The Beginnings of Art

Date: 1897

The Dance

While the significance which pictorial art in lifeless material has acquired among the higher peoples can be discerned, at least in the germ, among the lower tribes, the great social power which the living picture, the dance, once possessed, can hardly be guessed to-day. The modern dance is only a degenerated æsthetical and social remnant; the primitive dance is the most immediate, most perfect, and most efficient expression of the primitive æsthetic feeling.

The characteristic mark of the dance is the rhythmical order of the motions. There is no dance without rhythm. The dances of hunting peoples can be divided, according to their character, into two groups—mimetic and gymnastic dances. The mimetic dances consist of rhythmical imitations of the motions of animals and men, while the movements in gymnastic dances follow no natural model. Both kinds appear side by side among the most primitive tribes.

Best known are the gymnastic dances of the Australians, the corroborries, which have been described in nearly every account of Australian travel, for they are known over the whole continent. The corroborries are always performed at night, and generally by moonlight. We do not, however, consider it necessary, for that reason, to regard them as religious ceremonies. Moonlight nights are chosen probably not because they are holy, but because they are clear. The dancers are usually men, while women form the orchestra. Frequently several tribes join in a great dancing festival; four hundred participants having occasionally been counted in Victoria. The largest and most noteworthy festivals apparently take place on the conclusion of a peace; moreover, all the more important events of Australian life are celebrated by dances—the ripening of a fruit, the beginning of the oyster dredging, the initiation of the youth, a meeting with a friendly tribe, the march to battle, a successful hunt. The corroborries of different occasions and of different tribes are so like one another that the observer is acquainted with them all when he has seen one. Let us suppose ourselves attending one described by Thomas in the colony of Victoria. The scene is a clearing in the bush. In the middle of it blazes a large fire, the ruddy glare of which is mingled with the bluish light of the full moon. The dancers are not yet visible; they have retired into the dark shrubbery to put on their festal decorations. On one side of the fire are assembled the women who are to form the orchestra. All at once a crackling and rustling are heard, and the dancers appear. The thirty men who have entered within the circle of the firelight have all painted, with white earth, rings around the eyes and long streaks on the body and limbs. They wear, besides, tufts of leaves on their ankles and an apron of hide around their loins. Meanwhile the women have arranged themselves, facing one another, into a horseshoe-shaped group. They are entirely naked. Each holds on her knees a neatly folded and tightly stretched opossum skin, which serves at other times as a robe. Between them and the fire stands the director. He wears the usual apron of opossum skin, and holds a stick in each hand. The spectators sit or stand around in a large circle. The director casts a searching glance at the dancers, then turns and slowly approaches the women. He strikes his two sticks abruptly together; the dancers have arranged themselves with the rapidity of lightning in a line, and advance; then they halt. A new pause, while the director reviews the line. All is in order, and now at last he gives the signal. He begins by beating the time with his two sticks; the dancers fall in with the movement; the women sing and beat on the opossum hides, and the corroborry begins. It is astonishing how accurately the time is kept; the tunes and the movements are all in unison. The dancers move as smoothly as the best-trained ballet-troupe. They assume all possible positions, sometimes springing aside, sometimes advancing, sometimes retiring one or two steps; they stretch and bend themselves, swing their arms and stamp with their feet. Nor is the director idle. While he is beating the time with his sticks, he continually executes a peculiar nasal song, louder or more softly by turn, as he makes a step forward or backward. He does not stand in the same place for an instant; now he turns toward the dancers, now toward the women, who then lift up their voices with all their might. The dancers gradually become more excited; the time-sticks are struck faster; the motions become more rapid and vigorous; the dancers shake themselves, spring into the air to an incredible height, and finally utter a shrill cry, as if from one mouth. An instant later, and they have all vanished into the bushes as suddenly as they came out of them. The place remains empty for a while. Then the director gives the signal anew, and the dancers again appear. This time they form a curved line. In other respects the second part is like a continuation of the first one. The women advance, beating and singing at times as loud as if they would split their throats, at other times so softly that their murmuring is hardly audible. The ending is similar to that of the first part; and a third, fourth, and fifth act are performed in a similar style. At one time, however, the dancers form a band four files deep: the first line springs aside; those behind it advance, and in this way the mass moves forward toward the women. The troop looks now like an inextricable tangle of bodies and limbs; and one would think the dancers were about to break one another’s skulls with their wildly brandished sticks. But in reality a strict regulation prevails now as in the earlier part of the dance. The excitement is at its height; the dancers cry out, stamp, and jump; the women beat time as if they were crazy, and sing with all the strength of their lungs; the fire, which is blazing up high, scatters a shower of red sparks over the wild scene; and then the director raises his arms high over his head; a loud clapping breaks through the tumult, and the next instant the dancers are gone. The women and the spectators rise and disperse to their miams. A half hour later nothing is stirring in the moonlit clearing except the waning fire. Such is an Australian corroborry.

