Historical aspects of different dance vocabularies

A brief overview of the historical development of different dance vocabularies and their place in the Hungarian educational system.
Chapter from the book Dance and Method.

Bólya, Anna Mária dance researcher

The ballet 

The vocabulary of classical ballet in European culture has its roots in the Renaissance. Later, during the reign of King Louis XIV, his personality had a significant impact on the art form. Dance was a means of communication for the aristocratic community living in the court of Versailles, and it was governed by a set of moving codes.  Technical development and the expressiveness of dance movements were brought about by the Rococo period and the personality of Noverre. The following point of significance is the dance vocabulary of Romanticism. It is a uniquely developed professional dance vocabulary that is airy and upwardly aspiring.  The center of dance vocabulary development was then transferred to Russia, where ballet once again assumed a representative role in the Tsarist Empire. In Russia, ballet reached the peak of its crystallization, which is why it was given the epithet ‘classic’. During the 20th century, ballet continued its globalization process, resulting in a diverse range of expressions and forms in the world stage repertoire. This was achieved through the work of significant choreographers who incorporated the influence of other dance vocabularies. Some of these choreographers integrated theatrical expression or the expressiveness of mental states, while others incorporated ritualism, resulting in the creation of a new kind of ballet vocabulary. In the 20th century, some styles of dance have incorporated elements from classical ballet, while others have diverged from it. By the 21st century, ballet remained an important component of the technical repertoire in the professional dance world, albeit in a changed and improved way.

Modern dance

Modern dance is primarily associated with the dance trends that emerged in the American United States and Europe, particularly in German and Hungarian-speaking areas, during the first half of the 20th century. The development of Isadora Duncan’s dance style initially rejected the formal training of ballet, introducing new elements to the compositional toolbox of dance. Notable figures in dance include Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, and José Limón, who developed a serious dance technique. Rudolf Lábán and Kurt Jooss left an analytical approach to dance and theatrical means of dance expression to their successors.

The technique’s most significant stages begin with Duncan, who is credited with discovering that movements originate in the solar plexus. Graham incorporated this idea into her own system. Graham’s technique is a sophisticated unified dance language that was a rival to the classical ballet of her time, which had been developed over centuries. It is not surprising that Graham was able to dance on stage at the age of 76.

Jazz is considered the defining artistic influence of both American and European cultures, and it is indirectly influenced by African folklore. The black movement has had a significant impact on every segment of modern dance, although this is not always emphasized in American dance history. Pearl Primus explored the roots of the African-American movement world and incorporated her findings into her work. Alvin Ailey’s dance theater expresses the artistic stage production based on the Afro-American world of movement.

The significance of American modern dance in American society extends beyond its technical innovations. It was a relief to the psyche of Americans suffering during the economic crisis and also laid the foundations of the philosophy of modernism by showing the universal inner nature of human through the movements of dance. Modern dance introduced new forms of the role and attitude of the choreographer and dancer, in addition to new techniques.

American postmodern dance introduces novel semantic elements to the language of dance and provides a fresh syntax to its vocabulary. Merce Cunningham marks the point at which art in the United States began to move beyond the worldview of abstract expressionism. With Cunningham, the contemporary interpretation and apologetics of contemporary dance was born.  

In postmodern dance, the semantic interpretation of the word “dance” expands, in fact, the word dance itself is reinterpreted. This phenomenon is similar to an earlier turn in the history of European dance, in which the communal dance forms of European culture (reigen, carol, choros) were gradually replaced by a dance culture with a new kind of formal characteristics, which both in terms of terminology, in relation to rituality, and in the context of social behavior patterns, meant a new cultural element and a new kind of embeddedness in the cultural milieu.

“Free dance” came to Hungary mainly with Isadora Duncan’s guest performance in Hungary and with influences from German-speaking countries in the first half of the 20th century. The schools that developed before the Second World War, which taught mainly movement art or were known as orchestika, could no longer function after the Second World War. From the period of Soviet influence, only two branches of stage dance survived in Hungary: ballet and folk dance. The style and content of both were determined by the Soviet direction.

