6 Religious and Social Dance

Learning Objectives

  • Demonstrate a culturally informed dance aesthetic.
  • Recognize the elements of dance and apply that knowledge to analyze, create, and perform dance.
  • Describe religious and social dances and illustrate how the dances fit into their world culture.


The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.
—James Brown


What Is Religious Dance?

The earliest dances were likely tied to religion, using movement as part of rituals. Belief systems embraced dance as a way to connect to higher powers that influenced everyday life. Other religions eschewed dance or banned it for several different reasons. “Religious” can refer to a range of ecclesiasticism. Primitive imitative dances and dances to the elements like the sun and rain appealed to nature and the spirits whose benevolence made existence possible. Some dances are indigenous, but others have traveled, morphed, and adapted from earlier roots. By studying religious dance, you gain insight into the worship of different cultures.


A photograph of a cave painting depicting early dancers.
Fig. 1 Mesolithic dancers at bhimbetka. Credited to Nandanupadhyay, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0


Processionals and Round Dances

A screen capture from YouTube depicting Egyptian Dancers
Fig. 2 In ancient Egypt, dancers impersonated a deity such as the goddess Hathor, taking on the deity’s attributes and interpreting the divine world for those watching. Screen capture from YouTube “Ancient Egyptian Dance and Music” CC-BY

Ancient Greek dance was used to solidify the community and was divinely inspired. Everyone participated in religious ceremonies as cultivated amateurs and well-rounded citizens. A big part of the program was processions and circle dances. The realities of the cosmos ruled the symbolism of the dances and references to the sun, moon, and constellations figured into the movement. In Greek mythology, the nine Muses are goddesses of the arts, born of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Of them, Terpsichore is the Muse of dance, often represented holding a lyre.

Dance in ancient Greece can be divided into two types: Dionysian dance and Apollonian dance. The god Apollo was the patron of dance, music, philosophy, and healing. He was associated with light. Apollonian art is known for serene majesty and formal balance.

Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of fertility, wine, and dance. His divine power induced cheerful merriment and wildness. Dionysian art is known for unrestrained emotion and ecstasy.

The dithyramb was a chorus that was incorporated into ritual festivals with choric song and dance, accompanied by flute. They were an effort to control the wild dances of Dionysus. They evolved over time to become “tragedies,” what we consider the origin of Western theater. Thespis was a dithyramb leader from the 6th century BC who is credited as being the first actor in the Western world and to this day actors are known as thespians.

Types of Religious Dance

Religious dances can be categorized by their purpose as

  1. Dances of Imitation
  2. Medicine dances
  3. Commemorative dances
  4. Dances for spiritual connection

Dances of Imitation

Particularly in primitive and indigenous cultures, dances of imitation are performed. The dances can serve all kinds of purposes, often in search of fortunate outcomes like good weather and good hunting.


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Native American: Sioux Buffalo Dance. In this video filmed by Thomas Edison in 1894, men from a Sioux tribe imitate a buffalo in tribute to its courage. They bend forward from the waist, performing knee-raising steps as they move in a circle.



Native American: Eagle Dance

The Eagle Dance is performed to connect with a higher power for healing, rain, strength in war and general divine intervention. It is often performed by two dancers with drummers surrounding them. The dancer dons feathered wings that he spreads and flaps in imitation of the great eagle. He does a low skip, lifting his knees high, moving in a serpentine pattern. Then he pauses, perches low, and folds his wings over his quivering leg.


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Sierra Leone: Ostrich Dance

A Jacob’s Pillow program note for this Ostrich Dance delineates its cultural importance: “Warriors imitate the powerful graceful movement of the king of birds. Living close to nature, they observe the movements of the ostrich, the largest and most powerful of the birds on the continent of Africa. This dance, from Sierra Leone, was introduced in the United States by Asadata Dafora.”


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Asadata Dafora was a privileged and well-educated Creole man from Sierra Leone. He was determined to educate the rest of the world about African culture. He traveled Western Africa learning its dance, music and stories, then shared these arts with the rest of the world. In the 1930s he brought African performance arts to the American theatrical stage.


