Around the world in 20 dances
Square Dance, USA
The "square" tag has nothing to do with naffness (now why would anyone think that?) but rather to do with the arrangement of the four couples involved, whose movements around the "square" are usually choreographed by a separate "caller". Although associated with US Western-style dress (nineteen US states call it their official dance), square dancing originated in seventeenth-century England while, traditionally, accompanying music is in the form of Scottish- and Irish-style reels and jigs.
"The black clothes of mourning are as heavy as iron," goes a memorable line from one syrtos-accompanying song. But you won't be needing your hanky for tear-mopping in this dance. A handkerchief always joins either two or all of the participants, who are formed into a chain, with each person facing sideways. Mentioned in the annals of ancient Greece, syrtos is one of the oldest known dances and is enjoyed worldwide by the Greek diaspora.
Respect the clave! This is rule number one in salsa. In fact, a dance isn't salsa if it’s not structured around this Afro-Cuban rhythm pattern. Beyond that, it's almost a case of anything goes – so much so that dances of different names, including son, mumba, cha cha cha and mambo, are bundled into the salsa family. Salsa took off in NYC in the 1970s, the city giving its name to a particular style of the dance, while Miami, Los Angeles and Cali (Colombia) all have their own salsas too.
Before Beatlemania there was nineteenth-century Polkamania. Unusually, the origins of the dance have been traced to one person, a young woman by the name of Anna Slezakova, whose moves to a folk song were recorded and disseminated by a local music teacher. The dance was popularized via newspapers, and soon ballrooms across Europe and America went polka mad. The fab 2/4 is popular to this day everywhere from Finland to the Argentinian Pampas.
Morris dancing, UK
Could anything be more Ye Olde England than morris dancing? Well, yes, because the term actually comes from "moorish", back when it was shorthand for anything remotely exotic. It seems likely, then, that the dance was imported, first infiltrating noble courts and then wider society, with Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris-dancing his way from London to Norwich in 1600. The dance – with its accoutrements of shin bells, sticks, swords and hankies – was revived in the early twentieth century by folklorists.
Merengue, Dominican Republic
Merengue is all hips and hands. In this partner dance, the couple engage each other closely, intertwining fingers in myriad arrangements, their hips sliding together oh-so-smoothly, however frenetic the accompanying music. The insistence upon such proximity is not just about courtship – it is said to have its origins in the practice of joining slaves with ankle chains.
Maasai warrior dance, Kenya & Tanzania
This dance – called adumu – is mostly used in coming-of-age rituals, with Maasai leaping and switching places accompanied by drumming, bell ringing and often complex, polyphonic vocals which are directed by a song leader called an olaranyani. However similar it looks at first glance (not counting the savannah and tribal dress), rest assured that adumu is rather more culturally rich than even your very finest moments of gig pogoing…
Limbo's origins are as enigmatic as you'd hope for from this peculiar spectacle. Far from the ice-breaking tourist resort silliness we know today (we have Chubby Checker to thank for that "How low can you go?" chant), the dance is thought to have first been performed at wakes, with the participants engaged in a symbolic struggle against death. Unfortunately, the bar is always going to win – nobody has yet beaten death lower than 21.5cm.
Traditional dance, Japan
The sometimes slow pace of noh mai, with dancers representing characters such as ghosts and spirits, moving to flute and hand-drum music, led to the adoption of extravagant costume to mitigate against the possibility of audiences getting restless. Bon-Odori, meanwhile, which is performed during the Obon festival, often deals with themes particular to a region: in a coal-mining area, dancers might imitate digging, for instance, while on the coast it could be dragging in a fishing net.
Forget the grass skirts and fixed grins (and certainly that plastic hoop), hula is a serious affair. Traditionally, at least, participants have to be invited to dance with a ceremonial chant from the kumu hula (teacher) – and don't dare put a foot wrong or mess up a hand gesture, for this will stir the Hawaiian gods’ wrath. That’s a particularly bad idea if the dance you're attempting is a hula ma'i in honour of your chief's reproductive apparatus.
