The World’s Most Fascinating Dances — and Where to See Them
If you relied solely on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition, you might believe that dance is merely an act that includes "moving or seeming to move up and down or about in a quick and lively manner."
You would be mistaken.
The art of dance reaches far beyond a body in rhythmic motion, providing fascinating insights into the history and traditions of the place it came from.
From performances rooted in religion and blessed by prophets, to movements that protest political oppression, the following dances across the globe are among the most meaningful, surprising and impressive you'll ever witness.
You may just be inspired to start dancing yourself.
Demanding flexibility, strength, rhythm and heaps of courage, the Halling dance (or Hallingdans) of rural Norway is the oldest documented dance of Northern Europe, having first appeared in cave drawings that are thought to be over 2,000 years old.
The Halling is a solo dance traditionally performed by men at weddings or other community gatherings. Although each dancer personalizes the choreography based on his skill level, there are several classic moves that every Halling enthusiast is eager to see. And the holy grail of these is an astonishing feat known as the kast.
To perform a kast, a woman stands on a chair and balances a hat on the tip of an 8- or 9-foot stick that she holds up in the air. The dancer, perfectly in time with the music, must jump and somersault though the air to kick the hat off the tip of the stick. When done successfully, the kast can wow any crowd.
Another traditional Halling dance move, the headspin, was first performed in America in the early 1900s. The Halling headspin is believed to have inspired the headspin that became a characteristic move of the breakdancing phenomenon born in the Bronx in the 1970s.
The Haka is the ritual war dance of the Maori, a Polynesian people who settled in New Zealand around 1300 AD. To prepare themselves for battle, Maori warriors gathered together and hyped each other up by performing the Haka.
Standing in a crouched position, the men slapped their arms and punched their legs while aggressively stomping the ground; puffed and pounded their chests; stuck out their tongues, causing their eyes to bulge beyond their sockets; and chanted and screamed in unison, feeding off each other's energy as they prepared the mind and body for war.
Today the Haka is performed, for entertainment and educational purposes, in museums and cultural events throughout New Zealand. To experience the raw, intimidating power of the Haka, you can watch New Zealand's rugby team, the All Blacks, performing it live before every match.
Though the dance is historically associated with war, in modern times it's not unusual for the Haka to make an appearance at softer, celebratory events such as weddings. In 2016, a New Zealand couple's wedding video featuring the groom's family performing the Haka went viral, garnering over 33 million views on YouTube.
According to legend, Kathakali — the ritual dance-drama of the Indian state of Kerala — came to the Raja of Kottakara in a dream sent from the Gods.
Since the 16th century, this unique dance form has featured actors who communicate not with words, but through an intricate style of synchronized choreography focused on the eyes, face and hands.
Kathakali actors, typically men who play both male and female parts, take to the stage alongside singers and an orchestra. Their dress is spectacular: They wear a grand ruffled skirt, a blouse covered with scarves and gem necklaces, gold brooches draped on their shoulders, and colorful bangles and bracelets stacked on their arms.
But it's the actor’s elaborate and distinctive face paint or makeup — meant to accentuate the actor's eyes, which "dance" by moving in rapid lateral or circular patterns — that really brings the character to life. Every lip quiver, eyebrow raise, nostril flare and head jerk is meant to reflect deep emotions. The hands, too, play an essential role in each performance.
While it boasts a long and storied history, there are concerns that Kathakali could soon die out, due to the closing of traditional schools. As one teacher put it bluntly to the BBC, “Kathakali has been destroyed."
In addition to the Kathakali, the Indian state of Kerala is also home to the Pulikali, or tiger dance. During the fall festival of Onam, the time of the year when the spirit of the beloved King Mahabali is believed to return and visit with the mortals, men painted to look like tigers dance in the streets.
After carefully shaving their bodies, these "tiger men" from about a dozen villages around the city of Thrissur spend 5 to 7 hours having their bellies painted with menacing tiger faces. The stripes and spots of the animal are depicted on their arms and legs.
Once the painting is finished, the men strap on belts covered in bells, slide a mask over their face and take to the streets, where they shake and shimmy their way through the city. Interestingly, unlike in some parts of the world where six-pack abs are a coveted ideal, men with fat bellies are encouraged to participate in the dance.
In the world of Pulikali, the bigger the belly, the better the bounce.
Rapper Sword Dance
In the mid to late 19th century, in English mining villages, the Rapper Sword Dance was born.
The dance utilizes a two-handled flexible steel sword called a rapper — the tool that miners used to scrape coal dust off of the ponies they worked with in the mines.
