The Origin of Dance

There are a lot of ideas flying around about how social dances started – who has a claim on a dance and which country a dance is from.  Even though there are many conflicting opinions to the origin of social dances, it is certain that knowing how the dances are connected gives greater insight of figures, styling and technique.  In this article I present a brief outline of how social dances are interlinked and in turn discussing the origin of dance.

Tracing the development of social dance isn’t just about the appearance of the dance itself but tracking movement of music and peoples. Dance exists because of sociality of people and the development of music.  The academic word for people influencing each other is ‘contact’.  When people of different cultures make contact a type of blending occurs.  Pieces from each culture merge to create a new form.  Likewise with dance.

If one must pinpoint the start of all social dance then the Waltz is certainly the genetic forefather of modern social dance.

The earliest whispers of Waltz were in the 16th century via a comment by the printer H S Beheim of a ‘sliding or gliding dance’1. In 1579 a ‘country daunce or rownd’ was first mentioned (OED).  At the Austrian Court in Vienna in the late 17th century (1698) couples got into the position for the Weller and waltzed around the room ¾ to Nach Tanz (after Dance) with gliding steps for Peter the Great3.   In 1781 Thomas Twining in a letter wrote:

I found on inquiry that this was a favourite German dance called a waltz. (OED) 2

This waltz matched the popular fast waltz music of Vienna and later became known as the Viennese Waltz.  The Waltz soon spread throughout Europe to France, Spain, Italy and England.

Before the 1600s in England, country-dance was danced in lines and sequences.  By the middle of the 17th century English country-dances had changed slightly thanks to the introduction of the Waltz.  It became popular to stay connected to one partner for a whole piece of music.  Touring Frenchmen imported English country-dance to France.  The French called these new dances contredanse, which maintained the 3 /4, 2 /4 or 6 /8 timing.  As ballet was also developing as a sophisticated art form in France at the time, the waltz developed with beautiful turns, rise and fall, delicate hands and an elegant sway.  As soon as the Waltz became popular in the French Court thanks to Louis XIV a generous patron of the Arts, these dances spread to Italy and Spain.

This new form of Waltz was not so well received by English aristocrats.  In July of 1816, the waltz was included in a ball given in London by the Prince Regent. A cutting editorial in The Times stated:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … 4

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the waltz began to take on a slower tempo.  In Boston USA, a new waltz developed out of the standard Viennese Waltz.  This slow waltz kept a steady ¾ time and enabled the dancer to take long elegant strides with picture frame poses.  This slow waltz developed into the Modern Waltz we have today.

Swing Dances – Foxtrots, Quicksteps and Swings

At the end of the Ragtime era the structure of the waltz was converted into a 4/4 time by adding a two beat slow count to match the ragtime music and the new developing Swing music.  This new form of dance in 4/4 quickly divided into three other dances.  The first was dubbed as the ‘quickstep’, initially a type of 4/4 quick waltz (Viennese waltz).  By 1914, to cater to the different speeds of Swing music, a slower dance developed from the Quickstep, which became known as the Foxtrot.  This new dance kept the elegance of the waltz.  In 1925, the American Foxtrot was standardized by Arthur Murray, which was greatly influenced by the structure and style of Argentine Tango. The Balboa and Peabody were also popular spin-offs of these new foxtrots.  As the Quickstep, American Foxtrot and English Foxtrot all developed from one another during the Swing era they share similar footwork, timing and technique.

Another dance that developed out of ragtime music was the Charleston.  A combination of solo marches (cakedance 1904, two-step 1909), the structure and holds of the waltz/foxtrot, along with Swing music, developed a 20s partnered version of the Charleston.  Later this Charleston developed into the side-by-side Charleston of the 40s.

By 1920, the dance floors were getting crowded so an on-the-spot fast foxtrot was developed.  The new Lindy Hop combined the structure of the foxtrot, movements of Charleston and was perfect for the faster Swings.  The Lindy Hop is considered the first of all the Swing dances.  A straightforward genealogy can be traced in connection with developing music:

1920s – 1950s – Lindy Hop (8 count quick foxtrot)

1930s – Jitterbug (a 6 count/triple swing of the Lindy Hop)

1940s – Boogie Woogie (a 6 count of the Jitterbug with spot basic)
Eastern/East Coast Swing (6 count from Jitterbug)
Bug (a single swing from the Jitterbug)

1950s – Jive (6 count swing from East coast Swing)
West Coast Swing (8 count Swing from Lindy Hop)
Rockabilly (a 2 step swing from Bug)

1955 – Rock and Roll (a single swing from the Bug)

1970s – Hustle (a single swing from Bug)

1980s – Modern Jive/Cerock (originally Bug brought over to France by US soldiers in 1940s)

Latin Dances – Tangos, Rumbas & Mambos, Sambas


Argentine Tango developed from the 1890s in Argentina.  However, this dance was first introduced by Spanish settlers.  The dance developed in Spain fusing Arabic (Moroccan) movements with the structure of contra-danse (originally English country-dance).  This tango was both a solo and couple countra-danse in Spain with strong flamenco styling which is still present in the modern Tangos of today.  In the early 20th century the Tango was introduced to America and by 1913 with influences from Africa and Creole the dance returned to Spain and Europe with new form and style.  Nowadays there are many different varieties of tango around the world.


