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?
Leave your thoughts below…