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.


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