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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

The Art of the Dance

The Art of the Dance

Dance as Art

The Art of the Dance has aesthetic and symbolic value. Dance has a unique function, whether social, ceremonial, competitive, erotic, martial, or sacred. Other forms of human movement are sometimes said to have a dance-like quality, including martial arts, gymnastics, cheerleading, figure skating, and many other forms of athletics.

In many cultures, performances and dance serve a purpose within that particular culture. This meaning is not furnished by any one individual but is often the result of a rich heritage and a cosmological relationship within the culture. In “The Art of the Dance,” we explore how artists have depicted and interpreted the “Dance.”

Is Dance an Art

Exploring Dance

  • “Country Dance” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
    • “Country Dance” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir shows a dancing couple under a chestnut tree. Both figures are painted life-size and occupy almost the entire painting. The woman who holds a fan in her right hand is shown with a smiling face looking towards the viewer. The scene is bathed in bright and cheerful light. The background includes a table on the right and a hat on the ground. There is also a pair of faces below the level of the dance floor.

      The man depicted was a friend of Renoir’s, and the woman is Aline Charigot, who later became the wife of the Renoir. This painting was commissioned in 1882 by a merchant who wanted artworks on the theme of the dancing. A complementary picture on the same subject, named Dance in the City, was also painted by Renoir. Museum: Musée d’Orsay

  • “At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance” by Toulouse-Lautrec
    • “At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance” is the second of many paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec depicting the Moulin Rouge cabaret built in Paris in 1889. It portrays two dancers dancing the can-can in the middle of the crowded dance hall. An inscription by Toulouse-Lautrec on the back of the painting reads: “The instruction of the new ones by Valentine the Boneless.” This inscription indicates that the dancing man is Valentin le désossé, a well-known dancer at the Moulin Rouge, and he is teaching the newest addition to the cabaret.

      Featured in the painting are many aristocratic people such as poet Edward Yeats, the club owner, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s father. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in the colorful and theatrical life of Paris in the late 1800s, which allowed him to produce a collection of elegant and provocative images of the modern and decadent life of Paris at the time. Museum: Philadelphia Museum of Art

  • “Three Dancers at a Dance Class” by Edgar Degas
    • “Three Dancers at a Dance Class” by Edgar Degas depicts one of Degas’s favorite themes, dancers captured in casual off-stage poses. The artist’s interest in Japanese woodcut prints influenced the painting’s diagonal composition. The bench is part of an overall layout that allows Degas to explore a variety of poses. He has composed a seated figure, a figure with a raised leg, and a figure is standing. Ballet classes provided Degas with the opportunity to study the human body during periods of rest and focused activity.

      Ballet dancers were one of Degas’ favorite subjects. Degas told a Parisian art dealer: “People call me the painter of dancing girls, it has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.” Museum:  Queensland Art Gallery

  • Nataraja the Cosmic Dancer and God of Dramatic Arts
    • Nataraja is a massive yet elegant statue represents Shiva, passionately engaged in ecstatic dance. This form of Shiva’s image is known as Nataraja in iconographic tradition, and the dance, as ‘Ananda-tandava.’  Perfected anatomical proportions and distinct features define the image of the great Lord.

      Cast in bronze and anodized in deep copper tint, the statue represents Shiva as the Lord of Dance. It combines in a single image the great Hindu god Shiva’s roles as creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe and conveys the concept of the never-ending cycle of time. Museum: National Museum, New Delhi

  • “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
    • “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” is also known as “Bal du Moulin de la Galette” and is one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s most important works. The Moulin de la Galette was an outdoor dancehall and café, frequented by many of Renoir’s friends. Renoir was a regular, and he enjoyed the atmosphere. Named after one of the three windmills in the Montmartre neighborhood, it held open-air dances every Sunday, and these would start in the early afternoon and carry on until midnight.

