Transcendent Dancing
Breaking It Down and
Shaking Things Up
A CultureMap®
by Lisa Jo Sagolla
Published on 12/6/13

Dance can be defined as intentional patterned movement of the body, but the significance of dance often extends far beyond its formal characteristics. What happens when dancing becomes more than just rhythmic action and spatial design? When it enlarges into a political statement, an assertion of cultural identity, a spiritual experience, a form of storytelling, a competition, an aesthetic endeavor or a substitute for sex? This map explores the transcendent power of dance.

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Native American Ghost Dance
to  Breaking

The trouble began in 1890 after the U.S. government broke a treaty with Native Americans and divided the Great Sioux Reservation of South Dakota into smaller parts. With the bison’s eradication and the difficulty of growing crops in the semiarid region, the Sioux faced starvation. Desperate to save their lives, they performed the Ghost Dance. In form, it’s a simple round dance, the participants circling leftward with sideways steps, while an individual may writhe, as if entranced, in the center. The Sioux believed the dance contained the power to wash away evil, which to them meant the removal of Anglo-Americans from their land. When the Sioux refused to stop their dancing, U.S. Army troops were deployed to the reservation, igniting events that resulted in the Wounded Knee Massacre—the slaying of 153 Native Americans, including women and children.

In 1973, protesters occupied the reservation near Wounded Knee as a reminder of what had occurred there, while another innately American dance—breaking—was emerging in a locale with a different kind of turf war, inner-city New York. Featuring athletic soloists performing within cyphers (circles of spectators), breaking transcended recreation for urban youth and grew into a competitive outlet for aggressive self-realization.

to  West Side Story  (Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) | musical | 1957)

Breaking originated in the early 1970s when black and Latino youths in New York City began improvising solo dance moves to break beats, or rhythmic breakdown sections of records strung together by hip-hop DJs. Breaking, later termed break dancing, consists of four elements: toprock, steps performed in a standing position; downrock, floor work; power moves, wowing acrobatics sometimes borrowed from gymnastics or martial arts; and freezes, flashy strength poses punctuating the end of phrases. Some breakers also incorporate uprock, a style rooted in gang rivalry, in which two dancers mime different modes of fighting and weaponry. Gang warlords sometimes fought first through uprock to determine who’d set the rules for the real fight.

Individuals or teams of breakers, called crews, compete through “battles,” in which they perform one at a time and are judged on movement inventiveness, skill and musicality. But breakers were not the first street gangs to battle through dance. With its iconic finger-snapping Jets and mamboing Sharks, the 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story featured memorable choreography depicting urban gang warfare. Marshaling dance to convey more of a musical’s drama than ever before, the show revealed the ferocious power of dance as a theatrical storytelling agent.

West Side Story  (Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) | musical | 1957)
to  Elvis Presley  (1935–1977 | American singer, actor)

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the landmark musical West Side Story dramatizes the conflicts between two New York City street gangs—the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Originally titled “East Side Story,” the show was conceived about 10 years before it debuted and originally reflected the clashes between young Jews and Italians on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But with the surge in Latino immigration, by 1957 the most contentious juvenile gang fighting involved those new arrivals.

Shifting the characters’ ethnicities made the show timely and allowed director-choreographer Jerome Robbins (and cochoreographer Peter Gennaro) to make transcendent use of social dance. Adopting jitterbug and mambo as their respective movement languages, the Jets and Sharks proclaimed their cultural identities while violently challenging their rivals.

Offstage, the youth of 1957 were crying over the imminent induction into the Army of seminal rock-and-roller Elvis Presley. Unlike West Side Story’s choreography, which symbolized ethnic discord, the teens dancing to Presley’s records suggested the opposite, the closing of a social divide. A melding of black and white musical traditions, rock and roll exhibited cross-racial appeal and sparked racial intermingling on the dance floor that boldly defied the era’s norms of segregation.

West Side Story  (Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) | musical | 1957)
to  Anna Pavlova  (1881–1931 | Russian ballerina)

The electrifyingly expressive dancing in West Side Story constitutes the most famous choreography in the history of Broadway musicals—made even more widely known through the 1961 Academy Award–winning film version. While its spice and stylishness come from Latin-dance seasonings and jazz sensibilities, its foundation is ballet. Though the story’s teenage gangs use opposing forms of ballroom dancing to battle one another at a dance in the high school gym, for their street fighting they turn to highly charged ballet. In style, ballet reflects the aristocratic milieu of the European courts in which it developed during the past 500 years. But in technical form, it involves the transformation of a dancer’s body into an instrument that can jump, turn, stretch and perform coordinated movements at a level that transcends the ordinary and becomes an aesthetic tool.