The social and political consolidation that began in the 1960s gradually eased. Modern trends in dance appeared, especially in line with the cultural policies defined by Gyorgy Aczel. These were mainly visible in the formation of important rural associations. The presentation of Maurice Béjart’s plays at the Hungarian State Opera in 1973 had a strong impact. Iván Markó’s Győri Ballet was founded as a result. Gradually, some of the technical results of modern dance and jazz dance reached Hungary. From the 1980s, movement art and modern dance began to regain citizenship in the cultural life of dance. 

This publication does not cover contemporary dance, but it briefly mentions it. Contemporary art is a highly debated concept. In its narrowest sense, it refers to the artistic output of the recent past and present. Several chapters of the book discuss the cultural diversity of our present and the fusion of culture and artistic languages in the global world village. This phenomenon also affects dance culture. According to Terry Smith, the visual art of younger generations can be thematized in terms of space, time, mediation, and ethics. This investigation is carried out through small-scale art creation. In the art of dance, a vocabulary can be discovered that lives in the public consciousness as contemporary dance. And this is the totality of fusional, integrative and innovative dance vocabularies that are typically unique to each choreographer and that are formed by mixing professional dance languages. In other words, the language of dance and the use of theatrical tools, like other segments of culture, show globalized tendencies.

Is it modern or contemporary? This question can be asked. Despite the fact that individual modern dance techniques are now treated as defined and circumscribed dance techniques, they were originally changing systems in themselves. The vocabulary of modern and contemporary dance has also evolved, as the ‘global world village’ has created a melting pot of movement forms that flow into each other. It not only disregards conventions but also establishes a new one, which we cannot yet identify. One may question whether it is necessary, worthwhile, or correct to use separate terminological connections for the two concepts in the 21st century. Alternatively, following the example of several American and European universities, should we merge them? These are important considerations for the future.

Ballroom dancing

In the following, we will talk about two branches of dance art that are not, or primarily not, close to artistic life, but rather to sport. In terms of both their style and their institutional system, they have features close to many sports life. Therefore, these branches have good opportunities in using more advanced sports science and sports institutional system results. Ballroom dancing and fashion dancing therefore connect the fields of dance and sport.

The categorization of ballroom dances today resulted from a complex process of development and standardization. Dances that were once fashionable were stylized and regulated to become the standardized dances we know today. Today, dances are classified into two categories: standard and Latin. However, this division does not fully align with the historical and origin characteristics of each dance. Since 1968, the competition dance program has included the English waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow fox, and quickstep in the standard category, as well as the samba, cha-cha-cha, rumba, paso doble, and jive in the Latin category. 

The historical roots of European social dances go back to the early Renaissance, when the couple dance culture appeared in court settings. The waltz is the oldest social dance in dance sport, originating as the ball dance of the 19th century bourgeoisie. Today, it is known as the Viennese waltz. The English waltz, created by English dance masters in the 1920s, is a product of the 20th century and follows the waltz. All other dances emerged as fashion dances in Europe and the United States following the influence of the ‘big jazz explosion’ of the 20th century and exhibit African-American characteristics from either the North or the South. The development of regulated forms involved many interactions and artificial changes. The Great Conference held in London in 1929 was a crucial moment in the regulation of dance and laid the foundations of the English style. Following the emergence of competitive dance, it evolved into a dance sport through the efforts of various organizations that eventually merged into the World DanceSport Federation. This organization played a crucial role in the recognition of dance as a sport by the International Olympic Committee in 1997.

Today, these dances are largely independent of their historical roots and belong to a stylized dance world. This world of dance exists at the intersection of art and sport, and is partially institutionalized within the fields of Olympic sports and artistic life.

Fashion dance

Definitional issues related to fashion dances were discussed in the chapter on ballroom dancing. Fashion dance is regulated and presented as a sport primarily within the umbrella organizations of the International Dance Organization and the World Rock and Roll Confederation. The database of dance teachers and related dance researchers can be found in the UNESCO organization’s database.

