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18th and 19th Century Dance

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18th and 19th century dance was fundamental in creating dance as we know it. Ballet gained popularity, as did the dancers who performed it. Read on to learn about dance history as it was and how it impacts us to this day! For earlier history, check out our last two dance history blog posts:

Early Dance History

History of Dance: The Middle Ages to the 17th Century

18th Century Dance

Print of an 18th century dance, the minuet
This print shows an aristocratic couple dancing the minuet

There were two particularly popular dances in the 18th century: the minuet and the contradance. The contradance had changing lead couples, and every participant was considered equal. This equality made it symbolic of democratic values at the time, whereas the more formal minuet was symbolic of the aristocracy, as a couples dance.

We still use the terms upstage and downstage today, but did you know they came from the 18th Century? Back then, the floors of the stages were actually slanted so the audience could see better! The front was lower and the back was higher.

Fun Fact: Large chandeliers lit up 18th century stages. They used candles, which meant that the dances had to deal with wax dripping on them while they performed!

19th Century Dance

Painting of Marie Taglioni dancing on pointe, wearing wings
Marie Taglioni is painted here, dancing en pointe

Gas lighting was invented in 1804, which meant that 19th century dancers no longer needed to worry about wax-dripping chandeliers. The glow of the new gas lights inspired the “ghostly” Dance of the Dead Nuns, starring Marie Taglioni.

Marie Taglioni was a very popular star of the 19th century. Prima ballerinas like her were treated the way modern celebrities are. They went on extensive tours, had sweets and hairstyles named after them, and were given jewels as gifts. Fans of Marie Taglioni even bought a pair of her pointe shoes, put them into a sauce, and ate them!

Fun Fact: Have you heard of the ballet Giselle? It originated in the 19th century. The title role has been likened in difficulty to the role of Hamlet!

You are probably familiar with the waltz, a smooth, gliding dance still popular today. However, it was once much more wild, with hopping, and stamping, and throwing the partner in the air. During the course of the 19th century it calmed down to the dance we know today.

A photograph from 1890 of a 19th century dance production of "Sleeping Beauty", photo of two fairies
A very early dance photograph of two fairies from the 1890 production of The Sleeping Beauty

At the very end of the century, in Russia we started to see some very recognizable ballets, as the dance world transitioned from romantic to classical ballet. These included early versions of Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake.

Dance in America

In America, the 18th and 19th centuries brought a lot of change to the country. During the Revolutionary war, Congress put a law in place that banned theatrical performances. They were said to distract people from the conflict the country was facing. Nonetheless, soldiers would put on performances of their own, and George Washington was even said to have been a big social dancer.

A painting of an American 19th century ball
This painting shows an American ball in 1812. Notice the American flags on the wall?

Fun Fact: Rather than being performed in theatres, concerts were often performed in ballrooms so that a ball could be held afterwards, where the performers would teach dance steps!

Dance masters were less popular in the United States as in Europe, but they were still considered useful for teaching necessary skills to sophisticated society. They would teach dance, etiquette, and sometimes even fencing, as was the case at Harvard and University of Virginia.

18th and 19th Century Dancewear

A print of Fanny Elssler, a 19th century ballerina wearing pointe shoes
Notice the way the dancer seems to float? You guessed it – pointe shoes!

Pointe shoes were invented during the 19th century! Originally the structure of the shoe came only from the darning on the toes. Very different that the pointe shoes we know today! Pointework was popular in the romantic era of ballet because it gave the illusion that the ballerina was floating.

Dance in the 18th and 19th century had an obvious influence on dance as we know it, particularly when it comes to ballet. We can be grateful, though, that we no longer have to face some of the challenges of the time!