Dance is one of the oldest and widespread art forms, being found in every culture, with a variety of purposes.  It can be ritualistic, abstract, or worshipful.  It could be done for reasons of social binding  or it can be purposed as sheer entertainment.  Just as equally, it could be a varying combination of some or all of the aforementioned purposes.  I believe that at its core, dance is simply communication.  It beauty is in its simplicity of concept – mind utilizing body to express something.  The nature of the message being communicated is as varied as humanity is varied.

“Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.”   -Ted Shawn, 1955

  • Ceremony/ Ritual

Dance can fill a ritualistic or ceremonial need, being done when tradition prescribes it.  The Kambala dance of Sudan’s Nuba people comes to mind.  The term Kambala refers to both a 28-day long ceremony to mark the induction of boys into manhood, and also is used to name the dance that is done throughout that 28-day ceremony.  The mimetic Kambala dance is thought to cause the newly inducted Nuba men to be brave and audacious, as it is thought by dancing and making rhythmic sounds like a bull, they attain the same properties of strength that a bull possesses.  Not all ritualistic or ceremonial dances are mimetic though.

Other examples of ceremonial or ritualistic dance can be found in Native American culture, where there are war dances, courtship dances, harvest or fertility dances, and dances done to initiate entrance into selective subcommunities within the tribe.

Ancient Egyptians had a 3-part funeral dance ritual.  First they performed the dances that were a component of the funeral rites.  Then they performed the dances that expressed the grief of the funeral attendees.  Lastly, they performed the secular dances that were meant to entertain the spirit of the deceased.

  • Worship

Dance can have the purpose of worship, in either directly communing with your divine source, or communicating to others a chosen liturgy.  Classical Indian Dance such as Bharata Natyam, Kathak, and Kuchipudi, among others, all descended directly from the temples in India, where dancers (called devadasis) were dedicated to temples.  Devadasis were part of the daily ritual of worshipping the deity, performing dances in praise of the god.  Often the dancer is communing or praying directly to the deity.  Additionally, many of the classical Indian dances use the dancer as a medium, portraying the god, in addition to all of the other characters in the particular canon/ doctrine they are performing.

Similar to classical Indian dance is liturgical dance, specific to the Christian religion.  It refers specifically to dance that venerates God.  Its purpose is to either worship God directly, or to communicate to others the Word of God, the liturgy.  In both situations, the emphasis is on the Creator as the focus and purpose for the dance, not the dancer themselves.

Another example are the whirling dervishes that are a branch of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  Their continually spinning dance is done to empty their minds of conscious thought so that they might entrance themselves in order to commune with God and the Universe.

  • Abstract

Abstract dance can be inwardly focused and unconcerned with an audience, and conversely, it can also be specifically devised for an audience and presentational in its nature.

In the presentational abstract category, dance exists purely to express movement and form, creating shapes and patterns in space.  Nritta is a classifying term found in Indian dance that refers to dance steps performed only rhythmically.  The body does not convey mood or meaning.  Its only purpose is to create beauty by exploring and moving through various patterns, symmetries (or asymmetries), lines, and positions in space and time.  The focus is on the axis of the dancer, and how everything relates to their axis.

Doris Humphrey’s vision of modern dance fits into this presentational abstract category.  She did not attempt to tell a story, or to evoke a specific emotion. Unlike Martha Graham, her contemporary, Humphrey was interested in purely aesthetic, abstract considerations.

A good example of inwardly focused, abstract dance would be something called Trance-Zen Dance.  The naming of this form is not stringent, nor important.  It has been called many different things in varying communities, but its purpose is universally the same.  It is thought to be done to experience free flow dance movement, silencing your inner critic and moving how your body dictates in response to music that is usually of the world, club, or sacred genre.  The emphasis is on spontaneity and improvisation.  Sometimes it is done for self-healing purposes, for some it is a form of moving meditation, and sometimes it is done for pure diversion, relaxation, or exercise (much like nightclub dancing).  An audience is irrelevant and unsought for in this subcategory.

  • Social enjoyment

Dance can have the purpose of binding communities or families together, as a means of social enjoyment.  The middle eastern debke comes to mind.  It is a line dance, of folkloric nature.  The steps are not terribly complex in order to facilitate widespread participation, and the dancers all are linked together, performing the steps simultaneously together.  Depending on the specific culture, they may hold hands, or cross arms at the elbow, or lay arms over neighboring dancers’ shoulders.  Also dependent upon culture is if the lines of dancers are mixed sexes or segregated sexes.

