Traditional dance around the world

Traditional dance around the world

One of the joys of travel is to experience the best of cultures the world over. Music and dancing is a huge part of my life at home, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience it in many styles across the globe, sometimes as a display for tourists, sometimes in its most authentic form. Here are my 12 favourite traditional dance experiences – what are yours?

 1. Kathakali dancers, Kerala, India

India’s Kathakali dancers hail from the southern state of Kerala, and I was lucky enough to see them perform in Kochi. In heavy makeup and elaborate costumes, the dancers perform complicated steps, hand gestures and eye movements to tell a story. All Kathakali dancers are male, with men dressing up in feminine costumes to portray the male characters.

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The all-male Kathakali dancers of Kerala, southern India


 2. Local dancers, Damaraland, Namibia

Sometimes traditional dance is a spectacle, sometimes it is interactive. On a night in the Damara region of Namibia, we were treated to a dance display by local teenagers, where old met new as dances were performed with a cheeky grin by young people in jeans and sweatshirts! I love to see modern life as well as traditional, and we had a fun evening as the kids dragged us all up to join the circle. And like teenagers the world over, phones were out and text messages were sent as they danced…

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Modern teenagers perform their traditional dances, Damaraland, Namibia

3. San Bushmen, Kalahari Desert, Botswana

The San Bushmen of the Kalahari have a proud tradition that goes back into the mists of time. The San culture is kept alive today by the tribespeople in the form of traditional displays, and if you head to this corner of Botswana you might be lucky enough to see them dance. Sitting around a fire, the women clap and sing while the men shuffle and stamp their way in a pattern that has been passed down for generations. Beneath a starry African sky, it’s an unforgettable experience.

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 4. Fire dancers, Bali, Indonesia

One of the most incredible traditional dance displays I have seen on my travels has to be the fire dancers of Bali. Leaping through the flames, the dancers kick up the embers in a spectacular feat of bravery. They rely on religious blessings to keep themselves safe from the flames – all I can say is it seems to work!


5. Khmer classical dance, Cambodia

The traditional dance of Cambodia has many similarities with that of its neighbour, Thailand. Colourful costumes, elaborate headdresses, and complex hand and foot movements make this intricate dance style a joy to watch. With every tilt of the head and jingle of the dancers’ bells, you are transported to another time and place.

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The intricate style of Cambodian dance is matched only by the beautiful costumes

6. Folk dancing, Almaty, Kazakhstan

In the heart of Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, lies Panfilov Park, and on a summer’s afternoon we came across an outdoor concert. Local women in brightly-coloured costumes danced and sang folk songs over a loudspeaker system, while children proudly showed off their heritage for friends and family with a series of traditional dances. With a large Russian population and a strong sense of national pride, it was a captivating way to spend time in this Central Asian city!

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Local children perform for the crowd in Almaty, Kazakhstan

7. Capoeira, Brazil

Capoeira is where dance meets martial arts. Whirling their legs and performing death-defying backflips, capoeira experts will take your breath away! I was lucky enough to catch a demonstration of this dramatic art form on a visit to Rio de Janeiro. It’s definitely one to just sit back and watch, unless you’re super-fit and very brave…

8. Tango, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Argentina is synonymous with the tango. Argentine tango is a discipline all its own, and is easy to find on the streets of Buenos Aires: just head to the La Boca district to see couples dancing in doorways to the sound of live musicians. At night, head to a tango bar where you can have a lesson yourself before dinner and drinks as you watch the professionals at work. Just breathtaking.


9. Traditional dance, Flores, Indonesia

On the island of Flores, in eastern Indonesia, we visited a village one evening for a fantastic display of dancing. Everyone got involved, from the children to any adult who could still manage the odd step or two. In national dress, they acted out stories in the darkness of their village courtyard, before an athletic display as they jumped over crossed bamboo poles in an extreme version of the games we used to play as kids. Before the night was out, we were all up on our feet dancing along to the beat of the music.

