Freestyle vs. Sequence Dances

Richard Powers

I appreciate both improvised social dancing and sequence dances, each for different reasons.

Freestyle dancing is wonderful for many reasons -- it's spontaneous, creative, intelligent, playful, flexible, and dance partners need not know the same sequence in order to dance together.  For this reason most truly social dancing is improvised, based on effective partnering.

But sequence dances have advantages too.  When both partners know the same pattern, both can help each other with gentle mutual assistance.  It feels more effortless and transitions from one step into the next are very smooth when both dancers know what is coming next.

A sequence dance also reduces an inherent inequity of freestyle couple dancing, where the lead has a better overview of the dance — he knows the steps and figures that are about to be done but she doesn't know until the last instant.  With sequences both have an equal understanding of what will come next.  Many dancers enjoy this equality.

A Short History of Sequence Dances

In the 19th century, most social dances were either turning couple dances (waltz, polka, schottische, etc.) or set dances (quadrilles, contradances, etc.).  The set dances were memorized or prompted patterns, while the turning couple dances and their variations were usually improvised.

Then toward the end of the 19th century some dance masters began to compose sequences of waltz steps to be memorized and executed by dance academy students.  Most of these were composed by English dance masters, like William Lamb who choreographed his St. George's Waltz sequence in 1896.  This led to the creation of a Sequence Dance movement in London at the turn of the century, where hundreds of dancers would memorize sequence waltzes like Arthur Morris' Veleta (1900) and then non-waltzes like S. W. Painter's Eva Three-Step (1904), eventually embracing one-steps, two-steps, tangos and foxtrots (which the English preferred to call saunters).

Different populations of dancers had different preferences, and by 1910 there was a strong class division between those who preferred freestyle vs. sequence dances.  The upper classes in London preferred freestyle dancing while the working class in the outskirts preferred the sequence dances, and would hold weekly balls where hundreds would gather to learn and perform a large and rapidly growing number of sequence dances.

The creation and standardization of these sequence dances was controlled by several organizations which appeared at this time, most notably the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) and the British Association of Teachers of Dancing (BATD).  Today's "international" (a euphemism for British) competition ballroom dancing is overseen by the ISTD, which was founded in London in July 1904 for "The fraternal co-operation of properly qualified teachers of dancing in the British Empire and foreign countries for the safeguarding of our mutual interests." (Quoted from their charter)

A trademark of the working classes is upward mobility.  The blue-collar work ethic embraced the mastery of sequence dances, which soon evolved into competition ballroom dancing, as a way to elevate one's social position through perseverance and hard work.  These roots are still visible today.

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