Dancing is an integral part of almost every culture, but have you ever wondered where the line is between folk dance and other forms of dance? What makes folk dance its own category, where did it come from, and what are some examples?
Here you’ll learn all this and more as we explore the origins of folk dance and hear of popular dances from around the world.
What Is Folk Dance?
Folk dance is a form of dancing that is both popular and meaningful to a culture. Folk dances often reflect traditions or customs of culture and arise during ceremonies, festivals, significant cultural events, and for show.
While folk dances usually have ethnic origins, not all ethnic dances are folk dances. Folk dancing excludes dances of ritual origin. Ritual dances are considered religious dances and are not popularly done for sport or entertainment.
Folk dances also often consist of large groups of dances or certain parts of a community that partakes.
Tenets of Folk Dance
There are four central tenets of what makes up folk dances. These include the people dancing, the particular music, the costumes or outfits associated, and the occasion that the dances take place.
Traditionally, folk dance performers are nonprofessional members of the community. They have no formal training in dance but rather learn the dances through generational inheritance and cultural knowledge.
The music that accompanies most folk dances is equally traditional and integral to the culture. Many folk dances require instruments specific to the given culture and playing styles that are often only seen in association with traditional music.
Along with the tradition of dance and music, dancers often adorn themselves in more traditional costuming. These outfits can include archaic manners of dress or modern costumes that reflect the styles of the past.
Usually, the costumes originate from day-to-day outfits from the past but can be ceremonial or specialized in design.
The last requirement to be considered a folk dance is the occasion for which the dance is performed. Most often, folk dances take place during festivals, holiday celebrations, cultural gatherings, ceremonies, or agricultural events.
The dances can also be a form of recreation when done less formally.
Where Does It Originate?
The term folk dance calls back to a time when common people were segregated from the upper echelons of society. Even so far in the past, the dances of the masses were seen as plebeian and traditional. Upperclassmen danced contemporary ballroom dances with the latest music and fashions.
The distinction between folk dances comes from English and European societies but has grown to encapsulate the most culturally significant traditional dances around the world.
In its most basic form, folk dances came about as a form of recreational community involvement. They were a way to bring people together, celebrate, and have fun as a group. Dances took place during agricultural events and other occasions significant to a community. It was a uniform manner for people to interact and both enjoy and entertain.
Examples of Folk Dance By Country & Culture
Please note that this is a limited list of examples, and many countries and cultures have several styles of folk dance distinct to different regions and ethnic backgrounds.
Bharatanatyam is a formal form of traditional Indian dance from Tamil Nadu. It was first recorded in an ancient treatise on theater and is traditionally performed by women. Bharatanatyam is meant to convey Hindu stories and started as a temple dance.
It can be traced back to 2CE and has remained a popular form of folk dance since. The costumes are very traditional and include numerous adornments.
Céilí is a form of folk dance with origins in Scotland and Ireland. It can include reels, long dances, round dances, and jigs but is better known as Irish step dance.
Céilí dancing came about in the 1500s and still features traditional music. It started as a harvest tradition and was nearly beaten out by English penal laws but was able to make a resurgence in the 1800s.
Flamenco originated from the Roma people when they migrated from northwest India to Spain between the 9th and 14th centuries. They introduced new instruments such as the tambourine and unique styles of dancing and dress. Flamenco also carried influences from the Sephardic Jews and the Moors.
There are three main types of flamenco songs, and they may also include narrative songs. The dance is all about fluid motions that show off the ripples in the skirts of the flamenco dress.
Hula, from the native Hawaiians, is meant to be a physical portrayal of the song and chant that accompany it. Modern hula is a mixture of traditional Hawaiian dance and western influences that came about in the 1800s.
Hula was banned in 1830 due to Christian influences that deemed it a pagan ritual. The art of hula was never lost, however, and the ban was officially lifted in 1874.
Hula outfits consist of a wide range of looks depending on the formality of the dance, but the most well-known ensemble includes a grass skirt and many lei.
Odori, or Awa Odori, is a traditional Japanese dance style common at some summertime festivals. While there is no definite origin for the dance, it’s thought to be around 400 years old and shares roots with Kabuki theater.
Some common origin theories include that Odori started as a drunken dance party and became a tradition, as part of the Obon festival, with Noh theater, or to promote tourism. All of these theories likely hold some grain of truth.
The dance itself looks drunken and foolish by design.
Omaha Grass Dance
While the origin of the grass dance is highly contested, it likely originated in the Omaha, Pawnee, Anishinaabe, Ponca, Dakota, or Winnebago tribes. The grass dance is a men’s pow-wow dance from the Northern Great Plains region.
There are several stories about the inception of the dance, some having to do with a boy regaining the ability to walk after gaining inspiration from the grasses of the prairie, while others have to do with flattening the grasses of the prairie from blessings or battles.
Grass dance costumes don’t feature feathers like most other pow-wow garb and instead use the roach feather and brightly colored yarn. The yarn is the modern equivalent of warriors tying grass to their belts.
The polka is a traditional Czech folk dance that has spread throughout Europe over the centuries. It is thought to have gained popularity in 1830 in Bohemia and spread throughout the 19th century.
Traditionally, the polka was viewed as a courtship dance and later became a round dance. The music is in 2/4 time, and the dance requires a lot of open space to move.
The costumes are traditional, with roots in the contemporary folk dress of the Czech, Germans, Austrians, and Polish.
Samba is an Afro-Brazilian dance style that originated from the slave trade. Its roots stretch back to Angola and the Congo.
The dance is lively and upbeat with a 2/4 time signature and eccentric, colorful costumes. It can be danced in a duet or a group and has an extensive competitive platform.
Originally the word samba referred to several Latin duet dances but has come to be recognized as a unique style of dance and music.
Originating in Italy sometime in the 16th century, Tarantella is named for its town of origin: Taranto. This folk dance has a bizarre origin story as it's thought to have stemmed from tarantism, a disease of hysteria brought about by the bite of a wolf spider.
It either causes the infected to dance frantically or can be cured by frenzied dancing.
The dance is fast-paced and upbeat and is usually accompanied by tambourine music.
More widely known as the Jingle Dress Dance, Ziibaaska'iganan is a women’s pow-wow dance from the Ojibwe tribe that came about in the early 1900s. It gained popularity in the 1920s and has become a staple of pow-wows and competitions.
The dress itself is said to come from the dreams of a medicine man that hoped to heal his ailing granddaughter. After donning the dress, the tribe carried her until she was well enough to dance and cure her ailment.
The dance follows the beat of the drums and is performed in large groups.
What Is Folk Dance? Final Thoughts
Dance is a vital and integral part of many cultures, and while not all cultural dances can be considered folk dances, those that hold rich histories and stories of the people.
If a particular dance is significant to a culture, showcases traditional costumes and music, is a key part of cultural gatherings, and involves the people of the community, it can count as a folk dance.
While each dance has a different meaning to each group and should be treated with respect, they are also a great way to get to know the people of a culture a little better.