Historical & Cultural Dance Styles Around the World

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Dance is a form of art, a language, and an evolving cultural expression. Learn about how dances have evolved in different cultures throughout history. Explore the way anthropologists investigate the meanings of dance in traditional cultures.

Dancing as Art

Dancing is a form of artistic expression as well as sensual, evocative art. Today, we find dance in all aspects of culture: in gestures we use everyday, in religious ceremony, in mating rituals, in popular culture, in entertainment, in fitness, and in fine art.

Dancing in a Zumba fitness class

Dance styles are closely tied to the cultures in which they develop, and they change over time in correspondence to changing society. Dance is also an evolving language. Every gesture and move has its own history and cultural derivation. A wave, a handshake, a thumbs-up: these can all be thought of as forms of dance used in everyday life. The way we move and communicate with our hands and bodies is both an expression of our culture and our identity.

Dance as Cultural Expression

Anthropologists study dance in historical societies as it reflects other aspects of their culture. In contrast to post-industrial civilizations that run on electricity and a global economy, folklife thrives in traditional societies defined by their local economies and tightly knit communities. These societies run on word-of-mouth communication. In traditional societies, dance was closely related to religious practice. It also functioned as a mode of storytelling, communication, and ecstatic celebration.

Within the field of anthropology (the study of humankind historical development of cultures) there are many subfields, including ethnomusicology (cross-cultural studies of music) and ethnochoreology (dance ethnology, the study of cultural forms of dance). Both ethnomusicology and ethnochoreology relate as well to the study of folk culture and folklife. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, for example, exists to 'promote greater understanding and sustainability of cultural heritage across the United States and around the world.'

Types of Traditional Dances

Two of the oldest forms of dance that exist in many cultures are the circle dance and line dance. These two simple formations date back to the earliest times people started forming together into social groups. Circle and line dances evolved over the centuries, taking on different functions in cultures across the world as they developed.

Horah dance in Israel
Horah dance

Circle dancing was most widespread in Eastern and Central Europe. In the hora, from the Greek for 'dance,' for example, dancers hold each other's hands while spinning in a circle. It has been a traditional dance during weddings and festivals in Romania and Moldova for centuries. The hora spread across Eastern Europe and the Middle East into other cultures in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Syria. It continued to further develop in Jewish and Israeli culture as the Horah, which is danced along to the song 'Hava Nagila' (meaning 'let us rejoice') during weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Dancers braid arms and spin vigorously around in a circle.

Versions of circle dances are also found in many other cultures, including Scandinavian, Asian, and South American traditional societies. Several examples include the Tibetan 'Gouxie' dance (meaning 'village'), the Peruvian 'Kantu' (meaning 'song').

Irish Step Dancing
Irish step dancers

Line dances are also commonly found in traditional societies of Europe and the Middle East. Ireland, for example, shows some of the oldest and most elaborately developed dance and music folk culture. Step dancing is a traditional and ancient Irish custom. Dancers maintain a stiff upper body while performing quick movements of the legs and feet. Linked to Irish folk culture through legends and myth, it evolved over the centuries to become a popular and recognizable icon of Celtic culture.

Evolution and Migration

Several ancient forms of dance evolved across the world to become popular styles in America today.

Belly dancing, for example, has roots in ancient Egyptian culture. While the raqs sharqi (Arabic for 'oriental dance'), was only developed as an entertainment in the early twentieth century, several other types middle eastern folk dance predate it. Raqs baladi, (Arabic for 'folk dance') is the general term used to define the many styles danced socially at festivals, ceremonies, and celebrations. This improvisational style emphasizes hip movement with minimal hand and arm motions.

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