Those of you who know me In Real Life know that I’m as passionate about dance as I am about history and that I never met an art museum I didn’t like. So it’s not surprising that I was quick to say “me, me” when Shelf Awareness was looking for a reviewer for a quirky little book from the Bodleian Library that combines all three.
In A Dance Through Time: Images of Western Social Dancing From the Middle Ages to Modern Times Jeremy Barlow uses images of dance drawn from medieval manuscripts, dance cards, sheet music, instruction manuals, satirical prints, and news photos to discuss changing standards of decorum and sexual license as displayed on the ballroom floor.
Barlow moves us not only through time, but across class barriers. He contrasts the stately movement of courtly dance styles with the rowdier mores of rustic dance. He traces the development of social dance from circle dances to couple dances, explaining just why the waltz was such a shocking innovation when it was introduced into polite ballrooms around 1800. He considers the use of dance imagery in social satire related to the rise of the middle class and discusses the inherent tension between dance and illustrations of dance.
Barlow links his range of illustrations and themes together with the recurring image of the bent, raised knee, with which he both opens and closes the book, citing images as separate in time and as united in meaning as the Egyptian hieroglyphic for dance and a 21st century cartoon symbol for bad dancing. Roughly one-third of the images in the book share this element, which Barlow uses as a device for discussing issues of class, decorum, and desire.
A Dance Through Time will appeal not only to readers interested in dance history, but to those interested in dance as an element of social history.
This review appeared previously in Shelf Awarenesss for Readers