      The painting depicts a famous Parisian lifestyle during a typical Sunday afternoon in the late 1870s, when working-class Parisians would dress up and spend time dancing, drinking, and eating into the evening. It is one of the most famous Impressionist paintings and a dazzling example of Renoir’s talent for capturing dappled light produced when sunlight is filtered through the leaves of trees. It is a masterpiece demonstrating his innovative style of capturing a moving crowd with vibrant and brightly colored brushstrokes. Museum:        Musée d’Orsay, Paris

  • Dancing Girl (Mohenjo-Daro) from the Indus Valley Civilization
    • The Dancing Girl is a bronze statuette created over 4,500 years ago and is a rare and unique masterpiece. It was found in the ancient Mohenjo-Daro site in 1926. This statue is a cultural artifact reflecting the aesthetics of a female body as conceptualized during that historical period. The bronze girl was made using the lost-wax casting technique and shows the expertise of the people in bronze works during that time.

      The statuette was named “Dancing Girl” based on an assumption of her profession. She is one of two bronze artworks found at Mohenjo-Daro that shows a more natural pose than compared to other more formal figures. The statuette has large eyes, a flat nose, healthy cheeks, curly hair, and a broad forehead. She is a tall figure with long legs and arms, high neck, subdued belly, and sensuously modeled. The girl wears some bangles and a necklace. She has 25 bracelets on her left arm and four bangles on her right arm and is holding an object in her left hand. Her long hair styled as big bun rested on her shoulder. Museum: National Museum, New Delhi

  • “Dance at Bougival” by Auguste Renoir
    • “Dance at Bougival” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, made in 1883, depicts two of Renoir’s friends dancing at one of the open-air cafés of suburban Bougival on the Seine outside Paris. Renoir used intense color and lush brushwork to heighten the sense of pleasure conveyed by the whirling couple who dominate the painting.

      The woman’s face, framed by her red bonnet and is the focus of attention. The woman’s body is arched to the dance as she turns her head and looks away, delighted with the pleasure she inspires in her dance partner and herself. Her dress swirls to the rhythms of the dance. Museum: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

  • Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
    • Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicts the artist’s favorite subject from the theatre, Marcelle Lender, the red-headed actress. Toulouse-Lautrec first encountered her when he began to attend the theatre regularly, in 1893. His infatuation with her peak when she starred in the revival of Hervé’s “Chilpéric.” Toulouse-Lautrec visited this operetta over twenty times, arriving just in time to see Lender dance the bolero in the second act. This painting shows Lender performing a bolero from the operetta.

      Toulouse-Lautrec sketched and studied the actress producing six lithographs inspired by Lender’s appearance in Chilpéric and two paintings. However, his admiration was not reciprocated; she is said to have remarked. “What a horrible man! He is very fond of me …., but as for the portrait, you can have it!” Museum: National Gallery of Art, DC

  • “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin
    • “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin is a painting whose exact meaning is not known. One interpretation is that the picture represents the passing of time and the different stages of life. Its iconography depicts the revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. Poussin’s paintings are based on a historical iconographic that was understood by his patrons of the 1600s.

      Poverty is the male figure at the very back of the circle. He dances with his back turned towards the viewer, barefoot and of low status, looking towards Labour. Labour is represented as a healthy young woman, dancing barefoot. Her bare shoulders and hair cover represent hard work. She is eagerly trying to grasp Wealth’s hand. Wealth is a young woman with paler skin who dances with golden sandals and robe; she is reluctantly reaching out to Labour’s hand. Pleasure is the young woman in blue who gazes at the viewer with a smirk and a flushing face. Museum:  Wallace Collection

  • “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” by Edgar Degas (MET)
    • “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” by Edgar Degas is a sculpture begun about 1880 by Edgar Degas of a young student at the Paris Opera Ballet dance school. The statue is one-third life-size and was initially sculpted in wax. The dancer is dressed in a bodice, tutu and ballet slippers. This sculpture is one of 28 bronze repetitions that appear in museums around the world, which were cast after Degas’ death. The tutus worn by the bronzes vary from museum to museum.

      The arms are taut, and the legs and feet are placed in a ballet position, and there is tension in the pose, an image of a young adolescent ballerina being put through her paces. The sculpture depicts one of Degas’s favorite themes, dancers captured in various poses. Ballet dancers were one of Degas’ favorite subjects. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

  • Dancers by Pierre Bonnard
    • Dancers by Pierre Bonnard depicts a high-angle view on a ballet with a dream-like quality. The dancers fill the stage in lines, with each group executing a different dance step. The focus, the colors, and the cloud-like quality of the ballerina’s tulle give the impression that the figures are floating above the stage.

