One of the most fun ways to experience a new culture is through music and dance – whether as a spectator or by getting down in a class or at a cultural event. I’m not much of a musician, but I have studied various forms of dance since I was about seven years old and I love to explore new dance styles as I move around the globe. I’m open to all opportunities to bust a move, but I also have a list of dance forms I’d love to experience in their cultural birthplace and some that can only be experienced on their home turf. For all the dancers (current and former) and dance enthusiasts out there, here I share a few styles you might like to see or learn while travelling the world.
Tango – Argentina
I had a deal with my husband: I will cycle the “Road of Death” in Bolivia, and you will take a tango class with me in Argentina. Of course, that didn’t happen. Yes, I cycled the Road of Death because I am a woman of my word, but I’m still waiting for that tango class. Tango is fabled to have developed in the streets of La Boca, a suburb of the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. Though its origin was probably far more geographically spread than this, there is no doubt that tango was the product of low socioeconomic areas where immigrants and slaves gathered. The cross-pollination of cultures and their creativity gave rise to unique art, music and dance, such as the tango.
Flamenco – Spain
It’s no accident that I named this blog Duende which is a Spanish word intrinsically linked to flamenco, a form of dance I have been fascinated with since childhood. Flamenco music and dance is believed to have emerged from the culture of Andalusian Roma (Gypsies) that migrated over centuries from Northern India to southern Spain, combined with the Moorish and Jewish influence of Andalusian residents. Both the melody and choreography of flamenco are traditionally improvised within a traditional structure. Men’s flamenco moves feature elaborate toe and heel tapping, while women’s choreography generally constitutes more graceful hand and body movements. The dance form also incorporates finger clicking, clapping and shouting to express the often melancholy themes of the music.
Salsa – Cuba
Since the tango lesson never happened, I was all over that s**t when it came our trip to Cuba several years later. There was no escape for my husband and quite incredibly he survived the experience – fancy that! Salsa music and dance were born in eastern Cuba of mostly Spanish and African ancestry. The style migrated west to Havana and leapt across to New York in the 1950’s, where jazz was added to the list of its musical influences. Regional variations of the music and dance developed as they spread across the globe, but salsa’s roots are firmly planted in the Caribbean.
Viennese Waltz – Austria
The Viennese Waltz was scandalous on its 18th century debut—up to that point, men and women did not dance in hold, nor expose their ankles. It survived the initial disapproval to become all the rage in high society and subject of compositions by the likes of Josef Lanner and Johann Strauss. The Viennese Waltz is commonly danced to music 180 beats per minute, double that of the English Waltz (aka Slow Waltz or THE Waltz) you probably learnt in school. Originating from Austrian and German dances the Viennese Waltz is considered the oldest ballroom dance. I’m coveting an opportunity to don a ball gown and dance up an elegant storm in Vienna during ball season, that runs each year from November to January.
Hip Hop – U.S.
Hip hop dance evolved hot on the heels of hip hop music in 1970’s New York City. The original style was “breaking” to up-tempo breaks in rock or funk songs. As the music slowed, breaking receded and gave way to “hip hop freestyle”, that was more social dance with a few recognizable steps such as the “running man”. Meanwhile on the West Coast, “popping and locking” were being popularised and followed later by hyper-aggressive Krumping. All of these styles are classified under the broader category of hip hop. I’m all booked in for my Birthplace of Hip Hop Tour of Harlem and The Bronx next time I’m in NYC. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Raqs sharqi – Egypt
Belly dancing is a western term for traditional Middle Eastern dance forms such as raqs sharqi (classical belly dance) and raqs baladi (folk or social belly dance). The Dom people, thought to be cousins of the Roma, left Northern India around the 6th century. They travelled west through the Middle East to Northern Africa. Among them were a group of female dancers known as ghawazi (or ghawazee) who are responsible for developing the foundations of raqs sharqi. Later western influences such as ballet, ballroom and Latin dance evolved the style further to what has been globally popularized as belly dance. Read about our friend, belly dancer and fellow travel lover Tiffany Noro and here experience in Egypt in The Travelling Creative interview here.
Adumu – Kenya & Tanzania
Adumu aka “that jumping dance” is performed by young males of the Maasai tribe that live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They perform this dance during their coming of age ceremony known as Eonoto, which marks their transition into warriors. The men will stand around in a circle while one or two move into the centre and begin jumping without letting their heels touch the ground. The surrounding warriors will adjust the pitch of their chanting based on the height of the jumpers. A graceful, trampoline-high jump is the aim, to impress onlooking suitors.
Lion dance – China & Singapore
The lion dance is an ancient tradition in China. You’ve likely seen it before at Chinese New Year celebrations. The lion dance is not to be confused with the dragon dance. The lion is usually two dancers per costume, which is adorned with fur and has large blinking eyes. It’s also usually more mischievous and playful in personality than the scary dragon. Lion dances are performed to the sound of drums and cymbals, with the idea of scaring away bad fortune. That‘s why lion dances are often incorporated into Lunar New Year festivities or the opening of a new business – for good luck and prosperity. When I lived in Singapore, it was a unique sight to glimpse open trucks transporting costumed lion dancers from gig to gig around the city during Chinese New Year.
