Many people enjoy dancing as it’s a great way to express themselves through music, sometimes accompanied by beautiful costumes and unique gestures. Throughout history, many tribes and ethnic groups have had their own dance routines to communicate with folks, rulers, or even gods. Today, these fabulous performances are remained for spectators from around the world to have a deeper understanding of their culture, aesthetics, and tradition. I have reached out to my fellow travel bloggers to share some of the most well-known and unique traditional folk dances, the stories behind them, and where and how to see them.
Papua New Guinea
Patricia from Ze Wandering Frogs
Traditions in Papua New Guinea are strong and very much untouched as most villages had no contact with Western travelers until the 1800s. With a way of life unchanged for thousands of years, the ancestral customs of the Sepik River are unique, with traditional dances different from remote villages to remote villages nestled deep in the jungle and thick forests. Most villages are only accessible by canoes, which keep them even more isolated, developing societies based on clan structures.
One of the central beliefs is that animals like snakes or pigs represent clan spirits, where strong spirits protect each village against attacks from neighboring villages. Crocodiles and eagles are considered some of the most potent spirits, with customs and rituals built around these animals. Crocodile traditions are so intense that they include skin scarification of young men as part of their adult initiation, rites of passage that last an entire month within the walls of the men’s house, like the Haus Tambaran. Similarly, traditional dances like the Crocodile dance in the Yenchen village were created with elaborated crocodile displays, with men, women, and even kids wearing high colorful costumes dancing along with the beats of the drums.
Watching the millennia-old dances was like stepping back in time, and we were in awe of the deep respect that the villagers have towards their spirits and the representing animals. Traveling to Papua New Guinea, and most specifically to the Sepik River, where such Crocodile traditions can be found, is challenging, but witnessing such genuine art and practices is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The best time to visit Papua New Guinea is from June to October, away from the rainy season, making travel difficult. Given how remote the Sepik River is, a guide is a must to help you prepare for your trip.
There are an exciting number of performing art forms in Japan and Kabuki is a classic and one of the most well-known forms to international travelers. Kabuki is not only a dance routine but a performing art. Performers are usually dressed in glamourous, traditional costumes and in striking kumadori make-up. Kabuki was born in Japan during the early Edo period, and it was dominantly performed by female dancers. Kabuki was later developed and expanded into different styles, which became an all-male act in the 17th century until both genders are included in one act in modern times. Kabuki theatre was listed as UNESCO intangible heritage in 2005, honoring its important universal value.
The elements of Kabuki theatre include stage design, music, story-telling, and dance. The extravagant and sophisticated design, including features like a hanamichi (a “flower path”) – an extension that extends into the audience, a Mawari-butai (a “revolving state”), or a Chūnori (a “riding in mid-air”) – wiring of the actors as if they “fly” over the stage. Together with picturesque and intricate backdrops that recreate a historic Japanese scene, flamboyant costumes, emotional music arrangements, and storyline. The theatre takes the audience on a journey to a different world.
Kabuki dance is a sophisticated performance and it can be seen in theatres in many majors cities in Japan, notably the Shinbashi Ebujo Theatre in Tokyo, Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka, Shijo Minamiza Theatre in Kyoto, Misonoza Theatre in Nagoya, and Hakataza Theatre in Fukuoka.
Elizabeth from Three Week Traveller
During the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines, a traditional folk dance was created called Tinikling. This dance is composed of four people. Two people sit on the ground holding two bamboo poles at each end. The two other participants follow specific steps and danced according to the rhythm of the music.
The basic rhythm is hitting the bamboo poles down the ground twice then lifting the poles slightly and finally putting the poles together twice. The participants usually wear traditional clothing and no footwear.
There is no specific festival Tinikling is performed. It can be seen from school performances, Simbang Gabi (Misa de Gallo) during Christmas, Giant Lantern Festinal, Panagbenga Festival, to Dinagyang Festival. I personally saw one during the annual Panagbenga Festival which occurs in February in Baguio or Benguet.
