Why Danes dance ’les Lanciers’
Danes are the only nation in the world to dance the ballroom dance ’les Lanciers’. Part of the explanation for its continued popularity can actually be traced to Beverly Hills 90210.
’Les Lanciers’. The name may sound fancy and francophone, but it is actually more Danish than French. In fact, Denmark is the only country in the world to have Lanciers on the agenda at school balls and other social gatherings.
”Lanciers is completely unique to Denmark – without any of us being aware that we are dealing with something particularly Danish,” says Associate Professor Inger Damsholt of the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen.
”In Denmark we assume that the dance is a widespread Nordic and European phenomenon. But Danes are actually the only people in the world to dance Lanciers several times a year, and without ever wondering why.”
We dance to have fun
In the rest of the world, Lanciers is only danced by dedicated dance history buffs. They make an effort to reinstate the traditional 19th century dance, which was originally favoured by the European nobility.
In Denmark we assume that the dance is a widespread Nordic and European phenomenon. But Danes are actually the only people in the world to dance Lanciers several times a year, and without ever wondering why.
In Denmark, matters are entirely different. Here, all students are subjected to the dance at some point in their high school years, usually with a relatively unceremonious approach. Danes dance Lanciers to have fun, and at most high schools it is an indispensable part of annual student balls and graduation parties.
Damsholt has researched why the dance came to be such an integral part of Danish tradition, when it is relatively unknown in the rest of Europe. One of the aspects she has looked into is how Danish high school students perceive the dance tradition.
She found that young Danes keep the tradition alive for two reasons:
- The awareness that a tradition is being upheld.
- The desire to make the dance contemporary.
Elements from Lanciers have survived in the Caribbean folk dance ‘Afro-Caribbean Quadrille’ and in American Square dance.
“In Danish high schools, it is tradition to dance Lanciers like ‘in the old days’. But at the same time, there are also school where the students create new versions; the dancers might ride scooters, or dress up for the dance, as nurses and geriatrics, or S/M couples with whips,” says Damsholt.
“When people set out to challenge the format, you can really start calling it a dynamic tradition.”
Lanciers was the ‘it’ dance among the nobility
Becoming the Danish national dance wasn’t in the cards for Lanciers. The dance was originally created far from the coasts of Denmark.
In the 18th century, European nobility amused themselves by playing ‘ordinary people’. That might have been why the quadrille dances caught on, despite originally being the French peasantry’s dance of choice. Quadrille dances are danced in groups of four couples.
Inger Damsholt has analysed the link between dance and music in Lanciers using Eastern European theories of the link between dance and music in folk dances.
That part of the Lanciers study showed that repetition in the music is sometimes reflected in the dance, although there is no intuitive connection between music and dance in Lanciers on the whole.
Many dance masters arranged quadrille dances for the European nobility. One of these would turn out to be very popular:
In 1817, the Irish composer John Ducal created a real quadrille dance pop hit for a ball at court in Dublin: The Lancer’s Quadrilles. The melody largely consisted of parts of the biggest opera hits of the time.
The ‘gentlemen’s mill’ was invented by Danes
In the years to follow, the Lancer’s Quadrilles led a tumultuous life. The dance was altered and spread across the European countries.
In Copenhagen in the 1860s, Lanciers was all the rage. The dance was the highpoint of parties held by high society, including one of the prominent families of the Danish bourgeoisie, the Royal Ballet, one of the country’s oldest secondary schools and the Royal Danish Army Academy – even at court. Only the working classes remained unaffected by this craze.
In that period, Lanciers acquired a particularly Danish trait: The infamous ‘gentlemen’s mill’ was added.
‘The gentlemen’s mill’ is the point of the dance where the men run around in a circle at a furiously high pace, with the ladies gasping and panting, almost flying behind their partners as they try to keep up.
Beverly Hills 90210 boosted the Lanciers
In the rest of the world, Lanciers disappeared around 1920, following the First World War. Nevertheless, the Danes kept on dancing the Lanciers, making it something of a widespread tradition at secondary school balls.
“Nevertheless, there was a period in the 1960s and 70s when dancing the Lanciers was out of the question. During the student risings, Lanciers was perceived as ridiculous conformism: Elaborate hair dos and ballroom dancing wasn’t of the moment,” she says.
But that changed in the 1990s, when the youths rebelled against their hippie parents. They were inspired by the American high school proms they saw in films and TV series such as Beverly Hills 90210.
“At American proms, girls dressed up in ball gowns, and boys in suits. Lanciers is well suited for such formal attire, so the dance saw a renaissance.”
Fun to think that grandpa danced too
Today, some high school students still care about glamorous clothing and limousines. Others put effort into finding a creative approach to Lanciers.
“High school students dance Lanciers for all sorts of reasons, one of them being that it is fun to think that grandpa danced the exact same dance when he was young,” she says.
“Or because it’s fun to dress up and play with the format. In that sense, the Danish Lanciers tradition is very much alive.”
The researcher has sent out questionnaires to all secondary schools in Denmark, so they can comment on their local Lanciers traditions. So far, the questionnaires have revealed that the dance is growing increasingly important at the schools’ annual balls.
“I haven’t had the time to finish the study completely; however, as the dance doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, it won’t be a problem to continue again in a few years.”
Translated by: Iben Gøtzsche Thiele
- Damsholt, Inger: Theories of the past in present practices: Lanciers in Danish upper secondary schools
- Damsholt, Inger: The one and only music for the Danish Lanciers: Time, space, and the method of East European Ethnochoreologists, Dansk årbog for musikforskning , vol 36, s. 43-62.