Step dancing – Ireland
It was recently brought to my attention during a trivia competition that I am old because I know who Michael Flatley is. So listen up youngins… back in the mid 1990’s, there was a stage show featuring Irish step dancing that was called Riverdance. It brought the dance style international attention and adoration. Michael Flatley and Jean Butler were the Irish dancing champions who headlined the show in the beginning. Irish step dancing has a long and largely untraceable history. Its evolution is said to have begun with the Celts who performed pagan dances in a circle formation and often involved tapping of the feet. The Normans arrived in the 12th century and brought with them a dance known as Carol which inserted some influence. By the 18th century roving “dance masters” travelled the Emerald Isle teaching a variety of styles including French cotillions and quadrilles to the masses. Finally, the Gaelic League formed in 1893 to promote Irish culture after long-held British rule. They formalized Irish dancing competitions with standardized rules and organized lessons, that have promoted step dancing to where it is today.
Hopak – Ukraine
You probably know the Ukrainian national dance hopak, as Cossak dancing, which was originally a victory dance celebrating military battles in the 17th century. Men returning from battle to the Zaporizhian Sich, the fortified capital of the Cossaks, would perform improvised dances and stylized battle re-enactments called hopaky. Their soundtrack was provided by community musicians playing violins, bagpipes, fifes and cimbaloms (Hungarian string instruments). Their signature squats, kicks and acrobatics reinforced their heroism to the crowd. Historically there was no set tune and musicians took their cue from the dancers, performing at a tempo that reflected their movements. Hopak music evolved over time and a famous example is Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazepa. The dance progressed too, as the dance grew popular among the civilian population and female dancers joined the men.
Hasapiko – Greece
Syrtaki, also spelt sirtaki, is what most likely comes to mind when you think of Greek folk dances. That one where dancers stand in a line or in a circle with their hands on their neighbours shoulders, dancing to music that begins slowly and gradually increases in tempo. Well, that came about in the 1960’s when a dance was created for the movie Zorba the Greek. Hardly what you were hoping for in an ancient culture right? Well, fortunately, the choreography of this dance was based on that of an older routine called hasapiko. Hasapiko can be traced to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) as a dance butchers performed with swords in the Middle Ages.
Hula – Hawaii
Ancient Hawaiian civilization did not possess a written language. Their history, mythology and culture were recorded and relayed from generation to generation through song and dance. When Western missionaries arrived, they were quick to frown upon Hula and at one time public performances were banned. The storybook of dance was set free again by King David Kalakaua in 1874. Hula has two forms: hula kahiko, an ancient style performed to chants and percussion, and hula auana, a modern form danced to contemporary music.
Samba – Brasil
Samba grew from African slave dances (primarily Congolese and Angolan) on Brazilian sugar plantations. The word “samba” is derived from the Angolan word “semba” meaning “invitation to dance.” When slaves were freed and moved into favelas (shantytowns), they formed dance groups that would perform during Carnival celebrations, the most famous of which is in Rio de Janeiro. The samba has several forms, some danced solo and others with a partner. Solo samba steps include weight shifting, sliding the feet, ball changes and fast footwork, along with arms that respond to leg and hip movements. See images from my Rio Carnival experience here.
Dabke – Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine
Dabke originated as a kind of “hei ho, hei ho, its off to work we go” work associated activity of the Levantine region covering Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon. When the weather changed, the rooves of houses traditionally constructed from tree branches and mud, would crack. The homeowner would summon their family and neighbours to assist with repair which generally involved holding hands in a line and stomping on the roof, often accompanied by improvised singing. For this reason, dabke has a deep association with family and community, and today is mostly performed at special occasions such as family gatherings and weddings. Dabke has evolved over history and has many regional versions. The line of dancers is led by the “Lawweeh” who is usually a male and often waves around a handkerchief. I chose to highlight dabke, not only because it is part of my cultural heritage (I have Lebanese ancestry), but because it covers a broad geographical area that crosses modern borders.
Robam Tep Apsara – Cambodia
Apsara or Robam Tep Apsara, is a Khmer classical dance. The Khmer people are an ethnic group of Southeast Asia native to Cambodia where you are most likely to experience this form of dance, along with neighbouring nations of Thailand and Laos. The Apsara, in Hindu mythology, are female spirits representing water and clouds, that visit the earth to deliver messages from the gods to kings and entertain them with their dance. They also have the power to entrap men who threaten peace by hypnotizing them with beauty and their gracefully slow moves. In 2003, UNESCO recognised Apsara dance “the Royal Ballet of Cambodia” as a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage. Keep an eye out as you explore the various temples of the Angkor complex, their walls are adorned with carvings of Apsara dancers which have inspired the costumes and movements of modern Cambodian choreographers trying to recapture their history. Instead of a pure Apsara dance performance video, I’ve included a TED Talk by Prumsodun Ok which gives insight into the storytelling and cultural context of Apsara in modern day Cambodia.
Haka – New Zealand
The haka is a dance that leaves nothing on the table, emotionally or physically. It is traditionally an ancient Māori war dance used on the battlefield to intimidate opponents and in unifying moments of peace. Dancers (or warriors) keep time by rhythmically stamping their feet, while loudly chanting, gesturing with their hands and making fierce facial expressions. If you’ve ever watched New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, then you’ve probably seen them perform the haka pre-match. It’s my favourite part of the game! Today, the haka is used in important ceremonies and celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and other life-affirming events. It is performed as a welcome and to honour special guests.
Travel inspiration for dancers and dance lovers stuck at home
If you can’t travel to these destinations, there are plenty of videos on Youtube that will instruct you on the basic steps of each dance. Clear the lounge room and have some fun! You might also enjoy the PBS show Bare Feet, hosted by Mickela Mallozzi who travels the world experiencing music and dance.
Tell us what dance styles you’d most like to experience in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,