Australian Aboriginal Dance

Australian Aboriginal dance commonly incorporates imitations of certain animals or birds to assist in storytelling and to bring dreamtime to the people. Dreamtime refers to the ancestral beings associated with life force and creative power whom were believed to be able to communicate important messages or life lessons though one’s dreams.

These traditional and ceremonial dances could be used as an initiation process or to celebrate a new stage of life. Dances played an important role in the spirituality of Indigenous Australian tribes and each group had different customs when it came to performing and orchestrating these dances.


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The Aboriginal Crane Dance



Mexico: Yaqui Deer Dance

Yaqui Traditional dance mask in the Tumacácori Museum
Fig. 3 Yaqui Traditional dance mask in the Tumacácori Museum. 20 September 2019. Attributed Marine 69–71. CC-SA 4.0

The Yaqui people of Sonora, Mexico and Arizona.

This hunters’ dance imitates the movements of prey and reenacts the hunt. Deer dancing is related to three of the nine “worlds” that Yoemem (the Yaqui people) recognize. This dance, like the religion, centers on balancing the worlds and repairing harm done to them by humans. Catholicism was introduced to the Yaqui by Jesuit missionaries, and today most practice a syncretic religion that is a merger of the two.






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Medicine Dances

San Tribe of Africa (Bushmen Dance): The trance dance, which is still practiced by San communities in the Kalahari region, is an indigenous ritual by which a state of altered consciousness is achieved through rhythmic dancing and hyperventilation. It is used for healing sickness in individuals and healing negative aspects of the community as a whole.


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Trance Dance



Amazon Indigenous People: Bullet Ant Coming of Age Ritual. Young men test their endurance by wearing a glove full of stinging bullet ants. Men of the village join the young man in dance to help survive the pain.


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Mongolia: Shaman Dance

In Mongolia, Shamans serve as intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world. Both men and women may be Shaman. The religion is animistic (attributes a spirit to all things), and rituals address medicine, religion, a reverence for nature, and ancestor worship. On the summer solstice Shamans perform a fire ritual at night. The Shaman drums carry the ancestral spirits of the Shaman.


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Mongolia: Shaman Dance, a performance at Ulan Bator’s Choijin Lama Temple Museum.



Commemorative Dances

Dances are created to remember a special day, a special event, a meaningful moment. Some commemorative dances are very old. Maypole dances have early pagan roots. They are a celebration of the rebirth of spring. Other commemorative dances are more recent and more personal to our times.

China: Dragon Dance

In China, the dragon is a symbol of imperial power and good luck. It follows that the longer the dragon, the better the luck. In particular the dragon dance is performed at festive occasions, especially the Chinese New Year. Dragons are often about 100 feet long, although they also can be shorter or even twice as long. The dragon is traditionally constructed with fabric laid over hoops that are lifted over the performers’ heads on long poles. Performers must coordinate their movements to achieve the sinuous dance of the dragon. Nine is a standard number of dragon dancers but there can be fewer or more. Some dragons even specialize with fancy patterns and acrobatic feats.


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United States: Table of Silence; Choreographer Jacqulyn Buglisi

Ten years after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck by a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, this commemorative dance was created. Performed each year in the heart of New York City at Lincoln Center, dancers from all over the city join together to remember those who lost their lives on that day and the first responders who died in the days after.

Dancers from many different religions participate in this dance. It is for all to reflect and remember, regardless of personal creed. Dancers from all over New York City audition to participate in this dance. Rehearsals are held in a number of spots throughout the city beginning months in advance, then the groups come together to dance on the day and time of the anniversary of the attack.

This dance is reminiscent of the style of ancient Greek dance. It features a procession into the Lincoln Center plaza. Dancers keep time with their strides, proceeding in a circle as they perform meaningful gestures in unison. They position themselves in concentric circles and continue to dance together in unity. This is a dance that brings the community together to remember a tragic time in American history.


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American Apache: Girl’s Rite of Passage

“Apache girls take part in ancient tests of strength, endurance and character that will make them women and prepare them for the trials of womanhood.”



Dances for Spiritual Connection

Christian Dance

The holy book of Christendom (and Judaism) is the Bible. References to dance can be found peppered throughout, especially in the Old Testament, and dance was a part of early Christian ritual. However, the church came to equate dance with the desires of the flesh and loosening of mores, and dance was banned from church ritual. Some religious groups, Calvinists and Quakers, completely banned dance from their lives. Christianity is the only major world religion that has forbidden dance to such an extent.

