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Dancing is one of the oldest of the arts. The first formal dances were the ritualistic, symbolic dances of early tribal societies: the dance designed to excite the emotions, such as the war dance; the dance purporting to communicate with the gods, such as the rain dance. Dances are an important part of any culture. In the United States, for example, the square dance became a part of our folkways. Dancing has become a popular leisure-time activity, a popular form of entertainment, and, for those who provide the entertainment, a career. There are many types of dancing, from ballet to tap dancing, jazz and modern dance, and ballroom dancing. Dancers are also featured in musicals on the stage.

Ballet has its origins in Italy and France in the 15th centuries, when dance was used to help orchestrate a story around a celebration. The early Italian balletto combined dance, poetry, song, and elaborate scenery, and a performance could last for hours or days. The balletto was brought to France when Catherine de Medici married the French king Henry II in 1533. In France, the dance was renamed ballet. In the next century King Louis XIV founded L’Academie Royale de Danse, where, under dancing master Pierre Beauchamps, the classical ballet positions were first codified. By the end of the 17th century, the French terms had become the international language of ballet. It was not until the beginning of the 18th century, however, that ballet became a profession, with its own schools, theaters, paid dancers, and choreographers. As ballet grew, choreographers and dancers developed new ideas, movements, and ideas, and composers began creating music especially for ballet. Noted choreographers and dancers were Jean Philippe Rameau, Franz Hiverding, Jean Georges Noverre, and Auguste Vetris. Pointe shoes, and the style of dancing on the toes, were developed toward the middle of the 19th century.

Modern dance is a distinct art form of the 20th century. Unlike ballet, modern dance has no set forms or techniques, and is oriented more toward individual expression in its choreography. Rather than presenting an interpretation of a story or narrative, modern dance expresses such abstract concepts as time, space, emotion, or pure movement. The pioneer of modern dance was Isadora Duncan, who introduced the form around the turn of the century. Duncan’s lead was followed in 1915 by the creation of the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles, considered to be the founder of the modern dance movement. Several dancers from this school went on to form their own schools, including Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Martha Graham. In the 1930s, Lester Horton and Helen Tamiris gave rise to another current of modern dance, which went on to inspire the works of Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, and others.

Tap dancing originated from early Irish and English folk dances, as well as in the African dances brought to the United States by the African slaves. Wearing shoes with metal strips fitted to the heels and toes, tap dancers create often complex rhythms by striking their heels and toes on the floor. Developed through minstrel shows, and later through vaudeville, musicals, and film, tap dancing soon became a popular form of entertainment. The first choreographed tap dancing routines were performed by the Floradora Sextet in 1900. Later popularizers of tap dancing included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fred Astaire, Ruby Keeler, and, in more recent years, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

In addition to many traditional folk and ethnic dances, many other dances have developed through the years, including popular ballroom dances such as swing, the fox trot, the tango, the mambo, the cha cha, and others, and more recently popular dances such as salsa, the merengue, and hip-hop.

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