The corroborry of the men, as we have said, always offers substantially the same spectacle, but the dance of the women, which is apparently much more rarely introduced, presents a very different character. We owe the best description of the woman’s dance to Eyre. "The dancing women," he says, "clasp their hands over their heads, lock their feet, and press their knees together. Then the legs are thrown outward from the knee— while the feet and hands remain in their original position—and are brought together again so quickly as to give a sharp sound when they strike. This dance is performed either by one girl alone, or by several, at pleasure. Sometimes, too, a woman dances it alone before a file of male dancers in order to excite their passion. In another figure the feet are kept close together on the ground, and the dancers move forward, while describing a small semicircle, by a peculiar wriggling of the body. This dance is almost solely performed by young girls in concert." The corroborries of the Tasmanians, so far as can be judged from the scanty accounts we have of them, did not differ from those of the Australians.

The striking resemblance which we have so far remarked at every step between the Australians and the Mincopies extends also to the dance. The dances of the Mincopies so resemble those of the Australians that they might be interchangeable with them. The occasions are the same—a visit of friends, and beginning of a season, recovery from illness, and the end of a period of mourning; in short, every event which would excite a joyful feeling in the people. In addition to these, larger festivals are celebrated, to which several tribes resort. On a little clearing in the midst of the thick jungle, says Man, are collected more than a hundred bepainted men and women. The moon pours down its soft light, while out of every hut the ruddy glow of fires casts wierd shadows through the scattered groups. On one side sit in a row the women who are to sing in chorus the refrain of the dancing song; on the other side are seen the dusky forms of the spectators, many of whom take part in the performance by clapping their hands in unison. The director, who is likewise the poet and composer of the dance melody, stations himself where he can be seen by all; his foot resting on the narrow end of the sounding-board, and, supporting his body on a spear or a bow, he beats the time for the singers and dancers, tapping on the sounding-board with the sole or the heel of his other foot. During his solo, which has the character of a recitative, all the other voices are silent, and the spectators remain motionless; but as soon as the sign for the refrain is given, a number of dancers plunge in wild excitement into the arena, and, while performing their parts with passionate energy, the song of the women becomes stronger. The dancer bends his back and throws his whole weight upon one leg, which is bent at the knee. His hands are extended forward at the height of his breast, the thumb of one being held between the thumb and forefinger of the other, while the other fingers are extended upward. In this position he advances, hopping on one foot and stamping on the ground with the other at every second motion. He thus crosses the whole arena forward and backward, to the time of the sounding-board and the song. When the dancer tires, he indulges himself in a little change by giving the time in a peculiar fashion, bending his knees and raising his heels from the ground exactly according to the measure. As in Australia, in the Adaman Islands the women do not take part in the dances of men. But they have their own dances, which, according to the accounts of some eyewitnesses, are of rather doubtful propriety. Man’s description, however, furnishes nothing remarkable concerning them. He says that the women swing their arms forward and backward, while their knees are bent and moved up and down. Now and then the dancer advances two steps and begins the movements anew.

