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I think it’s fair to say that dance is grossly underrecognized as an artistic discipline. The most participatory of the arts, it deserves more than applause. Its history, intricacy and artistry are too often overlooked, and dance needs to be reclaimed as a core art form and one of the pillars of cultural expression.

I recall a time when dance studios, like Arthur Godfrey’s or Fred Astaire’s, were omnipresent. There, one could typically learn one of three distinct styles of dancing: tap dancing, with its roots in African and African-American rhythmic foot dances and Irish and English clog dances; ballroom dancing, the formal, elegant, highly styled dances like the foxtrot, the tango and the waltz; and the Latin dances with their fiery beats and quick tempos, including the Cha-Cha, the Paso Doble, the Rumba and the Samba.

Dance studios survive, but they tend to teach other forms of dancing today. Instead of ballroom dancing, you’re much more likely to participate in fitness and movement classes (like Zumba, Barre or Pilates), in folk dances (such as Irish, Flamenco or Bharatanatyam), belly dances, jazz dances, street dances (like break dancing), and popular styles like the two-step. Of course, dance companies offer instruction in ballet, modern dance and jazz dance.

Ballroom dancing, once associated with Irene and Vernon Castle and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, also persists. It can be seen on reruns of “Dancing with the Stars” or at weddings and galas. But it has certainly faded from the mainstream.

Dance is arguably the most widely practiced art form. Americans today are much more likely to dance than to paint or play a musical instrument. And yet, most Americans receive no formal introduction to dance at all. For all the much deserved complaints about the decline of K-12 education in painting or music instruction, few speak up about the utter absence of exposure to dance in our schools.

And yet, I think this is a mistake. Instruction in dance, spanning styles from ballet and modern dance to social and contemporary forms, holds substantial value. For one thing, dance is a highly physical activity, and regular participation can significantly improve overall physical health. It enhances cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, balance and flexibility. In addition, dance requires memorization, coordination and concentration. Engaging in dance from an early age can improve a person’s ability to focus, enhance their memory, and help them develop an understanding of spatial relationships.

Also, dance provides a powerful outlet for emotional expression and social connection. It allows individuals to express feelings and experiences through body movements, which can be therapeutic and healing. Dance can decrease anxiety and boost mood more effectively than many other physical activities. It helps in managing stress and has been used effectively in treatments involving depression and anxiety.

Then, too, dance can enhance cultural literacy by exposing students to the diverse ways people express values, traditions and histories through movement. Dance is a cultural universal, but each culture has its unique dance styles and traditions, and students would benefit from understanding how various cultures and subcultures use body language and movement in religious rituals, artistic expression and social interactions.

I recently attended a performance of the New York City Ballet in honor of the company’s 75th anniversary. Co-founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, the company’s style emphasizes speed, precision and athleticism, featuring challenging jumps, lifts and fast turns, and a minimalist aesthetic that stresses form and technique over narrative.

Its dances differ sharply from those associated with other dance companies.

For example, the style developed by Martha Graham is characterized by the use of contraction and release, modeled on the principles of breathing. It focuses on the expressiveness of the human body and tells stories or expresses intense emotions through dramatic and forceful movements. Graham’s dances often explore complex psychological states and human emotions, tapping into themes of passion, rage, desire and grief.

Unlike abstract dance forms that focus on movement for its own sake, Graham often employed narrative in her choreography. She drew on a wide range of sources, including mythology, American history and contemporary themes, to tell stories through dance. Her narratives were not always linear or literal but were designed to evoke the essence of the story through movement. Her choreography featured a dynamic use of space and stark, angular body movements. She often used the floor in her dances, with dancers performing movements that involved kneeling, reclining and rolling, which was a departure from the upright, ethereal quality of ballet.

Merce Cunningham’s technique, in contrast, emphasizes flexibility, agility and the use of space and rhythm. Its movements are often abstract and devoid of narrative, encouraging viewers to interpret them freely. Jerome Robbins’s style sought to bridge the gap between classical ballet and modern dance. His work in modern dance is characterized by its theatricality, expressive character work and the fusion of various dance forms, including ballet, jazz and contemporary styles. He sought to tell stories through dance and to match choreography to the music’s mood and rhythms.

Lester Horton’s approach emphasizes lateral movements and long extensions, while José Limón’s technique focuses on the natural rhythms of and dynamics between weight and gravity. It emphasizes the use of breath, fluidity of the torso, and quick, rhythmic footwork. Postmodern dance, including the works of Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, challenges conventional dance aesthetics by embracing the idea of movement for movement’s sake and often incorporates everyday movements into its choreography.

Butoh, which originated in Japan after World War II, is a dance form that includes playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, and extreme or absurd environments. It is a stark contrast to Western styles of dance and is often performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion. It often features nudity, contorted faces, writhing bodies and distorted head movements.

