Integrating Dance into History Lessons

Dance and Philosophical Constructs in Intellectual History

“Seeing” and “doing” dance is a key resource in teaching history


This article outlines one of five suggested areas of history that can be illuminated and enriched through dance visuals and student dance performance.

Be sure to review the entire series for suggestions in other areas of history.

Using visuals that help define elements of historical time periods is a valuable way to clarify and enrich the presentation of a variety of history topics. “Virtual” history that reconstructs aspects of history in role-playing modes also is a valuable and enriching reinforcement. Including dance within these lesson frames adds yet another meaningful way to engage students in a study of the past.

Whether presented in a Web source or video to be observed, researched, and explicated as a significant statement informing diverse studies of an historical era, or assigned as a student activity to inspire imaginative identification with the era’s people, issues, places or events, dance can be a compelling way to immerse students in a close study of various components of history.

Philosophical idea systems that prevail in various time periods are dynamic forces that define an era’s beliefs in religious, social, and political doctrines; govern societal attitudes and values; evoke events; determine manners and mores in social behavior; influence fashion areas such as hair styles, clothing, architecture, and interior design; and shape themes and forms of arts genres. Basic precepts of these prevailing systems, when examined within a broad context of history, can be articulated and reinforced through observation, research, and performance of dance. The next three tabs give examples.

Ancient History

A study of dance as embodied in primitive cave drawings, Egyptian tomb drawings, Greek and Roman vase carvings and sculptures helps students understand the vital role dance played in the belief systems of these ancient cultures and contributes to the decoding of the philosophical outlook held on such questions as man’s place in the universe, his relationship with a spiritual “other,” his relationship with other men, his values, rituals, and behavioral patterns.

Student research in primary source material of ancient philosophers/scholars such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch concerning modes of and attitudes about dance opens a window of understanding of broad areas of Ancient Greece and Roman culture. For example: theories about societal influences on individuals, the “harmony” of the human body, and prevailing perceptions of gender roles. References to “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” dances in works of Plato and Aristotle and Plutarch’s “Table Talk” on observations of dance are particularly valuable sources in exploring undercurrents of philosophical beliefs and resulting cultural attitudes in Ancient Greece.

Exploration of a wide range of Asian ideologies through study of dance depicted in the wall drawings and sculptures of Ancient Asian cultures gives students insight into established Ancient Asian belief systems. Particularly revealing is evidence of dance as a vital part of ancient religious rituals and as patterns of storytelling throughout the eclectic span of Ancient Asian cultures.

The above avenues of research into ancient idea systems also provide inspirational “starting points” for student problem-solving and other creative endeavors that clarify and reinforce key emphases in a study of Ancient History. For instance: original choreographies or dance scenes portrayed in various studio arts projects such as paintings, pottery, and sculpture based on classroom lessons in Ancient History.

European History

The philosophical shifting of emphasis from a spiritual “other” world to an increasingly secular world—a change in idea base emanating from the rise of universities and emerging philosophical arguments that man is the center of the universe, has free will, and can control his own destiny—can be observed through dance.

As the Medieval world morphed into the Renaissance, pageantry-type dance movement accompanying Medieval mysteries and morality plays and “military”- type feudal dance maneuvers of the Middle Ages were increasingly upstaged by lively country and court dances which showcased the everyday “worldly ”doings of men and women.

Morris dances, first formally recorded in the 15th century and often performed with swords and sticks reminiscent of feudal movements, became increasingly “showy” and intricate. A series of folk dances, such as various reels and jigs, proliferated during this time giving testimony to a “this world” emphasis. (A glimpse of some of the folk dance titles: Gathering Peascods; Black Nag; Washerwoman resonate the changing emphasis.)

Court dances became increasingly elaborate, designed to promote enjoyment and celebrate the accomplishments and graces of a man-centered “humanistic” society. Classical ballet, which emerged first as a social dance in the 15th century, then eventually became a “theatrical” dance, emphasized the graceful contours, the control and movements of the human body.

The 17th century philosophical shift back to emphasis on a spiritual “other” world during Oliver Cromwell’s Interregnum, and the resulting rigidity and social strictures of Puritanism, can be reinforced through exploration of Cromwell’s “edicts” concerning theaters and dancing.

With the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748, scholarly investigation of numerous areas of Ancient Greece and Roman life intensified. Scientific inquiry and emphasis on “reason,” fueled by the arguments of such philosopher/scholars as Spinoza, John Locke, Voltaire, Sir Frances Bacon, and Isaac Newton, changed social and political outlooks, values, and behavioral patterns throughout Europe.

This “Age of Enlightenment” served as a platform for widespread infusion of philosophical precepts of antiquity into Western thought and institutional designs. Discipline, pragmatic reasoning, reserve, and formality dominated manners and mores of a wide span of the population. Arts genres were formally categorized and codified and the aesthetic principles of balance, order, symmetry, repetition, and metered rhythms characterized arts expression. Expectations for performance were carefully scripted.

