As well as being one of the oldest art forms, dance is also considered one of the purest means of expression. These iconic dances offer unique insights into five different cultures from around the world.
Hopak (Cossack dance), Ukraine
The Hopak is a social dance from 16th-century Ukraine. Although dancing and frivolity were scorned during a time of great military tension, the Cossack soldiers celebrated regardless after winning battles. This celebratory version of the dance was typically amateurish, improvised, and intended to show off the athleticism and heroism of its performers. Re-enactments of sword fights and skirmishes would add to the excitement of the dance.
B-boying (breakdance), United States of America
This physically demanding dance was formed on the streets of 1970s and 1980s New York, along with the growth of hip hop music, rapping and graffiti. The invention of breakdancing is largely attributed to African American and Puerto Rican youths—many of them current or former gang members. The showy, aggressive nature of this dance made it the perfect tool for dance battles, which often pitted rival gang members against each other in an effort to avoid more serious clashes.
Haka, New Zealand
The haka is a traditional dance and war cry of the Maori people. The dance, which is characterised by foot stomping, hand slapping and aggressive facial contortions, was originally performed to intimidate opponents before battle. Today, the haka is also used to initiate important events and occasions. More recently, ‘flashmob hakas’ were performed in Auckland, Wellington and London in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which was hosted—and eventually won—by New Zealand.
Belly dance, Middle East & North Africa
Raqs Sharqi, the Arabic name for belly dancing, was originally a Middle Eastern folk dance performed by a solo woman. The dance was taught within families to be performed at celebrations and social gatherings. Several countries each have their own style, from the conservative, precise movements of the Egyptian belly dance to the energetic, playful style of its Turkish performers. Although the exact origin of the belly dance is difficult to trace, some stories claim that in ancient villages, women would dance around expectant mothers to assist and encourage them through labour.
This dance was brought to Andalusia by Indian gypsies, which is why some movements still bear resemblance to traditional Indian dances. Facing persecution during the Spanish Inquisition, the gypsies took refuge in desolate mountain areas along with the Moors and the Jewish people. This fusion of cultures created what we now call flamenco—a dramatic combination of guitar music, dance, hand clapping and food stomping.