The Bushmen have so lively a talent for mimicry that we might expect to see it exercised in their dances. Nevertheless, the accounts, which are scanty enough, mention only gymnastic dancers. The most complete description of a Bushman dance is found in Burchell. The dance took place in the evening in a hut that belonged to the head man, "and there were in it as many persons of both sexes as could sit in a circle and leave the dancers standing room. A bright fire was blazing close by the entrance. The dancer was in an ecstacy of vivacity and satisfaction, in which he cared for nothing about him and hardly thought of himself. As an adult can hardly stand up, even in the largest hut, the dancer was obliged to support himself on two long sticks, which he held in his hands and which rested on the floor as far apart as was conveniently practicable. Consequently his body was bent forward in an extremely constrained position, and a very awkward one for dancing. On the other hand, his limbs were not restrained by clothing, for he wore nothing but his jackal’s skin. In this position he danced without pausing. Sometimes he did not even support himself on the sticks. It was the privilege of each of the company, when his turn came, to take his place and dance as long as he pleased; then another put on the rattle, which is there generally used. This dance is peculiar, and so far as I know there is nothing like it among any other savage tribes on the globe. One foot was firmly planted, while the other was kept in rapid and irregular motion, but without suffering any notable change of place, although the knee and lower part of the leg moved hither and thither as far as the position permitted. The arms, having to support the body, were only slightly moved. The dancer sang all the while, keeping time with his movements. Sometimes he let his body down and raised it again quickly, till at last, wearied by the difficult motions, he sank to the ground to catch his breath. He continued to sing, however, and moved his body, keeping time with the singing of the spectators. After a few minutes he rose again and resumed his dance with new vigour. When one leg was tired, or when the course of the dance brought it about, the turn of the other came. The dancer wore a kind of rattle on each ankle, which was made of four springboks’ ears joined together, containing a number of pieces of ostrich-egg shells, which gave at each movement of the foot a sound that was not unpleasant or harsh, and considerably enhanced the effect of the performance. Although only one person could dance at a time, the whole company present took part in the ceremony, all the members, as well as the dancers, accompanying and assisting in the evening’s entertainment. This accompaniment consisted of singing and drumming; all sang and kept time by gently clapping their hands. The words they used, which mean nothing in themselves, were Ae-o, ae-o, continually repeated. The hands were struck together at the sound O, and the dancer pronounced the syllables Wa-wa-kuh. Neither sex was excluded from the singing, and, though the voices did not all give the same tone, they were still in good accord. The girls sang five or six tones higher, and in a much more animated manner." A dance which was performed in the open air in the presence of Arbousset and Daumas was of an entirely different character. The Bushmen, according to their account, "would not dance until they had eaten and were full, and then in the middle of the kraal by moonlight. The movements consisted of irregular leaps, and were, to borrow a native comparison, like those of a herd of gambolling calves. The dancers jumped till they were tired out and covered with perspiration. The thousand-voice cries they uttered and the movements they executed were so difficult that now one, now another were seen to fall to the ground completely exhausted and covered with blood, which streamed from their nostrils. On that account this dance was called mokoma, or blood dance."

Our information concerning the dances of the Fuegians is very scanty. Dramatic representations, some of which may be mimetic dances, are mentioned of only one tribe, the Yahgans. Of gymnastic dances among them we know absolutely nothing, but we should not therefore presume that they have none. Of the dances of the Botocudo, too, not a word can be found in most of the accounts. The Prince of Wied expressly denied that there were any, but Ehrenreich saw some after the prince’s visit and has described them: "On festive occasions, as when a successful hunt or a victory is celebrated or a stranger is received, the whole horde collects at night around the camp fire for the dance. Men and women form a circle in motley arrangement, each dancer places his arms around the necks of his neighbours, and then the whole circle begins to turn toward the right or the left, all stamping at once lustily with the foot of the side toward which they are turning and drawing the other foot quickly after it. Soon with bowed heads they press more and more closely upon one another, after which they break ranks. All the while a monotonous song is sung, the time of which is followed by the feet."