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Local village dancing, Moni, Flores, Indonesia

10. Salsa dancing, Cuba

Salsa music is everywhere in Cuba; in fact, the country seems to operate to a permanent salsa beat. In the dance halls of Trinidad on the south coast, you can dance into the night to local bands. It’s not so hard; give it a go, perhaps with a mojito or two to loosen the inhibitions, then sit back and watch the serious dancers spin and gyrate on the dance floor. If you’re lucky, as I was, you will find a local to spin you around so you really get into the Cuban spirit…


11. Traditional dance, central highlands of Madagascar

On a dark evening in a remote corner of Madagascar, we were treated to a music and dance performance by local people. The drumming rang out around the enclosed room as we watched the performers, especially the man who had been forced into one of the female roles and looked extremely embarrassed about it! Afterwards, our group danced up a storm alongside the experts. The remoteness of the location and basic huts we were staying in added to the atmosphere on that memorable evening.

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Local dancers perform, Ambositra, central Madagascar

12. Morris dancers, England

The morris dancers of England are steeped in tradition, and can still be found at village fetes across the country in the summer months. By tradition, the dancers wear white shirts with colourful sashes or waistcoats and vibrantly decorated hats. Bells adorn the ankles, and handkerchiefs and sticks are waved and clapped as part of the dance. Performed in groups to traditional country music, this is a quintessentially English tradition!

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England’s traditional morris dancers. Photo: Pixabay creative commons


What are your favourite traditional dance moments from your own travels? What dance is your country famous for? Let me know in the comments!

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Hi! I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 65 countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!

Central Asia: rebuilding a heritage

Central Asia: rebuilding a heritage

I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Central Asia, visiting the Silk Road nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

These countries have had a chequered history. From a rich heritage as trading posts, and at the heart of Timur’s vast empire, all three nations have natural beauty but also magnificent historic cities, fortresses, mosques and madrassahs which play a substantial part in their heritage. All three countries have withstood countless invasions and destruction of the places they held dear, but they have always rebuilt.

Then along came the Soviet Union. The nations of Central Asia were swept into the vast Soviet Empire, and religion was outlawed; history was pushed aside in favour of modernity and communist ideals. Land was swept up into collective farms, native Russians moved in in their millions, and the old ways were abandoned.

The Soviet heritage is different in each country. In Uzbekistan, Russian holds secondary status to Uzbek, and the Uzbek language itself, formerly written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, has been latinised. However, Russian is still seen as the language of opportunity. Many Uzbek children attend Russian language schools, and while Uzbekistan is keen to move on from the communist period, they do so whilst retaining the best of the 20th century.

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The stunning Shakhi-Zinda Necropolis makes a good case for restoration.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are a little different. In both countries, Russian is still the dominant language; one tour guide I met in Kyrgyzstan was a native Kyrgyz in her early 40s, but couldn’t speak her native language. Kazakh is still written in the Cyrillic alphabet and all signs are bilingual, written first in Kazakh, then in Russian. In Kyrgyzstan, I don’t recall seeing the Kyrgyz language written at all, although I heard it spoken in the mountains.

All three countries are moving forward in different ways, too. Kyrgyzstan knows it has outstanding natural beauty, incredible hiking and a rich nomadic heritage which the world is slowly discovering. Its burgeoning tourist industry is mainly built around this natural resource, and while hotels and resorts are springing up, enough of the country is wild and mountainous that the impact will hopefully not be too destructive. In Kazakhstan they value modernity; Nazarbaev’s showpiece capital, Astana, is proof enough of that, but in the southern regions I visited it was also in evidence. Roads are being tarmacked; the overnight train we took from Shymkent to Almaty was sparklingly modern, and the streets of the country’s biggest city are currently a building site as the old pavements are dug up, in favour of shiny new block paving and polished civic pride.

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A photo shows Samarkand’s Registan Square as it was in 1960, prior to reconstruction.

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Registan Square as it is today. Rebuilt, dazzling and in use as a public space once more (here for a concert).

Uzbekistan, however, is very much looking to the past for its future. The quantity and quality of historic buildings in the country is just incredible, and Uzbekistan itself has far more of an Islamic feel than its neighbours. The mosques and madrassahs were largely ignored during the Soviet period, and fell into disuse and disrepair. Since independence, Uzbekistan has ploughed phenomenal resources into restoring and repairing these monuments, and its blossoming tourist industry is proof that it is money well spent. I went to Uzbekistan expecting to be blown away, but I didn’t expect to be blown away to the degree that I was.

But this restoration and reparation has left the mosques and monuments looking shiny and new. Visiting, you get an overwhelming sense of what they looked like when they were first built, but so much of each building is restored that it’s hard to know what is new and what is original. Were those shiny blue tiles the same ones that 15th-century dervishes ran their hands over as they explored their new home? Probably not. In some buildings, patches of the walls have been left unrestored so the visitor can see the original artwork. But that means that the remainder of the building is brand new.