During the 1960s the Catholic pope called the Second Vatican Council. At that time the liturgy, the rituals of the church that parishioners participate in, was updated to reflect the times. Dance found its way back into the church. Several other groups restored dance to their services. Some Protestant churches participated in ecstatic worship in which worshipers would talk in tongues and shake or roll in the ecstasy of the holy spirit.

The Charismatic Movement of the 1970s ushered the Christian church into contemporary times, and dance found new purchase in the form of liturgical dance, or praise dance. Worshipers combine dance and music to express the spirit of God.


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My Worship Is For Real | Anointed Praise Dance Ministry



The early Christian church developed the notion of the afterlife, which led to purity on earth. To achieve that purity, a life of celibacy was ascribed. Dance, especially dance between sexes, was eschewed. The Catholic church under Pope Gregory went further to banish dance. Even as citizens were dancing at festivals, guild meetings, and court balls, the church of Rome denied dance.

In 1604 England also banned dance in the church. The “Shaking Quakers” incorporated ecstatic dance into religious services. The sect moved to the United States as groups of “Shakers,” a religion restricting interaction between men and women. The parishioners would dance, sing, and shake out the sins of the flesh in their worship. In 1930, the first generation modern choreographer Doris Humphrey choreographed “The Shakers,” depicting scenes of the Shaker worship experience. This clip shows a portion of the dance.


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The Shakers



Cultural Connections

Gene Kim and faith based dance series on Instagram.

Recent alum Gene Kim creates faith-based dance video series for Instagram

Pursuit of Vitality.


Dancer Personifies Gospel Music.




Damascus—Islam: Sufi “Whirling” Dervishes

The Mevlevi sect of Sufi Islam has practiced a dance for over seven hundred years based on the writings of the poet Rumi. The dervishes spin faster and faster, chanting Allah, with the right palm lifted to heaven to receive God’s blessing and the left hand pointing to the ground in a terrestrial connection, the Dervish existing between two worlds. The dancers seek to suppress their ego to find oneness with God. The ceremony is called a sema. It is especially practiced in Turkey.


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India: Bharatanatyam

A cast statue of Shiva dancing
Fig. 4 Chola dynasty statue depicting Shiva dancing as Nataraja (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) CC-Public Domain

Shiva is one of the principal gods of Hinduism. He is recognized as the god of dance and creator of the world.

Bharata Natyam is a very old religious dance performed in India by women. Early religious stories are told through hand gestures, facial expressions, and rhythmic foot drumming. Young girls called devadasis were committed to God and trained to perform the Bharata Natyam in church, but they were exploited and ultimately used as little more than prostitutes. Under the British colonial Raj rule, the Bharata Natyam was banished. Some influential Indians helped to preserve the dance.





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Japan: Bugaku

Bugaku is a Japanese classical dance rooted in ancient Shinto ceremonies tied to the rituals of the Imperial Court. Men perform it exclusively, telling stories, legends, or battles to educate people about religious beliefs. The purpose of Bugaku is to appease the gods, purify evil spirits, and pray for favorable outcomes such as a good harvest.

The movement used in Bugaku is sacred and symbolic. One unique feature of Bugaku is the stylized walking, known as “the art of walking.” Performers are trained to keep the feet connected to the earth through slow, precise, and deliberate movement, known as Okisa. Okisa is the energy that generates and flows from within the performer’s body for spiritual connection.


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Cambodia: Robam Boran

Cambodia’s Robam Boran, also known as Khmer classical dance, is one of Southeast Asia’s oldest court dance traditions. Initially, the king’s lakhon lueng, sacred female dancers, ritualistically performed dances to pray to ancestral spirits for favorable outcomes, such as rainfall.

Training in Roban Boran begins at an early age. Children’s bodies are manipulated by their teachers to make them flexible. Performers’ fingers and toes curl back, and the elbows are hyperextended. Dancers also are expected to hold their balance for an extended period. Robam Boran uses stylized movements and gestures to convey a story. The gestures are called kbach and are symbolic of nature, representing, for example, a flower, leaf, fruit, or tendril.