To reach these areas, you can get on a 3-4 hour bus ride going to Baguio (it used to be an 8-hour ride, an expressway is not open to the public). It doesn’t guarantee that you will see this dance. But it’s very popular that there’s a high chance to see it in person. If you plan to catch a festival in the Philippines, it’s important to plan ahead as hotels and buses get booked up quickly.
Apsara Dance is an important heritage in Cambodia and the dance performance can be seen in theatres in Siem Reap. While you are admiring the beautiful temples and ruins in Siem Reap like Angor Wat, or the Bayon during the day, check out one of the theatres in the city and enjoy a buffet dinner while watching the show.
Who is Apsara? Apsara is a type of female spirit of the waters and clouds in Hindu and Buddhist culture. Apsara is featured predominantly in many Angkor temples, whether it’s a motif or sculpture, and Apsara is also noted in literature and legends. In Indian mythology, Apsaras are beautiful, supernatural female beings. They are youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing.
In the dance, performers are often dressed in a traditional gown with three points or tips, an eye-catching headpiece, and a decorative collar. The dance tells stories that were found in the carvings of Angkor Wat, with slow and steady movements and gestures, sometimes interacting with other character spirits. One signature move of the Apsara dance was the performers standing on one foot, while the other foot, which was lifted above the floor, moved graciously. It takes a lot of balance to keep the pose steady.
Barong Dance (and Kecak Fire Dance)
Religion is part of the Balinese culture and they express these cultures through different forms of performance. The Barong dance is a performance based on classic Balinese mythology. It is a story about Barong, the king of spirits and a lion-like creature (represents the good), who triumphs over the demon queen Rangda (represents the bad). The Barong Dance is so endearing to the local culture because it ties to their ancient beliefs that once held sway over the island before Hinduism spread; For me, I also love the traditional Balinese music that featured Legong orchestra amplified with large bamboo flutes, the sound of that was quite mesmerizing.
Amongst some other performances like the Legong of Mahabharata, Kecak Fire and Trance Dance, Wayang Kulit, and Ramayana Ballet, it is a “must-see” for visitors. Legong and Barong Waksirsa Dance shows are available in different places in Bali, and one of the great shows is at the Ubud palace, just because the dance is performed in front of the traditional architecture. Ubud is a cultural and artistic area on the island; there are shops of traditional handicrafts, markets, nice restaurants, cooking schools, and cozy hostels and backpackers lodges. We arrived at Ubud earlier in the afternoon that day and explored the area before we watched the Barong Dance Show.
Many tourists visited Bali for an “Eat. Pray. Love” experience (and this is, still, everywhere in Bali) and they might recognize the scene where Julia Roberts was biking through Ubud and the Monkey Forest. It is actually a sacred sanctuary as the area is part of the natural reserve of a Hindu Temple Complex. The area is the home of over 600 long-tailed macaques and I was told the monkeys here are more “friendly” compared to those at Uluwatu, which are more aggressive. Some tourists bought bananas to feed the monkeys and they would be excited to pry the food out of the tourists’ hands. It was quite fun to interact with such brilliant and hyperactive creatures. Still, be careful as some Monkeys are very good pickpockets. Zip up your bags and keep your distance as these are wild animals after all.
Uluwatu Temple stands on a cliff located at the southwestern tip of Bali, and therefore the best way to go there is self-driving, or by taxi. This is also where the Kecak and Fire Dance performance takes place, and this is one of the most-watched performances among Bali visitors. Get there a little bit earlier and grab a good seat in the open-air amphitheater. The venue regularly shows the Ramayana Ballet and Kecak dance during the sunset hours.
Bhangra and Gidda
Asha from Home Travel Guide
India has many traditional and folklore dances. Two very popular dance forms to definitely see if you are in the Punjab area of India would be Bhangra and Gidda. Both these dances originated from Punjab and were historically performed during the harvest time when farmers would celebrate the festival of Vaisakhi.
