Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cultural Differences in Ballroom Dancing

I have been thinking about the differences between English waltz, Argentine tango, and swing dancing.  From my experience with these three kinds of ballroom dancing, I have observed how different they are from each other culturally.  Waltz dancing can be perceived as stiffer and more reserved than other forms of ballroom dancing, such as Argentine tango.  In Argentine tango, which developed later than waltz did (in Buenos Aires, the tango capital of the world), the partners hold their faces closer to each other, in a more intimate manner.  Their bodies remain close to each other throughout the majority of the steps.  In waltz, the girl looks away from her partner, over her partner's right shoulder.  The waltzers'  arms and hands are less relaxed than the tango dancers', and they have to hold the position of their arms up higher, as they glide effortlessly around the room.  Waltzers have to keep the composure of ballet dancers the entire time.  Being a cultural expression born of more Northern climes, it has a touch of English culture, though waltzing came from Vienna and in comparison to England, it was from a more southern clime.  To me, waltz seems to be all about the appearance; it focuses on making the steps elegant.

Victoria dances the waltz with Albert in The Young Victoria (2009).

Waltz dancing was thought of as scandelous when it was introduced to English culture in the early 1810's, because of the partners' positions, with the man's hand on the girl's hip and the girl's hand on the man's shoulder.  In Regency Era England, dancing usually only involved the touch of the partner's hands.  Their dance movements involved graceful poses of the arms and hands, and in that way was quite reminisent of classical ballet.

The dance scene in Emma (2009).
Unfortunately, waltz dancing has changed more than tango, which has kept its social function.  The modern day emphasis on competition has changed waltz dancing stylistically, and in my opinion, has detracted from its natural beauty.  I would welcome a return to dance as a popular social activity and a return to more natural body postures.  The natural more intimate pose between dance partners of yesteryear is more beautiful, optimistic, and human.  I truly loved taking social waltz (I used to take waltzing classes in the summer).  It matched me pretty well, and I really felt connected with it.  I understood its mentality and personality.  Waltz dancing comes from my cultural background.  It is also connected to old fashioned ballroom dancing, in the days when my great grandmother was young.  I love that world when young people used to go to dances like that as social events for fun.  Waltz brings me closer to that world.

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge dances the polka in Scrooge (1951).
Argentine tango has both European and African influences.  It derives from the waltz, but on the other hand, it is practically the exact opposite of waltz dancing, because tango is much more an expression of southern culture, both in terms of the Southern European immigrants to Buenos Aires, as well as the African slaves, who moved to the Argentine capital after they were freed.  Argentine tango is freer and less inhibited in its expressions; it's more personal.  It comes from a cultural world where, from my observation, there is a warm personality, something that someone like me, with the northern cultural background that I have, is at times less familiar with.  Argentine tango, particularly the era of the 1930's and 1940's, is a beautiful dance form, as is the music that accompanies it.

A more modern form of tango is called tango nuevo.  My impression is that the music is modernized from the style of the tango music from the 1930's and 1940's, and is apt to sound computerized, whereas milongas from the '30's and '40s would have a live band with talented musicians (something that could happen again if social dancing experienced a rejuvenation in popularity).  As you can observe from the following two videos, tango has evolved, both in terms of the music and the dance movements.  Tango nuevo (or nuevo tango) has kept tango innovative as it keeps apace with the times.

I liked learning Argentine tango as well, but in a way it was very different from waltz and something I was not used to.  It helped vary my perspective and opened my eyes to a different culture, which is always a beneficial experience.  But I didn't feel as connected to it as I did with waltz.  I often get the impression that people look upon being reserved to be a negative thing, and that being more personal is more real.  I don't think people understand the more reserved cultures.  The cultural perspective of waltz is just different from the perspective of tango.

Most swing dances came from African American culture, and grew to be very popular in the 1920's, during the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance.  Swing dancing has a fast paced rhythm and expresses itself openly with its energy.

Below is a video of a Lindy Hop ("The Lindy Hop" is a very fast type of swing dance) competition from YouTube that I really like.  The dancers are very skilled and do a lot of impressive moves.  I don't think I could ever dance as fast as they can!

I adore swing dancing.  I wish I could have taken far more swing classes than I have in the past.  I think swing dancing balances well with waltz dancing, as opposites tend to do.

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