This is an excerpt from Discovering Dance as Dancer and Choreographer by Gayle Kassing.
Dance has been called the universal language; you live in a world that dances. Take a look at the map of the world and its continents (figure 8.1). Geographers have identified distinct natural and physical features (ecosystems) in regions throughout the world. Studying a geographic region that supports human culture is also known as cultural geography. Within these geographic regions are specific cultural regions of the world.
Regions of the world.
In each of these cultural regions are countries, people of various racial and ethnic groups, and their cultural values. Their arts include dances from aboriginals or first people (the original people who inhabited the land since millennia ago) who migrated to these regions because of war, famine, economic hardship, or other reasons. The common elements of culture include the following (Blankenship in press):
- It is a way of life, learned and shared with future generations.
- It changes with time and is symbolic.
- The economy drives a culture.
Culture is a community or society’s knowledge, beliefs, values, customs, and common heritage. If you were to look at the cultural geographic areas of the world, you would encounter commonalities and differences that make each country or region unique. People have many different views about defining and describing dance from geographic or cultural regions of the world. Some people consider dances from across these regions to be examples of world dance, while others might call these dances cultural dance. Regardless of where you live in the world, you participate in dances that reflect a lot or a little of the culture.
Activity 8.1 Explore
Dance Around the World
Using a map of the world, survey the geographic region that your teacher assigns to your group. Search a region’s or country’s website, then describe the physical features of each region or country. Next, research and describe the people of that area and their culture, and find examples of a traditional dance they perform. If you can locate a video performance of the dance, write a brief descriptive summary about it. In your summary include the following information:
- Background or history of the dance
- Who dances
- When and where the dance is performed
Describe the music that accompanies the dance and the dancers’ clothing. Add a photo of the dancers performing, and list references or web links to your online sources.
Did You Know?
People Like Me
People Like Me is the arts education program of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festivaland World Arts West. For 15 seasons this organization has presented an extraordinary festival featuring dancers and dance companies that represent cultures around the world. On their website, the festival provides their Online Encyclopedia of World Dance, which includes performers, information about selected dances and dance styles, musical instruments, and history of the dance style. Attending the festival to view cultural dance performances by artists from across the world would be an awesome experience. Visiting the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and World Arts West website provides easy access to a virtual tour of dance around the world.
Exploring Cultural Dance
Specific countries have dances that identify with a region and its culture immediately. For example, African dances or Indian dances have styles that make them readily identifiable, as do other cultural dances from across the globe.
When you study dances as part of a culture, you are using different lenses to see each dance in its cultural context. Earlier in this chapter, you discovered that culture is a concept in human geography. It also has deep connections to the fields of cultural anthropology, ethnology, and ethnomusicology. Cultural anthropology is the study of humans and their culture, which includes social structures, languages, laws, religion, arts, and technology. Ethnology is the study of the cultural life of a community. An ethnologist lives in a community for several years to record the everyday life of the people and their culture. Ethnomusicology is the study of a people’s music in relation to its culture or society. Ethnomusicologists may extend their study to dances performed to the music of the culture.
Countries all over the world have traditional dances, but they are actually evolving products of history, migration, wars, and political and societal changes of the people who perform them. Today, in one country you can encounter many cultural dances, including the following:
- Dances of aboriginals or first people.
- Dances of early settlers who migrated to the area and brought their culture to their new home. In various historical eras, the dances may have colonial or postcolonial versions.
- Blended dances created after wars changed a people and their culture. These dances are not created overnight. In an invaded country, the original people and the new arrivals may or may not embrace each other’s cultures or dances. A cultural clash may occur, and the two groups may resist each other’s influence. Blending outside influences into existing traditions takes place over time.
- Newer variations of traditional dances that evolve from generation to generation. These dances absorb and blend personal, group, and societal trends that can change a dance and its performance.
- Dances of tribes, first people, and ethnic groups who strive to keep their ancestral traditions alive in contemporary society. People preserve these dances to share their heritage with the young people of their community.
All cultural dances presented in the overview of dance types connect to the three common elements of a culture (see Discovering Cultural Dance).
If you add all these elements together, you get two deep understandings:
- Culture is about participating as a community; it can be related to ritual, spiritual, and life events and celebrations.
- Culture can be defined as a way of life that is learned, shared with future generations, and changes with time.
