Folk Dance: Definitions and Styles

Dance Traditions From Around the World

Close-up of a young woman performing Indian dance

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Folk dance is a form of dance developed by a group of people that reflects the traditional life of a certain country or region. Folk dancing represents the dance forms of the common people as opposed to those from the upper classes.

Folk dances may emerge spontaneously among groups of people or derive from previous styles. The style can be free-form or rigidly structures. Once established, folk dance steps are passed down through generations and rarely change. Usually associated with social activities, some dances are also performed competitively, and in some regions, folk dancing is even involved in cultural education.

North America

A few famous folk dances from North America include contra dancing, square dancing and clogging, in addition to the dances of Native Americans. In contra dancing, lines of couples follow the instructions of a caller who chooses from between six and 12 short dance sequences. The dance goes for 64 beats while the dancers make their moves and change partners as they progress down the line. Like contra dancing, square dancing has couples dancing to the instructions of a caller, but with square dancing, four couples begin the dance facing one another in a square. Clogging is most well known through the Appalachian region and is the official state dance of North Carolina and Kentucky. Team clogging routines are intensely choreographed.

Native American folk dances are linked more to religious and cultural rituals than other social dances of North America. Intertribal dancing associations were common. Types of dances include the Fancy Dance, the War Dance, the Hoop Dance, the Gourd Dance, and the Stomp Dance. Often associated with celebrations, marriages and birthdays were marked by dances involving nearly everyone in the tribes. Dances also celebrated the harvest and hunts.

Latin America

As might be expected, folk dance in Latin America derives from the region's Spanish roots, although African influence manifests itself as well. Many of Latin America's traditional dances came from the fandango and the seguidilla, highly popular 18th-century forms. In these couple dances, partners were arranged in scattered formation on the dance floor, often an outdoor patio, but the partners never touched. The dances required about 2 feet of distance between them. Eye contact, however, was encouraged. Latin American folk dances can be highly structured while allowing room for dancers to improvise.


The list of folk dances associated with Asian countries is long indeed, befitting the continent's rich history and diversity of cultures. India is known for its Bhangra, Garba and Baladi dances. In China, steps are underway to preserve the history of traditional Chinese folk dances as ethnic minorities become smaller and cultural forms are lost. As with China, Russian folk dances stem from the multitude of ethnicities in the vast country. Many people think of the knee bending and foot stomping that is characteristic of Eastern Slavic dance styles, but other dance traditions have also emerged among the Turkic, Uralic, Mongolic and Caucasian peoples.


Perhaps on no other continent is dance as integral to the culture as it is in Africa. Dances can involve a method of education, teaching morals and etiquette, as well as welcoming or celebrating members of the community. Among the myriad examples, one interesting folk dance from Africa is Eskista, a traditional Ethiopian dance for both men and women. The dance focuses on rolling the shoulder blades, bouncing the shoulders and contracting the chest. Because of its technical nature, Eskista is considered one of the most complex traditional dance forms in that nation.


Folk dances in Europe reflect the variety of cultures and progress of time across the continent. Many folk dances predate the existence of the nations as their lines are drawn today. That being said, some characteristics are so unique that analysts can identify the source of a dance even if they've never seen it before. One example is a particular type of German/Austrian dance that involves the dancers slapping the soles of their shoes with their hands. Historians date elements of the dance, the Schuhplattler, back as much as 5,000 years, with the first record of it being in 1030 AD.