Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/October 1892/The Evolution of Dancing



IN his Descent of Man, Mr. Darwin refers briefly to the queer antics and dancing performances of birds during the excitements of courtship. He shows that such actions are made by the male to charm the female. The plain inference is that from the amatory feelings arises not love-dance only, but dancing in general.

Now, I think Mr. Spencer would say that the relation between courtship and dancing is not a relation of cause and effect; that the two are simultaneous results of the same cause—namely, overflow of animal spirits and vivacity of every kind. The spirit that moves men to shuffle their feet, kick up their heels, even to gambol madly until they swoon from exhaustion, may come from different feelings: now from youth, health, and exuberant spirits, and now from joy or triumph, defiance and rage.

"On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure meet."

In brief, dances as representations of love-making are not frequent among the lower races, while mystic, festive, and erotic dances are numerous enough. Only among the more advanced races, as the semi-civilized peoples of Asia and among the European peasantry, do we read of love-dances, and, oddly enough, these are performed usually by women, not by men.

Dancing, as an art, has been of gradual growth, and subject to the law of evolution. Wild, irregular, and fantastic dancing performances take after a while more regular and more artistic forms. Thus, we are able to show how savage dances, as of the Australians, develop into barbarous dances, as of the American Indians, while these in turn are modified, or perhaps improved, by more advanced peoples, as the Egyptians; how, again, in the early dances of Greece, in the Greek mysteries, there are survivals of the "mad doings," as Plutarch calls them, of savage races.

Folk-dancing was the first to rise into finished art. It has been rightly called "the eldest of the arts," just as music is the youngest. Beginning as a desire to kick, dancing grows into pantomime, which expresses a thought. As an art factor folk-dance can not be overrated. Out of the old rural songs and the local cultus dances—known as mysteries and religious festivals—the marvelous structure of Greek drama was evolved. Dionysus, the god of orgies, of wine, of Bacchic revel, became in course of time the patron of the drama. Indeed, several of the great dramatists, as Æschylus and Sophocles, were clever and skillful dancers, who led in the chorus. They introduced the traditional dances

PSM V41 D760 An iroquois dancer in costume.jpg

Fig. 1.—An Iroquois Dancer in Costume, with Mask. Staff, and Turtle-shell Rattle.

in their plays for an artistic purpose; while the songs that were sung to the accompaniment of the dance took a more formal shape in that kind of poetry known as the ballad.

For the purposes of this discussion, folk-dancing may be divided into three classes: First, we have social dances. They are for pleasure or amusement, sometimes comic and sometimes erotic. In the second class let us place war-dances. They are expressions of defiance or rage, and they survived in the military dances of the Greeks and Romans. Thirdly, we have religious dances of various kinds. They are arranged usually by "medicine-men" or priests; they are magical in character, and are connected with some rite or superstition. The savage invariably confounds dancing with religion. His most elaborate dances are associated with mystery-plays, setting forth in action the story of some traditional event or some deity. The leaders of the revels are medicine-men or chiefs.

Now, it is a matter of common report that uncivilized people spend half their time in dancing. Thus, we read that the chief occupation of the Indians of southern California used to be dancing when the men were not engaged in procuring food.[1] The Spaniards have been noted for their saltatory expertness, and yet Cortes and his followers were surprised to find the art so much in favor in Mexico. The Spanish historian Herrera says that in dancing "no part of the world exceeds New Spain." He adds, "though many of those dances were performed in honor of their gods, the first institution of them was for the diversion of the people, and therefore they learned the same from their childhood and were singularly exact."[2]

Aside from the speculation as to "the institution" of dancing, the phrase "singularly exact" is here worthy of some notice; for it is a mistake to suppose that the savage dances hap-hazard, without any rule of action. On the contrary, the "medicine-dances" of the Indians are danced in a certain, definite way. Whether it be for rain, for green corn, or for success in the chase, the dancer follows the steps and paces fixed and regulated by tradition or custom.

