Opera may be better known for its vocals than its moves, but the genre still has some spectacular dances. Here are our favourites


Opera’s best dances

Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome

Richard Strauss’s Salome scandalised audiences at its premiere in 1905, mostly due to its Dance of the Seven Veils. Hoping to claim John the Baptist’s head on a platter, the princess dances for her stepfather, Herod II, removing her veils one by one until she is naked. Strauss described the dance as ‘the heart of the plot’, and wrote languid, seductive orchestral music for it.

Bacchanale from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila

Colourful and lively, the Bacchanale has become a standalone concert-hall favourite. In Act III of this biblical opera of 1876, the Philistines abandon themselves to a wild dance. Saint-Saëns depicts this world in the language of French orientalism, spicing western scales with augmented intervals and an improvisatory-style oboe solo.

Polonaise from Dvořák’s Rusalka

In his fairytale opera of 1901, Dvořák tells the sad love story of a water sprite who falls for a human prince. In Act II, festivities are taking place at his castle. A stately Polonaise represents the aristocracy, the mortal world in which the prince lives, and of which Rusalka can never truly be a part.

Dance of the Persian Slaves from Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina

In Act IV of Musorgsky’s epic Khovanshchina, the Russian Prince Khovansky orders his Persian slaves to dance for him. Left incomplete at Musorgsky’s death, the opera was revised and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. In the dance, a cor anglais solo unfurls before the strings pick up the soaring melody. The increasingly energetic dance whips up to a stirring conclusion.

Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda

Ballets were an integral part of French grand opera, and the tradition was emulated elsewhere – including by the Italians. Ponchielli’s 1876 opera La Gioconda includes a ten-minute ballet in Act III about the changing hours of day. A popular hit after its premiere, the Dance of the Hours became even more famous when featured in Disney’s Fantasia, lithely danced by a hippo in a tutu.


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