Bhangra is a very energetic dance with jumps, fast speed, and high kicks and Gidda which is performed by women is energetic yet graceful at the same time. The colorful dress and jewelry are equally as important to the dance moves. We saw both these performances in Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple in India at Gobindgarh Fort.
Gobindgarh Fort is a wonderful place to see these dance performances as you feel you are almost taken back in time to see musicians and dances in their traditional costumes in a beautiful setting. Both forms of dance are so joyful and you almost just want to get up and dance with the dancers. In fact, during our visit, the dancers got the audience together to show us some of the moves and explained the history of their folklore dance. The fort is in the center of Amritsar City and you can easily catch a taxi or a tuk-tuk to take you there.
Joanna from The World in My Pocket
The Kandyan Dance is one of the most interesting moving art performances in Sri Lanka. It is considered the national dance of Sri Lanka and it is performed at many different types of events, sometimes to promote the country, and sometimes to welcome guests into the country, city, or hotel.
The dance is very dramatic, with the use of marks and acrobatic moves. The dancers are wearing a very intricate costume, with a sarong-style garment, bare chest covered with a silver beaded net, and a large headpiece. The performers also have different bangles and armlets attached to their bodies. The Kandyan dance is only performed by men.
The music on which the performers are dancing is performed to percussion only. There are usually a few men playing a specific type of wooden drum, only used in this type of performance.
The Kandyan dance has its origins in the area surrounding the city of Kandy, in the highlands of Sri Lanka. It is believed to be over 300 years old and has its inspiration from South India.
Because it is such a big part of the culture, you must add a Kandyan dance performance to your Sri Lanka trip itinerary. It’s easy to book a private performance for you and your family, when you visit Kandy, just ask the reception of your hotel.
Emily from Emily Embarks
Originating back in the 11th-12th centuries, the Kara Jorgo dance has been an important part of the nomadic lifestyle and culture of Kyrgyzstan for nearly 1,000 years. Translated to mean “Black Stallion”, this dance was reborn during the Russian invasion of Kyrgyzstan during World War I when many families fled to the Chinese borders.
The dance is easily recognized across Central Asia for its high-toned beats and quick arm, shoulder, and wrist movements. It is most commonly performed by male and female partners who work together in groups to create a beautiful display. The music is so creative and upbeat and it leaves everyone watching with a giant smile and a feeling of connection with the Kyrgyz culture. I highly recommend trying to see it in the eastern part of the country near Karakol, as they have several dance groups that specialize in this native dance!
While we were lucky enough to be treated to a surprise dance show by the locals in the cities of Bishkek and the very special region of Karakol, you can see the dance at numerous festivals and local events throughout the cities of Bishkek, Osh, and Karakol year-round. You can choose to fly directly into any of these cities and make a road trip to attend the Birds of Prey Festival where they teach people the moves of the Kara Jorgo dance, or you can opt to travel with a local tour group such as Visit Alay where you can stay in homestays and be treated to a private showing.
Georgian National Dance (Sukhishvilebi)
Baia from Red Fedora Diary
Georgian national dances combine sumptuous costumes, incredible technique, and interweaving history. The evolution of Georgian national dances started in the Middle Ages when cities began celebrating mass holidays. Sports games, military moves, and dances conducted at those festivals were the most famous types of folk art.
What Georgians have as their national dances today underwent a long modification during the various epochs. Some dances appeared in villages and had connections with agriculture, while continuous invasions of the country gave rise to dances with a combat nature. Over the years, Georgians created richer and more interesting choreography, techniques, and synchronization of movement and music.
All these dances are very different but have similar traits – women’s dances convey a sense of lyricality, synergy, and grace, while men’s performances show courage, pride, dignity, and nobility.
One of the most famous and best Georgian national dance ensembles is Sukhishvilebi, founded in the 1940s, and attending their concert is one of the best things to do in Tbilisi. They also do world tours very often, so you can also see them in different countries.