Let me observe that mystic dance is a serious business. It behooves the dancer to be "singularly exact" when a faux pas would result in his death. This point is very strongly put by Dr. Franz Boas, who studied the dances of the coast tribes of British Columbia. Among the Kwakiutl Indians, "any mistake made by a singer or dancer is considered opprobrious. At certain occasions the dancer who makes a mistake is killed."[3] The ancient Mexicans did not mind putting an awkward dancer out of the way, and the savage practice has been found in one or two other parts of the world.

The punishment does not seem so severe, when we consider the cruel rites and initiations a dancer must pass through, ere he knows the secrets of the order or of his tribe. The savage is great on fierce initiations. He joins this or that secret order, this or that dancing society, either to show his endurance or to learn the awful revelations which may make him a priest or chief. The cruel rites begin in childhood days.[4] Thus, every Zuñi boy of the age of four or five has no choice about being initiated into the kok-ko, the principal feature of which is a brutal whipping.

PSM V41 D762 Dancing paraphernalia shaman shirt.jpg

Fig. 2.—Dancing Paraphernalia: Shaman's Shirt. (Front view.)

This practice reminds us of the initiations into the mysteries of Artemis, wherein Spartan boys were cruelly scourged.[5]

What makes early dancing sacred are cruel ceremonies which give sanction to secrecy. The more severe the initiation the more sacred is the dance. "A man who wanted to get the secrets," said Pipe Chief to George Bird Grinnell, "had to go through a severe trial, such as dancing and fasting."[6] The severe trial in the Pawnee Young Dog's Dance consisted in the candidate having his breast cut, and strings or sticks passed through the slits, which were tied to posts, and then the dancer endeavored to break loose by tearing out the skin.

Mr. Paul Beckwith describes a Dakota "medicine-dance," given in midwinter, and "one can readily imagine the agony the candidate must undergo, clothed only in a coat of paint." The Sioux have a "Sun-Dance," in which the dancers move their bodies from side to side, forward and backward, so as to stretch the gashes in their breasts and shoulders to the fullest extent. "To see one undergoing this fearful torture called dancing," writes Mr. Beckwith, "naked, painted black, hair streaming, blood trickling from their gashes, is a dreadful sight indeed."[7]

Let us next observe a remarkable feature of early dancing. There are dances that women may not see, on pain of death. So, too, the women have dances from which the men are rigorously excluded. The Aleuts, according to Mr. Dall, have mysteries sacred to the males and others to the females.[8] He says that "hundreds

PSM V41 D763 Shaman shirt.jpg

Fig. 3. Shaman's Shirt. (Back view.)

of women, wearing masks, danced naked in the moonlight, men being rigidly excluded, and liable to death if detected in intruding." Mrs. Erminnie Smith mentions a moonlight dance by women of the Iroquois tribe. As to the exclusion of the women from secret dances of the men, and the men from dances performed in secret by women, a number of interesting instances might be added.
PSM V41 D764 Whistles and rattles.jpg

Fig. 4.—Whistles and Rattles.

The natives have stories of the awful consequences that follow if a man or woman intrudes upon a dancing party or place. The Eskimos build large houses for dancing, "which are devoted to spirits."[9] One evening a woman with more curiosity than prudence entered the sacred house. She touched the tornaq, or spirit of the house, and "all of a sudden she fell down dead." According PSM V41 D765 The whizzer.jpgFig. 5.—The Whizzek. to Mr. Derby, the Indians of the upper Xingu dance within a feast-house or "flutehouse," and "any women who should venture to enter this house would die."[10] A rattle is used by these Indians to call the dancers together, and to warn away the women. In Brazil, some tribes make a loud noise on "jurupari pipes," which answer the same purpose. No woman is allowed to see the pipes. Again, a little instrument known to English boys as the "bull-roarer" is used in mystic dances. In Australia, the turndun (as the bull-roarer is there called) is never shown to women, who flee and hide themselves when the sound is heard.[11] Wherever found, be it in Australia, in Zululand, or in New Mexico among the Zuñis, the bull-roarer is regarded with religious awe.