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The Magic of Khmer Classical Dance



Hawaii: Hula

The Hawaiian People practiced a polytheistic religion with four primary gods and numerous undergods and spirits. There was a kinship between the gods and the ruling class, and indeed, all people were on a more equal footing with their gods than in traditional Western religions. There was no written language for Hawaii, so it was through the practice of the hula dance that the lore of the people was preserved and passed down to following generations.


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Hula Is More Than a Dance—It’s the “Heartbeat” of the Hawaiian People.



Ghana, West Africa: Voodoo Dance and Music Celebration

Voodoo primarily originated in Western Africa and was then transported West with the African diaspora to take root at points in South America, the Caribbean Islands, and North America (New Orleans in particular). Different versions of the practice emerged at these diverse locations, and syncretic versions (the blending of different belief systems) of the original practices developed to incorporate ideas from the Catholic church. Voodoo recognizes divine spirits that govern the Earth, its natural forces, and its people. These spirits are the center of religious practice. Voodoo practices ancestor worship and holds that the spirits of the dead are living among us.


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What Is Social Dance?

All over the world, people dance. Different social dances have different purposes and different values. Sometimes they blend and merge with others to become new dances. But no matter what, we find a connection to others in social dance.

The term folk dance refers to the secular, recreational, and celebratory dance expression of a past or present culture. The term was coined in the 19th century by European scholars studying the culture and art forms of different world regions. These academics viewed the simple, untrained “folk” carrying on their ancestors’ ancient traditions and often wrote condescending descriptions of these activities. The term folk dance was accepted until the mid-20th century, when it was replaced with the more respectful term traditional dance. It can refer to dances of the people that often have a nationalistic purpose. Although they were original dances done by and for the people in their own communities, they are sometimes adapted for performances and performed by trained dancers. It should be noted that not all traditional dancers dropped the designation folk dance; some use the term as a source of pride.

Indigenous, Ethnic, or World Dance

These terms, often used interchangeably, describe many cultural or traditional dances. Reference is often made to their ethnic, rather than their tribal, origins. A world dance is simply a dance characteristic of a particular cultural group.

For our purposes, social dances are dances that have a social function and are intended for participation rather than performance. These are dances found in social gatherings and, in their original form, not found on a stage. They celebrate special occasions and reveal something about the dancers’ culture.

Social dances can be categorized by their purpose as:

  1. Courtship Dances
  2. Work Dances
  3. War Dances
  4. Communal Dances

Courtship Dances

In cultures where marriages are arranged, men and women do not engage in courtship dances. In other cultures, dance may serve as a simple flirtation or involve a more complex ritual.

Niger: Guerewohl Festival, Wodaabe

In Western Africa, the Wodaabe cattle herders gather in the fall for the Guerewohl. During the week-long festival, young men seek to attract women. They apply make-up that will help to make the white of their eyes and teeth pop, wear festive dresses, and line up, linking arms and swaying up and down onto their toes. They chant, call, and use rolling eyes and chattering teeth to attract women.

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Spain: Flamenco

The Flamenco has its roots in Andalusia (southern Spain) and is thought to be an outgrowth of the mingling of the southern Spaniards and the Romani people who settled there. The rhythms and structure of the music developed alongside the dance. It is a relatively recent dance, with no record of it prior to the late 18th century. The flirtation between the couple speaks to courtship and passion. The dance is popular around the world and especially in Japan!


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Video courtesy of Ballet Nacional de España



Austria: Waltz

In old Europe, Austrian villagers practiced a waltz dance from the German word walzen (to turn). Dancers spin around each other as they circle the room. The dance made its way into European ballrooms, where the closed stance between the man and woman indicated a loosening of the strict rules of behavior between the sexes. The waltz’s popularity spread throughout Europe with the invading armies of Napoleon and then crossed the Atlantic to find popularity in America. It has remained a mainstay of social dance around the world for over two centuries.


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Work Dances

Some dances are centered around the work that groups perform. Movements imitative of work routines engender unity and synchronization.

Japan: Ainu Fishermen’s Dance.

