Dances are thinly disguised simulations of sex acts. But there’s more to dancing than bawdy ribaldry. The sweaty proximity allows the partners to exchange an enormous amount of information about their respective bodies: from joint suppleness, through spatial orientation and coordination, and down to the fine details of their immunological systems (such as the major histocompatibility complex MHC) carried by their body odours. In this sense, dancing aids and abets the forces of natural selection and eugenic breeding. Indeed, in many 16th and 17th century textbooks dancing is grouped with hunting, fighting, wrestling, and running.
In times past, the dance-hall was the only venue open to prospective partners to gather such fitness data. Indeed, there is reason to believe that dancing was consciously invented and designed to do precisely that. Capriol, a protagonist in Thoinot Arbeau’s dance manual “Orchesography”, complains: “(W)ithout knowledge of dancing, I could not please the damsels.” Arbeau himself is nothing if not brutally explicit:
“Dancing is practised to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savour one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odour as of bad meat.”
Arbeau and dance masters such as Caroso actually named dances to reflect the underlying amorous, matchmaking process. Inevitably, Puritans and other spoilsports targeted the practice and its purveyors repeatedly in both England and its overseas colonies.
But dancing, as a form of health-enhancing strenuous exercise, also serves to perpetuate the species. This aspect of dancing was especially important when and where women’s movements were restricted by tradition, social mores, and religion: allowed to indulge in dances, even with their own sex, women have thus secured a modicum of sanatory locomotion.
Nowadays, dancing is often thought of as a couple’s activity. But, this is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, dancing was a social act and the vast majority of dances involved frequently switched multiple partners, as demanded by ballroom etiquette. Thus, dancing and saltation yielded social cohesion; increased social interaction; and enhanced the opportunities for mating and cooperation.