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HPM Top Ten List: Dance Forms That Inspired Music

A list of dance styles that have inspired composers over the years.

La Classe de Danse by Edgar Degas
La Classe de Danse by Edgar Degas

HPM Top Ten List: Dance Forms That Inspired Music 

August is Arts Appreciation Month, and Houston Public Media’s Arts & Culture team is celebrating by focusing on works of art that are inspired by or done in collaboration with other art forms. Each week has been devoted to a specific type of art, and our final week is centered on performance art. Here is a list of various types of dance that have inspired pieces of music.

10. Bolero

The bolero is a moderately slow Latin dance with two separate styles in Spain and Cuba. It is in triple time, meaning the steps are broken up into groups of three, and there is a distinctive rhythmic pattern that is best exemplified in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. Like many dance forms, there are certain aspects that the bolero has in common with other Latin dances such as the fandango, a couple’s dance. Some examples of fandango music can be found in the works of Luigi Boccherini and Enrique Granados.

9. Pavane

The pavane began as a moderately fast processional dance, but over the centuries evolved into a much slower stately dance. It was most common during the Renaissance in the sixteenth century, and was naturally set to music by many composers of the period such as William Byrd and Tielman Susato. Some more recent examples are Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour un infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess), and the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning in Scene 7 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Job: A Masque for Dancing. 

8. Farandole

A French folk dance, the farandole is lively and energetic. It consists of the dancers holding hands in a line and skipping with their feet on strong beats, alternating left and right while the other foot is in the air. Farandoles are present in Charles Gounod’s opera Mireille, Georges Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2, and Paule Maurice’s Tableux de Provence.               

7. Tarantella

Similar to the farandole, the tarantella is a lively folk dance originating in Italy. It was thought to be a cure for tarantism, an affliction said to be caused by the bite of a species of wolf spider, local to the Taranto region. Tarantella music is a highly recognizable reference to Italian culture, and the most famous example is likely the Tarantella Napoletana. Some examples of the tarantella in classical music are Gioachino Rossini’s La Danza, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Tarantelle, and Igor Stravinsky’s Tarantella from the music for Pulcinella. Honorable mention goes to the saltarello, an Italian dance similar to the tarantella used by Felix Mendelssohn for the fourth movement of his Italian Symphony.  

6. Polka

Polka is a folk dance from Central Europe originating in nineteenth-century Bohemia. It has since become much more recognizable as a musical style than a dance, often featuring the accordion and the clarinet in more contemporary iterations. In the classical music repertoire, polkas were an old standby for both Johann Strauss I and his son Johann II, with pieces like Frederica Polka and Pizzicato Polka. Other examples include BedÅ™ich Smetana’s Polka from The Bartered Bride, Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Polka from Jazz Suite No. 1.

5. Galop

The progenitor of the polka, the galop is a country dance aptly named after the gallop of a horse, and it is much faster than its later derivative. The two styles are similar, and even some pieces labeled as polkas (or fast polkas) have more of a galop feel to them, like Éljen a Magyar! by Strauss II. Some pieces actually titled as galops are Strauss’ Klipp-Klapp Galop, the Galop from Moscow, Cheryomushki by Shostakovich, and the famous Devil’s Galop by Charles Williams, probably best known for its use in the BBC Light Programme 1940s radio show Dick Barton – Special Agent.

4. Tango

Known for its sultry character, the tango is a popular Latin partner dance. It often features the dancers in a close embrace with syncopated footwork, though there are numerous styles of tango with varying degrees of closeness between the performers and a fair amount of embellished footwork. Given its provocative nature, the tango has lent itself to the imaginations of many composers in works like Isaac Albéniz’s España, John Mackey’s Red Line Tango, Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango from Metropolis Symphony, the Tango, Valse, and Rag from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, and the music of Argentinian composer and bandoneon player, Astor Piazzolla.

3. Minuet

The minuet is a light French partner dance in triple time that, like the polka, has developed a stronger association with music than dance. It features short steps and is often restrained and elegant. Though it began musical life in the Baroque dance suites, it is probably best known for its use in the late Classical era symphonic form (used by both symphonies and string quartets), typically as the third movement. Examples of this in particular can be found in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Luigi Boccherini’s String Quintet in E. Other minuets also came from composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, Georges Bizet, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

2. Waltz

Yet another dance in triple time, the waltz is probably the most famous ballroom dance. It is a partner dance like the minuet, though it tends to have a weightier character and consists of a graceful gliding or sliding motion in the feet. Musically, the waltz was another genre strongly associated with the Strauss family, and one of the best known waltzes is The Blue Danube by Strauss II. Pyotr Tchaikovsky also wrote several waltzes for his ballet music, like the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker. And there are more stand-alone pieces like Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, Chopin’s Minute Waltz (minute as in small, not the measurement of time), and Jean Sibelius’ Valse triste.

1. Ballet

Ballet is essentially an amalgamation of all manner of dances and techniques set for a large-scale performance. Like opera and theater, it is largely a collaborative process with intricate choreography, sets, and music. It is not a strictly-defined form like the other entries on this list, and might actually utilize any of these forms for a particular scene; indeed, some of the listed examples have come from ballet scores. Likewise, ballet scenes are also often used in operas, such as Almicare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda, famously used for the scene with the dancing animals in Fantasia. Other famous ballets are Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Stravinsky’s controversial Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde.

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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