Gathering in a circle, linked by their swords, dancers weave in and out of one another while twisting their rappers to create elaborate and intricate patterns. Given that the dancers can’t let go of their swords while dancing, each one has to remain alert and agile to avoid accidents.
The Rapper Sword Dance declined in popularity during World War I and World War II, but has experienced a slow but steady comeback over the post-war years. Today, rapper enthusiasts perform with traveling groups and display their skills at competitions.
The only revision that has ruffled some rapper purists’ feathers is the addition of female dancers. Back in the coal mining days of the 19th century, the dance was strictly limited to men.
Dance of a Thousand Hands
A decadent feast for the eyes, The Dance of a Thousand Hands was created by Zhang Jigang, the famed Chinese choreographer and former Lieutenant General in China’s People’s Liberation Army. The dance was inspired by the legend of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, the beloved goddess of compassion and mercy who is believed to have possessed a thousand hands.
The dance is performed by 63 deaf artists from the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe. Dressed in shimmery golden costumes embellished with rich-toned gems, the dancers line up in a single file, creating the illusion of one body. Like the legs of a centipede, the dancers' arms simultaneously jut, billow and pulse out from the center body, each arm lifting and lowering in perfect coordination to create hypnotic waves of movement. Their hands are painted gold, and each fingertip is wrapped in a long shimmery cone to accentuate the movements.
To reach the level of synchronized perfection the dancers are known for, they must commit to hours of practice and rehearsal. However, given that the dancers are deaf, during live performances they are supported on stage by conductors, dressed in all white, who help keep their movements synced to the music.
Peruvian Scissor Dance
The Peruvian Scissor Dance, added in November 2010 to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list, gets its name from its use of scissor-like iron rods or blades.
Accompanied by a violinist and a harpist, dancers from Quechua villages in the Peruvian Andes perform what today would be akin to a dance-off. In elaborately embroidered costumes covered in rainbow and gold fringe, as well as sequins, each dancer must hold his blades in his right hand and click them in time to the music. As he clicks, the dancer performs an array of acrobatic moves, including standing on his head, bouncing his backside off the ground, somersaulting, flipping up on his toes and balancing on his heels. (Impressive!)
Today, the Scissor Dance is a welcome event at many Catholic Festivals. However, because the dancers are believed to have inherited their moves from the devil, they are not permitted, while in costume, to enter any churches.
For generations of Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians and Jordanians, the Dabke is a source of pride, a symbol of community, a display of solidarity — and even, occasionally, a non-violent form of protest.
The dance begins when a group of people, typically guests at a wedding or celebratory event, join hands and stand shoulder to shoulder forming a line on the dance floor. The leader or lawweeh, always the most skilled dancer of the group, heads the line and twirls a kerchief, strand of beads or cane in his free hand, as the dancers stomp and shuffle their feet across the floor behind him. The music is drum-driven and highly syncopated, which keeps the line energized and often inspires the leader to break from the group to perform an improvised solo.
The dance reportedly began among villagers who would line up and stomp on roofs to set cracking mud in place. It made headlines in 2018 when, every Friday for months, hundreds of Palestinians would perform it at the Israeli border to protest what they viewed as illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
Tinikling Dance of the Philippines
The Tinikling Dance is recognized as the national dance of the Philippines and is thought to have been born during the Spanish colonial era.
The dance is performed with two parallel bamboo poles that are typically between 6 to 12 feet long. The poles are clapped against the floor in time with traditional Filipino folk music. As the poles move, a pair of dancers, one male and one female, hop, jump and twirl between them. With a keen sense of rhythm and coordination, the dancers must avoid getting their feet caught between the poles, especially as the music takes on a faster tempo.
Depending on who you ask, some will say that the Tinikling Dance is named after the Tikling bird known for its long legs. However, others believe the Tinikling takes after a form of punishment dreamt up by the King of Spain during the colonial era. According to legend, when plantation workers slacked off, they were forced to stand between two bamboo poles. The poles were clapped together, and if the worker didn't jump out of the way, his feet and ankles would be smashed.
Thankfully, what once may have been a pain-filled punishment evolved to become one of the Philippine's pain-free national pleasures.
Once described as barbaric and immoral, the Batuque originated in the West African countries of Angola and Congo.
In the 16th century, the slave trade brought the Batuque to Portugal, where Emperor Manuel I banned the dance because he believed it was too wild and sexually expressive. Eventually, however, the Batuque landed in Brazil, via the transfer of Afro-Portuguese slaves from Portugal, where the dance was welcomed and adopted.
