One of the excitements of the autumn TV schedules is Strictly Come Dancing. For me, like 10 million other viewers, it is compulsory Saturday evening viewing as well as being a useful topic for small talk in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people. I am old enough to remember its predecessor programme Come Dancing which was nowhere near as compulsive viewing. Or it may have been that, being considerably younger, my interests lay elsewhere.
Strictly Come Dancing is for me pure entertainment and as such is an antidote to worries about Brexit and President elect Trump and to the Seasonal Affective Disorder which is so prevalent in these cloudy sunless Isles.
It is in fact a promoter of wellbeing among its viewers. But, more than this. It has a positive impact on the popularity and practice of dancing which is at the same time a good vehicle for physical exercise and a framework for positive social interaction, both of which promote individual wellbeing of a more enduring kind.
As a child of the fifties and early sixties dancing was not really on the agenda until I went up to university where it provided a convenient milieu for meeting members of the opposite sex. We did a bit of ensemble dancing at primary school to entertain parents at the annual summer open day but it did not figure on my boys only grammar school curriculum – perish the thought – where physical exercise of a rather more muscular variety was greatly prized.
So learning to dance became a high priority at university and mastering a simple walz, quick step, cha cha cha and jive were priority extra curricular activities in my first undergraduate year. Skip jive and the Twist surfaced in my second year and were particularly enjoyable passing crazes. My wellbeing score went off the scale for a year or two.
Dancing is of course as old as homo sapiens. It is unlikely that any human society (at any rate until the invention of puritanism) has denied itself the excitement and pleasure of dancing. Dances in primitive cultures all had as their subject matter the changes experienced by people throughout their lives, changes that occurred as people grew from childhood to old age, those they experienced as the seasons moved from winter to summer and back again, changes that came about as tribes won their wars or suffered defeats.
Two sorts of dance evolved as cultures developed: social dances on occasions that celebrated births, commemorated deaths, and marked special events in between; and magical or religious dances to ask the gods to end a famine, to provide rain, or to cure the sick. The medicine men of primitive cultures, whose powers to invoke the assistance of a god were feared and respected, are considered by many to be the first choreographers, or composers of formal dances. Dancing of both sorts was we know an important part of ancient Egyptian, classical Greek and Hindu cultures.
As we know it today, social dancing is an activity that can be traced back to three sources: the courts of Europe, international society, and primitive cultures. Among noblemen and women of 16th- and 17th-century Europe, ballroom dancing was a popular diversion. After the political upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries, dances once performed by the aristocracy alone became popular among ordinary people as well. In America dances that were once confined to the gentry who first led the newly established Republic passed to the common folk. By the mid-19th century, popular dances attracted many participants who performed minuets, quadrilles, polkas, and waltzes, all of European origin.
Another important influence came from Ireland, whose clog dances were first brought to America in the 1840s. After being adapted by local performers, clog dance steps became the tap dances done to this day.
But, enough of history; is there a public health issue here? The answer is very definitely yes.
So long may Strictly Come Dancing appear on our screens and in the cause of improving our health and wellbeing perhaps we need a Commissioner for Dancing and to elevate it to an Olympic sport?
Paul Walker, November 2016