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Dance 101

Dance Forms: An Introduction

A wide variety of dance forms exist in Canada and around the world. Here is an introduction to over 40 traditional and contemporary dance forms that you may encounter on stages near you and throughout You'll find 24 major dance styles and additional information on variations within certain forms. Most of these are theatrical dance forms whose primary purpose is artistic presentation before an audience. Some forms play a wider social role but are nonetheless adapted for theatrical performance.

To learn more about these and other forms of dance, explore, visit your local library and - best of all - get out and see live dance!

The following dance forms are described below:


Aerial dance refers to a theatrical production performed by dancers who are suspended in the air with the aid of apparatus such as ropes, lengths of cloth known as silks, straps or a trapeze. The difference between this form and a circus act is that in aerial dance artistic focus takes precedence over the virtuosity of the manoeuvers.

Aeriosa Dance is often found in unexpected vertical environments like the rooftops of city buildings.


African dance comprises many traditional and modern dances, with great variation in style and form across the continent. In Africa, dance is closely related to music, mime, storytelling, costume and ritual. African children, who traditionally learn to drum and dance as early as they learn to walk, participate in public ceremonies alongside the adults. Often, a "call and response" dialogue occurs between dancer, drummer and spectators, which makes all parties integral to the event.


Afro-Caribbean dance has African roots fused with the multicultural influences of Caribbean dance, which come from African, Chinese, Spanish, South Asian and indigenous Caribbean peoples. Afro-Caribbean dance is typically joyful and free-spirited, and is often performed to Caribbean, Jamaican, highlife, jazz or soul music. Beginning in the 1930s, African-American Katherine Dunham created modern dance with major Afro-Caribbean influences.

Patrick Parson of Ballet Creole creates contemporary Afro-Caribbean dance.


Azerbaijani dance has its roots in the diverse cultures of its region. Geographically connected to Russia, Armenia and Iran, Azerbaijan has a rich tradition of folk dances for men and women. These emphasize expression, mood and sometimes animal themes, and are generally performed to music with percussive and wind instruments. [Website icon] Sashar Dance Company performs Azerbaijani dance.


Ballet is a theatrical dance form with a codified technique. Developed from court productions of the Renaissance, ballet was renewed under Louis XIV, who in 1661 established France's Académie Royale de Danse, where Pierre Beauchamps developed the five positions of the feet.

Significant developments in the early 19th century included pointe work (balance on the extreme tip of the toe) and the emergence of the prima ballerina, exemplified by Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russia became the centre of ballet production and performance through the work of innovators such as Serge Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine. Since then, ballet has appeared on stages and in dance schools around the world.

Ballet in Canada got a huge boost when schools sent performance groups to the six Canadian Ballet Festivals that took place between 1948 and 1954. The country's first professional ballet company, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, was founded in 1939. The National Ballet of Canada was founded in 1951, followed in 1955 by Les Ballets Chiriaeff, which in 1957 became Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, later renamed Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.

Ballet has become diversified since its beginnings in the 1600s. A few of the many styles that have developed follow:

  • Ballet d'action (dramatic ballet) is primarily designed to tell a story, generally a tragic one, using dance steps and mime. Jean-Georges Noverre of France and Gasparo Angiolini of Italy separately developed the ballet d'action in the 18th century.
  • Ballet jazz is a contemporary fusion of the technical vocabulary of classical ballet and stylistic elements of jazz dance.
  • Canada's [bjm_danse] has been an international leader in ballet jazz for 33 years.
  • Comédie-ballets were comedic plays that included substantial amounts of music and dancing. Many were written by French playwright Molière to entertain Louis XIV and his court. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme , a collaboration between Molière and composer Jean-Baptiste Lully which premiered in 1670, is a famous example.
  • Ice ballet is a ballet on skates. It differs from competitive ice dance in that ice ballet is intended as artistic entertainment. Canadian Boris Volkoff was recognized as an important contributor to ice ballet choreography in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • The Montreal Ice Ballet has been active since 1994.
  • Neo-classicalballet is a 20th-century style, most closely associated with George Balanchine and his works for the New York City Ballet. Neo-classical ballet draws on the vocabulary of 19th-century Russian Imperial dance but strips it of detailed narrative and lavish theatrical settings.
  • Psychological ballets, developed in the 20th century by British choreographer Antony Tudor, reveal the inner being of the characters and explore themes such as grief, jealousy, rejection and frustration.
  • Rock ballet refers to a ballet performed to rock music. In 1970, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal presented Tommy, choreographed by Fernand Nault to The Who's rock opera of the same name.

