A silhouette of a dancer
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Understanding Different Cultures Through Dance

Emphasizing the power of dance in bringing people together

By Logan Cross Contributor

20th century American choreographer Martha Graham once said that “dance is the hidden language of the soul.”

Nearly 30 years after her death, this sentiment still holds true. There is a video of two hip hop dancers currently circulating the internet. One is Colombian, the other is Japanese and they do not speak the same language, but they are able to come together to choreograph a dance. They communicate counts and movements by clicking their tongues, physically moving the other’s limbs and smiling when they like what they see. The end result is a wonderfully choreographed dance with over 70,000 views.

These dancers, though, are working within a popular Western dance style that they are both familiar with. The fact that they can create something like this without having to speak the same language is amazing. However, this video, along with my recent Global Cultures & Dance Traditions class really got me thinking about how we can apply this concept to non-Western dance forms to learn about different cultures.

Try taking a dance class and break the barrier that stands between your perceptions of a culture and the culture itself.

Instead of focusing on ballet, hip hop and ballroom—all three of which are practiced globally and garner heavy mainstream media attention—why not try to learn more about dance forms such as Tahitian, West African or hula and the respective cultures from which they originate? Could we acquire a deeper cultural understanding through the lens of dance and performance?

Maybe, but it’s easier said than done.

For our final class assignment, we were required to look into a dance form we had never tried before. And since many of the students in the class come from the aforementioned ballet, jazz, hip hop and contemporary backgrounds, there was a lot of ground to cover. My group chose hula, as did another. Other groups took on dance forms such as Tahitian, Flamenco and Capoeira.

We took dance classes, observed rehearsals and recorded our personal experience with the dance form. We interacted with individuals who have dedicated their entire lives to the preservation of a rich cultural tradition, who are passing their knowledge onto the next generation, and who we had the privilege of learning from.

Traditional dance forms such as Japan’s Kabuki, which was first danced in Kyoto nearly 400 years ago and India’s Bharata Natyam, a style of dance that has survived over 12 centuries of social and political revolutions, are still practiced in their home countries today. Despite this, pictures, video and research on the dances are still hard to come by.

Why is it difficult to find information about these dance forms? My professor mentioned that the only film about one of the dances we were learning cost over $1,000. Some of it probably has something to do with the fact that the Western world monopolizes not only the mainstream media but also the attention spans of anyone and everyone.

The entire thing was an eye-opening experience, and one that has completely changed the way I look at the world as a whole, not just the dance world. Learning the dance form of a culture you’re not familiar with can be key when it comes to truly understanding that culture. You’re learning about their language, values and approach to their environment through something as accessible as dancing.

Through the universal art form of dance, we are given a vehicle through which we can uncover the dynamics and complexity of another culture, instead of making judgements based on what we perceive.

Dance is a universal language, and we all have the ability to speak it. Try taking a dance class and break the barrier that stands between your perceptions of a culture and the culture itself.