A hop, a skip, a jump, and a whole lot in between. If hopak looks somewhat enthusiastic (read: boisterous) that’s because there's an element of soldierly showing off in its origins, with sixteenth-century Cossacks celebrating victorious battle in displays of acrobatic sword-swinging. The later involvement of women took the testosterone levels down a notch and hopak now features in ballets and operas – yet even the most refined shows have passages that recall the video for Run D.M.C and Jason Nevin's ‘It's Like That’.
Originating with older polska dances, the hambo, full of dainty steps and turns, took off in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sweden celebrates the hambo each year in the village of Hårga (where the legend runs that a cloven-hoofed fiddler was the original instigator of the dance) with the Hälsingehambon. This "world" championship is invariably won by Swedes, but had to be cancelled in 2011 due to lack of participants. Maybe it's time the hambo got some devilish new tunes.
Gumboot dance, South Africa
What happens when "putting on your dancing shoes" means donning a pair of wellies? The Gumboot Dance originated with South African gold miners: banned from drumming for entertainment they took to dancing in their boots, effectively using them as percussive instruments (as well as fetching footwear). The dance steps themselves are said to parody those bosses who would make their lives a misery.
Christmas 1831: two slaves go missing, having engaged in "that idolatrous procession, the Gumba". Bermudans today cock a snook at the slave owners’ indignant "Wanted" letter by celebrating gombey most fervently on Boxing Day each year. It is performed normally by large groups of men dressed in peacock headdresses and painted masks, who move to the beat of numerous drums and – boys being boys – occasionally allow a dance-off, adding a competitive element to enliven proceedings further.
They say that bitterness will wear you down, and that's certainly true of flamenco, surely the most beautiful expression of feeling hard-done-by imaginable. Performed properly, this dance is seriously tricky, with all that fan fluttering and rhythmic foot stamping executed according to complex rules. And don't forget to maintain a proud bearing (and look of furious consternation) throughout proceedings. You can cast away those castanets too – that stuff's for the tourists.
African beats, Andean flutes, guitars from Spain and accordions from Germany – cumbia's genesis is international. Nowadays it is mostly associated with Colombia, though the dance is popular through much of South America and Mexico, where so-called Technocumbia has developed. "Digital Cumbia", meanwhile, programs in elements of dancehall, hip-hop, electronica and moombahton. What's the secret of cumbia’s adaptability? Probably that it’s a courtship dance – and that never goes out of style.
The dance involved in a corroboree, a broadly social gathering of Aboriginal Australians, is linked to this people's concept of the dreamtime – a realm where past, present and future are all one. The dance is an open performance, not as gravely ceremonial as other Aboriginal Australian ritual, but is nevertheless marked out as special by the wearing of body paint and adornments.
Belly dancing, Algeria
If belly dancing (from the French "dance du ventre", a Victorian tag that seems to have missed the dance's hip focus) has a slightly tacky or titillating reputation, then this is at least bears some relation to its likely roots. The women of the Algerian Ouled Naïl people were famed for their colourful dress and showy ornamentation: when these nomadic Berber tribes fell on hard times the women would have to leave to find employment in towns as the original "belly dancers".
A grinning woman in full Carnival costume, arms aloft, hips kicking from side to side, is an iconic Brazilian image. It's safe to assume she's moving to a samba beat, the dance and music genre that is inseparable from Brazilian identity. Even the nation's famed football prowess is said to owe a debt to samba, a point used entertainingly by Nike in their 1998 World Cup advert featuring the seleção kicking a football round an airport to a samba classic.
Tango has evolved as much as the capital cities where it was born – Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The more staccato ballroom version has been around since the early twentieth century, while groups such as the Gotan Project and the Bajofondo Tango Club are leading lights in the electro-tinged tango nuevo. Nothing, however, quite beats the grit and sultry sexiness of Argentinian and Uruguayan tango, which sees a full-blown domestic and the "kiss and make up" bit rolled into one dance.
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