Another feature of these medicine-dances is the habit of daubing a candidate with, clay, paint, or dirt of any kind. As to the meaning of the practice there is a difference of opinion. The daubing is meant sometimes to be weird and grotesque; sometimes totemistic, when animals, plants, and stars are represented. In the Young Dog's Dance, above mentioned, the braves were painted red over the whole body, and, among other decorations, on the pit of the stomach a black ring, which "represented themselves—their life"—so Mr. Grrinnell interprets it.

Then there is the habit of wearing masks and odd costumes. Some of the masks represent the human face; others are fashioned after the totem; others, again, are nondescript. The Aleuts, says Mr. Dall, "had the usual method of dancing with masks on during the progress of the several sorts of ceremonies."[12] For ordinary dances the masks are "excellent representations of the Aleutian type of face." In the New Hebrides group of islands, "masks are used in dances which the women are prohibited from

PSM V41 D766 Agricultural dance.jpg

Fig. 6.—Agricultural Dance.

seeing."[13] Now, just as with the bull-roarer, so it is with masks used in secret dances—the women are forbidden to see them.

We now pass to dances of people in the agricultural stage. They are performed for rain, for the fertility of the land, for bountiful harvests, and in honor of the deities that preside over the department of agriculture. As a rule, dances appropriate to seedtime and harvest are partly secret, partly public. At one time or another the whole people participate in the festivities. Among the Seminole Indians, the Rev. Clay MacCauley informs us, as the season for holding the "green-corn dance" approaches, the medicine-men assemble and, through their ceremonies, decide when it shall take place.[14] The Iroquois have also a green-corn dance—a September festival lasting three days. The "Great Feather-Dance" is performed at this time by a band of costumed dancers. It is one of the most imposing dances of the Iroquois. "The Great Feather-Dance," says Mrs. Converse, who witnessed the ceremonies in the fall of 1891, "is quite unlike the war-dance. In its performance the dancer remains erect, not assuming those warlike attitudes of rage and vengeance which plainly distinguish the two dances."[15]

The most elaborate dances in vogue among the Zũni Indians are those performed to obtain rain for the growing crops. The course of the sun at the summer solstice is watched by the priest, who counts the days for the dances. Then the herald announces from the house-tops that the time for the rain-dances has arrived, and all are summoned.[16] During the summer there are eight korkōk-shi, or "good dances" for rain." A strange feature of one or two of these rain-dances is the appearance of clowns, who introduce a comic element into the sacred ceremonials.

But stranger still is the use of serpents in the medicine-dances around seed time. The striking example is that of the Moqui "Snake-Dance," an account of which fills a book.[17] As to the origin and significance of this wonderful dance, in which venomous snakes are carried in the hands and mouths of the performers, we do not undertake to decide. Captain Bourke says that "one of the minor objects of the snake-dance has been the perpetuation, in dramatic form, of the legend of the Moqui family." He inclines to the belief that the dance is a form of serpent-worship. On the other hand, Mr. Walter Fewkes has recently put forth the suggestion that the Moqui snake-dance "is a simple form of water ceremonial."[18] According to his view, the snake was first introduced into the dance as a symbol of water, and the predominance given to the snake in the ceremonials is the result of later additions to the primitive ceremonial.[19]
PSM V41 D768 Fire dance.jpg


It is not generally known that Pawnee, Dakota, and Zuñi rites and initiations were retained in the religious dances of ancient Greece. The use of the conus, or bull-roarer, the practice of daubing the candidate with clay or dirt, the wearing of masks, the use of serpents—these all are found in the Greek mysteries. It is undeniable that, in their mysteries, the Greeks danced much as the Iroquois, Kwakiutls, and Zuñis dance in their secret rites. The goddess Artemis, at Brauron, in Attica, was served by young girls, who imitated in dances the gait of bears. So, too, we have the wolf-dances of the Hirpi, in which the performers clothed themselves in the skin of the wolf whose feast they celebrated.[20] Even after the Greeks gathered into walled cities, mystic dances ("medicine-dances" the Indians would call them) took place in the local fanes of the tribal gods and around the ancient altars.