Jewish Yemenite wedding dances, Balkan line dances, country line dance, and even Irish Morris dancing are other examples of dance as a “social glue” of sorts.  All these folk dances are learned informally, by watching, or learning-while-following.  They were not devised for stage performance, are performed at social functions, often use traditional accompanying music and do not require formal or professional training.


Dance that is formulated as presentational is devised specifically to entertain, educate or otherwise elicit some response from an audience.  Taking an audience into account changes the character of the dance.  It becomes more formalized, more practiced, and more disciplined.  A dancer and/or choreographer is more aware of the audience’s presence, in the planning/ rehearsal stages of dance creation.  They anticipate what an audience would physically see happening onstage. The dancer/ choreographer might also anticipate what an audience might feel about what is happening onstage.  They make deliberate decisions, with the foreknowledge that this dance will be witnessed.  Presentational dance may or may not utilize a storyline, it should be noted.  Presentational dance could express a story (e.g. Giselle, The Rite of Spring, Take Me to the Water, Cave of the Heart, Romeo and Juliet…), but presentational dance could equally, instead, express a mood, a fragment of thought, or simply a turn of phrase.  The element of expressing something is there, to keep it from being classified as purely abstract dance, but a story arc is not necessarily adhered to.  A good example of this outwardly focused, presentational dance can be found in the contemporary ballet or modern dance world, as evidenced in the forming of touring companies with repertoires and wardrobes and stage lighting schematics.

Storytelling dance is thus a branch of presentational dance that dips its toes in one or all of the above purposes for dance, sometimes simultaneously.  Using elements of theatrical expression to project mood/ emotion and following a plotline, it crosses genres between acting, mime, storytelling tradition, and dance, blending them all together for a finished product.  Constructed stage sets, prop usage, and costume design result in a more refined, fleshed-out creation.  The music utilized is specifically designed to be highly evocative in nature, serving to guide the audience in their understanding of the storyline being expressed just as much as costuming and prop usage would serve as guiding cues. Storytelling dance does not have to be this sophisticated.  Indeed, it varies in that respect from culture to culture.  But what is the same across cultures is its root purpose.

It is theorized that the earliest storytelling dances probably had their purpose rooted in passing on mythology or cultural traditions.  Before a written language could be devised, we know there were cave paintings, glyphs, and dance.  Dance and the telling of stories were relied upon to carry a civilization or tribe’s history, traditions, and social morals/ values down from generation to generation.  The melding of dance and oral tradition into storytelling dance is both ancient and inherent, with examples being found in almost every culture:

  • Native Americans continue to perform the dances that illustrate the history of their individual tribal groups, passed down to them from their ancestors, several generations prior.
  • The Sanskrit word “Kathaka” (from whence Indian Kathak dance is named) means “storyteller”.  Ancient Kathakas were mainly men who narrated the scriptures using music and mime, traveling from village to village to indoctrinate people through story and drama.
  • In Russian Romani dance, the performers often act out specific situations as a particular character, using pantomime and comedy to communicate the storyline.
  • The Bedouin gaysa was documented in an autobiographical book by Marianne Alireza as “pageant” she witnessed, depicting hunt scenes between dancers costumed as desert warriors of old times, leaping after and pursuing other dancers costumed with animal heads, in a pitting of man vs. beast, with musical accompaniment.
  • In ancient Greece, the combination of dance and pantomime to tell a story through gesture and mimicry alone was referred to as Iporchima or Emmelia.
  • Balinese culture is rich in storytelling dance, naming their dances after specific stories.  For example, the Barong narrates the classical story of good vs. evil, the Gambuh tells the story of a prince in his quest for a princess, the masked Jauk brings to life stories out of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, Arja dance-drama tells a story of forbidden love, war, and magical spells, and the Legong Kraton tells a story of capture of a maiden and the resultant war over her between two rulers very reminiscent of Helen of Troy.
  • Chinese Wuju features very complex plotlines that use singing, acting, acrobatics, and dance, to illustrate a narrative.
  • In a more western scope, ballet historians consider the Ballet Comique de la Reine to be the first ballet, performed in 1581.  It was devised by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx to recount the Greek myth of Circe.