This is a performance of a dance imitating moves used in fishing. Dances that mimicked work routines were used in past times to help build unity and continuity among the crew. The Ainu are indigenous people who today live mostly in Hokkaidō in northern Japan. Traditional Ainu dance is performed at ceremonies and banquets, as part of newly organized cultural festivals, and privately in daily life; in its various forms, it is closely connected to the lifestyle and religion of the Ainu.


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Taiwan: Orchid Island Boat Launching Ceremony

On an island not far from Taiwan in the Philippine Sea, Tao, the indigenous people of Lan Yu build long oared boats to catch the flying fish that inhabit the surrounding coral reefs. The fish are a major staple of Orchid Islanders. Groups of divers work together to wave fish into large nets suspended from the boat. For the Tao, a boat equates to the ocean itself and the bounty that comes from it. The high prow and stern of the iconic wooden canoes make them a recognizable cultural symbol for the island.

In the boat launching ceremony, men of the village surround the boat and shake their hands to ward off evil. Then the group tosses the boat into the air several times—the higher the toss, the more good fortune.



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War Dances

Another purpose of social dance is the war dance, a ceremonial dance performed before a battle or to celebrate victory.

New Zealand: Māori Haka

The Haka is a traditional Māori dance. It was often used as a war dance to establish unity in the group and to intimidate opposition with foot stomping, loud chanting, and fierce facial expressions. It can be performed to chants that tell traditional Māori legends. There are other chants to use for celebrations like weddings and birthdays. The Haka is danced not only in New Zealand but also in other Pacific nations. The New Zealand soccer team, the All Blacks, perform the Haka before every game.


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Here is a traditional rendering of the dance.



Contextual Connections

Former LSU football player Breiden Fehoko, a Hawaii native, was known to perform the HAKA before LSU games.




Brazil: Capoeira


Capoeira is a martial arts fighting style in Brazil combining dance, acrobatics, percussion, and songs. It began during the 16th century when enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil. Its original purpose was to disguise fighting as dancing. Hidden in the musical and rhythmic elements, kicks were masked as dance movements, which saved it from being identified as the practice of martial arts. Today, Capoeira is practiced for competition and entertainment. Two dancers battle inside a circle formed by the other players. They try to catch their opponent off guard with acrobatics and spinning kicks.


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Great Britain: Morris Dance

It is believed that Morris Dance has primitive, pre-Christian fertility rite origins. Some aspects—such as stamping the earth, waving handkerchiefs to ward off the winter, and jangling bells to awaken the spring—remain, but during the Crusades martial aspects were introduced. Staves and swords, weapons of combat at the time, were added to the dances. The movements took on the look of a drill to prepare for battle. They sometimes painted their faces for disguise and added dangling strips of fabric to represent making oneself fierce for battle. Another reason for hiding one’s identity is that it was usually done in mid-winter when resources were scarce and the townspeople would give them money or buy them drinks for their performance. This vigorous dance was practiced as a means of keeping physically fit. Although in the early versions of Morris it was performed solely by men, in the video below, you will see a group of both men and women performing.


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Watch the Beltane Morris Dance



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Lucnica Recruitment Dance: Slovak National Folklore Ballet

In this video, a theatrical troupe performs a dance that demonstrates the prowess and skills of a soldier.


Communal Dances

Communal dances are found in cultures that value cooperation over competition. Some require dancers to have conformity within the group. Others feature long connected lines or circles to create a sense of togetherness and community.

England: Country Dance

English country dances were widely performed around Britain, as multiple generations joined together in dance. These dances were transported to North America and transformed into dances like the square dance and Virginia Reel.


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Romania and Israel: Hora

A Hora is a circular chain dance. Another version is danced by Jews worldwide. It signifies happiness, and it is danced at celebrations. Often, at weddings, or at bat and bar mitzvahs (coming of age rituals), the bride and groom or honoree are lifted into the air on their chairs as the group dances.


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Native American:

A Native American dancer at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Fig. 5 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Native American Pow Wow – Carolina Tuscarora Stomp and Smoke Dancers. Attributed to Wally Gobetz. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many Native American tribes gather yearly for pow wows. A pow wow is a great social event that features music, dance, food, crafts, and a sharing of culture. It is a chance to celebrate the tribe’s heritage. Visitors are usually welcome to attend the pow wow to appreciate the events.


