet about three sailors on shore leave. Robbins eventually became better known for his work on Broadway, but his concept - that ballets could tell contemporary stories about everyday people - became a popular idea stretching well into the present day.
American Ballet is represented by "Sailors' Ballet," choreographed by Jill Brighton and performed by the Children's Beginning Ballet Class.
The Modern Argument
The idea of a truly "American" dance had taken hold of another group of artists in the early 20th century, but they believed that such a dance had to reject ballet and its decadent European heritage entirely. These were the pioneers of American modern dance. Isadora Duncan staked her claim early, and her ideas were considered revolutionary (or even indecent) for her time. Duncan's vision centered on a mythical origin of dance in classical art and natural forces, and she worked to free the dancing body from the restrictions of ballet technique.
Early Modern dance is represented by "Ode to Isadora," choreographed by Jill Brighton and performed by the Children's Modern Class.
Image: Isadora Duncan in performance. Her bared feet and loose-flowing costumes shocked and delighted Victorian audiences, but they were an emblem of her belief that dance came from authentic and natural expression of the human body.
Image: Doris Humphrey in performance.
A second generation, led by Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, took modern dance to new heights by focusing on physical technique, psychological realism, and compositional theory. Humphrey “believed dance should provoke, stimulate, and inform rather than simply entertain,” and she successfully aligned her choreographic practices with principles of modern art, both visual and performing. Graham also approached choreography with serious intent, believing that dance should be stripped of its inessentials to illustrate a harsh yet beautiful American character.
Modern dance is represented by "Water Study," adapted from Doris Humphrey by Jill Brighton and performed by Adult Intermediate/Advanced Modern.
Ironically, while great modern and ballet choreographers strove to discover an American form, they explicitly rejected the dance that was already a truly American product - the vernacular dances of the theater and dance hall. Locating their origins is difficult, because these dances were invented by people and groups that were marginalized - enslaved Africans, isolated communities of Appalachia, and immigrants crowding industrial cities.
"Vernacular" means "of the people," and describes culture, language and traditions of common use - the opposite of "high culture."
Image: George Caleb Bingham's 1846 "Jolly Flatboatmen" shows an impromptu entertainment. Such dancing was made into a contest when a judge would listen to the dance from underneath the floor.
Image: An early woodcut shows the ring shout, developed as a religious practice during slavery. Rhythm was provided by stomps and clapping, and the movement was permitted as long as no one crossed one foot over the other.
Generations of dancers entertained themselves and their communities, sometimes at great risk. Enslaved Africans were forced to give up traditional instruments - drums were explicitly banned - so they kept their complex and multi-layered rhythms alive in the hambone and ring shout. They invented a parody of white ballroom dance called the Cake Walk and were rewarded by the very subjects they parodied. Eventually these dances moved onto the stage, combined with the influences from Irish step, Scotch clogging, and English hornpipe.
The National Stage
The minstrel shows of the 19th century were the first commercial entertainments where dances like Buck and Wing, Jump Jim Crow, and the Cake Walk were displayed. At the end of the 19th century, most were adopted and adapted to vaudeville. Both forms contributed to a "nationalization" of art, as performers travelled from coast to coast.
Vaudeville featured a mixed bill of performance, including singing, dancing, comedy, and "eccentric" acts. Anything that was entertaining might be included, and many stars of Broadway and Hollywood got their start there.
Image: The Cake Walk had an amazingly long period of popularity. Originating as a social dance well-before the Civil War, it appeared in both ante- and post-vellum minstrel shows, and endured long enough to be captured in early movie footage.
Image: Performers at Harlem's Cotton Club, a venue associated with New York's Harlem Renaissance.
Birth of Jazz
Into this creative mix, a new form of music was added. It was called Ragtime, and it laid a perfect track for the energy and syncopation of vernacular dance. By the early 20th century, jazz music was flourishing in African American communities in Chicago and New York, enmeshed with a dance form that was slowly separating into several genres - tap, jazz, and swing.
Birth of Jazz is represented by "Tap's Jazz Roots," choreographed by John Michael Rosenblum and performed by the Advanced Tap Class.
