The 16 Unique Ways People Dance All Over the World
And now, a global story of movement and music.
One of the best ways to get to know a country is not just through its music, but through the movement it inspires. Around the world, dance has served for centuries as a form of artistic expression, religious enlightenment, and storytelling. The currents of history, too, roll through many dances whose intricate steps and syncopated beats are a product of clashing civilizations, slavery, and immigration. From Ethiopia’s shoulder-bouncing eskitsa to the whirling dervishes of Turkey, journey around the world with these 16 dance-crazes.
WHERE: United States
A pow wow isn’t a dance, per say, but rather a dance competition where performers from a variety of Native American traditions prance, leap, and promenade. Dressed in the regalia of their people, elaborate outfits that incorporate headdresses, feather bustles, and long fringe, many of the dances tell stories of or pay tribute to the natural world. As they spin across the arena, the stylized steps of the dancers move to the beat of rhythmic drumming and melodic singing that combines lyrics in native languages with syllables like “hey,” “loi,” and “ya.” Among the most mesmerizing dances performed at pow wows are the Southwestern hoop dance, in which the dancer juggles, balances, and jumps through more than a dozen hoops, and the jingle dance, an Ojibwa-originated healing dance performed by women in dresses strung with tiny tinkling tin cones.
WHERE: United States
Breaking, or breakdancing, emerged out of New York City in the early 1970s against a backdrop of increasing crime, unemployment, and social unrest. The first b-boys were almost entirely African American youth, whose gymnastic improvisation included moves like head spinning, hand hops, windmills, and complex footwork performed to looped and remixed beats. Fifty years on, breaking has spread to a number of countries around the world and both b-boys and b-girls in the US hail from every ethnic community. Like they did in the beginning, informal battles between solo artists and crews still rock city streets and onlookers gather in a “cypher” (a circle) around the competitors to watch the dancers show off their best tricks and power-moves.
WHERE: New Zealand
In Maori mythology, the haka is a celebration of life. Most often, though, the only one facet of the haka is performed, the peruperu, or war dance that draws out the movements of the body in a symphony of stomping, grunting, and tongue lolling performed to rhythmic chanting or shouting. Even New Zealand’s national rugby union team, the All Blacks, perform a version of a war haka before matches. For the Indigenous community of New Zealand, though the dance takes a variety of essential forms, including the tūtū ngārahu , in which the dancers jump from side-to-side, and the more subdued manawa wera which is typically performed at funerals.
Japan’s kabuki is part dance, part drama—a theatrical art whose origins can be traced back to Kyoto at the turn of the 17th century. In its earliest form, women filled the roles of both male and female characters in short comedic plays with bawdy and sexually suggestive undertones. Later it was men who took over both male and female roles. Over the centuries, as kabuki evolved, it became a five-act performance that fell into one of three categories: Japanese history, domestic drama, and dance pieces. Stylized movements and poses, faces painted in white rice powder and lined with colored kumadori, and colorful costumes all express the emotions of the characters. Meanwhile, theater tricks like trap doors and a revolving stage help to draw the audience into an event meant to keep them entertained for an entire day.
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr
Royal Ballet of Cambodia (Khmer Classical Dance)
There are no pointe shoes or tutus in the Royal ballet of Cambodia but the dance requires just as much skill as its European counterpart. An ancient art form that was first recorded in the royal courts of the 7th century, Khmer classical dance combines elaborate hand gestures and precise foot and leg positions to convey meaning and express emotion. There are only four basic characters in the ballet—male, female, ogre or aspara, and monkey—and their performances revolve around mythologies, traditional stories and romantic damsel-in-distress-type dramas. Each of the approximately 100 dances and dramas in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet is performed to the music of a “pinpeat” ensemble, xylophones, oboes, drums, and other instruments that accompany lyrical poetry sung in a chorus.
A barong, a traditional protective spirit, watches over each region of the Indonesian island of Bali. There are several on duty, including an old pig, a tiger, an elephant, and a dog-like creature. But it is the lion, the barong ket, who is most commonly seen, the protagonist of an epic dance battle between good and evil in which it confronts the Queen of Demons and her army of evil witches. The barong is played by two people hidden within a complex costume covered in thick fur, gold jewelry, and tiny mirrors. In the performance, they dance in synchronization until finally convincing the evil witches to turn their daggers on themselves and restore the balance of nature.
It used to be that bhangra dancing took place primarily in the fields of Punjab, India, the improvised moves of farmers busted out during the harvest season to make their chores just a little less boring. Away from the fields, farmers brought their dance to harvest-honoring cultural festivals where they’d form circles and execute a series of kicks, leaps, and bends to rhythmic music with a syncopated beat made by a dhol or double-headed drum. But even though bhangra was originally associated with the masculine values of a patriarchal society, today women also bust a move, especially in the Punjabi diaspora and on the Bollywood scene.
