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Ballroom: The Dance That Globalization Built

By Sarah Godel, Smith College

Ballroom dance is consistently transforming itself.  From its earliest form in the late sixteenth century, ballroom has continued to grow and evolve into what it is today.  Ballroom has been “ a living thing influenced by events and sensitive to what is going on all around,” whether it be “a change of fashion, war, an upsurge of interest in a particular foreign country, pop music, increased opportunities for travel, social upheavals, the popularity of film… television [or] music” (Silvester 14).  The transitory nature of ballroom is what makes it so exciting to study within the context of globalization.  By examining the ways in which ballroom has evolved due to cross cultural contributions, whether borrowed or appropriated, and consumption, I hope to provide insight into the role that globalization has had on ballroom as a genre. In fact, I propose that it is globalization, and its influence on ballroom’s shifting form and popularity, that has allowed for the form to exist for as long as it has.

Origins of British Ballroom

Ballroom dance is a very broad label, which has emerged from countless influences that date back to the sixteenth century.  For the purpose of this analysis, my focus is on the British Ballroom genre.   However, a brief all-inclusive background, which will touch on the historical continuum of the many forms that ballroom has emerged from, will provide for a contextual basis from which the rest of this paper will build upon.

The emergence of modern ballroom dancing occurred in 1812 with the introduction of modernity to the waltz.  There exists quite a bit of speculation as to the origins of the waltz.  The French claim that it can be traced back to an Italian dance called the Volta, which arrived in Provence in the sixteenth century.  The English hold that it has its origins in Germany and has since been improved by “additions upon its primitive principles,” making it a “much more fashionable and agreeable species of dancing” (Silvester 12).  This sense of superiority, which supports the idea that a traditional dance form must be improved upon by the elite in order to make it more consumable for the masses is crucial to the process of dance globalization, specifically within the genre of ballroom, and will be referred back to later in the essay. Until 1812, the waltz was a set dance, in which couples stood in a circle around the room and held each other by the hands dancing specific figures.  It was in England that the dance form took on a modern tone, which was met with some opposition due to the close proximity with which couples would dance, as well as the music that accompanied the dance.  The uproar eventually subsided and the 1840’s brought with them a variety of new dances to the ballroom floor, including the Polka, Mazurka, and the Schottische.  When the Victorian era was drawing to an end, ballroom dance was becoming somewhat of a dormant style, mostly due to the lack of developmental innovation. In the early twentieth century dancers began to take it upon themselves to breath new life into the form by introducing a less structured, more easy-going style.  This ideal gave birth to the Foxtrot in 1914.  The English quickly grasped the opportunity to standardize this new style of dancing and the Informal Conference of Teachers, in 1920, created a new hierarchy of ballroom teachers who sought to evolve and codify a modern ballroom technique.  The style that they developed, which was said to be based on natural movement, is now called the English Style (Silvester 11-13).

To avoid extinction, ballroom has relied on new developments and fresh characteristics.  This can already be seen in the previous historical account of ballroom and its transformation from old-time to modern.  Each new step in that transformation drew from various cultural traditions, from the Waltz with its roots in southern German folk songs, and the Foxtrot with its rhythms of African origin, to the numerous Latin American traditions, such as Brazilian Samba, and Cuban Salsa, Rumba, and Mambo, that have gained popularity within the ballroom.  The tie that binds all of these dance traditions together is the ways in which they were appropriated and transformed in order to make them more consumable.  The dominant idea was that, “they needed a good deal of adaptation to become acceptable in the smart ballrooms of their day” (Silvester 15).

International Appropriations

Tango provides for an interesting perspective into the way that dance forms pass from one culture to another in this cycle of globalization.  The origins of tango are highly contested. It has been said that tango has its roots in Afro-Argentine cultural traditions, highly influenced by the candombe and tangano dance brought from African slaves to Cuba and Haiti, and later migrating to South America. Another interpretation as to the origins of tango is that it was a dance of Spanish gypsies, carried to Argentina by the Spaniards.  Tango’s roots have also been associated with ancient Greek rituals.  Finally, it has been speculated that the tango actually came from Tango, Japan and the Argentineans appropriated it from them (Knowles 107).  Regardless of the origins of tango, the impact that globalization has had on the dance, which can be seen in the consistency with which it has crossed cultural and geographical borders, is uncontestable.

