Well, yes – in the last century social dancing came to define modern ballet. The first dancers were known as gladiators, and the first female entertainers. They competed in events, and were rewarded with costumes, weapons and gifts. These competitions, though, were often the only chance that people had to see these dancers in person for themselves.
It was not until the 1850s that female gladiators started to get a good measure of popular appeal. In the 1860s one of the greatest male gladiators was in the US (the original and, later, last of this group), and by the 1890s the American Dance Company had put dancers in its repertoire, as had the First British Association of Ladies of the Ballet (the last of its kind).
Today, we would probably be quite a bit poorer without the dancers of these early years – the gladiators were the best of the best and the best of the best, but it was a whole different thing back in the early 20th Century.
Didn’t they have any fun with the audience?
Yes and no. The American and First British dance companies offered much of the time in their competitions: the only competition that mattered was the general dance review – the only contests in which the dancers could not be paid for attendance.
A ballet review could run only from one to five days, and a gladiatorial contest could last up to three months. This was a bit of a time investment for most people, and there was certainly no time to be wasting.
Did social dancing really play such an important role in creating contemporary dance?
Yes. Social dancing – the dancing for social purposes – became one of the great institutions of the 20th Century. In Germany, where social dancing had its first roots, it was also the most popular form of dancing and was recognised in numerous international competitions.
But social dancing has never been an exclusively female form of dancing. As a contemporary piece of dance, ballet is just as likely to be seen as a male instrument, as it is to be seen as a female one. What was attractive about this kind of dancing was its social relevance: it allowed men, women and the working classes (especially the poorest) to share their joys and sorrows.
So where does social dancing fit in with dance history?
Social dancing helped to define the very essence of ballet. It helped define modern dance: although we may have moved past its formal origins