Although this balletic athleticism was compellingly employed to convey the rough action and fatal events of West Side Story, the most familiar balletic depiction of death is surely “The Dying Swan.” The solo was created by Russian choreographer Michel Fokine for legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, whose performance of it evoked the most ubiquitous image in ballet history.

Anna Pavlova  (1881–1931 | Russian ballerina)
to  Shakers  (Anglo-American Christian sect | est. 1747)

The most renowned ballerina of all time, Anna Pavlova arduously toured the world as the star of her own company from 1910 until her untimely death in 1931. She gave thousands of performances to millions of people, most of whom resided in out-of-the-way places and had never before seen ballet. For Pavlova, ballet was a religion to be spread through her divinely gifted body. Her incomparable dancing was said to half-hypnotize audiences, break their bonds with reality and conjure the belief that all things are possible. Best remembered for portraying nonhuman creatures—a butterfly, dragonfly or swan—Pavlova has been described as almost sexless. Despite her desire to have children, she sacrificed motherhood for her art; her company functioned as her family, its dancers her offspring.

The notion of substituting dance and membership in a dancing community for sex and childbearing also held sway for the utopian Christian sect most vividly identified with dancing: the Shakers. A celibate society renowned for its elegantly plain furniture and catchy hymns—most notably “Simple Gifts”—the Shakers flourished in late 18th- through mid-19th-century America. They were so named because of the rapturous, autointoxicating dancing that formed the keystone of their worship ceremonies.

Shakers  (Anglo-American Christian sect | est. 1747)
to  Whirling Dervishes  (Turkish Sufi Muslim order | est. 1273)

When fueled by the right mind-set, executed in a particular fashion and performed within an appropriately focused, often ritualistic context, dancing can transport one into a state of spiritual ecstasy. Repudiators of all carnal practices, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—commonly called the Shakers—fervently partook in such transcendent dancing as a form of release and religious devotion. Emigrating from England to America in the mid-1700s, the Shakers became known for the wild, ecstatic dancing that characterized their religious rituals. As membership increased through the 1800s, dancing remained elemental in the Shaker worship service, yet it grew less spontaneous and individualistic and more symbolic, ritualized and communal.

The most widely recognized exemplar of dancing as a spiritual experience, however, is the Whirling Dervish. Members of the Mevlevi order, a mystical Sufi sect of Islam formed in 1273, the dervishes whirl as part of their devotional ritual. They traditionally turn counterclockwise, pivoting on the left foot while pushing with the right. With head tilted to the right, they raise both arms—right palm facing upward, left toward the ground—and spin themselves into ecstasy, a higher plane of consciousness they believe leads to enlightenment.

Whirling Dervishes  (Turkish Sufi Muslim order | est. 1273)
to  Elvis Presley  (1935–1977 | American singer, actor)

One Sunday in 1956 a pastor in New York’s Greenwich Village preached disparagingly to his congregation about the Elvis Presley craze overtaking American teenagers. The clergyman described Presley, the era’s steamy new rock-and-roll singing sensation, as a “whirling dervish of sex.” He may have been comparing Presley’s ecstasy-inducing effect on adolescent girls to those followers of the Sufi order of Islam who spin and twirl their way into a transformational religious experience, earning them the moniker Whirling Dervishes.

While the dancing of the dervishes has nothing to do with sex, Presley’s gyrations and the erotic jolts of the thighs and hips he performed while singing were seen by many adults as sexually charged. Rock and roll’s early detractors believed the music, with its savagely stimulating beat and affiliation with juvenile delinquency, was leading teens down the path of moral degradation. Yet those outraged by Presley objected less to his singing and ranted mainly about his suggestive pelvic movements. When Presley appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday-evening family-oriented television variety program, the cameramen were reportedly instructed to shoot him only from the waist up, so as not to expose viewers to any potentially offensive moves.

Elvis Presley  (1935–1977 | American singer, actor)
to  Breaking

Prototypical superstar Elvis Presley exerted a seismic influence on American culture. Not only did his provocative renderings of 1950s rock and roll usher in that game-changing genre of American popular music, he also sparked a new demographic: a rebellious youth culture. Rock and roll gave 1950s teens an identity badge that conspicuously distinguished them from their parents and other adults. Their dancing to rock’s hard-driving beat signified more than a simply visceral response to music. It became a wildly liberating generational political statement against the conservative values and inhibiting morals of those in authority.

Breaking—the flashy, acrobatic street dance born of hip-hop culture—represents a similar identity statement for urban youth of the 1970s and beyond. Where you stand vis-à-vis that demographic can be discerned by what you call the dancing. Those who do it are breakers, b-boys or b-girls, and they call their dancing breaking, b-boying or b-girling. In the 1980s, when the commercial entertainment industry grew smitten with breaking and began featuring it in films and music videos, the term break dancing arose. Use of that name implies your closer identification with the style’s appropriators than with its originators.