The following images provide examples of the juxtaposing perceptions that have been attached to tango throughout the years.

Around the mid-nineteenth century, the tango was often found on the burlesque stage in Buenos Aires, which led to a mass appeal of the form.  It began to be associated with lust, danger, and raw energy. The popularity of tango eventually made it to Paris, where it was devoured by the masses as “the epitome of sensuality, exoticism, and innovation” (Knowles 110-111).  Dancers in England began requesting the dance and by 1914 the form had infiltrated every level of British society, after that tango quickly spread across Europe and the United States (Knowles 108-115).  After the First War, there was a significant lull in the excitement that surrounded tango, and it had all but ceased.  After the war ended, however, tango once again emerged as the most popular form in Paris ballrooms, although it was not the same tango as before.  “The exotic original…[had] been remoulded more in accordance with the standards of the less ingenuous civilizations of Europe” (Silvester 31).  Sufficient interest in tango remained within the ballroom profession and it has remained as a standardized, sanitized form to this day.  It is significant to note the way that the popularity of tango in main stream British and American societies relied on the enthusiasm with which it was received in Paris.  Equally important is the fact that tango became popular in Paris because of its ties to stereotypes, such as, exoticism and sexuality, that were associated with the Latin American culture from where it was believed to have originated.  This cycle highlights the role that globalization has played in pushing tango into the mainstream and labeling it as one of ballroom’s most popular dances.

Danielle Robinson provides an excellent account of the (mis)appropriation of traditional dance forms in her article, “The Ugly Duckling: The Refinement of Ragtime Dancing and the Mass Production and Marketing of Modern Social Dance” (2010).  Robinson details the ways in which the original ragtime dance tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, popular amongst many different cultural groups, specifically the working class, was commodified and transformed by the middle to upper class European American ballroom dance society in order to make it more consumable, essentially stripping it of everything that the original dance form represented.  Ragtime dance was a form of social dancing that grew out of community practices.  It was a complex of practices that consisted of many different dance forms that accompanied ragtime music, such as the Foxtrot, the Cakewalk, the Bunny Hug and the One-Step.  Modern dance was created about twenty years after the emergence of ragtime, and was crafted by social dance professionals by reinterpreting pre-existent ragtime movements in order to sell them to New York City’s European American middle and upper classes before being exported across the United States and Europe.  “Ragtime celebrated the possibility of varied movement and individual expression throughout the dancing experience.  Modern, on the other hand, offered pleasure in control through its clear demarcations of order and disorder, sexuality and propriety, and male and female roles as well as pleasure in brief escape and transgression from these roles” (Robinson 185).  These notions were blatantly displayed in the aesthetic stylings of these forms.  Ultimately, freedom was transformed into reserve, expressions of individuality became displays of repression, and celebration of sexuality morphed into a timid playfulness; all of these modifications were made with the intent of selling “Ragtime” to a wider and wealthier American and British public that would not have embraced the original because of reservations about its propriety (Robinson 185).  Robinson’s analysis of the appropriation of ragtime provides a revealing look at the way that cultural and communal dance forms are reinterpreted by dominant societies and reproduced in a way that makes them more accessible to the masses, then popularized internationally.

The following clip provides an example of the ragtime dance that grew out of community practices.  Note the displays of individual expression and varied movement.


The next clip exemplifies the modern dance version of the foxtrot.  One notices that this display is lacking in the expression and individuality, focusing much more on choreographed movements.