Watching traditional Georgian dances is very exhilarating. Every person in the concert hall is dead-silent, making you feel in the moment and sometimes even hear the sound of dance shoes sliding on the stage. The energy and fire that the dance ensembles create on the stage leave everyone full of energy, excitement, and awe.
If you want to see a complete program of Sukhishvilebi, it’s best to monitor their Facebook page or Tkt.ge website for upcoming performances in Tbilisi or around the world. And in case you can’t attend the concert, there are a few restaurants in Tbilisi with small performances of national dances.
Samburu Traditional Jumping Dance
Lindsey from Have Clothes, Will Travel
Chanting, humming, and clapping fill the air as the Samburu Warriors begin their dance. No instruments are used, but the air is alive with energy as the song and dance ensue. Beautiful bright clothing, elaborate headdresses, and necklaces are worn by the Samburu dancers, as they move as one to the song. It’s a feast for the senses.
The men form a semi-circle, as the women stand off to the side. The women keep the song going as the men begin to jump – higher and higher.
The purpose of the dance is for a young warrior to show his strength and to attract a bride. The higher and more gracefully the warrior jumps, the more attractive he is to the young ladies watching. It’s thrilling to see, and you will find your heart racing to the pulse-like rhythm as this competition, in the form of dance, unfolds.
The Samburu are a semi-nomadic tribe in Northern Kenya. You won’t be able to buy tickets to a show in a village to see this dance performed. The easiest way to see this dance firsthand is to ask your safari tour operator if there is a chance to see the dance while you are on safari in the Samburu region. I had been staying at the safari lodge, Saruni Samburu when the chance to see this dance was presented. I highly recommend the opportunity to see this dance, as well as staying with Saruni Samburu.
Irish Step Dance
Kat from Wandering Bird
Irish Step Dance (often just called Irish dancing) is a unique and instantly recognizable style of dance. The body is held rigid while the legs do all manner of crazy and unbelievable things.
If you’re ever been lucky enough to see the world-famous Riverdance, you’ll know there are many different forms of Irish dancing, but they are all related. The differences formed in the 17th and 18th centuries, where Irish ‘masters’ traveled and taught various dance forms across the country based on religious views and differing purposes.
The dances are performed regularly for shows and competitions but are also used in celebrations, such as weddings and National Holidays.
We were lucky enough to see Irish dancing several times whilst touring Ireland in a campervan and we were always mesmerized by the speed and agility of the dancers. They really are breathtaking to watch.
We saw them in larger venues, but my personal favorite was in the smaller pubs and halls, with live music and lots of atmospheres. The dancers often have some sort of competition with each other (don’t ask me the rules!) but seeing them laugh and enjoy the banter was all part of the entertainment.
To guarantee to be able to see Irish Step Dancing, head to Dublin. There are several shows on there each week and several websites which can help you find and book tickets. If you’re traveling elsewhere, check the local tourist office, which will be able to help you find shows. (Top Tip: By all means have a go yourself. I lasted about 30 seconds…)
Kat from Biker Girl Life
Scotland is famous for many things, including tartan, bagpipes, men in kilts, haggis, and dancing.
There are many different styles of dancing in Scotland, from the party favorite Cèilidh to the more traditional Highland Dance. There are also the less famous dances, such as the sword dancing (yes, they literally dance across sharp, dangerous swords!) reels, jigs, and square dances.
There are more than 15,000 different styles of country dancing in Scotland and they were created to serve different purposes.
If you are lucky enough to attend a Scottish wedding, you’ll definitely see a Cèilidh – don’t be too shy to join in, they are brilliant fun and most people are making it up as they go anyway. My best friend married a Scotsman and we were dancing Cèilidh and reels until well into the early hours of the morning. Just remember to stay hydrated – they are a great workout! (Top tip: don’t try to match the Scots whisky for whisky… ouch.)