Eskista, a vigorous bouncing shoulder dance, hails from Ethiopia. Based on the movements of a snake’s “neck” (or so legend has it), the eskista is a highly technical dance that involves rolling the shoulder blades, thrusting the chest and popping the shoulders while the rest of the body stays relatively still. Though the eskista can be performed to pop music and sometimes shows up in music videos, it’s traditionally danced to upbeat Ethiopian folk music played on chordophones (stringed instruments), aerophones (wind instruments), rattles, and drums.
Eskista Salsa and More/Facebook
WHERE: Kenya & Tanzania
Traditionally it’s young Maasai warriors who perform the athletic coming-of-age ceremonial dance, the adumu, in Kenya and Tanzania. The dancers stand in a circle, bouncing and chanting in a deep, droning bass as one by one or two at a time the men move into the center to jump as high as they can over and over. The warrior that jumps the highest earns bragging rights for his impressive display of masculinity. Though women and children don’t dance the adumu, they chant along with the men as they watch the performance, raising the pitch of their voices along with the jumps.
Antonio Jorge Nunes/Shutterstock
While many of the dances from Africa are rooted in long-standing traditions, the kpanlogo developed out of the wave of American rock-and-roll that hit Ghana in the early 1960s. Like youth in other parts of the world, young people of the Ga ethnic group in the capital city of Accra were inspired by the never-before-heard new music to shake and shimmy in ways that were wholly unique. The dance they created was salacious for its time, performed close to the ground with deeply bended knees, a bended back and sexually suggestive motions. Kpanlogo music, too, developed locally to combine a sort of rhythm-and-blues beat with traditional Ga instruments like metal bells, gourd rattles, and drums.
Sufi Whirling (Whirling Dervishes)
While whirling looks like a dance to observers, it is actually a form of meditation for the dervishes, a mystical Islamic Sufi tradition from Turkey. The ecstatic spinning is part of a ritual practice that dates back to the 12th century. Wearing a white skirted frock, long sleeved white jacket, felt cap and turban, the dancers whirl to abandon their own egos, focus on god, and reach towards enlightenment. As they do, a singer accompanies them with hymns and short, enthusiastic songs. Both men and women can whirl but while the dance is performed regularly for entertainment by non-Sufis, the Turkish government has strict control over ritual performances. The Mevlevi order to which the whirling dervishes belong are permitted to publicly perform their ritual only two weeks each year.
The hopak, the “National Dance of Ukraine,” is a traditional dance in which acrobatic feats are performed in unison. Best known for its squatting kicks and high, mid-air splits, the name of the dance comes both from the word “to jump” and from the exclamation the dancers utter as they leap, “Hop!” First created in the 16th century, the hopak was performed by young men eager to show off their manliness and strength. Modern hopak, though, is danced by both men and women to orchestral music which often ends with an explosive, fast paced march that tests the skills and stamina of the dancers.
The sultry Spanish flamenco originated in and around the southern state of Andalusia. Influenced by Romani and Moorish traditions, flamenco is dance of intense concentration and emotion which centers around complex foot stomping, ballet-like arm movements, and clapping. Both men and women perform the flamenco, with women wearing stunning, form-fitting dresses that are tight in the bodice then flare out in tiers of flowing fabric that ripple with each stomp of the heel. Flamenco musicians are as important to the dance as the dancers, themselves. Classical guitar and haunting vocal melodies propel the dancers forward, their steps and postures providing the ensemble’s underlying rhythm.
A symbol of Brazilian identity, the samba is a dance style rooted in West African rhythm and movement. There are multiple styles of samba but the most common is the often-impromptu version samba no pé in which the dancer keeps their body straight and bends one knee at a time while moving their feet a few inches in a step-ball-change kind of movement. Danced to a syncopated drum beat that can show up in everything from bossa nova to rock to reggae, the most thrilling samba dancers to watch are the scantily clad women balancing massive headdresses at Brazil’s epic Carnival celebrations in the days before Ash Wednesday in February or March.
The iconic tango was born on the docks of the Rio de la Plata in the late 19th century, a way for the lower classes to blow off steam. But in just over a generation, the tango had taken on a life of its own, spreading from Buenos Aires to Paris, London, and New York. There are different styles of tango but in the most popularized one, two partners hold each other in a close embrace as they glide across the floor to a waltz played on accordion, piano, and violin. The most skilled dancers will never separate their chests (or hips) except when dipping or spinning in flourishes of flamboyant emotion.
WHERE: Belize, Guatemala and Honduras
It was the Garifuna, an ethnic group born of Indigenous islanders and escaped African slaves, who originated the Punta on the Caribbean shores of Central America. The dance is a pantomime between men and women who circle each other and rapidly jiggle their hips, butt, and feet while keeping their upper body still. The “hotter” the dance gets, the faster and more seductively the dancers dance, driven by the pulsating rhythm of the music and egged on by the hoots and hollers of spectators. The punta has ritual associations and was historically a part of the traditions around ancestral ceremonies and wakes. But since punta rock began to hit the radio airwaves in the late 1970s and 1980s, the dance and the music have become a part of everyday life both within and outside of Garifuna communities along the coast and islands of Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala.