Traveling in a foreign country can make you uneasy about your ability to communicate with the local people. But no matter what language you speak, there’s one sure method of interacting with people and learning about their culture and history: their folk dances.
Unlike music and art, which are often representative of individuals, folk dances portray whole cultures. Jeanette Geslison, director of the world-famous Brigham Young University International Folk Dance Ensemble, expresses that “there’s something about cultural dancing that identifies people in a way that is very human. You can relate to it.” Folk dances open a window into the culture and history of a people.
Folk dances have evolved over hundreds of years as expressions of celebrations and rituals. Many Asian, Indian, and Polynesian dances are intended to communicate with deity or to retell legends. In Europe, dances are passed on through families and communities as they gather for weddings, holidays, and parties. Whole regions of the world have general themes in their dances, but there are also local meanings specific to villages or communities. Here are just a few examples:
Many of the Pacific Islands share similar dance styles. Chanting or singing often accompanies the dancers, who supplement the words with their motions. Hula dances often represent nature—flowers, waves, fire, and so on—through hand motions. It’s an unofficial language, and those who perform it are sharing stories, legends, and histories from their culture.
Much like Polynesian dances, Indian dances are often rooted in ritual or storytelling. One style of dance, Bharata Natyam, is chiefly done by women. Every position of the hand, neck, foot, and eye is intentional and communicates meaning. According to the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian text, one hand position can have over 25 different meanings—from clouds to nighttime to fierce heat to a drizzly day—depending on the context of the dance or what the rest of the body is doing. With over 50 distinctive hand positions, this dance has a rich library of meaning. It sounds complicated, but Bharata Natyam dancing provides a unique view of Indian religions and attitudes that you wouldn’t get by visiting temples or other tourist locations.
In Europe, you’ll find dances that are chiefly done in celebration or at social gatherings. Like many European dances, Hungarian dances often include elements of strength or agility for men, while the women often dance more demurely—symbolic of the strongly patriarchal society. One example is the Verbunkos, which comes from a specific part of Hungarian history. In the eighteenth century, army recruiters would travel through Hungarian villages and begin to dance, inviting the young men of the village to join them. The strong, stately dancing characteristics from that time period are still reflected in traditional dances of today.
Every country in the world has examples like these. “Dance is a tangible language,” Geslison says, “You may not understand their spoken language, but you can watch a dance from another country and learn something about that people.” Even if you’re afraid of interacting with the locals, take a leap of faith and join in the dance!