Global Dissemination of Ballroom

Ballroom has become popular in countries around the world and ballroom dance organizations can be found in locations such as, Austria, Serbia, Greece, Japan, and the Philippines, as well as a range of locations within the United States and England (ballroomdancers.com).  The impact of ballroom dance globalization is multi-faceted.  While in its inception and ever-evolving history it has functioned in a rather colonialist/imperialist fashion, by appropriating and changing traditions in order to market itself as effectively as possible, the globalization of ballroom has also had some more positive impacts around the world.  In looking at the reception of ballroom dance internationally, it is significant to note the importance that various cultures accredit to the dance form.  Ranging from a way to negotiate the presentation of self, to asserting a sense of distinction in a diverse location, ballroom dance has played meaningful roles in the establishment and maintenance of a number of communal identities.

The incorporation of ballroom into Japanese society provides excellent insight into the ways that the dance form has been used as a tool for socialization, as well as a means of identity construction.  Rie Karatsu focuses on what she calls the “semi-Japanization” of English style ballroom dancing.  Japanization refers to “…the process in which practices originating outside the country are transformed and molded into a particular vernacular form.  This includes cases where practices introduced to Japan are influenced by traditional methods or ways of thinking, and are thus practiced with a vernacular sensibility” (416).  Her examination takes an historical and ethnographic approach, beginning with the initial emergence of the genre in the early twentieth century, and continues to delve into the ways in which the traditional English style of ballroom dancing was transformed over the years and eventually molded to fit into Japanese culture.

Ballroom dancing emerged in Japan in the late nineteenth century as a way to quench a local desire for modernization and westernization.  In Japan, the aristocracy adopted ballroom as a way to increase socialization with Europeans (Karatsu 422).  Over the next fifty years, there was a shift in the reception of the genre and by the 1920’s ballroom had become a popular social activity in urban areas, where it was adopted by the middle class.  Due to the increase in popularity, many dance halls were built in the cities to provide a place for men and women to meet, socialize, and dance.  The dance halls brought with them a surge in the sex-worker industry, which led to a negative association by mainstream society in reference to ballroom dance (423).  All displays of American popular culture were banned with the outbreak of the war, and in 1940 all dance halls were closed.  Ballroom dance eventually reemerged and today it has become reassociated with the upper class as a sport, in the form of competitive dancing.  Through this historical look at the way that ballroom’s presentation, reception, and expression have changed over the years, Karatsu argues that ballroom dancing has consistently been embodied as a way to express the Japanese self in a Western way.  She goes on to claim that this self-expression is a hybridized presentation of self, expressed through dance.  By deviating from the country’s norm, specifically in displays of sexuality, the practice of ballroom functioned not as a way to become more Western, but as a form of resistance to a fixed cultural identity and a way to identify not simply as Japanese, hence Karatsu’s label of “semi-Japanization.”


A similar display of the establishment of identity through ballroom can be seen in Bradley Shope’s exploration of the creation of a distinct Anglo-Indian identity in Lucknow, India.  This account provides an interesting glimpse into the way that individuals, who identify themselves as transnational citizens, have been able to turn to ballroom as a way to create a distinct identity in a place where they feel a sense of ambiguity.  Shope details the way that Western popular music and dance was brought to Northern India by Westerners who migrated there in the 1930’s, but quickly spread to other communities, specifically those whose members were of European descent.  He argues that the Western forms of dance and music worked to establish an identity for the people in these Anglo-Indian communities that was distinct in comparison to other South Asian communities.  He maintains that the music and dance promoted a unique community recognition and a local distinctness for an otherwise socially marginalized group.

From it’s inception in the 1800’s, ballroom presented a new and exciting form of entertainment in that the dancers “presented romantic images of women and men in public settings, which the public found appealing” (Mainig 116).  Perhaps one of the primary reasons that globalization has been so crucial for the continuance of ballroom is that it has had to seek out ways to remain new and exciting.  When the appeal of transgressing gender norms wore thin, the form turned to cultural borrowing, or appropriating, as a way to fulfill the need for innovation.  As we have seen, another way in which ballroom has remained fresh has been through transnational marketing and the eager consumption, in Asian settings, of dance styles that have been perceived as Western.  In the end, ballroom seems to owe its existence to various processes of globalization, without which it may now be a thing of the past.



