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 watch many international dance genres on my journeys across the globe, sometimes as a display for tourists, sometimes in its most authentic form. Here are my 12 favourite experiences of traditional dance around the world – what are yours?
1. Kathakali dancers, Kerala, India
The folk dances of India are as varied as the country itself, and Indian traditional dance is some of the most colourful in the world. 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 to traditional Kathakali songs. All the dancers are male, with men dressing up in women’s costumes to portray the female characters.
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…
3. Botswana traditional dance: the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert
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 African dances, and if you head to this corner of Botswana you might be lucky enough to see them perform. 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.
4. Balinese fire dancers, Indonesia
One of the most incredible traditional dance displays I have seen on my travels has to be the Kecak fire dance of Bali. Leaping through the flames, the performers in this traditional Balinese dance 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 local dance of Cambodia has many similarities with that of its neighbour, Thailand, and some of the most intricate cultural dances around the world hail from this region. Colourful dance 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, an evening of Cambodian traditional dance will transport you to another time and place.
6. Traditional folk dance, 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 display of Russian folk dance. 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!
7. Capoeira, Brazil
Brazilian 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.
9. Traditional dance, Flores, Indonesia
On the island of Flores, in eastern Indonesia, we visited a village one evening for a fantastic display of different types of traditional dance. 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.
10. Cuban salsa dancing
Music is everywhere in Cuba, and the most popular of Cuban dance styles is the sala – in fact, the country seems to operate to a permanent beat of salsa cubana. 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 expert African dancers. The remoteness of the location and basic huts we were staying in added to the atmosphere on that memorable evening.
12. Morris dancers, England
I couldn’t write about dances from different countries the world over without including my home country of the UK. The morris dancers of England are steeped in history, and can still be found at village fetes across the country in the summer months. Dancers wear white shirts with colourful sashes or waistcoats and vibrantly decorated hats to perform this traditional English dance. Bells adorn the ankles, and handkerchiefs and sticks are waved and clapped as part of the dance. Performed in groups to country music, this is a quintessentially English folk dance!
What are your favourite traditional dances from around the world? How many different dance styles have you encountered on your own travels? Let me know in the comments!
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I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting nearly 70 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!