In his “Dictionary of the Bible,” Jesuit Fr. John L. McKenzie wrote that in biblical times, dance not only was a part of profane celebrations but also of sacred functions.
For example, Fr. McKenzie writes that in the Old Testament dance was part of the celebration of Yahweh’s victory over Egypt (Ex 15:20) and in the procession in which David brought the ark into Jerusalem, “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14).
Also, dance was part of the Israelites’ scornful worship of the golden calf (Ex 32:19); a battle victory or return of a hero (Jgs 11:34, 1 Sam 18:6); a vintage festival (Jgs 21:21 and Jer 31:4); and praise to God in Psalms 149:3 and 150:4.
Dances cited in the Old Testament generally were performed by groups, sometimes mixed but more frequently by women alone, rather than by individuals. Also, dance recorded in the Old Testament was often accompanied by music and dancers who carried tambourines (Ex 15:20).
In the New Testament, the most infamous dance was performed by Salome, daughter of Herodias, for guests at a dinner celebrating Herod’s birthday, and which resulted in the death of John the Baptist (Mt 15: 6-12 and Mk 6: 14-29). Urged by her vengeful mother, in response to Herod’s foolish pledge to grant any request as a reward for her performance, Salome demanded and received John’s severed head on a platter.
In the “Gather” songbook, used in many parishes, there are 13 hymns and psalms with reference to dancing.
Just as music has come a long way from biblical times, so has dance.
Recently, I asked my grandchildren that if hop hop is their favorite music, what do you call the accompanying dance? They concluded if music is hip hop, so is their dancing.
Reflecting on my teen years, a variety of music provided for a variety of dancing. Moviegoers recall the entertaining tap dancing of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and leggy Cyd Charisse. Remember Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain”?
While those extravagant musicals are films of the past, a movie I attended with my grandchildren not too long ago resurrected some memories.
Although I’m no fan of animated movies, “Happy Feet: March of the Penguins” provided entertaining song and dance. It’s the story of an emperor-penguin colony in Antarctica which centers on little Mumble who was born to tap dance but couldn’t sing. As the story goes, a heartsick Mumble goes out on his own, encounters a colony of Adelie penguins who admire him for his toe-tapping talent, boosting his confidence. And, eventually he sings and dances all the way home.
Just like our modern teens, we danced for fun. But for us, the big difference was variety. There was the waltz, two-step, fox trot, jitterbug, cha-cha, polka and schottische, just to name a few. And, each dance was accompanied by a different style of music.
The big difference in our dancing and how today’s teens and adults dance is whenever we danced, we knew who our partner was. Nowadays, they call it solo dancing … and you can’t tell who is dancing with whom.
It’s like one big glob of humanity – bodies gyrating, arms flailing, legs twisting in all directions. They’re all dancing with each other.
Thanks to rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ Elvis and Chubby Checker, solo dancing gained popularity while partner dancing died a slow death.
Traditional dance bands were replaced by groups using electric guitars and rhythm instruments and younger generations (16-25) focused on solo dancing to express their individuality.
In my teen years, we expressed our individuality by our preference for varieties of music and dance. While some preferred dancing to slow romantic tunes others were attracted to jive and jitterbug … but always with a partner.
As for my preferred music and dance, I favored the polka.
I recalled during high school years attending weekly Sunday evening polka dances at the American Legion Hall in South Milwaukee. For a group of us (schoolmates and friends) who lived in Cudahy, those dances became a regular activity. A few who had cars would round up the group and off we’d go.
Various bands provided continuous polkas, waltzes (slow songs such as “The Blue Skirt Waltz”) and the schottische, a circular dance with a polka beat. And, despite Cudahy-South Milwaukee high school rivalry in football and basketball, those community-wide polka dances provided a trouble-free, fun-filled evening for all.
For some of us who danced at social gatherings in Cudahy and at our home parish, St. Frederick, polka was king. I recall attending a prom at St. Mary’s Academy (probably 1947) when someone in the group I was with dared me to request a polka. The band leader frowned at my request, but emphasized “only one.” The dance floor filled to the lively tune.
Then came the chicken dance, still a popular diversion. Now, if I mention polka to my grandchildren, I get a loud “Ugh.” If I say chicken dance, they want a demonstration.
Just like changing forms of music, dancing also evolves with new styles and fads … disco, aerobic and line dancing are a few.
So, from biblical dance to hip hop … and all dancing in between … I wonder what will capture the fancy of the next generation.
In the meantime, turn up the music, dust off those dancing shoes … and (for old time’s sake) … let’s polka.
(Out and About is a regular feature of Mature Lifestyles that looks at issues affecting the older adult community. Horn, a retired Catholic Herald reporter, is a member of St. Roman Church, Milwaukee.)