Take, for example, the mysteries of Demeter, "she of the harvest home," "of the corn-heaps." Two mysteries are well known to classical scholars as the Eleusinia and the Thesmophoria. In the former, after purifications, the mystœ, the initiate, performed wild and erotic dances, and in later days, when the Eleusinian rites became part of the state religion of Athens, there was, in conclusion, a spectacular miracle-play representing the sorrows and consolations of Demeter—the most touching, most pathetic figure in Greek mythology. The Thesmophoria was the feast of seed time. The Greek matrons performed certain sacred rites and secret dances, which the men were prohibited from seeing. Heroditus says that the Thesmophoria were brought from Egypt, where the women danced in similar fashion before the altar of the bull-god in the Memphian temples. There must have been some licentious doings in the Greek mystery, or else the plain-spoken historian would not have "omitted them by silence." His apology for concealment is neatly put: "As they refused to tell for religion, so we desired not to hear for modesty."

The important feature of all mysteries, savage or Greek, is dancing. Lucian, in his Treatise on Dancing, says: "You can not find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing. . . . This much all men know, that most people say of the revealers of the mysteries that they 'dance them out." Mr. Andrew Lang, who has made a close study of Greek mysteries, quotes the reply of Quing, the Bushman, who was asked about some myths of his people. Quing replied: "Only the initiated men of that dance know these things." Hence to "dance out" this or that, observes Mr. Lang, means to be acquainted with this

PSM V41 D770 Dance of nahikai.jpg

Dance of Nahikai

or that myth, which is represented in a dance or ballet d'action.[21] This brings us to the point we would be at. The medicine-dances develop into mystery plays, setting forth this or that myth, which in turn reached artistic development in the old Greek drama.

The most striking example of barbaric drama is that of "The Mountain Chant" of the Navajo Indians. The ceremonial, lasting nine days, presents in a dance or series of dances a myth of tribal history, beginning at a time when the Navajo became a distinct people.[22] The significance of the "chant" has been stated concisely by Major J. W. Powell: "This ceremony dramatizes the myth with rigorously prescribed paraphernalia and formularies, with picturesque dances and shows, scenic effects, and skillful thaumaturgic jugglery. It is noticeable also that here the true popular drama is found in the actual process of evolution from religious mysteries or miracle plays. . . . It is to be remarked that the Shaman has become the professional and paid artist and stage manager, under whom is gathered a traveling corps of histrions and scenic experts."[23]

Here is the proper place to observe that dancing has a bearing on the development of the social order. The medicine-men or priests gain and retain political and social powers through their skill in leading the dance. According to Mr. Beckwith, "the high priest in the religious ceremonies of the Dakotas is invariably a chief who, through these dances, retains his influence in the tribe."Thus, dancing gives sanction to the powers of the chief, and is one of the necessary qualifications for the office. It is thus associated with position and rank. In the Vedic age (2000 b. a), before the rigid division of castes, the priests were leaders of the dance at the festivals.[24] Later on they became all-powerful Brahmans. The Homeric chiefs were distinguished dancers. Lucian says that Troy was taken, Zeus was saved, and Ariadne ruined by a dance. And David led the dance before the ark. The ancients regarded dancing as a necessary accomplishment. Socrates learned the art in his old age; while Plato, in his Commonwealth, advocated the establishment of dancing schools. The Romans celebrated their victories and pastoral festivals by elaborate dances. They excelled in pantomime dances, from which the ballet was evolved.[25] A The Emperor Domitian forbade the senators to dance, and for so doing removed several members from the senate. Grave statesmen and politicians of high degree

PSM V41 D772 Dancing dervishes.jpg

Fig. 9.—Dancing Dervishes.

have excelled in the eldest of the arts. Both Sully and Cardinal Richelieu were expert dancers. Think of the august cardinal paying his court to Anne of Austria, by performing a saraband before her in jester's dress of green velvet, with bells on his feet and castanets in his hands![26]

