What is the reason behind some of our cultural dances?
By: Kela "J. Alex" Lester, Root & Seed Editor
Since I can remember, I’ve used dance as an outlet - swaying to music, snapping my fingers, moving my shoulders. But why do I choose the moves I do? How does dance tie into my background?
Intricate, ceremonial, expressive, complex or ritual, dance speaks a universal language and offers a peek into the culture in which it exists. Although aesthetically pleasing, the rhythmic movements of dance hold a deeper meaning and become relics of history, migration, wars and political and societal changes of the very people who perform them.
New Zealand’s women’s rugby sevens team, Black Ferns, captured the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics beating France, 26-12. Upon receiving their medal, the team synchronously burst into an emotional dance known as the haka. Although COVID-19 kept spectators from attending the games in person, viewers around the world could still feel the power of the Black Ferns, their immense national pride, and the triumph behind their win.
Haka is a legendary ceremonial dance rooted in the culture of the Māori, the Polynesian people of New Zealand. Marked by rhythmic movements, exaggerated facial expressions, and chanting, the Māori legend paints the haka as a celebration of life.
The story goes that Tama-nui-te-ra, the sun god, and his wife Hine-raumati, who embodies summer, had a son named Tane-rore. On hot summer days, Tane-rore would dance for his mother, causing the air to quiver. This light, rapid movement was the foundation of all haka.
Whether a form of storytelling, social acceptance, or celebration, dance is a distinct reflection of our society and the inner workings of our family history.
Dance can be used to tell stories in a variety of ways, from ballet to mime to hip-hop to Indigenous or shamanistic dance. Without music, drums, or quiet, it can roll with it; storytelling through dance evokes a strength that can only be felt, not stated. Asia, for instance, has an abundance of distinctive folk dances particular to its many different cultures.
“Folk dance celebrates the cultural roots of a particular group of people. Folk dance is typically performed as a form of ritualistic entertainment at social gatherings,” Masterclass.com
Asian dances have their origins in the history and hearts of distinct people, and they express their stories as vividly as any artifact or legend. They are both carefully guarded traditional treasures and proud displays of tribes' and nations' artistry and imagination.
In Thailand, Root & Seed's Founder, Jennifer, remembers being welcomed with dances characterized by slow and deliberate movements. These dramatic performances that are usually kept for special occasions are a direct lineage of the classical dances that were made during the Ayutthaya Kingdom, dating from 1350 to 1767. These welcoming dances from the Ayutthaya Kingdom represent the precursor of modern Thailand and innovations that are also an important part of surrounding countries, including China.
Asian dances are an example of how stories, extravagant costumes, and music are used to preserve culture and stories. From snowbound kingdoms at the top of the world to exotic palm-fringed islands in tropical oceans, the footwork, gestures, costumes, storylines, and rhythms all have one thing in common. Each one has a unique story to share.
Social Cohesion, Ritual, and Prayer
Credit: Surrey Fusion Festival
Dances can be performed as a way to bring people together; for births and funerals, weddings and wars, rituals, and more.
For instance, African dance and performing art are deeply woven into the social fabric of Africa. Dance serves a wide range of social functions in many African communities. Each performance in an indigenous dance tradition usually includes a goal to represent or reflect the people's communal values and social relationships. Consequently, it is vital to establish a distinction between the various dance genres to distinguish between them.
Indigenous peoples have a long and varied history in Canada. Before the entrance of the European countries, there was a lengthy history of diversified contacts between different peoples, flourishing trade, severe conflict, and competition for territories and resources. Our friend Tianna recalls the Métis Jig as one of the most important items of significance that she thinks of when connecting with her aboriginal culture.
According to the Surrey Fusion Festival, The Red River Jig or Métis Jig is a name attributed to both the Canadian Métis and the First Nations in reference to a traditional dance and accompanying fiddle tunes. Today, the dance’s performers and fiddlers include individuals identifying as First Nations, French Canadians, or Scottish Canadians, as well as others involved in the expansive 19th-century fur trade.
Today, many credit the Métis Jig as a significant link to aboriginal culture and it continues to be a show of friendship and cultural acceptance.
Credit: Jess' Wedding Hora, Photographer: @wildeyed
Some cultures have less structured/performative dance. Instead, dance is used as a form of celebration.
Latin dance has its roots in the traditional dances of Mexico's, South America's, Central America's, and the Caribbean's indigenous cultures. These cultures use dance as a symbolic representation of cultural ideas during ceremonies and festivities. Today, these cultures have a rich calendar of public festivals and enormous celebrations that were once seen as a tool of cultural transformation and social control.
Romanian and Israeli cultures have also used dance for special occasions and communal bonding. The modern-day hora dates from 1924, performed for Jewish people settling in Palestine. Since, it became connected with happiness.
“The hora is a traditional dance performed at Jewish weddings where the newlyweds are lifted into the air while their family and friends dance in circles around them. During the hora, the couple each holds one end of a handkerchief or napkin to signify their union,” Brides.com.
Root & Seed member, Jess, mentioned that although she married outside of the Jewish religion, she only asked to have a short hora because it was important to her parents. Ultimately, the dance ended up being one of her favourite parts of the wedding to which she remembers, “the joy on my family's face... I will never forget that."
Google Arts & Culture describes dance as “...a performing art form consisting of sequences of movement, either improvised or purposefully selected. This movement has aesthetic and often symbolic value. Dance can be categorized and described by its choreography, by its repertoire of movements, or by its historical period or place of origin.”
Dance is not only an essential part of understanding humanity, it is a reflection of cultural history that may have otherwise been lost.
Root & Seed helps communities discover their unique family stories to which we ask: What is the reason behind some of your cultural dances?