      Rather than observe and reproduce the world around him, Bonnard sought to instill each picture with “a beauty outside nature.” Bonnard also collaborated with the Russian and Swedish Ballet to design décors as well as a poster. Thus Bonnard may have had the opportunity to observe a ballet from a bird’s eye view. Museum: Musée d’Orsay

  • “At the Moulin-Rouges, Two Women Waltzing” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
    • “At the Moulin-Rouges, Two Women Waltzing” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicts actual people from the Parisian nightlife at Montmartre at the end of the 19th century. The female clown Cha-U-Kao is one of the women dancing, and the singer Jane Avril is behind her, with her back to the spectator. Toulouse-Lautrec imbued his personal experience in his paintings set at the Moulin-Rouge. Although he was born into an aristocratic family, he identified himself with people from all parts of French society.

      The Moulin-Rouge was founded in 1889. The building featured in this painting burned down in 1915. It was close to Montmartre in Paris, with a red windmill on its roof that marks it. Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. Originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated from the site, the can-can dance revue evolved into a kind of entertainment of its own. It led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe. Museum: National Museum in Prague

  • “Orchestra Musicians” by Edgar Degas
    • “Orchestra Musicians” by Edgar Degas depicts in the foreground part of the opera orchestra in which only the back of three musicians is visible in the bottom half of the composition, dominated by the black and white of their clothing. The top half of the composition is the opera stage with ballet dances in full light, color, and movement. There is a distinct contrast between the youthful dances and the older aged male musicians who are squeezed together, as their black coats merge into one dark mass. Degas initially painted a different version of the “Orchestra Musicians” in 1872 but revised it a few years later, enlarging it and converting the horizontal format into a vertical. He also overpainted parts of the original composition.

      Degas added a piece of fabric to the upper edge of the canvas to make it a vertical format. He glued two canvas pieces onto another textile for support. At the seam, a shallow horizontal groove is visible on the surface of the paint layer at the level of the dancers’ waists. Museum: Städel Museum

A Tour of the Art of Everything

Quotes About Dancing

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“Let us read and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” – Voltaire

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“A star danced, and under that was I born.” – William Shakespeare

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“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” – Rumi

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“He who cannot dance blames the floor.” – Hindu Proverb

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“Dancers are athletes of God.” – Albert Einstein

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“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” – Martha Graham

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“Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything dances.” – Maya Angelou

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“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” – Samuel Beckett

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“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” – Confucius

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“I’m going to dance in all the galaxies.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

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“Socrates learned to dance when he was 70 because he felt that an essential part of himself had been neglected.” – Unknown

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“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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“The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word.” – Mata Hari

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“And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon.” – Edward Lear, The Owl, and the Pussycat

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“The main thing is dancing, and before it withers away from my body, I will keep dancing till the last moment, the last drop.” – Rudolf Nureyev

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“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the disheveled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
– William Butler Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire

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“Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.” – George Bernard Shaw

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“Every day brings a chance for you to draw in a breath, kick off your shoes, and dance.” – Oprah Winfrey

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“Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.” -George Bernard Shaw

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“If you want to release your aggression, get up, and dance. That’s what rock and roll is all about.” – Chuck Berry

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“Our biological rhythms are the symphony of the cosmos, music embedded deep within us to which we dance, even when we can’t name the tune.” – Deepak Chopra

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“Every savage can dance.” – Jane Austen

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“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” – Confucius

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“The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” – James Brown

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“Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we’re here, we should dance.” – Proverb

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More of the Art of the Dance

  • Brooklyn Museum – Russian Ballet – Max Weber
  • Matsuke Heikichi – Nogaku zue – Walters
  • Alfred Dehodencq  – A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar – Carmen Thyssen Museum
  • Sorolla – La jota
  • Jota Valenciana – Gabriel Puig Roda – Museu de Belles Arts de Castelló
  • El bolero de Camarón Boronat, Una romería – Prado
  • A Bolero Dancer – Antonio Cabral Bejarano  – Carmen Thyssen Museum

The Art of Everything

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“Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything dances.”
– Maya Angelou

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Photo Credit: Musée d'Orsay [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

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