A Short History of Social Dancing in Sydney and Australia

It’s no secret that people love social dancing in Sydney and the world at large. Historians believe that humans have been swaying to the music for thousands of years (based on 5000+ year old sculptures found in Egypt) and given the plethora of boppers worldwide, it seems unlikely that we’re going to give up the practice any time soon.

Some of the most popular current styles of social dancing in Sydney and Australia include hip hop, contact improvisation, ballroom and Latin. But how did the activity develop – and where did it come from?


Aboriginal Australian Tradition

The origins of social dancing in Sydney and Australia stem from Aboriginal Australian ceremonial traditions which have existed for thousands of years. Styles vary depending on the region, territory and type of ceremony, but many share the use of song, ritual, body decoration and costumes. Often bird feathers, paint and other ornaments are used for decoration. Their performances often include foot stamping and the imitation of animals.


Colonial period: 1788-1901

After British colonisation of Australia in 1788, the influence of British social dancing in Sydney and Australia began to emerge. Many new citizens were homesick for Britain, and would eagerly await news from the docks about the latest in twirling and prancing trends. Upper-class styles such as ballroom were practiced regularly, whilst the lower classes performed common folk styles.

Many new forms of social dancing travelled to Sydney from Europe in later years. The new Waltz arrived in 1815 and quickly became popular, though Governor Macquarie was adamant that the Scottish reels remain favoured at official events. Similarly, the Quadrille travelled from France to Australia in 1820 and was a massive hit.


The Gold Rushes: 1850-1900s

The gold-rushes in Australia during the mid-1800s brought a rush of immigrants from around the world, including China, North America and Europe. With these immigrants came a range of new social dancing styles in Sydney and Australia. Styles such as the Polka Mazurka and Varsoviana were brought over from Eastern Europe, where they became popular.

During this time, especially in the cities and larger towns, social dancing in Sydney and Australia offered one of the only ways that men and women could meet each other. As a result, balls were frequently held at special locations, with it being a great honour to be invited. Those that attended were well-versed in all the different styles.

At the same time, the spread of colonists throughout the countryside led to the opening of smaller villages and towns, which often featured local halls where people would get together to shimmy. A typical night consisted of a range of styles, such as Quadrilles and the Scottish and Irish Reels.


Modern Ballroom 1910-1960

With the emergence of styles including the Slow Waltz, Foxtrot and One-Step in the early-1900s, the old ballroom styles became less common. Modern styles became highly fashionable across house parties, hotel lounges and ballrooms across the country. In the 1930s, “old time” styles were revived, though most teachers were unfamiliar with them which led to poor reconstructions. As a result, styles varied between states and regions.

The growth of American popular culture during this period brought new styles such as rock & roll to Australia.


Contemporary: 1960s – present

The 1960s folk revival led to the bush style resurgence in the 70s and 80s. The popularity of American popular culture and the impacts of globalisation have made styles such as jazz, hip hop, Latin and ballet hugely popular. There is also a strong clubbing scene which emerged from the growing disco and electronic scene.