See also Classical Ballet and Romantic Ballet.


Belly dance, also known as raqs sharqi , is traditionally a solo form for women. Rooted in pre-Islamic times, this Middle Eastern dance form was taught within the family and performed during celebrations. In 10th- and 11th-century Islamic courts and 18th-century Ottoman courts, belly dance took on a more refined classical style. Characterized by sinuous, rhythmic hip movements and undulating arms, belly dancing has been popular in cabarets from the 19th century. Since the 1970s there has been an international revival of interest in the traditional forms among both professional and amateur dancers.

Arabesque Dance Company performs Middle Eastern dance including belly dance.


Brazilian folk dance is found in many different styles in each region of the country, and is often influenced by African dance and cultural traditions. The lively Brazilian samba,and its importance to the annual Carnival, is recognized around the world. Dance in Brazil is closely connected to spirituality and is guided by such religions as Batuque, more commonly called Candomblé. See also Capoeira.

In Canada, Newton Moraes Dance Theatre performs a fusion of Brazilian and contemporary dance.


Break dance, or breakin', is an athletic solo form of dance that originated in the street in the United States. The foundation vocabulary of break dance includes top/up rock, breakdowns, footwork and freezes, as well as acrobatic spins and power moves. Body popping, which involves a series of sharp, fast actions that travel through the body alternating with moments of freeze, creates a robotic effect.

Being a successful b-boy or b-girl, as break dancers are known, requires the ability to freestyle (improvise) using the foundation vocabulary while creating individual style. Battles (competitions) are an important part of b-boy/b-girl culture. They can either take the form of one-on-one competitions, where dancers face their opponents head on, or as crew (group) battles, where a whole team works together, mixing solo improvisation and group choreographies. Preserving the unadulterated or raw spontaneity and quality of improvisation is a challenge when bringing street dance to a formal stage.

See also Hip Hop.


Butoh describes a revolutionary and contemporary performing art form that developed in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s in the aftermath of World War II. Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno are the main originators of this form. Motivated by a rejection of western dance and Japanese classical forms, early butoh artists were searching for a more primal expression. Butoh dancers are often semi-nude, with white body paint and shaved heads, and typically favour extremely slow movement. Sankai Juku is a second-generation butoh troupe from Japan that tours internationally.

In Vancouver, Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi of Kokoro Dance present dance works inspired by butoh.


Capoeira is a stylized martial art dance from Brazil, characterized by acrobatic fighting maneuvers and athletic dance steps. It is designated as a national sport in Brazil, where it is taught in schools and performed as a contest between combatants. Once only performed by men, now women also dance capoeira. Capoeira has exerted considerable influence on some modern dance choreographers.


Chinese dance can be divided into two major styles: minjian wudao (folk dance) and gudian wudao (classical dance). In folk dances, the inclusion of theatrical elements such as mime and drama often depict a short plot. Today's classical dance is an attempt to reconstruct the dance of the past based on the present day's understanding and knowledge of that vocabulary.

A third style of Chinese dance is minzu wuju   (national dance drama), which usually features new choreography combining both Chinese and western dance vocabularies, and may reflect either historical or contemporary events. The Magic Lantern and The Butterfly Lovers are two examples of minzu wuju.

  • An interactive multimedia learning kit for home or school is available from the Little Pear Garden Collective.
  • The Toronto Chinese Dance Company and the Lorita Leung Chinese Dance Company in British Columbia perform traditional and contemporary Chinese dance.
Contact Improvisation

Contact improvisation involves improvised movement based on the relationship between two moving bodies and the effects of gravity, momentum, friction and inertia. Steve Paxton is the originator of this system, which has had a significant influence on many choreographers. In Canada, Vancouver's Peter Bingham, Toronto's Allen and Karen Kaeja, Ottawa's Peter Ryan and Montréal's Andrew de Lotbinière Harwood are experts in contact improvisation.


Contemporary dance is a term that in Canada is often used interchangeably with modern dance. For some people, however, it specifically means dance that developed from the roots of modern dance, but that is no longer aligned with the modernist art movement of the 1930s.

  • Meet the Artists: Learn about prominent modern and contemporary dance artists featured on
  • Watch interviewswith contemporary dance artists, including Édouard Lock, Ginette Laurin, Louise Lecavalier and artistic directors of The Holy Body Tattoo, Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras.
First Nations

First Nations people of North America enjoy a rich dance tradition. The dances, almost always closely tied to the songs or music that accompany them, vary greatly by tribe, geographic location and the purpose for which they are performed. A few are described below.

