Music Dance
Marta Robertson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0017


In addressing issues of how music and dance intersect, this article concentrates on three categories: first, dance sources that deal substantively with music or that are of particular interest to musicians; second, musical sources with an emphasis on dance; and third, the intersection between the two arts in dance-music and its contexts. Given that dancing and music making appear to be universal human behaviors, and that virtually all dance is performed to music, or in its absence to “silence,” the literature on dance music, its interrelationships with dance structures, dancers, and the shared cultural context of the two arts is vast. Methodologies for studying these interrelationships also are seemingly endless. They cut across the fields of music and dance and enjoin interdisciplinary considerations involving both, not to mention cultural or area studies. Understanding the relationship between dance and its dance music is fundamental to musicians’ performance as they accompanying dance in the dance studio or on stage. The interconnected structural elements of dance and its corresponding dance music, particularly articulations of time that they share, can be analyzed formally. The conceptual relationship between dance and its dance music, dancer and musician, and the dance-music complex and its cultural context, is culturally constructed. Thus, not only these relationships, but their meanings that also are culturally derived, vary across chronological time and geographical place. In some cultures, dance music can be transmitted without its corresponding dance, but in a majority of world music cultures, dance and music not only function in the same cultural space, they cannot be separated. For many of these cultures, dance can be theorized and analyzed as embodied music. In some cases, the dance and dancer are so fundamental to the music as to become yet another line in the overall texture. Dancing to music or making music for dance can occur simultaneously—sharing, for example, venues, meanings, and modes of transmission. Thus, studies of dance through a music perspective and music through a dance perspective can provide musicians with a richer context for understanding dance music, its formal structures, its contextual meaning, and the performance of these relationships.

General Overviews

Few works attempt to treat dance, including the music that accompanies it and the cultural context music and dance share, across both geographic place and chronological time. One notable exception is the Jonas 1992 text and its accompanying videos, organized thematically for cross-cultural comparison of representative dance cultures and by extension their accompanying music. Ichikawa, et al. 1990 is a very broad overview of global folk and vernacular music traditions, many of which include dance, with only select art traditions. It does not attempt to treat Euro-American theatrical art dance. Both Sachs 1963 and Nettl 1969 (originally 1937 and 1947, respectively) treat primitive and folk dance traditions along an evolutionary scale that culminates in Euro-American art dance and its music, a deeply rooted 19th-century anthropological bias. Early landmark studies, Sachs 1963 and Nettl 1969, continue to be referenced to the present, but should only be used for historiographic purposes. Closely related to general overviews are encyclopedias and dictionaries, which present broad overviews by genres, regions, or individuals (see Encyclopedias and Dictionaries).

  • Ichikawa, Katsumori, Kunihiko Nakagawa, Yuji Ichihashi, and Tomoaki Fujii. The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance. Tokyo: JVC, Victor Co. of Japan/Smithsonian Folkways, 1990.

    The original thirty volumes (1990), covering world traditions regionally, are supplemented with sets on Africa (three vols.), Europe (two vols.) and the Americas (six vols.). Most segments are brief fieldwork recordings of folk and vernacular traditions. Separate booklets contain explanatory material: contextualizing essays, performance credits, maps, and charts.

  • Jonas, Gerald. Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with Thirteen/WNET, 1992.

    Synthesizing disciplinary strengths of dance history and anthropology resulted in Dancing, a dynamic survey of global dancing and its cultural continuities, lavishly documented with 260 illustrations and eight videos. Organized thematically and cross-culturally around issues applicable to music: court dance, religion, diaspora, and contemporary and historical traditions.

  • Nettl, Paul. The Story of Dance Music. New York: Greenwood, 1969.

    Translated into English (1947) from the original Die Musikgeschichte des Tanzes. Once a landmark study, particularly for 17th- to 19th-century dance music, this text builds on assumptions and biases from its time period and Sachs 1963. Should only be used for historiographic purposes.

  • Sachs, Curt. World History of the Dance. Translated by Bessie Schönberg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.

    Translated into English (1937) from the original Weltgeschichte des Tanzes (1933). Based on 19th-century anthropological theories, including that the “folk” or “peasant” (and their respective dances) are an evolutionary stage between primitive and civilized cultures. Once a landmark dance text, this source should only be used for historiographic purposes.

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