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The Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. From the side the reconstruction is clear.

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The inside of the Bib Khanyn mosque is unrestored, and not structurally safe. A glimpse into what much of Central Asia’s heritage looked like at the end of the Soviet period.

In southern Kazakhstan, we visited the cities of Otrar and Sauran. Both were razed to the ground, or crumbled there naturally over time. At Otrar, restoration is already complete. Only the gateway to the city has been rebuilt; shiny and new, there is no mistaking it for a 14th-century original, but it imparts the same sense of awe that would have struck the first visitors to the citadel. Inside, on top of the hill on which Otrar was built, the remainder of the site exists as low walls of reasonably uniform height. During the restoration process, the remnants of each building were pieced together to show the layout of each house, palace and mosque. What is there is not entirely original, although no new materials have been used.

At Sauran this is even more in evidence, as restoration work is still ongoing. In a true testament to a world before health and safety regulations ran amok in the West, we were able to visit the site alongside the renovators, stepping around wheelbarrows, diggers and workmen with impunity. It also meant we saw much of the site untouched, which further reinforced the difference between the original ruins and the put-together version we saw at Otrar. At Sauran, most of what we saw hadn’t been moved for hundreds of years.

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The ruins of Sauran, Kazakhstan, are still in the process of restoration.

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An example of what the rest of Sauran will still look like. Such restoration makes the original buildings easier to imagine, but is it the right thing to do?

This isn’t my first encounter with a country keen to revive a culture of which it is proud, and which was destroyed by invaders. In South Korea, repeated invasion by the Chinese and, especially, the Japanese, destroyed the royal palaces and the monarchy along with it. The monarchy can’t be recovered, by the Koreans have rebuilt their palaces, and the ceremonial changing of the guard takes place every day to reaffirm national pride in their legacy.

The question is, does it matter? What is more important, reviving and celebrating a culture or sticking firmly to the idea that antiques must remain so? On balance, I’m personally not sure there is any value in keeping old things for old things’ sake. What is more important, to me, is that the custodians of this heritage – the peoples of the countries themselves – are able to revive their national pride and enjoy these buildings, sites and legacies in the way they were designed to be used and enjoyed. Kazakhs can once again imagine themselves walking the streets of Otrar or (soon) Sauran; Uzbeks can admire their citadels, pay respect at mausoleums and worship in their historic mosques. I don’t believe we should be stuck in the past for the past’s sake. It’s wonderful to see the abandoned heritage of Central Asia being valued once again.

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The Bolo Hauz mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Restoration means buildings can be used for worship once again.

Want more stories from Central Asia? Check out my other posts:
Bukhara to Tashkent: Night trains in Uzbekistan
Turkistan and Otrar: Exploring Kazakhstan’s deep south
Eagle hunter: In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

For more on my experiences in the former Soviet Union, check out my thoughts on the process of change in Russia since 1992:
The Russian Evolution: How Russia has changed since the fall of Communism.

Want to check out Central Asia for yourself? Take a look at these tours offered by Indy Guide and Kalpak Travel!

central asia heritage pin

Hi! I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 65 countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!

Turkistan and Otrar: Kazakhstan’s Deep South

Turkistan and Otrar: Kazakhstan’s Deep South

We arrived in Turkistan on a Thursday. It was our first day in Kazakhstan; after an overnight train journey from Bukhara to Tashkent, we took a private bus to the border. Kazakhstan was a shock to the system right away; very different from Uzbekistan, less Islamic and less developed, the wide open spaces and long distances were immediately striking.

The drive north took us along roads that were tarmacked but in poor condition. Sitting directly behind our bus driver, I was hypnotised by his sprung seat bouncing up and down with the movement of the vehicle on the road, seemingly catapulting him towards the ceiling with every bump. The journey took us through the city of Shymkent, a major hub in this part of southern Kazakhstan, and then across the steppe northwards. Stopping at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Otrar (Otyrar), we sighted our first camels of the journey. Brown, mostly single-humped dromedaries rather than the bactrians I was expecting, they meandered along the road as though they owned it.

