Dance is moving bodies shaping spaces, and as such is abstract, with the center of interest upon the visual patterns. It usually includes narrative, is rhythmic, and unfolds in time, accompanied by music. At its most basic level, the subject matter is abstract motion and the medium is the human body. Dance is also about feeling. The choreographer is the creator of the dance. States of mind are a further dimension that may be the subject matter of dance. Feelings are transient, but states of mind involve attitudes and tendencies that engender certain feelings. The serial structure of dance interprets the endurance of feelings.
The form of dance gives insight into the subject matter, and is not clearly perceptible. Repetition, or lack of it, is an important structural feature. Movements are often repeated. You achieve balance with a centrality of focus and structural considerations.
Dance probably precedes all other arts, and was connected to ritual that demanded careful execution of movements in precise ways to achieve a goal. Much ritual dance derives inspiration from the movements and shapes of nature. And some, such as the Mahabharta Dance, follows set movements which have significance, called mudras. Dancers must have control to match the message about having self-control in order to be free.
Social dances are done for pleasure. Folk dances were a form of recreation and social enjoyment linked to periods of the year originally. Folk dances are dances of the people, and as such are ethnic or regional. The court dance developed into more stylized, less energetic modes than folk dances, and participation signified high social status.
The origins of can be traced to the the courts of Tuscany and France in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It is thought that ballet came to France with Catherine de’Medici, who brought dancers and ballet masters with her from Tuscany. Louis XIV thought of himself as a great ballet dancer, and often danced at court, including in the lead as Apollo in La Ballet de la Nuit. By the end of the 17th century, after Louis XIV had established the Royal Academy, dancers performed interludes between scenes in operas. It is in this period that many of the steps and positions were codified through labanotation. In the 18th century, the en pointe technique developed, with an emphasis on airy, floating movements. The vocabulary of movements is one all dancers must learn because they constitute the fundamental elements of ballet. Ballet is always built around a pretext, the narrative or story line, which is interpreted by means of stylized movements.
Modern dance has its origins traced to Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, who rebelled against the stylization of ballet. Duncan insisted on natural movement, and the emulation of the Greek, with lyrical, personal and extemporaneous movements. Martha Graham pioneered the “Graham technique,” which was virtuoso, but required rigor and discipline. The dancers learn specific kinds of movements and exercises designed to be used as preparation for and part of the dance. She saw female figures in Greek dramas as more fully 3D than we have understood them, and by means of dancing their roles, she was able to develop their complexities of character. Alvin Ailey was known for using spirituals and the African American experience in his dances, which had energetic movements of dancers that often appear as visual bodily transformations of the rhythmically charged music. The subject matter in part is that of feelings and states of mind and the struggle of people told by music and dance. Pilobolus Dance Company is known for innovative, abstract dances with no pretexts. It was begun in 1970 at Dartmouth with 4 gymnastic male dances and choreographer Alison Chase, and uses the balance and leverage of gymnastics. Twyla Tharp’s style is pleasing to critics and amateurs, and uses playful spontaneity. She has taken advantage of dance on TV, which has had a significant impact on dance performances since the early 1970s, and made it more available to the public.
Dance is still performed by many people for many reasons, often not the least of which is catharsis.