Skip to Main Content

Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide

Invitation to the Dance

The information in this guide is based on a 1993 publication and has not been updated.
How to dance, A complete ball-room and party guide. 1878. Library of Congress Music Division.

Resources for the study of dance have always had a place at the Library of Congress. This long-term commitment is evidenced by the early acquisition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dance manuals. Dance materials at the Library serve as a mirror to the interest in--and commitment to--dance as an intrinsic component of the nation's cultural tapestry.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries America was a country isolated by region and largely rural; American dancing of this period was, to a great degree, centered in the home and community, not the theater or music hall. This tradition is reflected in the Library's superb collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dance manuals. Such guidebooks were used by the traveling "dancing masters," circuit-riders of the era who traversed vast regions of the United States teaching dances to the gentry of the South and the middle and upper classes of the Northeast. These dancing masters used manuals published in Europe and the British Isles, and the Library has numerous superb examples of these publications in the Music Division. Several examples include Pierre Landrin's Potpourri françois de contre-dance ancienne (Paris, 1760); P. Valleau Cartier, Cartier's Practical Illustrated Waltz Instructor, Ball-room Guide and Call Book (New York, 1880); C. J. von Feldtenstein's Erweiterung der Kunst nach der Choreographie zu tanzen, Tänze zu erfinden, ... (Braunschweig, 1772); and James P. Cassidy's Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Dancing (Dublin, 1810).

During the nineteenth century the scholarly study of dancing was limited, and the Library's collections are reflective of this fact. With the arrival of the twentieth century and the development of such fields as anthropology and folklore, however, scholars in these newly created disciplines began to study the dance and other expressive elements of cultural groups represented both in America and throughout the world. This new scholarship, including histories written during the same period, provides rich sources of dance-related materials. Extremely numerous and important examples of anthropological data can be found in the Margaret Mead Collection, located in the Manuscript Division. Particularly rich dance items are among the Pacific Ethnographic Archives (one part of the Mead Collection). Examples include photographs from the field work conducted by Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and others during the 1930s in Bali and New Guinea, and photographs taken by Colin McPhee and Jane Belo for their own research and then acquired by Mead.

Besides the acquisition of scholarly books and monographs, the Library plays an active part in the development of new scholarship in the field of folklore through its Archive of Folk Culture and the American Folklife Center. Originally a section of the Music Division, the Archive (then called the Archive of Folk Song) carries out extensive field trips collecting and recording folk music (and related materials) throughout the United States. Field research began in 1928 and continues to the present day. Primary documentation and description of American vernacular dance exists in the Archive's collections. Recordings and other documents from Library projects are used by patrons through the Archive of Folk Culture's reading room in the Jefferson Building, and the Recorded Sound Reference Center, Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, in the Performing Arts Reading Room in the Madison Building.

Due to its ephemeral nature, theatrical dance in America has been poorly documented, and until recently the art was not treated seriously as a potential area of scholarly inquiry. This state of affairs has left libraries and archives with documents that have been preserved by virtue of their relationship to another field, such as music, theater, or cultural history. Examples of materials of this type are dancing and dancers depicted on sheet music covers. These lithographs offer dance researchers of today a glimpse of what specific dances may have looked like, including the costuming of the period. Many of these pieces of sheet music include textual descriptions of the steps to these dances.

Documentation of such masterpieces as the Library's commission of Aaron Copland and Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring exists for today's scholars and performers to study only because the dance commission was linked to the musical commission. At the time Appalachian Spring was created in 1944, the Graham materials were preserved because they documented the Coolidge commission, not because of any intentional effort to document dance. Other examples of this passive--but, in hindsight, critically important--dance collecting include the dance photographs of Arnold Genthe housed in the Prints and Photographs Division. Genthe, a master photographer of the early twentieth century, became famous for his impressionistic portrayals of society women, artists, dancers, and theater personalities. The Library acquired the major portion of Genthe's studio archives shortly after his death in 1942.

Martha Graham and ensemble in Appalachian Spring. 1944. Coolidge Foundation Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

In the early years of this century there was an explosion of creative energy in theatrical dance. The Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev was at the very core of this explosion and was perhaps the most important theatrical dance phenomenon of the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Much documentation of this group has been preserved, and the Music Division is proud to own the music library of Diaghilev and the personal "notebook" from his last years. These extraordinary items are complemented by visual materials (a poster, a costume design, and a watercolor portrait of Nijinsky in Les Orientales) in the Prints and Photograph Division.

Léon Bakst, costume designer. Color design for a Courtier in The Sleeping Princess. 1921. Bronislava Nijinska Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

The most important event influencing the Library's resources in dance was the invention of motion pictures. For the first time, film made it possible to capture fully the dancer's image and, consequently, film profoundly changed the nature of dance documentation and scholarship. Because dance "moves," filmmakers--later, television producers--have been drawn to the dancing image since the very beginning of the film era, and dance scholars, seeing the tremendous potential for capturing the dance, immediately began to exploit film as a medium for enriching research resources. The results of this technological breakthrough are a vast motion picture collection in which dance is prominent. Dancing included in feature films has even become a major component of anthologies of the movies, such as That's Entertainment and That's Dancing. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division has taken a leading role in the documentation and preservation of dance through its film collections. A reference book, Guide to Dance in Film, edited by David Parker of that Division, is the standard source for this area of dance study.

The development of low-cost videotape as a means to record dance has likewise produced major changes in the field of dance research. Creators of dance can now record dance quickly and easily; this is as true for vernacular dance practitioners as it is for theatrical dance. The result is an exciting new library of dance literature awaiting study and analysis. The Library's acquisition of such videotape material has been enormously enhanced by the revision of the copyright law (1976) that provides for the copyright registration of choreographic works. Consequently, the Library has received thousands of dance videotapes as a result of this provision. Examples include numerous deposits from George Balanchine (including: Square Dance, Chaconne, and Stars and Stripes) and Agnes de Mille (including The Bitter Weird, Bloomer Girl, and Conversations About the Dance).

The technology of film and video has wrought a dramatic change in the expectations and art of dance creators. Choreographers are able to know that their work will become an important part of artistic history long after they cease creating and dancing. This realization has spurred the Library's increased interest in preserving all aspects of dancers' and choreographers' creative work. Such new awareness of historical perspective has been an important tool for the acquisition of dance collections at the Library.

During the past fifty years choreographers and dancers have created and maintained personal collections of extraordinary value. Among the most significant in the Library are the Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon Collection, the Martha Graham Videotape Collection, the Graham materials in the Coolidge Collection, and the Franziska Boas Collection. While each of these collections demonstrates a very different approach to the art of dance, all share a dependence on the moving image as the prime document of the creative artist. The Fosse/Verdon Collection, in particular, is a comprehensive assemblage of the high achievements of both Fosse and Verdon. Through their lives we are able to construct a rich picture of the dancer's world on Broadway and in film. The paper, manuscript, and photographic components of these collections are served to scholars and artists in the Music Division, and the video, film, and audio materials are available in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.