Participating, viewing, and learning about cultural dance and the roles it plays in societies leads to awareness and appreciation of other people and their cultural values.
Experiencing a cultural dance means taking a look at the movement from the perspectives of both the cultural dancer and the requirements of the dance. The ideas you have learned about other dance forms so far or will encounter in this book may not apply to cultural dances. So, discard your preconception of cultural dances, and involve yourself in perceiving and experiencing the movement. Then you will be poised to find the meaning or essence of the dance and gain some insights about the dancers who perform it. Experiencing cultural dance requires you to observe through a different kind of dance lens; you must see as an ethnologist would, paying attention to the dance in the context of its home culture.
Take a virtual dance tour! On the web resource, you will visit a variety of countries across the globe. Each country provides an overview of its geography, history, and some of its most important dances. Key search terms in some of the dance genres provide ways to view and learn a dance or movement sequence. The dance tour provides an overview from which you can explore more through researching the countries and their wealth of dances.
Mexico has a wealth of natural and cultural resources, with diverse landscapes from mountains to jungles, and historic traditions reaching back more than 3,000 years. Mexican dance captures the rhythm, emotion, and movement of a vibrant society with a heritage rich in tradition.
The United States is a country of vast natural and cultural resources and is populated by people from a vast variety of cultural heritage. Since prehistoric times, Native Americans have danced to express their traditions and cultural values. Contemporary urban dance forms began to express social changes in the United States during the latter 20th century.
Europe is a huge continent with many nationalities and their dances. Chapter 7 (Folk Dance) contains a variety of folk dances from countries throughout Europe, Russia, and other countries.
Africa is the second largest continent in the world with 54 countries. African people and cultures represent a diversity of economic and social structures with various beliefs, religions, and arts. For centuries African cultural dance has captured the spirit of life events, community and spiritual beliefs, and identities of tribes and clans of various regions.
Â© Anke Van Wyk | Dreamstime.com
In Africa, dance is an integral part of ceremonies, festivals, and rites. African dances are done in many countries throughout the world.
India is the seventh largest country in the world. For nearly 3,000 years, dance art has existed in India and is a significant aspect in Indian culture. Classical Indian dance includes a wide range of forms and styles that reflect various geographic centers, history, and traditions.
Japan is a group of islands off the east coast of Asia. According to legend, Japan was founded in the 7th century BCE. Japanese cultural dances relate to religions and social eras in Japanese history. Japanese cultural dance forms and styles span historical court dances, religious dances, and traditional folk dances. In Japan, dance remains an integral part of historical theatrical entertainment.
VWPics via AP Images
Japanese dances are passed from generation to generation.
Exploring these countries is just the starting place for learning about cultural dance. You may want to continue your virtual travels to other countries. These countries may connect to your family heritage, a place where a friend came from, or a country you hope to visit in the future. Whatever the reason, you can go there today and share what you learned with the class.
Activity 8.2 Explore
Learn a Cultural Dance
In a small group, find a dance from the country you visited on the web in the exploration activity Dance Around the World. The cultural dance you select could be
- a traditional dance,
- a folk dance,
- a social dance,
- a dance that provides entertainment for visitors, or
- a dance that is considered an art form or part of another art such as drama or theater.
Find two videos of the dance. After watching the videos, learn several movements, poses, a movement sequence, or the entire dance. Through your reading and research about this dance can you discover
- who dances,
- when and where they dance, and
- why they dance.
Identify a list of unique characteristics of the dance (review dance designs in chapter 5). Then, further explore the background and history of the dance to answer this question: How does the dance relate to or represent the people, their culture, and society?
In early 2010 modern and contemporary dance makers from the groups Urban Bush Women, ODC, and Evidence, a dance company, took part in the first U.S. pilot program to tour internationally as the gateway of cultural exchange among nations. The purpose of this "dance diplomacy" was to create a model cultural exchange initiative. The international tour, supported by the U.S. Department of State, reached global audiences of more than 15,000 in 16 cities of 9 countries in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa. The second season in 2012 reached global audiences of 25,000 in 24 cities in 13 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.
U.S. embassies and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs partner with dance companies, leading cultural and community-based organizations, and educational institutions to host unique residencies that create opportunities for engagement and exchange. One of these cultural exchanges is DanceMotionUSA, which sends American dance companies overseas to connect with audiences through workshops, lecture demonstrations, and public performances.
Learn more about Discovering Dance.