In the context of globalization, scholars have studied ballroom through different methods. The research of dance globalization is unique in that, typically, it is imperative that researchers rely on a variety of methods in order to attain a well-balanced understanding of the area in which they are concerned.  Methods of inquiry for dance researchers vary widely, they include, ethnographic study, historical research, as well as drawing from various theoretical lenses, such as gender, post-colonialist, social and critical theory studies.

When studying a dance form, it is crucial to attain a detailed understanding of its historical and social origins.  With ballroom dance, that sometimes proves to be rather difficult, seeing as it has such an extensive history.  Julie Mainig provides an account of available sources that dance researchers may turn to when investigating forms that are lacking in primary and scholarly source material.  Mainig points to less traditional source material, such as newspaper and magazine articles, performance reviews, dance instruction manuals, scripts, contracts, musical scores, photographs, sketches, and even personal notes and correspondences (116).  Ultimately, researching dance, specifically ballroom, whose origins predate the turn of the century, takes some detective work and a fair amount of creativity.

Bradley Shope’s research involving the impact of ballroom music and dance on the creation of socio-economic mobility and the development of a uniquely Anglo-Indian identity in Northern India provides a good example of socio-historical research.  His argument focuses on power relations in the face of colonialism, specifically the role that the consumption of ballroom music and dance had on notions of power and self-control for Anglo-Indians in Northern India.  He maintains that the establishment of an Anglo-Indian identity and the influence that ballroom had upon it, dates back to the early twentieth century (167).  While Shope based much of his analysis on field research, a socio-historical framework was necessary to his approach, serving as a major methodological foundation for his study.

Ethnographic research is a popular method among cultural and social researchers.  Participant observation, a primary component of ethnographic research, seems to be a practically fundamental mode in the study of dance in general.  It is hard to imagine that anyone would be able to accurately understand or convey what a dance form represents without some personal experience in terms of the physicality of the form, as well as informal interaction with those who practice the dance on a regular basis.  In their article investigating the resurgence in London of ballroom dance in the 1990’s, Helen Thomas and Nicola Miller explain that participation in dance classes provided them with the opportunity to, “experience learning ballroom dancing in order to be able to gain an understanding of what it entailed in terms of bodily skills, how it compared with [their] knowledge base, and so on, as opposed to offering a detailed account of the interaction in classes” (93).  Participating in the learning experience affords researchers a first-person understanding of a dance form that simply cannot be achieved through interviews and observations alone.

A good example of the application of ethnographic research, specifically focused on participant observation, is found in the work of Joanna Bosse.  As a way of exploring the cross-cultural borrowing of Latin dance styles in the United States, Bosse relied on participant observation as her primary method.  She set out to study the appropriation of Latin dance forms through a detailed account of a salsa dance formation team in Savoy, Illinois.  Her research was based out of the Regent Ballroom and Banquet Center.  Bosse conducted research through participant observation from 1996 until 2002.  During this time she both lived and danced with her informants.  She then returned three years later to follow up on her findings.  Bosse’s participant observation was rigorous in that she immersed herself into a variety of different activities and roles in order to gain the most lucrative understanding possible.  She not only took dance classes, rehearsed and performed in shows, but she also worked a variety of jobs at the Regent, including bartender and dance instructor.  Throughout her time in Savoy, Bosse learned every social dance that was performed in the region, including salsa, Argentine tango, country two-step, swing, and the hustle (46).  Through participant observation, Bosse was able to gain valuable insight into the motivations behind participation in these formation teams.  She learned that for many, the merging and adoption of salsa and ballroom styles functioned as a way to refashion an identity for its members.  Dancers expressed that by learning salsa, they were able to release a part of their inner-self.  For the dancers, there existed a notion that salsa represented a type of Latin American ethnicity, which was understood to be more liberated, relaxed, and sexual than their own culture.  Through merging salsa with ballroom in their formation team, they were able to express a part of themselves that they felt uncomfortable displaying in their everyday lives.   At the same time, many of the members hoped that through learning and performing salsa, they would be able to improve their dancing and social relationships with Latin American salsa dancers in the area (45-46).

