Dance and Historical Events

Tips for making dance a key resource in teaching U.S. history


Dance helps students better understand the far-reaching impact of events of history on many areas of a nation’s life. For instance:

  • Foreign invasions recorded in history initiated syncretic forces that changed the cultural landscape of the invaded countries. This melding of cultures was often reflected in dance.
  • Historical events that launched exploration and settlement of America contributed to the ethnic and cultural, social and political diversity (pluralism) that still defines America. This diversity is showcased in early American dance styles.
  • The migration of former slaves to the cities of the North following the Civil War implanted dance styles that would feed into the Harlem Renaissance, eventually spread across the nation, and remain dominant in both theatrical and social dance today.
  • The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought a surge of interest in Orientalism. Orientalism was a strong influence in the shaping of early Modern Dance movements, notably in the pioneer work of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn.
  • The immigrant wave of Irish, German, and Eastern European populations that arrived in America in the 1890s infused another layer of diversity in dance styles into American culture. Vaudeville became the showplace for these styles.
  • An historical account of the late 19th century “Robber Baron” era is illuminated and enriched by introduction to the “Victorian” dance styles and manners that dominated “elite” American ballrooms in that era.
  • Some of the most highly prized Modern Dance choreographies are built off of events of history. Two of the most notable are Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring and Frontier. Appalachian Spring tells the story of the hopes and dreams of a young married couple settling in the American West in the early days of the opening of the American frontier. Frontier celebrates the vast land expanse and freedom of the American frontier. A video showing of at least vignettes of these two choreographies reinforces students’ understandings of the magnetic draw of the promise of the American West, the determination and perseverance of the pioneer settlers, and of such events as the Great Awakening that spawned itinerant preachers and evangelical movements in the new frontier.
  • A study of the roles of both theatrical dance and social dance within the climate of World War II deepens students’ understandings of the mindset of that time period. Research into theatrical dance in USO shows performed in defense factories and war zones, as well as social dance styles prevalent in USO dances, would enrich the study of World War II; particularly if as an extension of research, students were encouraged to develop a brief “virtual” USO theatrical show involving dance and/or a “virtual” USO social dance for soldiers on alert to be shipped to a war front. Such an assignment would include investigation of dance styles of the era and problem-solving of specific ways dance styles were shaped by the events of World War II.




Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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