If you get the chance to visit the famous Scottish Highland games, you’ll see some of the more traditional styles of Highland Dancing, used for competitions and formal events. These involve outfits of traditional style and a lot of high leg kicks and flicks – similar in many ways to Irish Step Dance.
We attended the games whilst motorcycling in Scotland, which was fine but trying to imitate the dancers whilst wearing motorcycle gear is not advisable.
If you want to guarantee to see some traditional dancing, book a show. Edinburgh has regular events which feature Scottish dancing, as does Glasgow and more of the bigger towns and cities in Scotland. If you’re going to the Highland games or a popular event like the summer shows in Edinburgh, book up way in advance- they sell out quickly.
Linn from Brainy Backpackers
Sevillanas is one of the most traditional dance forms in Spain, yet for most tourists’ eyes, it is hidden in the shade of the popular Flamenco. Sevillanas dates all the way back to the 15th Century from Castile and has developed into a mix of different styles since then. Compared to the more improvised dance style of Flamenco, Sevillanas has only four main dance elements. A classic when you try to learn to dance this form of dance is to “pick the apple, eat it, and throw it away.” This simplifies the movements with the hands and arms. Or at least they say so. It can be quite challenging to learn in my experience!
Sevillanas are typically known as a dance of the people. From the county side. The music that accompanies it often tells stories about Seville, the neighborhoods, and the yearly pilgrimage to El Rocillo.
Opposed to the Flamenco that tourists can see on Flamenco bars, the Sevillanas is more of a folk dance, and to truly see the dance performed you have to get local. Head to one of the local “Ferias” in Andalucia and you will notice that everyone around you dances the Sevillanas. One of the biggest ones in the country is Seville’s April Fair where the whole city gathers in the thousand party tents that are set up on the Fairground next to the fairground for an entire week. Going to the April Fair is not only one of the most non-touristy things you can do in Seville but also the best place to learn how to dance the Sevillanas over a mug of “Rebujito” with the locals. Going to the fair is free, but only a handful of the “Casetas” is open to everyone. To get into one of the many private “Casetas”, you will need an invitation from a local.
Dhara from It’s Not About the Miles
If you are planning a visit to Andalusia, Spain’s southern province, be sure to allow time for a flamenco performance!
This flamboyant dance form is said to have originated in southern Spain in the late 18th century.
While flamenco originated within the gitano subculture of Andalusia, which has been substantially responsible for its creation and development, historically, flamenco artists have come from both gitano and non-gitano Spanish cultures.
Flamenco is included in UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Attending a flamenco show is one of the best things to do in Seville. We were transfixed by the melody and the rhythm when we attended a show at the Museo del Baile Flamenco. The energy of the performance was breathtaking.
While the museum is definitely a great place to take in a show, there are many flamenco houses in Barrio Santa Cruz, Seville’s historic core, where the shows are considered top-notch. Casa de la Memoria is one such location.
You can buy tickets online at Viator or Get Your Guide, to be assured of a seat at the location and time of your choice.
If you stay in the historic quarter, you can walk to the Museum of Flamenco or Casa de la Memoria. We enjoyed an evening show when we could relax after the day’s sightseeing and savor the music and the movements.
Danza de los Viejitos
April from April Vera-Lynn Travels
The ‘Danza de los Viejitos’, or ‘Dance of the Little Old Men’ started as an Indigenous Purépecha tradition in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The four dancers wear traditional campesino clothing, wooden shoes, long white-haired wigs, and masks to make them look old. Originally this dance was meant to honor the ‘Old God’ or sun god but after Spanish colonization, it was changed to make fun of old Spaniards.
The music starts off soft and slow, with the ‘little old men’ swaying back and forth and clutching wooden canes. When the music picks up and gets more intense, the dancers stomp their feet, twirl around and dance briskly. At certain points each one will fall back to a more elderly nature by clutching their cane, breathing heavily, or falling over. The dance ends with the same soft and slow music that it started with, often with the ‘old men’ using their canes to slowly walk off in a single file line together.
