Steampunk Dance Style Creation

If you were to imagine an alternate universe, would you be able to determine what the dance forms would look like in that universe?

Imagine, say, that something strange and apocalyptic happened during  the turn of the century, so that the whole of society spun away from democracy and technological progress.  Instead it stayed in a state of psuedo-Victorian “grey age”.  This is the vision of many “steampunk” afficianados, who adopt a combination of love of historical items (from top hats to blunderbusses), do-it-yourself crafts projects (such as creating elaborate costumes, googles, props, guns, etc), and a modern sexy vibe that includes punk, lingerie as outerwear, and burning man creativity.

If this alternate “steampunk” universe were to exist, with it’s own separate path of history, what would the dancing look like?  Would they still dance partner dances (such as quadrilles and mazurkas from the 1890s)?  Or would they have had their own dance revolutions and have brand new styles not seen in this universe?

All of this comes to mind as I have been commissioned to choreography a modern quadrille for the short film being created here in San Francisco, Perpetual Steam Punk.

I will be creating the dance for the end of the film, which is set in the alternate steampunk universe in our current decade.  The directors have asked for a combination of traditional quadrille steps with modern movement.

Which brings to mind the question, can you solve for what a society’s dance forms will look like, if you know enough about their culture?  And which things in the culture determine what the dance form will look like?

I have never really had a chance to think about it before, but with many years of studying dances from around the world, I wonder if you took the following things into account, if you could determine what the dancing will look like:

1.  What the culture values (order vs. independence, strength vs. elegance, academic intelligence vs. joyful spirit).  If you look at cultures that value order, they tend to have dances with elaborate, ordered interlacing of the dancers in floor patterns.  Cultures that instead value individuality and creative spirit tend to have more individual creative body movement, flexible use of the body, and less rigid posture.

2.  Religious standards about touching.  Religious idealogy frequently sets boundaries to the kind of body movement accepted in a culture, both how one dancer moves their body, and how dancers touch and interact.

3.  Hygiene.  Not sure if this is actually true, but it would seem possible that areas of the world that have extensive medicine and infrastructure for clean water / showering / etc. tend to have more close contact dancing.  Dances from less infrastructure areas might have less close contact dancing.

4. Status of women in the culture.  Are women valued for their hard work, strong bodies and minds?  Or are women valued as decorative and delicate objects to be possessed by the men?  You can tell a lot about the way the way women’s dancing will look by how they are valued in the culture.  Are women allowed to make their own choices about who and when to marry / partner with?  Or are these choices forced upon them?  The power dynamics of the culture will also give insight to whether’s women’s dancing will be an appealing show for a male audience, a celebration of personal power, or an individualist show of strength.

5. Status of men in the culture.  Are men valued for their kindness, or their brawn?  For their self-discipline, or their flexibility?  I think men’s styles of dancing around the world vary a lot less than women’s.  Perhaps this is because men are frequently showcasing their skills for women’s approval and tend to showcase the same things:  physical strength, agility, and endurance.  But you do see some variation, which perhaps leads to the difference between Irish Step Dancing vs. African warrior dancing.

6. Existence / ease of birth control.  I think many dance forms from prior centuries kept the men and women separate because dance = hanky panky = unwanted children = societal problems.  The simple solution – keep the men and women separate as much as possible.  Certainly the kind of close dancing you now see in clubs would have lead to many problems before the advent of modern birth control!  I believe the existence / availaility of birth control can tell you a lot about the way cultural dance forms will look, and the kind of partnering you see.

I am still thinking of various factors that might influence how dance evolves in a particular culture.  What do you think makes an impact?  The clothing style?  Musical instruments?  Types of footgear worn?  Religious / story telling traditions?  Performance traditions?

I am excited to try to take the alternate history of San Francisco steampunk, and try to create a dance style that matches wha might have been.  In a universe like our own, but with changes to the technology and history, would we dance as we do today?

Check out more about Steampunk Dancing with Richard Powers.

Leave your thoughts below…

6 Comments

  1. I think a steampunk dance in an alternate universe that is post apocalyptic would have to have senuality with a little threat of danger like tango however incorporating the structures of the gray victorian. I would think it would have to be rather stilted because the clothing is so structured. When I think of steampunk I think of juxtapositions of metal and lace. The dance could start out very formal but there might be a part in the middle where the male grabs the female around the waist with her bending backward in feigned fright/fight. Pushing him away and moving away in almost a quadrille/minuet style then some offer of ‘gentility’ such as a formal bow or curtsey. Fans for the women could be a very interesting addition which could be used for being demure or as a baton ‘against’ their partner.

  2. I think that because Steampunk is so diverse and so many of us steampunks have our own personal slant on things, you’re bound to find a lot of variation. Remember, Britain is not the world. I think we all start with a very victorian base–structured partner dancing which is unlikely to cause even the most delicate of ladies to drop a bead of sweat.

    But then every group has it’s own flavor, so to speak. The outlanders, for example, are steam pirates. They’re going to be rambunctious. My crew is a bunch of world-travelling orphans of war–we have been parented by the world so we’re much more tribal than victorian.

    Also, in Steampunk most women see themselves as independent and very much in control of their destinies and their sexual partners. And beer alcohol seems to be involved in these affairs. Steampunk is, at it’s core, victorian but we like to cut loose, to have fun, to embrace our sexual natures, and to make a lot of rucus. So I think you can see that in our dancing.

  3. Consider the folk dances and lower-class dances from nineteenth-c. England and Europe instead. The working classes had to value women for strength and skill as well as beauty; and they had to practice co-operation as a community, within which people — especially unmarried men and women — certainly showed off.

    Also, the tunes are far longer-lived than non-folk tunes, it’s plausible to think they’d survive a moderate cultural collapse.

    And finally, folk dancing is a lot more amenable to big stompy boots.

  4. I tried once a medieval dance named Hole-In-A-Wall or something. It is group dance with choreography, but it has own loosenes, so if you was ready, you can walk in or out, change partner or even steal one.

    So I think harmonic dance, where you can duel with your dancing skill, by stealing and guarding your partner, would be nice.

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