Latin dance has African influences, yes, but the form and structure of Latin dance comes from Europe – waltz/contra-danse.  A slow ¾ contra-danse developed in Spain called the Bolero, which spread across southern Europe. Sebastiano Carezo is credited with inventing the dance in 17805. In the 1790s French colonists fled the Haitian Revolution and brought Bolero/contra-danse to Cuba.  By 1803 a new ‘contradanza’ with ‘bolero-son’, had developed in Havana.  Its romantic 6/8 music evolved into the ‘clave’, criolla and guajira and the dance turned into 2/4 timing.  Because of the spread of the waltz around the world, this new contradanza split into two dances – Danza/Danzón which has similar patterns to the waltz, and Contradanza/Rumba which kept the rocking forward and back movements.  In the last quarter of the 19th Century Cuban bolero-son had a strong tradition.

Danzón-Rumba was introduced to America and Europe in the 1930s as a romantic 4/4 time box step similar to the waltz.  It was standardized by Arthur Murray and its popularity peaked in the 50s America.  The Contradanza-Rumba was brought to England via the dance teacher Monsieur Pierre.  International Rumba still features the contra-dance rocks however the styling has been greatly modified for performance.

In the 1930s in Havana, a new form of music developed out of rumba – Mambo.  This was largely due to the influence of American Jazz.  Perez Prado, a Havana ‘Mambo’ musician moved to Mexico in 1940 and was ‘discovered’ by the US.  By 1949 Mambo music had spread across America and to Europe.  Along with the introduction of Prados music came his ‘Mambo’ dance.  However, this dance was certainly not a new invention – it was just a faster version of the rumba-dance Prado had seen Cuban dancers do back in Havana.

In the 1970s Salsa developed out of the ‘rediscovery’ of rumba-son with electric instruments. There are three main happenings, all in the US, that created ‘Salsa’ music: in 1973 there was a record label TV special called ‘Salsa’, in 1974 a Latin album with vocalist Junior Gonzalez was released and in 1976 the concert ‘Salsa’ was organized in New York by the label Fania with the Larry Harlow’s orchestra.  Likewise, the mamboised-rumba dance of the American 50s was ‘rediscovered’ being revamped as ‘Salsa’ to enhance this new music scene of North America.  During the 70s New York, Miami and Colombia where the main centers for Salsa.

Cha Cha

It is commonly thought that the Cha Cha (Cha) was developed in Havana and in 1952 the dance instructor Monsieur Pierre introduced it to England while Arthur Murray introduced a standardised form to America.  The actual origin of the 8 count pattern with chasé step is thought to have developed from the dancers in Havana trying to syncopate steps to danzón-mambo music.  The dancers where unsuccessful at this, as Enrique Jorrín (the inventor of Cha Cha music) observed in 1951 who then set out to develop Cha Cha music to make it easier for the dancers to syncopate.

It could be suggested that this new syncopation was a variation of the Rumba-Mambo.  However, this is likely not the case.  Cha Cha was a local version of the imported American Lindy Hop.

From 1902, Havana became know to Americans as the Paris of the Caribbean.  The first Swing and Jazz music hit Cuba in the late 1920s.  The first Cuban big band, Hermanos Castros, started in 1929. International Jazz stars such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra performed in Havana.  Cuba became a hot tourist destination and was ahead of Las Vegas with luxury hotels and show casinos.  By the 1950s Havana had 300,000 American tourists a year.  Throughout the years, American tourists brought with them their Swing to dance at the Big Band salons in Havana.  The local Havana dancers mixed with these Swinging Americans and so a ‘contact’ occurred and dances were exchanged – Cuba’s Rumba with the America’s Swing.

The Lindy Hop and the Cha Cha have the same elements – step, step, triple step, step, step, triple step.  Because of the ‘dance swap’ the Cubans are likely to have applied their rumba technique to the Swing steps.  It is also likely that Jorrín saw the Cuban dancers trying to practice the Swing (not a syncopated Mambo) unsuccessfully to Mambo music.  Hence, the birth of Cha Cha music and the accidental invention of the Cha Cha dance.


Couple Samba is known as Maxixe in Brazil and first made an appearance in 1868.  It was introduced to North America around 1910 and was patterned in a French dance book in 1928.  The Maxixe is actually a lively combination of waltz and tango with an ‘african’ bounce.  It is said that the dance developed from African servants trying to copy their master’s contra-danse.

The Bossa Nova dance is unheard of in Brazil.  When Bossa Nova music reached North America all the dance studios wanted to be the first to have the Bossa Nova dance.  The dance was simple and elegant, but short lived as it did not develop naturally through contact of people like all the other dances here mentioned.


1 – Nettl, Paul. Birth of the Waltz, in Dance Index vol 5, no. 9. 1946 New York: Dance Index-Ballet Caravan, Inc. page 211
2 –
3 – Nettl, Paul. Birth of the Waltz, in Dance Index vol 5, no. 9. 1946 New York: Dance Index-Ballet Caravan, Inc. p 208, 211
4 – Source: The Times of London, 16th July 1816
5 – Journal of the American Musicological Society 24, (Autumn, 1971), pp477-48
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