Long after dancing became secularized, it remained part and parcel of divine services. Gregory Thaumaturgus introduced prancing into Christian ritual; and Scaliger derives præsules—a name given to the bishops—from a præsiliendo, from the fact of their "skipping first," or leading the clergy, in the altar dances. In the middle ages the Mystery Plays were simply choral dances and songs. There were biblical stories and "moral lessons" told to the folk. The famous Dance of Death was a popular spectacular play, in which pope, cardinal, king, prince, and pauper were invited by the gay and festive skeleton to dance with him, and there was no alternative. Finally, as a survival from the mediæval Church, we have the Corpus Christi dances, which were performed until within late years by the congregation in the Seville Cathedral.[27]

The orgiastic impulse is one of the wildest and most rebellious passions in human nature. It is continually breaking through the thin veneer that civilization supplies. It has shown itself at different times in Europe.[28] This "passion of Dionysus" takes possession of the folk, of the people in the country, on heath or by sea. The impulse which seizes girls in modern Greece is so strong that they dance themselves to death on the hills. The dancers are victims of the Nereids, say the peasants. In ancient Greece, as Mr. Lang observes, they would have been saluted as the nurses and companions of Dionysus, and their disease would have been hallowed by religion.[29]

It needed only a young Cheyenne to fall into a trance, to dream that he had seen and talked with the Christ, to proclaim himself a prophet of the new religion, to begin dancing in fast and furious fashion—it needed only this to start the "Messiah craze" in the fall of 1890.[30] The dancing mania soon seized the Indians, and, within a month, the Cheyennes, Pawnees, Comanches, Arapahoes, Kiowas, Wichitas, and other smaller tribes were performing the "dance to Christ," called by the whites the "Ghost Dance." "They will dance," says one witness, "from Friday afternoon till sundown on Sunday. They keep going round in one direction until they become so dizzy that they can scarcely stand, then turn and go in the other direction, and keep it up until they swoon from exhaustion. That is what they strive to do, for while they are in a swoon they think they see and talk with the new Christ." Now, observe: "At the end of the dance they have a grand feast, the revel lasting all Sunday night."[31]

Thus far little has been said about the different movements and steps of ancient dances. What the figures "woven paces and waving hands" in early Greek dances were, no one can say with exactness. The earliest description of dancing which we can reproduce is the account of the dance on the shield of Achilles, which bore the sculptured scene

"Of youths and maidens bounding hand in hand.

Now all at once they rise, at once descend,
With well-taught feet; now shape in oblique ways
Confus'dly regular the moving maze;
Now forth at once, too swift for sight, they spring,
And undistinguished blend the flying ring:
So whirls a wheel in giddy circle tost,
And rapid as it runs the single spokes are lost."

Here we have the simplest kind of dancing. Youths and maidens take one another by the hand, and spin round and round like a potter's wheel. This form of Homeric Greek dance in the dance of Bacchus is known as the dithyramb. It survives to the present day in the "jiggering" of children, who join hands and prance around in a circle.

Later on, the Greeks divided dances into round and square. Their round dances—the word "round" meaning something more than our "round"—were dances of pleasure and revelry. Their square dances were military and dramatic. The Spartans drilled their men in Pyrrhic dance to the ringing sound of spear and shield. The square dances of the ancients required some art and some practice, while little of either was necessary in their round dances.

The real charm of true dancing consists rather in a graceful swaying of the body and arms than in violent movements and complicated steps. Take, for example, the dances performed by the Nautch girls—the most enchanting and ravishing dancers in the world. In their dances you see no springs, no vehement pirouettes, no violent sawing of the arms, no painful contortions of the limbs, no bringing of the legs at right angles with the body as in our ballet, no dizzy gyrations—in short, "none of that exquisite precision of step and pedal dexterity which constitute the chief charm of European artists."[32] The Spanish dances—

PSM V41 D775 Csardas hungarian folk dance.jpg

Fig. 10.—Csardos, Hungarian Folk-Dance.

which of late have become popular—are free from violent movements and intricate steps. Indeed, the feet play so small a part in the action that the dancer seems scarcely to raise them from the ground. The dances are little more than graceful writhings and twistings of the body; the arms and legs moving in sinuous folds and contortions, like the movements of a snake; the dancer all the while beating time with the castanets held in each hand.

