study break

5 Variations of Dance: History and Individual Flair

Here is where I (finally) introduce one of my favorite hobbies - dancing.

Dance is one of the great loves of my life! My brother hits the gym and played sports throughout high school; I danced. I still dance. I love all sorts of styles and types, and limited this list to dances I have had at least one class in.

For context, I typically go social dancing most often (ballroom, Latin, swing, blues fusion, country – and lately, a little Argentine Tango) and have taken various other classes on the side.


Flair: Grand, elegant, royal. You are gliding across the floor, almost like you’re ice skating. Accompanied by elegant, sweeping music, it is associated with fairytales and faraway castles and kinda cheesy silverscreens.

History: Grand as it is today, the waltz started out as an ethnic folk dance in Germany (Kassling 2007). It differed from other popular dances at the time – cotillions, quadrilles, and others where couples came only close enough to hold hands in group formations – by bringing the couple into a close embrace. As such, it had a certain shock element to it and became wildly popular in Vienna. When it entered London, it carried the label of ‘country dance’ and was slow to catch on among some, rather scandalized, citizens (Knowles, 2009). And so this formal, now highly stylized dance was once as controversial as Elvis Presley’s notorious hip action.

My Rating: This is the dance that makes me feel like a princess. Whenever I go ballroom dancing, I love getting swept up in both the music and the dance that is waltz.


Flair: High-energy, ranging from Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers-style class to modern self-confident swagger that never takes itself too seriously.

History: An American melting-pot dance with global influences, tap has roots in Irish jigs, African rhythms, and Caribbean history. Percussive syncopation is rooted in African dance traditions in which dancers step not on the beat, but on a beat that complements the music (Welsh-Asante, 1997). In Ireland, a jig dancer’s skill was tested by whether dancing could be accomplished on a 6-square-inch square (sometimes oiled by an opponent) (Knowles, 2002), testing the balance, stability, and footwork of the dancer. Tap has continued to evolve by stealing from jazz, social swing dances, and even acrobatics.

My Rating: I think because I started this one earliest in my life, tap is the dance I identify with the most (clarification: this does not mean it’s the one I’m best at, or even remotely good at). Even though I haven’t done it as consistently as social dancing, I love the energy, I love the rhythm, I love the technicalities of getting the sounds just perfectly from your feet, and I love the joy I see on just about every tap dancer’s face.


Flair: Calming, with movement, style, and pace infused with rich cultural heritage and echoing wind-and-wave rhythms on quiet beaches.

History: Hula is a dance with symbolic movements and hand gestures, making each dance a story that can record historical events. Hula dancers today express both cultural memory and current events – giving the dance today a distinctly political zest – and both dance and song carry these memories. As such, hula is a powerful part of Hawaiian culture that captures and expresses both history and identity (Mageo, 2001).

My Rating: I have taken exactly one class in this and love it. There are faster hula dances and those are fun to watch but I just love the feel of the slow, swaying style where you move like the ocean and are swept up into its rhythms.


Flair: Perfectionism embodied in a dance of absolute beauty, elegance, coordination, and strength. How else is this many spins even possible for a mere mortal?

History: Ballet grew out of court spectacles – variety shows put on for nobility as sheer frivolous entertainment. It was not long before it matured into grand performances of opera-ballet, and in the 1700’s, dancers started wearing wings and using that lighter-than-air technique. The Russians took this French dance and added en pointe shoes and a classical style (e.g., Nutcracker, Swan Lake) (Kassing, 2007). Romanticism (e.g., Giselle), with its philosophical and political storytelling, swept across the rest of European ballet. George Balanchine, a prolific writer of over four hundred ballets, developed the American method in the 20th century, emphasizing athleticism and speed. His method favored long, slim dancers and added elements of jazz such as syncopation.

My Rating: I avoided this as a kid because I got frustrated too quickly with my lack of flexibility and zero knowledge of the French language. Then (while studying at UCSC), I found a local dance studio that offered beginner ballet classes for adults. It was the only introduction that ever made sense to me. Ballet has the same grandness, same elegance, as waltz, and with so much depth to learn and practice – so much technique (I’m a tap dancer at heart, remember? Excessive rules & technicalities are a good thing). And I love it as an exercise, building lots of core strength and sense of balance.


Flair: Quick, sharp technique to music that may come in either a 1970’s salsa dura (eg: Wayne Gorbea’s Estamos En Salsa) or a more contemporary, Latin-pop salsa romantica (eg: Marc Anthony’s Vivir mi Vida). The dancefloor atmosphere is also a lot more social than formal than, say, waltz.

History: Latin dances have origin stories peppered throughout the Americas: samba has Afro-Brazilian roots (Welsh-Asante, 1997), tango began in Argentina (Bosse, 2008), and cumbia originated on the Colombian coast with indigenous, Spanish, and African fusion (L’Hoeste & Vila, 2013). Salsa itself started in Cuba; it, along with cha-cha, stemmed from the Cuban mambo. Like most Latin dances, it spread throughout South and Central America. It has since started a bit of a dance craze all its own in North America and the rest of the globe. Today, your average salsa club (or studio, or outdoor salsa-by-the-sea/by-the-lake/by-the-river venue) is multicultural not only in the dance itself, but also in the diversity of fans that this energetic, exciting, and invariably upbeat social dance has attracted (Bosse, 2008).

My Rating: Best done with a group of friends you can laugh at each other with. Part of the point is to look super cool, after all, but as you are learning – you will not. Relax, have fun with it, and laugh/dance the night away.

Photo Credit


Bosse, J. (2013, August). Salsa dance as cosmopolitan formation: cooperation, conflict and commerce in the Midwest United States. In Ethnomusicology Forum (Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 210-231). Taylor & Francis Group.

Kassing, G. (2007). History of Dance: An Interactive Arts Approach. Champaigne, IL: Human Kinetics.

Knowles, M. 2002. Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Knowles, M. 2009. The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

L’Hoeste, H. D. F. & Vila, P. (2013). Cumbia! Scenes of Migrant Latin American Music Genre. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mageo, J. M. (2001). Cultural Memory: Reconfiguring History and Identity in the Postcolonial Pacific. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Welsh-Asante, 1997. African Dance: An Artistic, Historical, and Philosophical Inquiry. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, Inc.

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