The origin of dancing is to be sought in the natural tendency to employ gesture either to supplement or to replace speech
Dancing.—The origin of dancing is to be sought in the natural tendency to employ gesture either to supplement or to replace speech. Strong emotions, in particular, key up the organs to a pitch of exaltation which spontaneously manifests itself through more orless rhythmical movements that constitute what may be considered as elementary and natural dances. But in the same manner as speech soon developed into poetry and song, so also did these bodily movements gradually develop into the art of dancing. Both spontaneous and artistic dancing may be described as “an expression of the feelings by movements of the body more or less controlled by a sense of rhythm” (J. Millar), and are to some degree practiced by all peoples. The Hebrews were no exception; their language contains no less than eight verbs to express the idea of dancing. However, many of the allusions found in the Bible point to mere spontaneous expressions of merriment by leaping, circling, or otherwise. Of this description were very likely the dances of Mary and the women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod., xv, 20), of the people around the golden calf (Exod., xxii, 19), of Jephte‘s daughter coming to meet her father after the latter’s victory (Judges, xi, 34), of the inhabitants of the cities on the way of the army commanded by Holophernes (Judith, iii, 10), even of David before the Ark (II K., vi, 5, 22). From these various places it might be inferred that dancing was a manifestation of joy ordinarily exhibited by women, and we know how David, in the occurrence above referred to, excited Michol’s wonder. In later times dancing was positively looked upon as unbecoming men; such also was the opinion in Rome, where the saying ran that a man, to indulge in dancing, must be either intoxicated or mad.
Dancing as an art was made subservient to various purposes. Its use as an aid to heighten the splendor of religious celebrations should be first considered. Religious dances consisted mostly of slow and stately processions through the streets of the city or around the altar. Usually they were performed by colleges of priests; but occasionally citizens of both sexes and all ranks, without any disparagement to the gravity of their characters or dignity of position, took a part in these exhibitions (Liv., I, xx; Quintil., I, ii, 18; Mac-rob., Sat. ii, 10). All religious dances, however, were not performed with the gravity above referred to. In Rome, the salii, carrying the sacred shields through the streets, leapt and jumped clumsily “like stamping fullers” (Senec. Ep. xv). The Bible describes likewise the priests of Baal limping (so Heb.; D.V.: “leaping”) around the altar (III K., xviii, 26). Throughout the East sacred dances were a prominent feature in religious worship. In Egypt even colleges of female singers and dancers were annexed to certain shrines. That dancing was also an accompaniment of the Jahweh worship is probable from Judges, xxi, 21, for early times, and clearly evidenced by Pss. cxlix, 3, and cl, 4, for the epoch following the captivity. The texts seem further to indicate that, in the second Temple, persons engaged in dancing and singing in God‘s honor formed choirs similar to those of the pagan rites (Cie., Phil., v, 6; Virg., .En., VIII, 718; Hor., Od., I, i, 31).
War dances, so common among many peoples, and which were frequently introduced to enhance the pageants of public festivities among the Greeks and Romans, have left no trace among the Hebrews and their neighbors, although they are not unknown to modern inhabitants of Palestine and Arabia. Mimetic dances were as little known in the East as those of a military character. They consisted of expressive movements of the features, body, arms, and hands, executed to a musical accompaniment and meant vividly to represent historical or fabulous events and the actions and passions of well-known characters, How much such performances were relished by the Romans, we learn from many passages of Latin writers, such, e.g., as Macrob., Sat. ii, 7; Suet., “Calig.”, 57, “Nero“, 54, “Tit.”, 7; Ovid, “Ars Am.”, I, 595, etc. Still more was scenic dancing in favor in Rome and Greece. It consisted of harmonious movements principally of the arms, body, and feet, intended to show forth all the flexibility, agility, and grace of the human body. Such exhibitions were usually given for the pleasure of the guests, at great banquets, and performed by professional dancers hired for the occasion. Female dancers—there were also male dancers—were preferred. They were generally persons of considerable beauty and indifferent morals, and their performances were calculated to set forth, even at the cost of modesty for which they cared little, all the charms and attractiveness of their graceful figures. This class of persons, common in ancient Greece and Italy, were not altogether unknown in Palestine, at least in later times, if we believe the indication of Ecclus., ix, 4. The author of Eccles., impersonating Solomon, relates he had procured for his own enjoyment “singing men and singing women” (ii, 8), that is to say, very likely, dancers, for singing and dancing were scarcely distinct. At any rate, the performance of Herodias‘ daughter, recorded in Matt., xiv, 6, and the pleasure it afforded to Herod and his guests, show how Greek and Roman corruption had, about the time of Christ, made headway among the higher classes of Palestine.
Although perhaps less common, and certainly less elaborate than with us, social dancing appears nevertheless to have been a pleasurable diversion in ancient times, at least among the Jews. For, understood in the light of Judges, xxi, 21, such statements as those of Is., xvi, 10, and Jer., xxv, 30, indicate that the vintage season was one of public merriment exhibited in dances. Dancing was likewise indulged in, even by most grave persons (Bab. Talm., Ketuboth, 16b), at weddings and the Feast of Tabernacles. Men and women danced apart, as is still the custom in the East. Social dancing has undergone considerable development in the last few centuries, both as to prevalence and elaborateness. The introduction into modern fashion of the so-called round dances has quickened the interest of the old question anent the morality of dancing. As an exercise of physical culture, aside from the generally unhealthful conditions of dancing-halls, dancing may have advantages; we should not wonder, therefore, that from this viewpoint Plato recommended it. From the moral standpoint, religious and military dancing has never met with any criticism. Mimetic shows, on the contrary, mostly representing love-stories and mythological subjects, were at times so offensive to modesty that even the pagan emperors deemed it their duty to banish them repeatedly from Italy. In no wise better, as has been shown above, were scenic dances; and male and female dancers were in Rome considered, as are nowadays in Egypt, India, and Japan, the almehs, the bayaderes, and the geishas, as a lower and degraded class. According to Roman law, such persons were in fames. Against their performances the Fathers of the Church raised a strong voice. The Decretals went farther, forbidding clerics to attend any mimic or histrionic exhibitions and enacting that any cleric taking active part in them should forfeit all his privileges, and that all persons engaged in professional dancing, mimic or histrionic performances, should incur irregularity and be thereby forever debarred from the clerical state and rendered incapable of receiving orders. As to social dancing, now so much in vogue, whilst in itself it is an indifferent act, moralists are inclined to place it under the ban, on account of the various dangers associated with it. Undoubtedly old national dances in which the performers stand apart, hardly, if at all, holding the partner’s hand, fall under ethical censure scarcely more than any other kind of social intercourse. But, aside from the concomitants—place, late hours, decollete, escorting, etc.—common to all such entertainments, round dances, although they may possibly be carried on with decorum and modesty, are regarded by moralists as fraught, by their very nature, withthe greatest danger to morals. To them perhaps, but unquestionably still more obviously to masked balls, should be applied the warning of the Second Council of Baltimore against “those fashionable dances, which, as at present carried on, are revolting to every feeling of delicacy and propriety”. Needless to add that decency as well as the oft-repeated decrees of particular and general councils forbid clerics to appear, in any capacity whatever, on public dancing floors.
CHARLES L. SOUVAY