Among the Eskimo, at least in the descriptions, the gymnastic dances are of somewhat less account than the mimetic. "The dances," says Boas, "are held in summer in the open air, but in winter in a feast-house built on purpose for them. This house is a large dome of snow, about fifteen English feet high and twenty feet in diameter. In the middle of it is a pillar of snow about five feet high on which the lamps stand. When the villagers collect in this building for singing and dancing, the married women station themselves in a line along the wall and the unmarried ones form a second concentric circle, while the men sit in the inner circle. The children form two groups by the sides of the door. At the beginning of the festival one of the men seizes the drum, steps into the open space near the door, and begins to sing and dance. The songs are composed by the singer himself, and satirical compositions are most in favour on these occasions. While the men are silently listening, the women join in a chorus with the words ’amna aya.’ The dancer, who remains at the same place, stamps rhythmically with his feet and swings his body hither and thither, beating the drum all the time. While dancing he strips himself to the waist, keeping on only his breeches and boots." In another gymnastic dance, which Bancroft, for some reason unmentioned, calls the national dance of the Eskimo, each of the girls steps in succession into the midst of the circle while the others dance around her with hands entwined, singing. "The most extravagant motions gain the greatest applause." While the gymnastic dances are usually solos, several actors may appear at the same time in the mimetic dances. "The dancers, who are commonly young men, bare themselves to the waist or even appear quite naked. They execute numerous burlesque imitations of birds and animals, while their movements are accompanied with the beating of tambourines and singing They are sometimes fantastically dressed in breeches of sealskin and reindeer hide and wear feathers or a coloured cloth on their heads." The representations are, however, not limited to animal life. A monotonous refrain, accompanied by drumming, calls one young man after another upon the dancing place till a circle of about twenty is formed. Then begins a series of pantomimic representations of love, jealousy, hatred, and friendship."

As compared with the uniform character of the corroborry, the mimetic dances in Australia afford a great diversity. The animal dances, again, have the first place. There are emu, dingo, frog, and butterfly dances, but no other seems to enjoy such general popularity as the kangaroo dance, which has been described by numerous travellers. All agree in admiring the mimetic talent which the natives display in them. Nothing more comical and no more successful imitation, says Mundy, could be imagined than to see the dancers all hopping round in rivalry. Eyre saw the kangaroo dance on Lake Victoria "so admirably executed that it would have called down thunders of applause in any European theatre." Subjects for mimetic dances are afforded by the two most important events of human life—love and the battle. Mundy describes a mimic war dance which he saw in New South Wales. The dancers performed first a series of complicated and wild movements in which dubs, spears, boomerangs, and shields were brandished. Then "all at once the mass divided into groups, and with deafening shrieks and passionate cries they sprang upon one another in a hand-to-hand fight. One side was speedily driven out of the field and pursued into the darkness, whence howls, groans, and the strokes of clubs could be heard, producing the perfect illusion of a terrible massacre. Suddenly the whole troupe again came up close to the fire, and having arranged themselves in two ranks, the time of the music was changed. The dancers moved in slower rhythm, accompanying every step with stamping and a grunting sound. Gradually the drum beats and the movements became more rapid till they attained as nearly a lightning-like velocity as the human body can reach. Sometimes the dancers all sprang into the air to a surprising height, and when they struck the ground again the calves of their widely spreading legs trembled so violently that the stripes of white clay looked like wriggling snakes, and a loud hissing filled the air." The love dances of the Australians are passed over in most of the accounts with a few suggestive references. They are hardly suitable for exhaustive descriptions. "I have seen dances," writes Hodgkinson, "which consist of the most repulsive of obscene motions that one can imagine, and, although I was alone in the darkness, and nobody observed my presence, I was ashamed to be a witness of such abomination." It will be sufficient to consider one dance of this sort—the kaaro of the Wachandi: "The festival begins with the first new moon after the yams are ripe, and is opened by the men with an eating and drinking bout; then a dance is executed in the moonlight around a pit which is surrounded with shrubbery. The pit and file shrubbery represent the female organ, which they are made to resemble, while the spears swung by the men represent the male member. The men jump around, betraying their sexual excitement with the wildest and most passionate gestures, thrusting their spears into the pit." In this dance Scherer, the historian of literature, has discovered the "primitive germ of poetry." War and love are, as we have said, the chief motives stimulating the Australians to mimetic dances, but less suggestive scenes are also represented. Thus a canoe dance is performed in the north. For it the participants "paint themselves with white and red and carry sticks to represent paddles. The dancers arrange themselves in two ranks; each one holds the stick behind his back and moves his feet alternately with the rhythm of the song. At a signal all bring their sticks forward and swing them rhythmically back and forth like paddles, as if they were paddling in one of their light canoes. Finally, we may mention a mimetic dance that symbolizes death and the resurrection. Parker saw it when among the aborigines at Loddon. The performance was led by an old man who had learned the dance from the Northwestern tribes. "The dancers held boughs in their hands, with which they gently fanned themselves over the shoulders, and after they had danced for some time in rows and half circles they gradually collected into a close circular group. They then slowly sank to the ground, and, hiding their heads under the boughs, they represented the approach, and, in the perfectly motionless position in which they remained for some time, the condition of death. Then the old man gave the sign by abruptly beginning a new lively dance and wildly flourishing his bough over the resting group. All sprang up at once and fell into the joyous dance that was intended to signify the return to life of the soul after death."