My favorite approach is Alvin Ailey’s, which combines elements of modern dance, ballet and jazz to explore themes of African-American heritage and culture. His company’s choreography often draws upon African and African-American dance and Black musical styles, including spirituals, gospel and jazz to explore feelings of pain, joy, triumph and spirituality.

Dance is the most participatory of all art forms. Folks dance at parties, sock hops, clubs and major social events. Yet except for ballet and modern dance, it’s rarely treated as an art form, even when, in the case of break dancing, it is a highly sophisticated form of performance. I view that as a shame. After all, dance has a history that deserves far greater attention than it receives.

Over time, dance has shifted from an element in sacred or social rituals toward entertainment and personal expression. Historically, many dances originated as integral components of religious rituals and ceremonies, serving as a medium for people to connect with the divine, honor deities or mark significant life events such as births, marriages and deaths. These dances were deeply symbolic and often believed to hold spiritual power, affecting aspects of life and the afterlife.

Over time, the role of dance expanded to include social functions. In Europe, ballroom dancing was not only a leisure activity but a sophisticated social art that played a role in courtship and the display and maintenance of social hierarchy. In Western societies, dance also became a performance art. Especially from the Renaissance onward, dance transitioned into a form of spectacle often separated from direct participant involvement.

Dance has, at various times, been used as a tool for political expression and propaganda. Among enslaved African Americans, dancing represented a form of cultural resistance, fostering a sense of collective identity and solidarity and parodying white dance styles. In various revolutionary contexts, dance has served to promote political ideologies, forge national identity or resist oppressive regimes. Dance routines, whether in the form of traditional folk dances or more contemporary street performances, can make powerful political statements and foster group solidarity.

Ballet in Russia or folk dances in Eastern European countries have been promoted as symbols of national identity and cultural heritage. North Korea and the Soviet Union used state-sponsored dance performances to propagate ideological messages, glorify leaders and promote political agendas. Meanwhile, contemporary dance performances use the emotional power of movement to tackle themes like environmental degradation, human rights abuses and social injustice.

In the modern era, dance has become a significant part of the entertainment and commercial industries. From Hollywood movie musicals to music videos and the rise of dance reality shows, dance not only entertains but also sells, influencing fashion, music and nightlife.

Today, dance is also recognized for its benefits to physical and mental health. Dance therapy, which uses dance movements to improve physical and mental health outcomes, highlights the therapeutic aspects of dance, using it to heal, manage stress and improve the quality of life.

In contemporary society, dance also serves as a medium for individual and collective expression. Street dances, flash mobs and social media dance challenges enable people to express their identities and feelings, while also creating communities both online and offline.

I consider the shift away from couples dancing to more individualistic forms of dance expression as the most noteworthy development in social dancing in recent years. Solo dances in genres like hip hop or breakdancing allow performers to showcase their unique styles and personalities. This focus on individualism caters to a broader cultural narrative that values self-expression and personal identity.

Meanwhile, nightclubs and discos tend to prioritize free dancing over structured couples dances. The casual, less formalized environments of many contemporary social venues encourage more freeform individual dancing rather than traditional partnered styles.

I’m convinced that students would benefit enormously from instruction in dance. Dance deserves the same recognition and critical study as every other art form.

I think we all understand intuitively why dance is underappreciated as an art form. For one thing, dance is inherently ephemeral. Once a performance concludes, it exists only in memory or through recordings, which can’t fully capture the experience of a live performance. This transience makes it difficult to study, critique and appreciate over time compared to tangible art forms. Also, because dance is so accessible and can be performed by anyone anywhere, it is often considered as entertainment or mere recreation rather than a disciplined art form. In contemporary U.S. culture, dance is primarily seen as a component of interpersonal interaction rather than as a standalone or communal art form.

But I suspect that the marginalization of dance as an object of serious academic study also has a gender and racial dimension. Dance, particularly in Western contexts, has often been stereotyped as a feminine activity. Because societal norms have historically devalued femininity, this has contributed to dance being seen as less serious or academically significant compared to disciplines considered more masculine.

At the same time, the academic study of dance has often prioritized Western dance forms such as ballet and modern dance over African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous dance forms, which have not received the same recognition or legitimacy as subjects of serious academic inquiry. This Eurocentric bias can marginalize non-Western dance traditions, perpetuating racial hierarchies within the academic study of dance.

Only by recognizing these gender and racial dynamics and actively working to address them can we help elevate the academic study of dance and enrich our understanding of its cultural, social and historical importance.

We need to encourage our students to dance more and acquire an appreciation of dance’s artistry. They should be introduced to dance’s history and learn about dance techniques and styles. They should study how the body can express emotions and communicate ideas and narratives through movements that require both physical and expressive skills.

Let’s give dance its due. There is art in bodily motions and rhythms that, I fear, goes too often unseen. Let’s help our students appreciate the artistry in every step, in every arm, leg, hip and foot movement, and every bend, stretch and fall.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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