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Times are a Changin'
By Sidney Messer, 2006

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Sidney Messer'

LIKE THE TIMES, OUR DANCES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

There is an appointed time for everything.
And there is a time for every event under heaven.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
     -Ecclesiastes 3

Dancing for pleasure or recreation has probably existed in one form or another since man first appeared on Earth. When done in groups, the dances of our ancestors originally involved the basic aspects of life: food, sex, and the usual various relations with the spiritual world.

As the conditions of human existence changed, so did the dances. These changes were accidental or incidental and not consciously made. They reflected the spiritual as well as the technical aspects of the times. These changes and/or variations occrurred over very long periods of time, gradually, and virtually undetectable, with some rather notable exceptions. A most interesting development occurred during the 14th century when social and folk dancing were virtually the same, and were done in a circle or ring. In England, dancing was done in upper class homes (no longer in the fields) as part of one's evening entertainment.

With the introduction of the chimney (about 1368 CE), the fireplace, which was then in the center of the room, could be moved to a side wall. This cleared the floor, permitting processional (line) dances. This was highly favored by royalty because your order of social rank would then determine your position in line – the king, if present, being the first, of course.

Continuing through the 16th century, social dance became firmly limited to royal courts where original dances were adapted to suit the elaborate clothes and manners of the times. By the 17th century, the popular minuet had become nothing more than music, lots of fancy clothes, and very elegant manners. Then came the revolution – both national as well as industrial. Social dancing returned to the masses who no longer had fires burning in the center of rooms.

The social manners and customs accompanying the dance have always been in a constant state of flux. Even in America, which was spared the upheavals in Europe, many customs which had been taken for granted, simply disappeared. I came upon a paper written in 1893 titled, "Manners, Culture, and Dress of the Best American Society" by Richard A. Wells, A.M. The following excerpts will indicate the extent to which a mere 100 years can affect a society's manners in dance:

  1. "When to arrive at a ball: We are not obliged to go exactly at the appointed hour; it is even fashionable to go an hour later."
  2. "Marrried or young ladies cannot leave a balroom or any other party alone."
  3. "Ladies should avoid talking too much; it will occasion remarks. It has also a bad appearance to continuously whisper in the ear of your partner."
  4. "While dancing, in giving the hand for ladies chain or any other figures, those dancing should wear a smile, and accompany it with a polite inclination of the head."
  5. "A lady will not cross a ballroom unattended."
  6. "Any presentation to a lady in a public ballroom for the mere purpose of dancing, does not entitle you to claim her acquaintance afterwards; therefore, should you meet her, at most you may lift your hat; but even that is better avoided unless, indeed, she first bow – as neither she nor her friends can know who or what you are."

So there you have it. Things have changed, perhaps not as some of us may feel always for the better. I think it safe to say virtually no change has ever gone unchallenged and I am sure a few of us would not much mind the return or at least some of yesterday's folkways. We are all entitled to our opinions and they certainly are diverse. All of which reminds me of something once said by a very well known composer of symphonies, Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953); "A sympathetic Scot summed it all up in the remark: 'You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk dancing.'"


Used with permission of Laila Messer, wife of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, August 2006.


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