China: Park Dancing

Older women in China congregate in parks, gymnasiums, and other public places to dance. They call themselves the “Dancing Grannies.” In the 1970s, the government encouraged the population to dance to stay physically and socially active. Due to its popularity, complaints of loud music and noise have caused the government to regulate this social activity.


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International Folk Dance

Many ethnic and national groups have established professional folk dance companies. These companies tour the world bringing the traditional dances of their culture to other countries. This is also a way to preserve the dances of a people and develop new techniques.


Russia: Moiseyev Dance Company

Igor Moiseyev founded his company over a hundred years ago, and it is still in existence today. In Russia, folk dancing troupes developed alongside the great ballet companies. These dancers are highly trained to present high-quality performances to the world.


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México: Ballet Folklórico de México

Ballet Folklórico de México founded in 1952 by Amalia Hernandez, centers Mexican folklore from pre-Columbian civilizations to contemporary times. The company has made an entire performance available on YouTube. This performance features many types of dances from different regions of México.


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Ireland: Riverdance

This show from 1995 established Riverdance as a top touring group. The upright posture, immobile arms, and fancy footwork are hallmarks of Irish dance.

Riverdance was first introduced in 1994 as part of the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, Ireland. It became a crowd favorite, and shortly after, a touring group was established. The dancers perform in unison using upright posture, immobile arms, and fancy footwork.



Classical Chinese Dance

Classical Chinese dance has a 5,000 year history. Its origins go back to dances in ancient imperial palaces and folk traditions that were passed down through the generations. It is expressive, with meaning driving the movement in the telling of a dance story. Dances in the Tang Dynasty fell into the two categories of martial and civil, with the civil dance being soft and graceful, while the martial dance was vigorous and bold.


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Watch this video of a dance reminiscent of the Tang Dynasty period. This dance is based on the 2017 fantasy film, Legend of the Demon Cat. Watch closely for the cat to make a brief appearance at the end!



Shen Yun Dance Company of China

Shen Yun, translating to “the beauty of divine beings dancing,” travels extensively in the United States. They are credited with reviving the ancient Chinese classical dances with new life by adding modern production values. There is usually an acrobatic component with flips and spins. Some of the moves appear to have a martial arts component, but used in an expressive, dynamic way rather than an offensive or defensive manner. Watch this promotional video from Shen Yun Dance Company.


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Social Dance: The American Melting Pot

From points around the world, immigrants brought their dances to America. The dances then become modified and merged, resulting in new American dances.

Dances of Colonial America

These dances have origins in the country dances of England, Scotland, and Ireland. There, couples danced in formations that were circular, geometric, or in long lines, with men on one side facing women on the other. Country dances have repeatable figures and a caller to alert dancers to each upcoming maneuver. They are frequently performed across generations.

Virginia Reel

The Virginia Reel is an upbeat and lively long dance. Couples move down their lines alternately circling partners. In a progressive reel, the lead couple changes as the dance proceeds. The Virginia Reel was danced in ballrooms of American society.


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Square Dance

The square dance sets four couples facing each other to form a square. A variety of simple moves engage the dancers with their partners and other couples, moving about the square. Square dances also have a caller to tell dancers when to change to a new maneuver.


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Dances of Cajun and Creole Louisiana

Cajuns are descendants of the Acadian people who arrived in South Louisiana after being exiled from Nova Scotia in the mid-18th century. These Acadians were originally from the Celtic region of northern France and brought traditional French songs and dances with them. These early dances were mostly rondes and branles and included figure dances and contra dances, similar to square dances. Today’s Cajuns have popular social dances called the Cajun Two-Step and the Cajun Waltz. The music is traditionally sung in Cajun French.


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Here is a video of the Cajun waltz at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival:



Cajuns dance the two-step and the waltz in an unusual tradition. It is the Courir de Mardi Gras, the “runners of the Mardi Gras.” It is a tradition that occurs in the prairies of rural South Louisiana. Costumed and masked participants, either on horseback or riding on trailers, go from house to house singing, dancing, and begging for money or ingredients for a community gumbo. The highlight is when someone donates a chicken, which is thrown into the crowd of courirs, and the chase begins.


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Watch this trailer for “Dance for a Chicken” by Pat Mire.



