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What Is Folk Dance?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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A folk dance is a series of physical movements that are accompanied in most cases by music, and which relate to the common people within a given culture. Dances tend to emerge spontaneously and become popular among the general populace, having no formal rules by which someone can consider them authentic. They capture the prevailing values of the majority of citizens regardless of their social standing or economic status. At their best, they embody elements that are unique or at least indicative of a particular culture while still sharing some broad characteristics with dances developed in other cultures.

Created by the People

Several basic qualities usually apply to a folk dance, the first of which is that a group of people within a given community, not a choreographer, creates it. Unregulated by a central authority, it is open to anyone who wants to participate and is not exclusive to one sector of the population. It remains pure and unique as the result of mass popular consent rather than privilege. In this sense, it is similar to more modern forms of dance such as street or vernacular dance. Members of the elite may forgo participation in some regions despite this non-exclusivity, viewing the dances as too common or crude, regardless of their artisanship.

folk dance

The fact that groups of people spontaneously develop this physical art means that a folk dance generally is not originally intended for the stage. Formalizing it in such a way makes the dance more exclusive and limits who can take part. Once the dance has been clearly established for some time, however, people may arrange occasional formal performances for the purpose of more organized celebrations or to raise cultural awareness.

Origins and Tradition

The second characteristic is that origins generally predate the explosion of mechanized industry in the 19th century, which is a major differentiation point from street dance. It is not subject to trademarking or copyrighting as a result. This means people freely can engage in or create other entertainment based on the dance without seeking permission from other parties.

Although some room for general interpretation and innovation exists, the basics of a folk dance usually have remained intact through several generations. Some are passed down for decades or centuries through demonstration and oral tradition alone. Cultures that further want to preserve a dance in its original form may also make an effort to archive the dance through photos, videos, and detailed text instructions. These efforts are most aggressive for particular dances that are in danger of being lost, but they also occur when a people has the desire to educate its members or outside communities about traditions and art common to the region.

Learning the Dance

Folk dance

It is also standard for this type of dance to be easy or well-known enough that just about anyone can learn how to do it. It often isn’t necessary to have formal training in the dance, with observation and a bit of basic trial and error often letting people quickly participate. For those who do want a more professional or organized approach, many dance studios, dance clubs, and cultural associations offer classes in the basics of folk style and technique. The advantage of using one of these options is that leaders or instructors may also have additional training on physiology and dance safety.

Folk vs. Religious Dance

The same cultural elements and movements may be found in both folk dances and dances for religious rites, but in most circumstances, people generally consider these two types of expression to be separate. The dancing done in religious rites tends to be performed by a select few and typically does not offer open participation, which breaks with folk spirit. Folk dances are more likely to be performed at celebrations such as birthdays, festivals, and other public, secular events.


As with other dances, folk dances are based on specific patterns of movement. To maintain these patterns and hold with the intent of the dance, people often pair folk dances with traditional folk songs. In some instances, the song and dance are so culturally intertwined that they are almost always performed together. The dance might be known by the title of the song, in these cases, or people may reference the song through a brief part of the dance sequence. In truly authentic performances, performers may hire professional musicians who play the songs on period instruments.


Organized events for this style of dancing may last up to several hours or even days. Each individual dance is usually brief, however, usually spanning just a few minutes. This time represents the period during which folk musicians play an accompanying song. Dancers may pair similar dances and songs together to make longer sections of a performance.

When people organize formal performances, costumes and accessories generally are anticipated highlights. Colors are often very vibrant, and everything used in the dance is intended to gain attention, increase its authenticity, or add more flash and appeal. Items used may not be expensive, but they can take time to acquire or make, and they usually are not items participants would wear or use every day.

Dance as a Window into a Culture

Thanks to widespread immigration and colonization in centuries past, people of many nations have the chance to become familiar with at least one folk dance. Many people in both the Old World and the New often easily recognize German folk dancing, for example. While very different in style and scope, a Philippine and a Hungarian folk dance will offer some insights into the culture and history of each country. In this sense, learning about folk dances can expand a person’s global perspective. It also can help someone assimilate into a new region.

Folk Dancing as Exercise

As with other activities that require movement, dancing in the folk tradition can be excellent physical exercise. This does depend on the exact movements required by the dance and how long it lasts, however. Many dances provide cardiovascular exercise because any accessories used generally are not heavy enough to be considered resistance training tools. This can make participation a good option for people who are looking to lose weight and tone the body without necessarily bulking up.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Musical Expert, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon295861 — On Oct 08, 2012

Some folk dances may begin individually but end in partnerships or even communally, which encouraged and encourages unity in a given society.

By italy12 — On Aug 31, 2010

love0876- It depends on the type of folk dance. Many dances incorporate both partner and individual movements. For example, for one part of the dance, you will dance with a member of the opposite sex. At another part of the dance, you will dance individually.

Other types of folk dances are exclusively individual dances and do not incorporate partner movements. For example, male Russian folk dances are done individually and have no partner moves.

By love0876 — On Aug 31, 2010

Are folk dances typically done in partnerships or individually?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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