The following clip provides an example of a salsa formation team similar to the one that Bosse studied:


In studying ballroom dance, specifically in terms of globalization, researchers typically confront the topic with a specific focus.  By narrowing their research to a particular vantage point, researchers are able to display the far-reaching effects that dance globalization has had on the communities that they are studying, as well as investigate the reasons behind the interest in various dance forms throughout the world.  Many theoretical lenses have been used in the study of ballroom dance, such as gender and post-colonial theory.

A common theoretical approach to the study of ballroom comes from the perspectives of women and gender studies.  Ballroom offers a unique glimpse into the gender roles and norms of a society. By analyzing the ways in which different societies, both historically and currently, interpret and confront the couples dance, researchers provide a unique perspective on gender norms. As a way to examine the construction and maintenance of cultural, communal, and individual identities within Filipino immigrant communities in America, Carolina San Juan studied ballroom dancing and the role that it played in that community.  One of her theoretical approaches in this study stemmed from a gender studies perspective.  By examining the relationships between male dance instructors and female students, San Juan was able to gain insight into the tensions that arise for these women as a result of such relationships in their social, domestic, and personal lives.  San Juan gained perspective into the gender norms and roles that are found within traditional Filipino societies, and the effect that ballroom dance has had on the transitory nature of those norms.

When it comes to the theme of globalization and dance, a primary topic is the international distribution of power.  When confronting the power relations involved in the globalization of dance forms, researchers often build their analysis on a post-colonialist studies foundation.  In Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, Marta E. Savigliano investigates the exoticism of tango in Japan. This article provides unique perspective regarding the process of globalization because it tackles a case of double exoticism: “Argentino and Japanese tangueros have been equally involved in reappropriating and reproducing Western exotic practices of representation” (170). Savigliano questions how Japan’s advanced position in the world economic and political spectrum changes the way that Japanese perceive tango, as well as the way they practice or consume it. Savagliano successfully focused her initial research question in order to provide a strong understanding as to the effects that globalization, specifically exoticism, has had on tango.


Works Cited


Bosse, Joanna.  “Salasa Dance and the Transformation of Style: An Ethnographic Study of

Movement and Meaning in a Cross-Cultural Context.”  Dance Research Journal

40.1(2008):45-64.  Web.  11 April 2012.

“Dance Directory: Organization.” Ballroomdancers.com. n.p., n.d.Web. 30 April 2012.

Katsu, Rie.  “Cultural Absorption of Ballroom Dancing in Japan.”  Journal of Popular

Culture 36.3(2003):416. Web.  3 April 2012.

Knowles, Mark.  The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple

Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland

& Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009.  Print.

Mainig, Julie.  “Researching Exhibition Ballroom Dance: Exploring Non-Traditional

Sources.”  Performing Arts Resources 14(1989): 115-126. Web. 29 March 2012.

Robinson, Danielle.  “The Ugly Duckling: The Refinement of Ragtime Dancing and the

Mass Production and Marketing of Modern Social Dance.”  Dance Research 28.2

(2010):179-199. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

San Juan, Carolina.  “Ballroom Dance as an Indicator of Immigrant Identity in the Filipino

Community.”  Journal of American and Comparative Culture 24.3/4

(2001): 177-181.  Web. 29 March 2012.

Savigliano, Marta E. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. San Francisco: Westview

Press, 1995.  Print.

Shope, Bradley.  “Anglo_Indian Identity, Knowledge, and Power: Western Ballroom Music

In Lucknow.”  The Drama Review 48:4(2004):167-182.  Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

Silvester, Victor.  Modern Ballroom Dancing. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing,

1993.  Print.

Thomas, Helen and Nicola Miller.  “Ballroom Blitz.”  Dance in the City. Ed. Helen Thomas.

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.  89-110.  Print.















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