Accompanied by percussion instruments, Batuque dancers gather around a single dancer or a couple who've moved to the center. When the music starts, the dancer rattles and swings her hips, as if the rapid-fire drum patterns have possessed her entire lower body. When she's ready to relinquish the center spot, the dancer will open her arms and bump navels with the next dancer. This move, known as the umbigada — after umbigo, which means “navel” in Portuguese — is synonymous with the Batuque.
In South Africa, the Gumboot dance started as a clever method of communication, before eventually becoming a creative outlet for people living under the oppression of Apartheid.
While working in the gold mines of South Africa, laborers were chained to their stations and forced to work long hours standing in dirty, stagnant water. As a result, diseases began to spread throughout the mines, and the workers were given Gumboots, or rubber boots, to protect their feet.
Soon, the workers realized they could communicate with each other, covertly, by slapping the rubber. Eventually, their slapping became more complex, and lively rhythmic patterns were created and paired with stomping and melodic chants, which led to the birth of the Gumboot dance.
The Gumboot survived Apartheid, which ended in April 1994. Today the dance is performed for purely entertainment purposes, but it remains an important piece of South Africa’s Apartheid history.
Revered as one of Bali's most sacred dance rituals, the Sanghyang Dedari casts out evil spirits and insulates villages from the wrath of misfortune.
To begin the ritual, two pre-pubescent virgin girls, selected for their purity, gather inside or within the outer courtyard of the village's pura dalem, or death temple. Surrounded by a chorus of men and women, singing and chanting cak,cak,cak (which mimics the sound of monkeys), the girls enter a trance state by inhaling the smoke of burning incense. Through this process, heavenly nymphs possess the girls' bodies and inspire them to lift to their feet and dance.
The dance isn’t choreographed, but is instead driven entirely by the nymphs. Movements mimic the legong, a Balinese dance known for its elaborate hand movements and exaggerated facial expressions.
The Sanghyang Dedari can last for hours, ending when the nymphs exit the girls' bodies causing them to collapse to the floor. At that point, a local priest or pemangku is summoned to ease the girls out of their trance state.
In the 1930s, Balinese dancer Wayan Limbak began experimenting with the Sanghyang Dedari ritual. Wanting to create a form of entertainment that would appeal to Western tourists, Limbak blended the spiritual ritual of the Sanghyang Dedari with the Indian epic of Ramayana to create the Kecak, or the Monkey Dance of Bali.
Borrowing from the chanting chorus of the Sanghyang Dedari, the Monkey Dance features 50 to 60 bare-chested men, wrapped in sarongs, sitting in a series of concentric circles around an altar of fire. Together, the men create a cacophony by chanting variations of cak, cak cak. As they sing, the men perform a synchronized dance that includes head bouncing, writhing and the fluttering of fingers.
Soon, additional dancers appear in elaborate costumes and grand headdresses to act out the epic Ramayana, the story of Sita, the beautiful wife of Rama who is captured by the evil Ravana. Throughout the show, the men continue chanting and dancing.
Unlike the Sanghyang Dedari, which can take place anytime evil spirits are thought to be lurking about, the Monkey Dance caters to tourists and is performed on a regular basis in parks, temples and villages.
Kumina dancing ceremonies can be found in the St.Thomas parish of Jamaica. Held to commemorate communal anniversaries, births and the tombing or cementing over of graves, the Kumina ceremony involves dancing in a counterclockwise circle around a group of male drummers seated in the center.
Using simple, single-headed drums, the men pound out a continuous chain of intoxicating rhythms, causing the dancers' bodies to shake, writhe and wind for hours. The drummers play such an essential role in the Kumina dance that before each ceremony, both the drummers and their drums are anointed with white rum.
The drumming helped to influence Jamaica’s wildly popular Rastafari music scene.
According to legend, the Tufo Dance originated with the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. En route to Medina, the Prophet passed through the southeast African country of Mozambique. To welcome him, the people performed a dance that later became known as the Tufo. Because the Prophet liked and approved of the dance, the people of Mozambique kept it, making it an essential part of future feasts and Islamic festivals.
Unlike many dances, which primarily feature men, the Tufo is performed by women. There are some occasions where men perform the Tufo but, for religious reasons, the male and female groups must be kept separate.
Typically 15 to 20 women at a time line up in rows to perform the high-energy Tufo. Accompanied by drummers, they dance and sing in unison or in a call-and-response format. In general, there are two versions of the dance they perform. For the seated version, the women sit on their knees and only move their upper bodies. The standing version, which has become more popular, allows the women to use their entire bodies to elaborate on the religious, political and social themes of the songs they dance to.
Aesthetics are crucial to the dance. Women dress in coordinated scarves and matching capulanas, or vibrant colored sarongs, and often cover their faces with mussiro, a white facial cream.