I’ve been fortunate to witness this dance a number of times and I’m always so happy to watch it performed. It’s such a joyful and funny dance to see. The dance is performed year-round all over the state of Michoacán. I’ve seen it performed in Morelia which is the capital of Michoacán, but the place I enjoyed watching it the most was on the island of Janitzio in Pátzcuaro Lake. In fact, you can hike up the hilly island all the way to the top and watch the Danza de los Viejitos in the courtyard right beside the famous statue of Morelos, with views of the surrounding lake and mountains all around.
Dan from Layer Culture
The Tango dance is one of the most influential and most well know dances in the world. The dance is both a partner and social dance which features an eclectic mix of customs and cultures which originated along the Río de la Plata (between Buenos Aires and Uruguay) in the 1880s. Since Buenos Aires was home to immigrants from diverse nations such as Spain, Italy, England, Africa, and Poland, these cultures blended together to formalize the tango dance as we know it today. People travel to Argentina from all over the world to learn how to dance the tango or perfect their knowledge of the dance. Inspired by Candombe: an African slave dance hosted in the streets as a way of cultural expression. The street dance developed and became common in homes all over the city and was enjoyed by people from all different social classes. The tango dance represents the citizens of a very diverse nation that fused flamenco along with polka and enticing African dances. Any trip to Buenos Aires will reveal just how imparted the dance is in the culture today. This Argentinian tradition has become a worldwide phenomenon and it can be seen at one of the many tango cafes and street performances in and around the La Boca neighborhood.
Sinead from Map Made Memories
Samoa’s Fiafia dance is a central part of Samoan culture and is a dance that is steeped in tradition. The word ‘fiafia’ means celebration and that is what you will feel when you attend a Fiafia dance.
The rousing celebration consists of different elements such as the Siva dance which is an elegant, slow-moving dance usually performed by females in traditional dress. This is followed by the Fa’ataupati, a fast lively dance performed by men wearing traditional lavalava, involving rhythmical body slapping and stamping. The celebration ends with the dramatic Siva Afi, a fire dance performed to a beaten drum during which young boys and men dance and perform stunts with burning flames. It is an impressive and dramatic performance, especially in the dark.
Fiafia dancing is often accompanied by harmonic singing which is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. The whole experience is something you will not forget. We saw three Fiafias in Samoa including one joyous performance by local people on a beach. Each performance was energizing, uplifting, and powerful. Many hotels and guesthouses in Samoa have Fiafia nights but you can also see free, daytime performances at the Samoa Cultural Centre in Apia. You do not need to pre-book but check opening and performance times in advance of your visit.
Christina from Explore Now or Never
There’s no question that the best Hawaii vacation includes an opportunity to see a performance of the iconic and ancient hula dance, originally created in the Hawaiian islands by the Polynesians who settled in the archipelago here.
The main two styles of Hula are Hula Auana and Hula Kahiko. Fun fact: After the death of Kamehameha I in the 19th century, Christian Hawaiians declared the hula immoral and it became illegal to perform it publicly. However, once the queen, a Christian convert, passed away, Hawaiians began to ignore the law and resumed hula performances.
Hula is accompanied by a song or chant that is then acted out in a visual dance. For example, hand movements might demonstrate a wave rolling through the ocean or a palm tree swaying in the breeze. The bare feet and hips have a basic library of steps.
While men may perform hula, today it’s mostly women. And while Hawaiian women often perform authentic hula in full, formal dresses, travelers typically enjoy a hula performance at a luau—a traditional Hawaiian feast—where they sway in long flowing movements in grass skirts to the sounds of guitar and ukulele. It’s a relaxing, joyful experience and fills the viewer with admiration for the gracefulness of the dancers.
The best place to see a hula performance for yourself is, of course, in Hawaii. These evening experiences often include a flower lei welcome and luau buffet. You’ll find them in Honolulu on Oahu, Lahaina in Maui, and Kona on Big Island by reserving online.