The history of folk dance dates back several centuries, though very little detail is known about its origins. While nobody is really sure what folk dancing looked like two thousand years ago, historians are confident that it already existed at that time. Because folk dances are highly traditional and are taught through the generations, the evolution of the genre has been slow as various cultural groups preserve their inventories of cultural dances.
Origins of Folk Dancing
Cultural dances came into being with a social function, weaving recreation into celebrations and important agricultural events. While many groups perform folk dances onstage today, the genesis of folk dancing right up through the middle of the 20th century was non-performative for the most part. Although exotic dancing became popular in Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the artists who performed folk dances from their own culture on stages in Paris and London had removed the social aspect from the genre.
In addition to the social nature of the dance, special costumes were often present. In costuming, as well as the musical rhythms that dictated the various cultural dances, the evidence of a deep, slowly evolving cultural tradition is evident. Due to the isolated nature of the world's regions up until the last century, many different forms of folk dancing evolved in different regions of the world. Folk dancing from India looks very different from folk dancing from Mexico, but it is all under the umbrella term of folk dancing because it is social in nature and it is steeped in tradition instead of a culture of innovation.
Latin American Folk Dance
With influences from native cultures and European and African immigrants, Latin American dances were diverse from the outset. While the native dances of the Peruvians and the Brazilians were pure in style, the folk dances that we now recognize from the region are all representative of merged styling. The Samba has African influences while Mexican dances were influenced by Spanish rhythms and movement styles. Since the 1900s, many folk dances from this region have evolved into social dances with a performative goal, such as the Samba.
British Folk Dance
In Great Britain many forms of dancing have developed over the years and still enjoy a considerable presence in the modern dance world.
Similar to tap dancing, clogging started in Wales and migrated to England in the 15th century. While the Welsh and English versions are stylistically different, and both different from Irish hard shoe dance, American clogging and American tap dancing, many parallels exist. Clogging started out as a fairly unrefined dance form (it was actually called 'flat-footing' and 'stomping' by many) and has evolved to include an inventory of steps that require more precise movements and generate complex rhythms.
Often danced on May Day in England, the Maypole dance is also sometimes taught in American elementary schools. The maypole itself is a tall pole decorated with floral garlands, flags and streamers. Ribbons are then attached to the pole or to a smaller one, and everyone grabs one as they begin to dance around. The dance is especially popular with children.
Folk dance history's most up to date accomplishment is found in Irish step dancing, which was made popular in the mid 1990s by live performances such as Riverdance. While the choreography dates far back in time, dance enthusiasts go wild for its modern counterpart, and we often visualize children in traditional Irish dress rhythmically stomping their feet whenever we think of folk dance.
Eastern Folk Dance
In the Middle and Far East several different types of cultural dancing have evolved. From Korean sword dancing to Iranian cultural dances, this vast region also has a rich variety of folk dancing.
Traditional Persian or Iranian music started developing soon after the year 0 and became the basis for several musical schools, and therefore movement schools. Early Iranian music can be divided into the Baghdad and the Cordoba traditions, which each developed their own distinct dances. The Cordoba style traveled to Europe (Spain) and laid the basis for flamenco dancing among other traditions.
In various regions of Persia different styles formed, such as the Kurdish line dances and the Qashqai scarf dances. Historical records are largely absent regarding the timeline of these dances' development because of the questionable position that dancing held in many of the societies where they originated.
In Southeast Asia, a region called Punjab is the source of the various styles of Bhangra dance. Different styles evolved in different regions, but they are all folk dances in nature in that they are social, costuming is traditional, and the steps get passed down with only minor modifications through the generations. Characterized by brightly-colored festive clothing and groups of men and women with their own styles and steps, Bhangra dances developed as an important cultural element in Southeast Asia.
Folk dancing developed in multiple areas of the world in parallel, and folk dancing from Korea looks nothing like folk dancing from Brazil. What all these dance traditions have in common is that they express the cultural values and traditions of the region where they originated, and they serve an important artistic and social function for the people from those same regions. Because of the historical viewpoint, the focus is on preserving traditions instead of breaking free from them. For this reason folk dancing offers a unique opportunity to look back in time and dancing history, cultivating appreciation and artistry along the way.