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Camels wander along the road at Otrar

Otrar is an incredible sight. A fortress city in the middle of the steppe, it was built on a knoll of high ground which gave it a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Unfortunately, this panoramic view simply allowed them to see Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes coming. It was Otrar’s own fault, on balance; having beheaded Genghis’s peace envoy the previous year, the attack can’t have been unexpected. But the citadel was no match for the hordes, who lay siege to Otrar for five months in 1319, before storming the walls and executing its governor.

Nearly a century later, Timur (Tamerlane) breathed his last in one of Otrar’s palaces, en route to wage war on the Chinese border. Now Otrar stands in ruins, only the entrance gate having been reconstructed. With no other visitors there, we had the site to ourselves. Spread over a large area are the remains of mosques, palaces and houses; pottery pieces are spread across the ancient city just waiting to be picked up and pieced back together. The whole site sits above a sandy, grassy plain, and was a spectacular introduction to Kazakh history on our first day in the country.

Driving on, we eventually entered the city of Turkistan. Not to be confused with the country of Turkmenistan (which is easy to do, at least from a name point of view), Turkistan lies some 170 miles inside Kazakhstan’s borders, deep in the steppe. Our hotel was the Eurasia, a huge Soviet legacy lying on the main square. Massive rooms held equally massive beds, but the hotel had no coffee, no food and, more worryingly, no beer. Exhausted from an intense few days touring Uzbekistan, I called it an early night, but others headed out to a restaurant, where the coffee had to be bought in sachets from the shop down the road. Coming from well-developed Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan was proving to be something of a culture shock.

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Hotel Eurasia in the heart of Turkistan

Next morning, after an eccentric breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which had finally opened its doors, we headed out to explore the reason we had ventured north to Turkistan in the first place. Directly across the square from the Eurasia Hotel lies the entrance to the historical complex of Azret-Sultan, and the jewel of the complex is the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Never finished (you can still see the wooden scaffolding used in its construction in the 14th century), it is nonetheless a work of art, with the turquoise domes and mosaic decorations we had come to expect in this part of the world, and a fascinating labyrinth of chambers and exhibits inside. However, our visit was made somewhat more of a challenge by the stiff wind that had suddenly put in an appearance. The mausoleum is an Islamic site, and it is respectful (although not required) for women to cover their heads when they enter. For an infrequent wearer of headscarves like me, trying to keep a modest Islamic scarf on my head when the wind was whipping up a frenzy gave the whole exercise a great deal more excitement than I had expected.

One thing that was notable about the Azret-Sultan complex was the number of foreign tourists. In short, there weren’t any. Our group aside, all the other visitors (and there were many) were local people, varying from young modern families to wizened old men in robes and beards. Ladies in utilitarian dresses and headscarves used brooms to sweep the tiled forecourts, while others chatted on benches in the shade. As a slice of local life, it was hard to beat.

[Above: Locals are by far the majority in Turkistan, whether working, visiting or praying.
Below: the crenellated walls and gateways of the citadel.]

Leaving my group behind for some alone time, I explored other buildings in the complex before climbing the steps of the old fortress walls. Classic battlements, they give a panoramic view of the domes of the madrassahs on one side, and the modern city of Turkistan on the other. Wandering back to the hotel along the more modern streets of the town centre, I admired the pools and statues in the recently redesigned main square, which demonstrate a clear pride in the local heritage. And Turkistan must surely be the only town in the world with a monument to the sport of buzkashi, a form of polo using a headless goat carcass as the ball, complete with six bronze players on horseback.

[Above: The new main square in Turkistan is a place to show off local pride, along with some eccentric artwork.
Below: Possibly the world’s only buzkashi monument?]

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On the way out of town later in the day we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Waitresses proudly handed out double-sided menus, but it turned out that there were only three or four options which were actually available. The only side dish was mashed potato, which later turned out not to be mashed potato, but rice. A vegetarian for whom the options were limited at the best of times, I ended up with cheese soup with a side of the plain rice – one of the more eccentric meals I ate on the trip. Since food was in limited supply, and tourists were few and far between, the waiting staff were friendly but unused to foreigners, and didn’t know quite how to cope with us. What should have been a quick bite to eat took 2 hours in total. But the restaurant had Coca-Cola. And beer.

Want to check out Kazakhstan for yourself? Take a look at these tours offered by Indy Guide and Kalpak Travel!


turkistan and otrar pin

Hi! I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 65 countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!