We all know that throughout history and throughout culture, people dance. Bodies have moved and danced and generally boogied on this planet as a form of entertainment, as a ritual, sometimes even as a form of communication. Looking at how and why these bodies move is interesting, but something equally fascinating is what these bodies wear when they move. Here are three historical examples about costume and dance to both amuse and inform.
1) The ballerina’s tutu first came on stage in the 1800s in Paris but it did not look the way it does today. Before, this dancing dress fell all the way to the floor. Until Marie Taglioni, one of the first famous ballerinas, renowned for her skilled footwork (and who supposedly invented that horrific and beautific pointe shoe), caused a huge scandal by shortening her long skirt to reveal her ankles (horror!) in order to better display her dainty feet of steel.
2) 100 years later in Germany, a choreographer and important figure in the Bauhaus movement, Oskar Schlemmer, choreographed a dance entitled, The Triadic Ballet. When it premiered in 1922, the dancers wore the oddest costumes that changed entirely the contours of the dancer. His costumes were sculptural objects that limited the movement of the dancers, but made for some incredible photographs.
3) It’s obvious that you can’t have gumboot dancing without the gumboots, right? (Well, you can, but that is generally referred to as stepping) You may know that gumboot dancing originated from mineworkers in Southern Africa. You probably also know that mineworkers during apartheid were victims of an atrocious migrant labour system and were without any human, health or safety rights whatsoever. But why were mineworkers wearing gumboots anyway? Well, mine-owners found gumboots to be a cheaper solution than properly draining mines and they chose to ignore the disease and sickness caused by working underground in n inhuman environment. What’s more, miners were not allowed to communicate with each other. So the rhythm of gumboot dancing became a kind of language, allowing a connection and communication, a mode of expression that kept mineworkers sane, reminding them that they are still human. It’s strange that such a horrifying aspect of history could produce a dance both powerful and liberating.
The next time you watch a dance (or any performance), take a look at what they are wearing. If you dig deeper, ask a few questions, do some Googling, you may find a fascinating story behind something that could otherwise be seen as simply clothing.
Written by Nicola van Straaten, a dance artist who thinks dance is pretty much related to everything.