Tap on Top
While swing remained in the dance hall, tap and jazz rode a pathway to Broadway and Hollywood. By the 1930's, tap was ascendent. The list of Hollywood's biggest box office draws reads as a Who's Who of the tap world - Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Eleanor Powell all became superstars.
Tap's heyday is represented by "Women in Tap," choreographed by John Michael Rosenblum and performed by Children's & Adult Intermediate Tap.
Image: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time" (1936). Rogers famously noted, Ginger Rogers, “I did everything Fred did, only backwards and in high heels.”
Image: "Jelly's Last Jam" told the story of musician Jelly Roll Martin, who was played by the legendary tapper Gregory Hines.
Tap at home on Broadway
On Broadway, tap was popular for its high entertainment value. Its influence diminished after World War II, but a revival in the 1980s brought old tap legends out of retirement and new tappers into studios. Black and Blue (1989) and Jelly's Last Jam (1992) cemented Broadway as the venue where tap could still rule.
Broadway Tap is represented by "Broadway Tap," choreographed by John Michael Rosenblum and performed by the Children's Beginning Tap Class.
In the 1930s, musical theater dance still relied on old vaudeville forms and tap. Jazz dance, however, was about to be revolutionized by new ideas coming other genres. After World War II, musical theater composers and lyricists began to experiment with more dramatic storytelling, and they wanted dance to be more integrated. Choreographers known for their work in ballet and modern joined the creative teams to provide this heft. One solution was the story ballet, popularized by Agnes de Mille in Oklahoma, where a psychological moment is played out in an extended dance sequence.
Broadway Innovation is represented by "I Dreamed a Dream Ballet," choreographed by Erin Hanses and performed by the Children's Lyrical Class.
Image: Doris Humphrey in performance.
Image: In 1946, Agnes de Mille made the dream sequence in "Oklahoma" a pivotal moment character development and set off a new trend in musical theater.
Image: Bob Fosse co-wrote, directed, and choreographed "Chicago." In addition to making dance central to the storytelling, the musical is structured to mirror a vaudeville show.
As the golden age of musical theatre reached its peak, tap was increasingly squeezed out by choreography that adapted balletic and modern form to jazz contexts. Choreographers became more powerful and more central to the creative team. No one illustrates this trend better than Bob Fosse, who rose from dancer to choreographer to director and producer with his distinctive style and story-telling techniques.
Musical Theatre is represented by "Fosse Forever," choreographed by Jill Brighton and performed by the Children's Musical Theatre Class.
Image: Doris Humphrey in performance.
While musical theater was restyled itself as "high art," vernacular styles continued to serve the public taste. Hip-hop is an umbrella term for dance fusion styles first created in the 1970s by Black and Latinx dancers. This genre of dance took influence from a number of older street dance styles and evolved regionally until it started reaching more widespread exposure through shows like Soul Train.
Hip-hop is represented by "The Beginnings of Hip-Hop," choreographed by Ruth Packard and performed by the Adult Hip-Hop Class.
Image: B-Boys breakdancing in New York's Washington Square Park, 1980s.
Image: MTV premiered August 1, 1981 with the video "Video Killed the Radio Star." Whatever its effects on the music industry, MTv radically altered audiences' exposure to dance.
Dance on TV
A decade later, music videos broadcast on MTV and network television brought pop-inspired dance styles to audiences at home. TV - and later streaming sites such as YouTube - gave dance a broad audience and allowed dancers to present their work however they choose. The demand for styles appearing in music video (street jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary) have led dance studios to add new vernacular styles to their curriculum.
Dance on TV is represented by "I Want My MTV," choreographed by Erin Hanses and performed by the Children's Jazz Class..
Jazz for All
Jazzercise was another trend facilitated by television and home video. Created in 1969 when dance teacher Judi Sheppard Missett noticed people were joining her dances classes for physical fitness, Jazzercise became a video phenomenon and paved the way for dance exercise such as Zumba.
Dance on TV is represented by "Jazzercise," choreographed by Ruth Packard and performed by the Adult Lyrical/Jazz Class.
Image: Still frame from a workout video. Jazzercise was perfect for the fitness conscious 1980s, and briefly became a competitive team sport.