In Hungary, the term ‘fashion dance’ is primarily used within the framework of the Hungarian Dance University and refers to non-stage dances that are popular, fashionable, and contemporary. Once these dances become regulated for use in various roles, such as stage performances or education, they are no longer considered fashion dances. The specialization in Fashion Dance, offered as part of the Dancer and Coach (BA) and Teacher (MA) majors at the Hungarian Dance University, encompasses all dances that do not fall under the category of dance sport. Although some fashion dances share characteristics with ballroom dancing, they do not reach the same level of stylization.


Today, the concept of folk dance is perceived in various ways. In a narrower sense, it refers to the dance material collected from traditional peasant communities. The dance material extracted and collected from its environment has gone through several transformations, re-folklorization and stylization, and is now part of a culture that appears primarily in the environment of the stage and Tanchaz environment. Due to the blurred concept of folk, scientific terminology increasingly uses the terms dance folkloristics and ethnochoreology instead of folk dance research and folk dance science. This text will not cover topics that have already been extensively studied in ethnography.

Folk dances of minority groups

Today, the dance culture of minority ethnic groups in Hungary is diverse and vibrant. The minority culture is characterized by a well-developed life in Tanchaz-es, folk music, and dance clubs. The dance materials of the various minorities contain characteristics and dance forms different from the Hungarian material. A special category of this is the overwhelming use of circle dance and chain dance forms in the Balkan minority material. The Balkan peninsula, although culturally and historically distinct from the rest of Europe, has preserved the tradition of circle and chain dances. In some areas and social contexts, this dance form still retains its more archaic roots.

As a result of the above, a versatile and up-to-date dance training and dance teacher training today cannot focus exclusively on certain dance languages in a limited form and like a historical snapshot, but must provide an amalgamation of the latest, high-quality, professional dance techniques involving several sciences in order to ensure that today’s meet your dance training needs at a world-class level.

It is also worth doing all this because, after many centuries, by the 20th century, the art of dance rose to become a major artistic phenomenon. In the 20th and 21st centuries, dance – it seems – is experiencing a renaissance.

The current situation of dance education didactics in Hungary 

The teaching methodology is based on literacy. The personality of the dance teacher and the methodology used are both crucial in dance education. However, only written foundations can be considered a true methodology. It is important to avoid relying solely on word of mouth.

Based on a review of the books and notes available in the curriculum and library stock of the Hungarian Dance University, it can be concluded that Hungarian literature mainly focuses on technical descriptions related to dance methodology. The literature on classical ballet methodology is the most extensive. Sebestény’s multi-volume methodological notes primarily consist of exercise descriptions. The text fragment describes the precise temporal structure of a teaching method, including age phases, academic years, lessons, and progress. The author briefly states teaching goals at the beginning of each grade and emphasizes correct execution and the building of technical elements in exercises. The book titled ‘Methodology of Teaching Combinations’ by Zsuzsa L. Merényi also discusses teaching methodology. In the introduction, the author suggests methodological improvements related to the These concerns mainly pertain to the speed of progress, error correction, and music selection. The other notes and books only use the term ‘technique’ in their titles. The fundamentals of the Bretus-Zorándi Ballet technique and the composition of the book are very similar to the series entitled ‘Ballet Methodology,’ but it does not define pedagogical goals.

Today, modern dance education typically combines elements of various techniques, including Graham and Limón, with other dance styles.

Modern dance techniques appear in the curriculum of the modern dance specialization of the Hungarian Dance University. The programme includes a theoretical course in the overview analysis of modern dance techniques, a course in Graham technique and a course in jazz dance. In addition, other modern methods (e.g. improvisation and contact) are also included. The Master’s degree in modern dance, which builds on this, will include mainly theoretical methodological courses, as well as courses in modern dance techniques, improvisation and, according to the subject network, aesthetic body training. The modern dance curriculum therefore has a contemporary dimension. 