No protracted research is needed to estimate the pleasure these gymnastic and mimetic performances afford to the performers and the spectators. There is no other artistic act which moves and excites all men like the dance. In it primitive men doubtless find the most intense æsthetic enjoyment of which they are generally capable. Most primitive dance movements are very energetic. We need only to go back to the years of our childhood to recollect the lively pleasure that was associated" with such vigorous and rapid motions, provided that in them a certain measure of duration and exertion was not exceeded. And this feeling was the stronger as the emotional tension relieved by them was more intense. To continue unmoved outwardly when inwardly disturbed is a great pain, and it is a delight to give vent to inner pressure by outer movements. We have seen, in fact, that occasion is given for dances among hunting tribes by any event that excites the mobile feelings of the primitive peoples. The Australian dances around the booty he has secured as the child hops around his Christmas tree.

Yet if the dance movements were only active the pleasure of energetic motion would soon give place to the unpleasant feeling of weariness. The æsthetic character of the dance lies less in the energy than in the order of the movements. We have pronounced rhythm the most important property of the dance, and have thereby only given expression to the peculiar feeling of primitive men, who observe before all else a strict rhythmical regulation of the movements in their dances. "It is astonishing," says Eyre in his description of Australian dances, "to see how perfectly the time is maintained, and how admirably exact is the coincidence of the motions of the dancers with the intonations of the music." And a similar impression has been made upon all who have observed the dances of the primitive men. This enjoyment of rhythm is without doubt deeply seated in the human organization. It is, however, an exaggeration to say that the rhythmical is always the natural form of our movements; however, a large portion of them, particularly those which serve in making a change of place, are executed naturally in rhythmical form. Further, every stronger emotional excitement, as Spencer has justly observed, tends to express itself in rhythmical movements of the body; and Gurney adds the pertinent remark that every emotional movement is in and of itself rhythmical. In this way the rhythm of the motions of the dance appears to be simply the natural form of the movements of locomotion sharply and powerfully exalted by the pressure of emotional excitement. The value of rhythm as a factor of pleasure is still not accounted for by this observation; although we can not make a definition avail as an explanation, we are compelled to receive it. for the present as a finality. In any case the pleasure is felt by primitive at least as strongly as by civilized peoples. The study of their poetry and music will supply us with further evidence.

So far it has not been necessary to distinguish between gymnastic and mimetic dances, for the pleasure in energetic and rhythmical movements is enjoyed in both kinds alike. The mimetic dances afford primitive man a further delight which he does not find in the gymnastic dances. They gratify his propensity for imitation, which sometimes appears to be developed into a real passion. The Bushmen take the greatest pleasure in "imitating with deceptive exactness the movements of particular men or animals;" "all the Australian aborigines have a surprising gift of mimicry," which they exercise on every occasion; and it is told of the Fuegians that "they repeat with perfect accuracy every word of a remark pleasing to them that is made in their presence, copying even the manner and the bearing of the speaker." In respect to this trait, a striking analogy exists between primitive peoples and the primitive individual, the child. The same passion for mimicry can be observed in our children, and in them, too, it is not unfrequently gratified in mimetic dances. The propensity to imitation is certainly a universal human property, but it does not prevail with the same force in all grades of development. In the lowest stages of culture it is almost irresistible in all members of society. But the more the differences between the several social members increase with the progress of civilization the less does its power become, and the most highly cultivated person strives above all to be like himself only. Consequently the mimetic dances which play so large a part among the primitive tribes are put further and further into the background, and have a place left for them only in the child world, where the primitive man is forever returning to live anew. The highest pleasure-giving value must doubtless be ascribed to those mimetic dances which represent the working of human passions—as, in the first rank, war dances and love dances; for while they, no less than the gymnastic and the other mimetic dances, satisfy the liking for active and rhythmic movements and the propensity to imitate, they afford besides that beneficent cleansing and freeing of the mind from the wild, turbulent passions that vent themselves through them—that katharsis which Aristotle declared to be the highest and the best effect of tragedy. This last form of mimetic dance constitutes in fact the transition to the drama, which appears, from the point of view of development of history, as a differentiated form of the dance. When we seek to distinguish between the dance and the drama among primitive peoples, we have to depend on an external mark the presence or absence of rhythm. But both are at the bottom identical in nature and effect at this stage of development.