The history of Classical Ballet offers outstanding examples of the influence of the above late 15th into 18th century idea systems. Student presentations on the history of Classical Ballet within the historical frame of these time periods, accompanied by demonstrations of the discipline expectations, formality, and “codification” of ballet (the five positions of hands and feet and defined steps, each with a French name), as it had evolved by the 18th century, provide a “living” example of the power of philosophical constructs of intellectual history to reshape cultural consciousness.

Engaging the whole class in learning basic steps of the Minuet and the accompanying expectations in formal etiquette (such as bows and recognition of a “Presence” to initiate the dance), also the “mathematical” structural design of Minuet floor patterns, is another compelling way to support a study of the intellectual and cultural history from the era. Dance journals also help clarify the strong influence of philosophical precepts on shaping cultural aspects of this time period.

Dance, likewise, can help inculcate basic precepts of 19th century Romanticism. The philosophical arguments of return to Nature and celebration of peasant life; the assertions for re-establishing emphasis on the spiritual, emotional, and imaginative dimensions of the individual; the nature of evil and good within the “Sublime;” the attempts of man to break through the barriers to engage in the world of the “Sublime” are dramatically displayed in the themes, plots, and expositions of 19th century Romantic ballet choreographies such as La Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. In social dancing, the Waltz projects the new freedom of expression and the lyrical, sweeping, undulating, and “spiritual” pulse of 19th century Romanticism.

Videos of these great ballets, and others, are accessible for classroom study and students could be assigned to explicate specific ways a Romantic ballet mirrors elements of 19th century intellectual history. A vignette of a Romantic ballet performed by a student(s) trained in classical ballet would enrich the assignment. The “voices” of such philosopher/scholars as Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Goethe that shape Western intellectual and cultural history of the Romantic era come alive when a whole history class studies a great Romantic ballet and, in social dancing, learns the history, dances the steps, and practices the accompanying ballroom patterns and manners of the Waltz.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freud’s arguments of the “divided self,” Nietzsche’s Nihilist theories, and the alienation inherent in 20th century Existentialism forcibly challenge existing cultural, social, and political outlooks. The changes at the turn and into the 20th century wrought by these challenges become the undercurrents of the themes and forms of many Modern, Post-Modern and Contemporary Dance choreographies. The philosophical arguments against tyranny and the continued reach for freedom and equality also resonate in the works of these 20th and 21st century “Modernist” dance genres.

Dance choreographies that help define the influences of the above sources, for instance: Nijinsky’s Apres-Midi d’un Faune; Martha Graham’s Heretic, Night Journey, and Lamentation; George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments; Mark Morris’ L’Allegro are examples of a wide collection that reveal the dramatic shift of societal perceptions from long-held beliefs about the nature of man to embrace such “Modernist” themes as evolution, man “alone in the universe,” perception as being the relativity of the “interior” mind of the individual. In design, they reveal the increasing abstractions and fragmentation in forms of arts expression.

Isadora Duncan’s Marseille and The Revolutionary, Martha Graham's Deep Song, and Alvin Ailey's Revolution are examples of choreographies that mount statements about tyranny and freedom. All of the above are provocative sources for affirming for students the power of idea bases to transform intellectual and cultural history.

American History

The philosophical influences shaping manners, mores, and dance styles of Europeans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries also dominated the intellectual and cultural life of a wide span of America’s population. Journal entries, letters, diaries, magazine and newspaper accounts, and programs of formal balls and theater events in America from early colonization until almost the end of the 19th century provide strong evidence of how long this “umbilical cord” relationship held. An argument also is made that threads of Puritan beliefs and outlooks implanted in the early New England colonies have sustained throughout time as strong strands of influence in American thought and culture.

Certainly American dance styles in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries closely mirrored the European dance styles shaped by the idea bases of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism in those time periods—again, tempered somewhat, according to some dance scholars, by threads of Puritanism implanted in the early New England colonies. George Washington, for instance, was noted for his accomplishments in dancing Minuets. Several Minuets are named after George Washington, others after “Lady” Martha Washington, but the basic modes and manners of these Minuets and other 18th century dances are European.

As in European history, student demonstrations of some of the steps and styles and "proper" manners of the American-adapted Minuet and Waltz, followed by teaching the whole class the steps and styles, help students grasp the intellectual and cultural climate driven by the philosophical outlooks influencing American life in that historical period in America.

Modern, Post-Modern, and Contemporary Dance choreographies and the missions and modes of American Modernist dance choreographers are revealing sources for examining the intellectual and cultural history of a dramatically changed 20th century world. Study of these choreographies and “pioneer” choreographers also give insight into the historical context of emerging influence of American artists worldwide as they reach to articulate the psychological, societal, and political extensions of philosophical change driven by science, technology, and war. The argument also could be made that the prevailing style of “solo” social dance that developed in the last half of the 20th century, and still prevails, is an extension of this philosophical Existential outlook.



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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