In the field of modern dance, there are several notes available in Hungarian that describe techniques. However, Sára P. Berczik’s short note, titled ‘Art Education Movement Synthesis,’ provides a methodological framework for aesthetic physical training. The note assigns training material to technical goals and educational objectives and offers teaching suggestions for improvisation, etude, music selection, and movement analysis. In 1995, Endre Jeszenszky, a ballet dancer turned nationally recognized ‘jazz ballet’ teacher, published a methodological booklet. The booklet provides an illustrated description of his methodology, drawing from serious methodological books such as Blasis, Idzikowski, Giordano, Lifar, and Vaganova. Jeszenszky compares elements of the dance language from different schools of classical ballet with the movement vocabulary of jazz dance. Ágnes Szöllősi’s book provides an introduction to the history and technique of jazz dance. The book starts with the basics of movement art and combines the elements of modern dance with the strictly jazz technique. José Limón technikája részletes leírásban elérhető, melyet közvetlen munkatársa, Daniel Lewis adott közre, magyar nyelvre pedig Dienes Gedeon ültette át. The book contains a comprehensive methodological apparatus. In addition to exercise descriptions, it includes a terminological introduction, specific exercise goals, and methodological advice for achieving those goals. This publication can be considered a didactic writing in the pedagogical sense of the word.

In her book, Katalin Lőrinc provides a historical perspective and a detailed description of Martha Graham’s technique. The book contains a description of the exercises of a one-year period, with some teaching recommendations in its conclusion, in which the author’s note from 2002 also provides video aids in the sequence of the exercises. 

The Dance Book of Iván Angelus is a self-confessed teaching book containing methodological advice for contemporary dance, which provides useful and practically tested instructions on how to teach and, above all, on the expression of children’s creativity in dance. It gives a fresh perspective on dance in formal dance education, creating the chance that dance can be a liberated joy in addition to mastering the technique. New Performing Arts Foundation now also offers teacher training, with a curriculum that follows international trends.

Alex Moore’s book, Ballroom Dance, is primarily used in modern ballroom dance university training. The advantage of the book is that it uses notation based on rhythmic and movement analysis aspects. However, it does not contain explicit teaching methodology descriptions.

In Hungary, fashion dance is taught at the highest level at the Hungarian Dance University as a separate major. This training includes recent and fashionable dance forms that are not part of the modern ballroom dance specialization, and therefore not included in the standard and Latin categories of dance sports. Examples of dance styles include mambo, rock and roll, salsa, Argentine tango, acrobatic rock and roll, tap, and hip-hop. The harmonization between university education of dance expression, which is popular among today’s young adult generation, and the institutionalized recording market has not yet been achieved.

Folk dance is an integral part of the curriculum at the Hungarian Dance University, included in both artist and teacher training. The teaching material focuses on authentic Hungarian folk dances, as well as those of Hungarian ethnic minorities. The system of institutionalized folk dance education is well-developed in Hungary at all levels, including university, primary and secondary art education, and institutional training for dance ensembles and theaters.

To promote awareness, it is necessary to include basic knowledge of movement analysis and dance notation in the curriculum of the entire dance teacher training. Currently, this is only taught in the folk dance specialization.

The above passage indicates that existing textbooks and books primarily focus on technique. The technique refers to the set of movements and technical tools of a given dance vocabulary, while the methodology defines the goals and sub-goals of teaching the technique, the methods of knowledge transfer, the way of teaching, its organization, the structure of the lessons, and the evaluation process.

In the future, it would be beneficial to supplement the precise technical descriptions with publications that have a specific methodological structure. These publications should provide brief and systematic knowledge based on pedagogical foundations, with the supervision of pedagogic researchers. Examples of such materials include Pignitzkyné Lugos-Lévai’s book on methodology and the book on the Limón technique.

In the future, a methodological framework should be developed that integrates physical experience into theory, based on scientific needs and associated with high-quality practical education. This interdisciplinary approach should involve researchers as supervisors.

The whole chapter with bibliography and footnotes, can be read here.

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