Pleasure in vigorous and rhythmical motions, pleasure in imitation, pleasure in the discharge of violent emotions—these factors afford a satisfactory explanation of the passion with which primitive peoples cultivate the dancing art. The joys of the dance are of course most intensely and immediately experienced by the dancers themselves. But the delights which blaze in the actors stream out likewise over the spectators, and these have further an enjoyment which is denied the others. The dancer can not regard himself or his associates; he can not enjoy the view of the lusty, regular, alternating movements, singly and in mass, as the beholders do. He feels the dance, but does not see it; the spectator does not feel the dance, but sees it. On the other hand, the dancer is compensated by the knowledge that he is drawing the good will and admiration of his public toward himself. In this way both parties rise to a passionate excitement; they become intoxicated by the tones and movements; the enthusiasm rises higher and higher, and swells finally into a real madness, which not rarely breaks out with violence. When we contemplate the powerful effects which the primitive dances produce upon the actors as well as upon the spectators, we can understand without further inquiry why the dance has often acquired the significance of a religious ceremony. It is quite natural for the primitive man to suppose that the exercises which make so powerful an impression upon him can also exert a definite influence on the spiritual and demoniacal powers whose disposition controls his fate. So he executes dances in order to frighten away or to propitiate the ghosts and demons. Parker has described an Australian dance which was intended to propitiate Mindi, a terrible demon, and secure his aid against the enemies of the tribe: "Rude images, one large figure and two small ones, carved out of bark and painted, were set up in a distant spot. The place was strictly tabooed. The men, and after them the women, decked in foliage and carrying a small rod with a tuft of feathers in their hands, danced up to the spot in a single, sharply curved line; and, having gone round it several times, they approached the principal figure and touched it timidly with their rods." A similar figure appeared in the religious dance observed by Eyre at Moorunde. "The dancers, who were painted and adorned as usual, wore tufts of cockatoo feathers on their heads. Some also carried sticks with similar tufts in their hands, while others held bunches of green foliage. After they had danced a while they withdrew, and when they appeared again they carried a curious rude figure which rose high in the air. It consisted of a bundle of grass and reeds wrapped in a kangaroo skin, the inner side of which was turned out and was painted all over with little white circles. A slender stick with a large tuft of feathers, which was intended to represent the head, projected from the upper end, and at the sides were two sticks with tufts of feathers coloured red, representing the hands. In front was a stick about six inches long, with a thick knot of grass at the end, around which was wrapped a piece of old cloth. This was painted white, and represented the navel. The whole figure was about eight feet long, and was evidently intended to represent a man. It was carried for a considerable time in the dance. Afterward two standards took its place, which were formed of poles and were borne by two persons. These, too, finally disappeared, and the dancers advanced with their spears." It is very probable that other primitive peoples have religious dances; but they have not yet been described. Even in Australia religious dances have been comparatively seldom observed. Gerland says, indeed, that "originally all dances were religious;" but he has not been able to prove this assertion. In fact, it has no support, so far as is known to us. There is nothing to require us to suppose that the Australian dances possessed originally any other meaning than the one they now suggest to an unprejudiced view, Only the smaller number bear the character of religious ceremonies; the great majority aim only at æsthetic expression and the æsthetic stimulation of passionate emotional movements.