Zydeco Dance

Zydeco music and dance is a tradition of the Black Creole culture in South Louisiana. The word zydeco has expanded to be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. It refers to the style of social dance, the style of music, and a term for a social event. One could say, “Let’s go zydeco to the zydeco music at the zydeco.” The origin of the word zydeco is believed to come from haricots, green beans. There is a famous song by legendary zydeco musician Clifton Chenier called Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés. This translates to “the beans aren’t salty,” a phrase meaning that times are tough. When the words les haricots are slurred together it sounds like zydeco. It is an energetic partner dance with each couple adding their own flair to the dance.


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Watch this Creole couple performing their own zydeco variations.



Latin American Dance

Brazil: Samba

Samba is an Afro-Brazilian dance. The city of Rio de Janeiro celebrates Carnival (a Brazilian version of Mardi Gras), a festival prior to the beginning of Lent. People parade in the streets dancing various styles of samba. The oldest form of samba, the Samba de Roha, is still taught and practiced in the Bahia province of Brazil.


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Samba has also found a home in the professional ballroom dance circuit. Here dancers perform a flirtatious choreographed competition piece.



Argentina: Tango

Toward the end of the 19th century, moves from the dance halls of Buenos Aires merged with the milonga, a fast, sensual Argentinian dance, to create the tango. Originally the dance was considered too risqué for society, but the tango has since found great popularity around the world.


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African American Dance

The Black Code

The Code Noir, better known as the Black Code, was enforced under the governance of King Louis XIV. The Black Code was extremely complicated and was introduced based on other codes in the French Caribbean Colonies. The French were much more lenient in their laws toward African slaves than the British and Dutch. Severe punishments of slaves were prohibited. Being separated from their families was not allowed, and they were able to marry. On the other hand, interracial marriage was not granted, and masters could not free slaves as they pleased. Freeing slaves was under the guise of the superior council’s approval and was not generously given. An exceptional reason for freedom was required by council. On Sundays, the Catholic king ordered no work to be done.

In 1764, Spanish Governor Alejandro O’Reilly replaced French law and the code noir with Spanish law. These laws gave more rights to African slaves than French laws. Slaves were allowed to not only purchase their freedom but do so over even if their masters did not want to free them. Slaves also had the right to be freed from their masters if they were being treated inhumanely through a petition from the courts. The code remained in effect until the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1804.

Congo Square

Congo Square started as a French market but later came to be a gathering spot for upwards of 500 souls. Folks, enslaved and freed, came from four different regions:

  • Enslaved Africans direct from the foreign slave trade
  • Enslaved Africans from other parts of the US
  • New Orleans–born enslaved people
  • Enslaved Africans from Haiti, Cuba, and the Caribbean (a large infusion of the Haiti population came to New Orleans following its 1791–1804 revolution)

Although gatherings were discouraged, in South Louisiana, slaves were allowed to congregate in out-of-the-way spots on Sundays. In 1819, the mayor of New Orleans restricted gatherings to a single parcel of land on “the back side” of New Orleans, situated along Bayou St. John (north of Rampart Street in Treme). It was known as La Place Congo (Congo Square).

In 1893, city leaders changed the official name of Congo Square to honor the Civil War Confederate general Beauregard in an effort to discourage African Americans from congregating there. But the name never really “took.” In 2011, the city voted to return to the name Congo Square.

Dance in Congo Square

The dances of Congo Square reflected the many origins and influences of the enslaved people and freed men who congregated in the square on Sundays. Dances featured include:


According to Merriam-Webster, the bamboula is a primitive drum used by inhabitants of western Africa and the West Indies, especially in voodoo ceremonies and incantations; the dance is performed to the beating of the bamboula (drum). So the bamboula dance is associated with a drum. This dance form came with the slaves from western Africa when they first came to the Caribbean, and variations of this dance appear throughout the Caribbean and eventually the US. The dance originally was done as a revolt against slavery: forward motion with skirts moving the evil spirits out, backward motion with the skirts bringing the good spirits in. These revolts were said to be led by women who danced along with the drum.

