Dance Tidbits: Dances of India

Dances of India vary depending on style, tradition, religion, state (yes India has states like us) and regions. The various climate conditions alone have made India a diverse country. One thing is certain, no matter what part of India you go to, the dances will vary slightly and the costumes will always be colorful, intriguing and quite stunning. It is interesting to note, the National Academy for Performing Arts recognizes eight distinctive traditional dances as Indian classical dances honoring the cultural and religious traditions of India’s past. There are a number of folk dances that vary in style, local tradition, ethnic and geographical regions. Contemporary dances may include refined and experimental fusions of classical, folk and Western styles. India is well known for its dance culture and influence throughout South Asia.

Ancient India used dance as a functional activity dedicated to worship, entertainment or leisure. Dancing was usually performed in temples on special occasions, for religious purposes and seasonal harvests. In India today, religious folk dance from ancient times is considered highly spiritual and the retelling of mythological tales is still very meaningful. Gradually, dancers went from temples to houses of royal families where they performed exclusively for royalty. Dances of India are usually divided into classical and folk dancing. Classical dances are usually spiritual in nature. Folk dances of India can also be spiritual, but are mainly performed in celebration. Every (state) and region of India has its own folk dance. Let’s take a look at some of these classic and folk dances now.

Bharatanatyam: Bharatanatyam is an ancient classical dance from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In modern times it is mostly performed by women. It is usually accompanied by classical Carnatic music. Carnatic music is the main style of classical music in south India. Inspiration for this dance comes from ancient sculptures of ancient temples. I find this a fascinating concept for a dance!

Kathakali: Kathakali is a highly stylized classical dance-drama form, originating in the 17th century. This classic dance is always noticed for the dancer’s flamboyant costume, towering headgear, flowing skirts and long silver nails. Through the years, Kathakali dancers have toned down the look, movements and added more modern themes to dance to. Kathakali is a festival dance pleaser in temples as well as a favorite at cultural dance shows and international events.

Kuchipudi: This dance dates back to the 2nd century. It is a classical dance from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Kuchipudi is the name of a village in the Divi Taluka of Krishna district that borders the Bay of Bengal. The dance performance begins with stage rites. Then the characters come on to the stage and introduce him/herself with a small composition of both song and dance. In this way, they present their identity and set the tone for the oncoming drama that ensues. Again, the famous Carnatic music of that region is played for both song and dance.

Odissi: Odissi or Orissi is one of the eight (famous) classical dance forms of India. It originates from the state of Odisha in eastern India. Odissi is the oldest surviving dance form of India based on archaeological evidences. There are mainly three books of Odissi. The most intriguing part of Odissi dance is the importance it places on the independent movements of the head, chest and pelvis. There is also a basic square stance involving stamping of the foot and striking certain striking postures only seen in Indian sculptures. Remarkably, there is no other dance quite like it in the world.

Kathak: Kathak originated from north Indian states in ancient Indian temples. Brahmin priests used to tell stories of gods and goddesses through dance. Today the dance contains elements of temple and ritual dance from the past. It features movements of Persian and Central Asian dance brought over by the royal families of India.

Sattriya: Sattriya is another one of the eight principal classical Indian dance traditions. Sattriya has remained a living tradition since its creation by the founder of Vaishnavism in Assam, the great saint Srimanta Sankardeva, in 15th century Assam. It is a widely recognized ritualistic dance that is artistic in nature and used to present mythological teachings in an enjoyable manner.

There are many more dances both folk and classical of India. Many of their dances are known for expressive hand gestures and the retelling of mythological tales and epics of ancient Indian history. Probably the most effective presentation of Indian dance is from film. Hindi Cinema has been around since 1931 and has exposed dance to audiences worldwide. Dance and song sequences in Indian film have been around for a long time. In the early films, it was the classical dances you would see mostly. The modern films are a blend of older styles of dance combined with Western dance styles. The Indians were greatly influenced by MTV and Broadway musicals. The film business is huge in India and functions similarly to the way the Hollywood studio system operates in America. India adores its many famous actors that star in their movies just like we do.

I know you have all heard of Bollywood. Bollywood got its name because the Hindi-language film industry in Bombay was so much like Hollywood. Bombay and Hollywood equal Bollywood. Bollywood is one of the largest film producers in India and one of the largest centers of film production in the world. Bollywood films can be counted on to be musical in nature and often contain modern/hip music performed with song and dance. In 2008 Slumdog Millionaire won Best Foreign Language Film winning Four Golden Gloves and eight Academy Awards. From that one movie alone, came a dance revolution, known as Bollywood. There is no doubt, in your careers, you will be asked to perform some form of Bollywood dance. It is so much fun and easy to do, it gets crowds going and you will always see it as part of a Zumba class at gyms across America or wherever dance lessons are taught. In fact, as far back as 2001, the famous stage and film production of Moulin Rouge! was influenced by Bollywood musicals.

There is much controversial debate as to where Belly dancing first originated. My research shows that ancient belly dancing techniques came from North India over 5,000 years ago. It then spread throughout the Middle East with migrations to Europe and Gypsy tribes. Belly dancing is a great form of exercise and precision dancing. You can get the benefit of getting into shape while getting your core muscles toned at the same time

I think Indian clothing is so beautiful and functional. And just like in dance, clothing varies in different parts of the country, by culture, geography and climate. Most Indian clothes and costumes are made from cotton because of the hot weather in India. Women’s costumes can range from draped garments called saris to salwar-kameez, which are a pair of loose fitting, pleated trousers tapering around the ankles worn with a long scarf thrown over the shoulder. Dancers may also wear long gathered skirts called Ghaghra. These skirts may have embroidery or mirror work and come in very vibrant colors. Usually these skirts are worn with cholis. Cholis are short blouses closely fitted showing off the midriff. Women’s costumes can be adorned with bindi, mehendi, earrings, nose-rings, bangles and other jewelry. Bindi is worn on the forehead, you may recall seeing this ornament worn in many pictures of Indian women. It is spiritual and a part of Hindu tradition. Mehendi is the art of applying henna for temporary tattoos. Men wear dhoti. A dhoti is a six-yard long unstitched garment worn around the waist and extends between the legs. Another popular men’s costume is called lungi. It is a piece of cloth sewn in a circle and worn around the waist like a sarong.

The many socio-economic set ups and traditions make India truly a unique country. The fascinating dances of India express the human feelings and ethos of each of their particular states and regions as often demonstrated at their regional festivals Lohri and Navratri. The people of India make their festivals a testament to every day and eternal joy. Now that is a country I can truly relate to!

Thought Of The Week:

Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words? – Marcel Marceau


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website