The Violent History of Dance

Q: Why don’t men and women don’t dance together anymore? Why does everyone in the club dance solo?

A: Because men no longer wear swords.

Bear with me here.

From at least the Middle Ages up to the mid-19th Century, men of a certain rank were expected to carry and know how to handle a sword. To do so, they had to remain in constant practice. There were schools, of course, with great Maestros like Liberi, Talhoffer, Marozzo, Swetnam, and more. There were practice yards where a man of means could spend hours honing the skill. There were fight books, with illustrations of each move to be laboriously replicated live, with either a dummy or a partner.

And there was dancing.

Look at any period of European history and you’ll discover the most popular couples dance of that era reflects the fighting style of that era.

When swords were broad, thick, and heavy, the motion involved big swings of the arms, with correspondingly big steps as you hacked at person after person. Compare this to a move that shows up in several dances of the era, the “Hey”, with big arms and big steps leading from partner to partner, like a Scottish “Reel”. Or look to Morris Dancing, which involved men partnering each other and often beating together sticks in a precise pattern. Hack and slash warfare led to lots of sweeping arms and big steps in dance.

In the Tudor era, fighting was done with a weapon in each hand, one for attack, the other for defense. It was all about engaging your opponent’s opposite hand — the dagger in my left hand would parry the sword in your right, and vice versa. Examine the style of dancing done then, with palm meeting opposite palm, the hips turning to offer alternating hands. Twist, touch, twist, touch. Exactly the same set of movements.

In the Napoleonic era, when the root of our modern fencing was being planted, a duel was all about delicate movements of the wrist, small and precise. Footwork mattered most. Feet no longer parallel, they form a backwards ‘L’, and each step is short, at an angle, the body turning while the torso remains upright. It is no coincidence that the footwork used in a smallsword fight is the exact set of steps used in a waltz.

The dancing of an era reflects the fighting of that era.

So what happened? Why did that cease?

Well, the obvious conclusion is that firearms ended this trend. Except it didn’t. From the American Revolution through the Napoleoic Wars up to the American Civil War, men continued to wear swords and practice their fence.

No, couples dancing ends with the invention, not of firearms, but of automatic rifles. Over the last hundred years, as the use of repeating firearms has grown, men and women have ceased to dance with any sort of intricacy or formal partnership. The Swing Era is the last to have true partner steps, and even then the movements are more wild, tossing and twisting in the air, barely holding on. After that, dance is no longer about engaging a partner, but acting alone. A shooter no longer engages a partner at close range, so there’s no need for men to practice warfare with women. (Though it’s easy to draw a line from automatic weapons to slam dancing and even twerking. Simply put, the spasmodic nature of modern dance looks like people being shot).

Naturally, not every move in a classical dance is about swordplay. Dance was as much about wooing as warring. But at the core of each age, the popular style of dance reflects the popular style of dueling.

Sex, and violence. Both are a story of desire and denial, possibly leading to a little death.

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