Macislyn Bamboula Dance Company

History of Bamboula https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVbobvIfaOA

Bamboula variation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVQsnNzXXy0

Calenda Dance

Caribbeans performed the calenda in lines of men and women. As the dance proceeded, it became more suggestive. Slave owners tried to banish the dance.

The calinda is a voodoo dance brought to Louisiana by San Domingo and Antilles slaves. It is a martial art, as well as folk music and dance forms from the Caribbean. Commonly seen practiced in Trinidad and Tobago, it includes stick fighting and is seen at Carnival. Songs are known to have derived from calinda chants. The calinda was better known as a dance rather than a stick fight due to its violent nature. “The well-known Cajun song ‘Allons dancer Colinda’ is about a Cajun boy asking a girl named Colinda to do a risqué dance with him; probably derived from the Calinda dance which was reported to have been performed in New Orleans by Afro-Caribbean slaves brought to Louisiana.”


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The Second Line

The tradition of second-lining includes western African influences that slaves sought to preserve in the 1700s and 1800s and elements of American military funerals. Jazz music is a significant element; the event overall demonstrates a mixture of order, spontaneity, and unification, making it a memorable celebration of life and death.

A second-line parade is a celebration of life. The “first line” includes the brass band and members of the club, organization, or family being honored. The second line refers to the rest of the attendees, fellow revelers or mourners, and onlookers who join in as it moves along the streets. Participants in these rituals twirl a parasol or wave a handkerchief while strutting in formal attire or according to the event’s theme. This is a practice still found in New Orleans today. The second line is performed every Sunday, especially at funeral processions.

American Social Dance in the Twentieth Century

Popular New York dance clubs like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Ballroom were an important part of the “Harlem Renaissance” that ran roughly from the 1910s to the 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance was a golden age for African American artists, writers, musicians, stage performers and dancers. It gave these artists pride in and control over how the Black experience was represented in American culture and set the stage for the civil rights movement. Popular dances associated with this time period are tap and jazz dance, which were discussed in chapter 6, and the Charleston, just to name a few.


Charleston: Danced by Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was an American-born entertainer and dancer. She moved to France in the 1920s and became a naturalized citizen there. She appeared with Folie Bergere in Paris and was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, the silent film Siren of the Tropics. Baker enjoyed a long and successful career in France, where her costume of a skirt of bananas and a necklace became an iconic image of the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Baker also worked with the French resistance in WWII. She refused to dance in front of segregated audiences.


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Baker spoke at the civil rights March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. She said, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

Castle Walk

Vernon and Irene Castle helped to make ballroom dancing popular in the early twentieth century. They sometimes appeared in movies dancing their signature step the “Castle Walk.”


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This film is from 1915.




“An overview of the Foxtrot in the Jazz Age (1920s-1930s) showing its infinite adaptability. All footage is from the era. While dance teachers of the time liked to make distinctions, music publishers, bandleaders and dancers lumped almost any dance in 4/4 or even 2/4 time under the title ‘Fox Trot’ unless it was obviously a Tango.”

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Lindy Hop

The Lindy Hop is an African American dance that originates from Harlem, New York City. It was danced first in the famous Savoy Ballroom by African American dancers in 1928 and was danced throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The Lindy Hop uses improvisation with acrobatic movements.


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Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers from the 1941 film Helzapoppin:




Chubby Checker introduced the dance with his song “Do the Twist” in 1960. It became a dance craze popularized with the introduction of rock and roll music.


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Dance Demonstration of the Twist (1961)




Swing dances developed during the Big Band Era of the 1940s. It grew out of the Lindy Hop. It is one of few dances that emphasize improvisation. East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, and similar dances are as popular today as ever.

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Victoria Henk and Ben McHenry in Champions Jack and Jill


Cultural Connections

A Visual History of Social Dance in 25 Moves: Camille A Brown is a noted modern choreographer of today. In this TED talk she offers a quick overview of social dance today and the roots from which it grows.





Religious dance is the use of dance in spiritual ceremonies and rituals, present in most religions throughout history and prehistory. Its connection with the human body and fertility has caused it to be forbidden by some religions. The social institution of dance provides an arena for people to communicate with one another through the use of non-verbal and culturally acceptable movements and gestures. Social dances have a social function and are participation oriented rather than performance oriented.




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So You Think You Know Dance? Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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