This brings us down to the more developed or modern forms of dancing. Different people have arranged their peculiar dances. The French have devised many intricate steps; the English had their "country-dances" round the May-pole; the Scotch invented the reel; the hornpipe was originally a Cornish dance, and so on. Thus, we have all kinds of "national dances," so called. Oddly enough, the national dance of Hungary sets forth the drama of courtship—the shy advance, the maidenly modesty and retreat, the proposal, the rejection, but finally the open-armed acceptance. (See illustration.)

Finally, dancing follows a general law of mental evolution, namely, that practices which occupy an important place in the minds and daily doings of people in a savage stage of culture survive only as matters of amusement, or perhaps of aesthetic feeling, in a period of civilization. And such is now the place occupied by the eldest of the arts. When we regard the pavan, the gavotte, the minuet, the Sir Roger de Coverley, or the waltz, we may see in them the survivals of that primitive impulse which we often fail to recognize in camp-meetings and church "revivals."

  1. United States Geological Survey west of the One Hundredth Meridian, vol. vii, p. 29.
  2. History of America, vol. iii, p. 227.
  3. Journal of American Folk Lore, vol. i, p. 51.
  4. Mrs. Stevenson, in the Fifth Annual Report on Ethnology, p. 552.
  5. Pausanias, iii, 15.
  6. Journal of American Folk Lore, vol. iv, p. 307.
  7. Smithsonian Report, 1886, Part I, p. 250. In Harper's Weekly, December 13, 1890, there is a full-page picture of a Blackfeet brave undergoing the torture in the sun-dance. The spirited drawing was made by Mr. Frederic Remington on the spot.
  8. Third Ethnological Report, p. 139.
  9. Sixth Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 597.
  10. Science, Sept. 7, 1888, p. 118.
  11. It is a flat piece of wood tied to a string, and, when whirled around, causes a peculiar muffled roar. Kamilaroi, etc., by Howitt, p. 268.
  12. Third Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 138, 141.
  13. Third Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 141.
  14. Fifth Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 522.
  15. Journal of American Folk Lore, vol. iv, p. 75.
  16. This summons or invitation to the harvest or agricultural dances is a common practice.
  17. The Snake-dance of the Moquis. By Captain John G. Bourke.
  18. The Meaning of the Snake-dance, in Journal of American Folk Lore, vol. iv, p. 137.
  19. A See also Mr. Fewkes's paper, A Few Summer Ceremonials at Zuñi Pueblo. The curious masks and customs are represented by photographs; the music was taken with the phonograph.
  20. Aristophanes, Lysistratra, 646.
  21. Custom and Myth, p. 42.
  22. A description of the ceremonies, together with sketches, has been furnished by Dr. Washington Matthews (Fifth Report Ethnology, pp. 385-468). (Fifth Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. xlvi.
  23. Smithsonian Report, 1886, Part I, p. 245.
  24. Weber, p. 37.
  25. A Until early in the seventeenth century the performers in the ballet were men.
  26. In the days of Queen Bess—the queen herself an adept in the art "the grave Lord Keeper led the brawls," without losing his own respect and dignity.
  27. In the autos sacramentales, or miracle plays, dancing was introduced in honor of the sacrament. The little choir boys of the cathedral still dance before the Host every evening at five o'clock.
  28. See Leeky's Rationalism in Europe, vol. i, p. 77, for the "dancing mania" of Flanders and Germany.
  29. Myth, Ritual, and Religion, vol. ii, p. 241.
  30. Miss Alice Fletcher says the "craze" would have died out had it not been for the medicine-men or conjurers, who "multiplied stories and marvels."—Journal of American Folk Lore, vol. iv, p. 60. vol. xll. 54
  31. Journal of American Folk Lore, March, 1891.
  32. The Oriental Annual, or Scenes in India. By Rev. H. Caunter. London, 1836, p. where there is a fine description of the Nautch girls in their charming dances.