Whether you like to shake, jerk, jive or get jiggy with it, chances are you’ve danced at one point or another in your life. Even if you don’t always feel like riding the rhythm, dancing, like music and language, is considered one of the most essential expressions of the human condition. So it’s no surprise that dance is found in one form or another in cultures across the world, whether for ceremony, celebration or social expression. Some see the history of dance as reflecting the movement of ideas and the intersection of cultures across the planet, giving key insights into the nature of humanity itself. Others just like to shake it on a Saturday night. However you see and appreciate it, here are the stories of nine of the world’s most recognized dances and dance moves.
Get Down With Global Dances and Dance Moves
Known in the US simply as the cha-cha, this dance of Cuban origin is named after the onomatopoeic sound of shuffling feet that’s characteristic of its light-footed choreography. The dance evolved from the mambo, a Cuban dance with slower steps, and came to the United States in the early 1950s, a sweepingly popular and carefree ballroom dance ever since.
One of world’s most timeless French classical dance styles has its etymological origins in the Italian word balletto, the diminutive form of ballo (“dance”), which all traces back to the late Latin ballare (“to dance”) — which, finally, stems from Greek. The word got absorbed into English in the early 1600s. This theatrical, performative art focuses on formalized, minutely choreographed steps and movements that come together to communicate a story or theme.
This Portuguese word describes the Afro-Brazilian martial art that’s a hodge-podge of a dance, a fight and a game. Its etymology and parts of its history are uncertain, and there are three origin stories of its name that are hotly debated—one Portuguese, one Tupi-Guarani and one African. It’s generally thought that the dance form came to Brazil in the 16th century from the African slave trade and mixed with elements of native culture, growing in popularity as a cultural phenomenon and eventually being deemed a national sport of Brazil.
The name of this music and dance genre is clipped from the French word discothèque, a nightclub for dancing. Disco dancing, made popular in part in the 1970s with the film Saturday Night Fever, is characterized by steps and moves in sync with the rhythmic beats and syncopated electric bass lines of disco music. Much of the choreography borrows from other genres like soul and pop, and from Latin dances like the samba, the tango and the cha-cha.
This dramatic dance originated in the working-class zones of Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina, on either side of the Rio de la Plata. It’s considered a Spanish word that might be able to trace its name back to a Niger-Congo language. The tango requires improvisation and a leader-follower dynamic, giving rise to the adage “it takes two to tango.”
The name of this whirling ballroom dance in triple time comes from the German Walzer, which itself comes from the verb walzen, “to revolve.” Originating as early as the end of the 16th century as a folk dance from the country, the sliding and gliding waltz saw broad popularity from the late 18th century, when it was at its most fashionable in Vienna, to the end of the 19th century as it spread throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.
Invented by street dancers in the early 1970s, breakdancing, also known as “b-boying,” “b-girling” or “breaking,” is a more acrobatic, athletic type of hip-hop dance typically set to the breakdown sections, or “breaks,” of dance records. It originated in the 1970s in the South Bronx in New York City and has seen a global embrace over the past few decades.
This torso-intensive, expressive Arabic dance first sprung up in its modern form in Egypt. The name is a translation of the French danse du ventre, which was used in the Victorian era, but in Egyptian Arabic it’s often called Raqs Baladi —“folk dance” or “country dance.” Belly dancing involves much more of the body than the name implies, incorporating the limbs and hips in fluid, sensual movements.
One of the 21st century’s most viral dance moves and cultural phenomena, twerking is known for the quintessential vigorous pelvic shaking and bouncing that’s been adopted and used as a brand booster by the likes of celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj. The word itself comes from the New Orleans bounce music scene of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, but the dance is rumored to be rooted in traditional African dances, especially from Côte d’Ivoire, where the mapouka dance is also sometimes called la danse du fessier (“the dance of the behind”).