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Popular and National Dance Forms

Dance is as old as music itself. Most dance forms which have flourished in the realm of piano music have their origins in folk tradition. Some, like waltz, have become universal, but most have been closely identified with specific national characteristics.

Cakewalk is an improvised, sassy and highly syncopated dance for couples closely related to ragtime. It originated with the black American slaves during the 19th century who were imitating and exaggerating the strutting of whites at fancy dress balls. It was popularized in blackface minstrel shows and stage revues, and became a ballroom craze in America and England in the 1900s. The cakewalk found its way into European concert by way of the Golliwog’s Cakewalk in Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite of 1908.

Dumka is a Bohemian dance which originates in Ukraine and is characterized by sudden mood changes ranging from the deeply melancholy to the wildly exuberant. The most famous pianistic Dumky are those by Dvo?ák in his Piano Quintet and the so-called Dumky Trio, Op. 90.

Ecossaise is a quick, brisk dance in duple meter which was in vogue in the early 19th century. Beethoven wrote a celebrated set and so did Schubert.

Fandango is a Spanish dance in triple metre with moderate to quick tempo. It is traditionally dance by a pair to the accompaniment of castanets and guitar. Stylized piano fandangos include works by Granados (in Goyesca) and Falla (transcribed from The Three Cornered Hat).

Farrucas is a lively, exciting dance in duple metre. It was immortalized by Manuel de Falla in The Miller’s Dance from his ballet, The Three Cornered Hat, and has often been played in Falla’s own transcription for piano.

Furiant is a dance in triple metre and characterized by exhilarating cross-rhythms. Furiant is of Bohemian origin and is one of the most exciting dance types anywhere.

Jota. This dance type originates from the region of Aragon in the north of Spain. It has been memorialized in piano music by de Falla, and by Liszt in his Rhapsodie espagnole.

Landler is a precursor of Viennese waltz but has a somewhat slower pace than the latter. Pianistic examples include works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.

Mazurka is a traditional, highly improvisatory Polish dance for a circle of couples. It originated among the Mazurs of central Poland in the 1500s and then spread through Europe in the early 1800s as a ballroom dance for one, four, or eight couples. It is danced with many figures and stamping, heel-clicking steps, to music in moderate triple meter with a strongly accented beat. Chopin popularized and transformed Mazurka into an art form of greatest subtlety and range. His 50-odd mazurkas contain much of his most inspired music, with an immense range of emotions.

Polka is a lively and popular couple dance of Bohemian origin whose music is set in quick duple metre with distinctive rhythms. It became a ballroom craze in the mid-19th century, spreading throughout Europe and America in many versions. Many composers even vaguely associated with dance music produced polkas in large numbers, often with colourful titles like The Youth, Love and Folly Polka, The Aurora Borealis Polka, The Eclipse Polka, The Daydream Polka, etc.

Polonaise is the national dance of Poland and was originally a sung dance. Polonaise evolved into a courtly processional dance. The step is slow and gliding and has several figures. The music is in a stately triple metre characterized by insistent, rather martial rhythmic motto. As concert music, polonaises have been composed by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Field and Schumann. It was Polish-born Chopin who infused the form with nationalism, “a blazing, patriotic tone-poem in which the fearsome, the tender and the grandiose combined to unique effect and lifted it into the highest realms of art.”

Ragtime is an American music genre played mainly for the piano that reached its greatest popularity during the first two decades of the 20th century during which time it also spread to Europe. The music is usually in duple metre and is characterized by syncopated melodies over a regularly accented bass. It is a sophisticated musical genre requiring considerable skill. It has its roots in minstrel-show plantation songs, cakewalks, banjo playing, and black folk music but was also influenced by the hymns, dances and marching bands of the whites. Among the outstanding ragtime composers were Scott Joplin, whose Maple Leaf Rag (1899) inaugurated ragtime as a national craze, Thomas Turpin, James Scott and Eubie Blake. It also attracted a number of well-known concert composers such as Satie, Stravinsky, Hindemith and Milhaud.

Tango is a modern and one of the most popular dance form of the 20th century which originates in Argentina. The dance is characterized by a great variety of long steps and frequent posturing; it is rather graceful and requires a large amount of space. Tango music is in 2/4 or 4/4 time, with a characteristic dotted rhythm which is “catchy, slinky and sexy.” Both the music and dance of the tango were influenced by the Cuban habañera.

Waltz is probably the most famous dance in the world which has attracted many composers since its meteoric rise in the early 19th century. It is a graceful couple dance in triple metre with a characteristic emphasis on the second beat. It originated from Austria and Southern Germany, spread across Europe and developed into many variations: Viennese waltz, with its elegant and rapid turns; the Boston, with its dipping, gliding motion and step; and the Creole waltz of South America, often danced with a stamping step and extra heel clicks. The list of composers who contributed most to the piano waltz includes Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Ravel. There are also delightful, polished and masterly piano waltzes by Weber, Anton Rubinstein, Chabrier, Stravinsky, Godowsky, Glazunov and many others. Tchaikovsky incorporated waltz in his ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.