The purpose is not identical with the effect. While the purpose of most primitive dances is purely aesthetic, their effect extends widely and mightily beyond æsthetic limits. No other primitive art has so high a practical and cultural meaning as the dance. From the height of our civilization we are at first inclined to look for this meaning in the association of the sexes which the dance brings about. This is, indeed, the only social function that is left to the modern dance. But the primitive dance and the modern dance are so extremely different in their character that no conclusion whatever can be drawn from the one as to the other. The particular feature which has caused the modern dance to be favoured by both sexes—the close and familiar pairing of the male and the female dancers—is absent from most of the primitive dances. The dances of hunting peoples are usually executed by the men alone, while the women have only to care for the musical accompaniment. There are, however, dances in which men and women take part together, and these are for the most part undoubtedly calculated to excite sexual passion. We may further assert that even the male dances promote sexual association. A skilful and sturdy dancer will certainly not fail to make a profound impression upon the female spectators; and as a skilful and sturdy dancer is also a skilful and strong hunter and warrior, the dance may contribute in this way to sexual selection and to the improvement of the race. Yet, however great may be the significance of the primitive dance in this respect, it is still not great enough to justify by itself the assumption that no other primitive art exercises so important a cultural function as the dance.

The dances of the hunting peoples are, as a rule, mass dances. Generally the men of the tribe, not rarely the members of several tribes, join in the exercises, and the whole assemblage then moves according to one law in one time. All who have described the dances have referred again and again to this "wonderful" unison of the movements. In the heat of the dance the several participants are fused together as into a single being, which is stirred and moved as by one feeling. During the dance they are in a condition of complete social unification, and the dancing group feels and acts like a single organism. The social significance of the primitive dance lies precisely in this effect of social unification. It brings and accustoms a number of men who, in their loose and precarious conditions of life, are driven irreguarly hither and thither by different individual needs and desires to act under one impulse with one feeling for one object. It introduces order and connection, at least occasionally, into the rambling, fluctuating life of the hunting tribes. It is, besides wars, perhaps the only factor that makes their solidarity vitally perceptible to the adherents of a primitive tribe, and it is at the same time one of the best preparations for war, for the gymnastic dances correspond in more than one respect to our military exercises. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the primitive dance in the culture development of mankind. All higher civilization is conditioned upon the uniformly ordered cooperation of individual social elements, and primitive men are trained to this cooperation by the dance.

The hunting tribes appear to have some perception of the socializing influence of their dances. In Australia the corroborry at least serves "as an assurance of peace between single tribes. Two tribes, desiring to confirm mutual good feeling, dance it together." On the Adaman islands the tribes hold a market fair in connection with their joint dancing festivals. It is proper to remark, finally, in order to estimate the full influence of these intertribal festivals, that they are often of very considerable duration. Lumholtz tells, for example, of one that occupied six entire weeks.

The fact that the highest significance of the dance lies in its socializing influence accounts for its former power and its present decay. Even under the most favourable conditions only a somewhat limited number of persons can engage in a dance at once. We have seen that among the Australians and on the Andaman Islands men of several tribes dance together; but hunting tribes have only small poll lists. With the progress of culture and the improvement of the means of production the social groups increase; the small hordes grow into tribes, the members of which are much too numerous for all to join in a common dance; and in this way the dance gradually loses its socializing function, and consequently loses also its importance. Among hunting peoples the dance is a public festival ceremony; among modern civilized nations it is either an empty theatrical spectacle on the stage, or, in the ballroom, a simple social enjoyment. The only social function left it is that of facilitating the mutual approach of the sexes, and even in this respect its value has become very questionable. We can, moreover, suppose that the primitive dance served as a medium for sexual selection toward the improvement of the race, as the most active and skilful hunter is also usually the most persistent and nimble dancer. But mental rather than bodily vigour prevails in our stage of civilization, and the heroes and heroines of the ballroom often enough play but a sorry part in sober life. The ballet of civilization, finally, with its repulsive sprawling attitudes and distorted perversions of Nature, may, to speak mildly, at best but satisfy vulgar curiosity. It can not be said that the dance has won in æsthetic what it has lost in social significance by the development of civilization. We have already pronounced upon the artistic value of our ballet, and the purely æsthetic enjoyment which our society dances as dances afford to the participants and to the spectators is hardly sufficient to account for their popularity. The modern dance presents itself to us in every respect as a vestigial organ which has become useless in consequence of changed conditions of life, and has therefore degenerated. Its former great function has been long since transferred to other arts. What the dance was for the social life of the hunting tribes, poetry is for civilized nations.—E. n/a GROSSE, n/a n/a , 207–31. (Copyright, 1897, by D. Appleton & Co.)

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Chicago: The Beginnings of Art in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 578–593. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: . The Beginnings of Art, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 578–593. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: , The Beginnings of Art. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.578–593. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from