  • Watch a mini-documentary on a contemporary First Nations dance artist, Byron Chief-Moon (coming soon).
  • Inuvialuitdrum dancing: After the arrival of Europeans in Inuvialuit territory, many traditional songs and dances, which were used to recount legends at gatherings, were lost. The Inuvik Drummers and Dancers, guided by community elders like Martha Harry, have worked hard in recent years to re-learn the art of drum dancing. The hunting seal song, the whale tail and the kayak song are three of the drum dances now performed. Some of the movements are representations of harpooning and kayaking gestures; another common move features outstretched arms, resembling wings. The drums, made from ivory, caribou skin, wood and sinew, are played by being rotated and hit on the top, bottom and rim.
  • Learn more about Inuvialuit drum dances.
  • Iroquois dances: Among the traditional social dances of the Iroquois, called earth songs, are the robin dance, the duck dance, the alligator dance, the friendship dance and the smoke dance. These are danced at any time, for no reason other than enjoyment. There are also sacred dances that give thanks to the creator, and are performed at ceremonies, the timing of which depends on the cycles of the moon, when the shortest or longest day of the year occurs or other environmental factors.
  • Many earth songs are described on the Ohwejagehká website.
  • Potlatch dances: For over fifteen thousand years, the Haida and other Pacific Northwest coastal tribes performed dances at their potlatches. Potlatches occurred throughout the year to commemorate births, deaths, the naming of new chiefs, the raising of totem poles or houses, or the acquisition of inheritances. These celebrations could last for weeks and hundreds of people might attend, with many gifts exchanged between families.
  • Ceremonial masks were worn in traditional dances, with each dance and mask holding certain meanings. The dances referring to the sea kingdom were especially important because the coastal people depended on the ocean for much of their food and livelihood. Fourteen different sea kingdom masks were used, including those of killer whales, salmon, seals, sea lions and herring.            
  • To learn more about the potlatch, visit the Canisius Ambassadors for Conservation website or read Potlatch Then and Now.
  • Powwow dances: Powwows are gatherings of First Nations people, which today occur regularly across North America. The name is derived from the Narragansett word powwaw , meaning shaman. An example of a powwow dance is the women's jingle dress dance, which originated with the Anishnabe people of Ontario and is known as a medicine dance. Hundreds of jingles, once shells, now cones made from the lids of metal cans, are sewn to the dress and make a characteristic jingling sound as the dancer moves. The dance consists of low steps and half turns. Other women's dances are the fancy shawl dance, the hoop dance and the traditional dance.
  • Another powwow dance is the men's grass dance, which is known in some regions as a healing dance, intended, for example, to doctor a sick child. The grass dancer's skill and strong belief in his dance enable him to render such a healing. Another version of the origin of the grass dance is that when the grass dancers were called out to the place where feasts and special events were to take place, the dancers blessed the ground while dancing in time to the beat of the drum. In this way, they flattened the grass with their feet in preparation for the ceremonies. The costume features long strands of yarn, ribbon or fabric designed to enhance the dancer's motions, which resemble the gentle swaying of grass on a windy day. Other men's dances include the ribbon dance, the traditional dance and the fancy dress dance.
  • Visit the Native Dance website: Learn about Canadian Aboriginal Culture

Flamenco dance originally developed from the cante or songs of Andalucia, Spain that expressed the blessings and hardships of everyday life. Flamenco dance is characterized by highly nuanced, percussive footwork, a straight spine with at times an arch in the upper back, and arms held in long curves that frame the body. It conveys strength and, simultaneously, tenderness, urgency, pride and resilience. In the 20th century, flamenco became popular in theatrical settings but it was originally danced on the streets, in cafés and in people's homes for special occasions like weddings or birthdays, as it still is today.

Toronto's Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company and Vancouver's Flamenco Rosario and Montreal's Los Flamencos (website in French) present flamenco in Canada.

Hip Hop

Hip hop dance originated on the streets of New York City among young Hispanic and African-American men during the late 1960s as part of the hip hop culture of rap, scratch music and graffiti art. Break dance is the most common style of this constantly evolving dance form. A newer development that came out of Los Angeles is the freestyle, high energy and confrontational krumping, in which the dancers sometimes use physical contact and weight sharing. Hip hop dance and music, which became internationally popular in the late 1970s, are now often incorporated into theatrical dance.


Improvisation,often called improv, refers to m ovements that are created spontaneously by the dancer, either individually or with others, with or without specific direction from a choreographer. An improv jam is like a musical jam session in that dancers can flow in and out of participation while the collective improv dance continues. Also see Contact Improvisation.

The Move Collective organizes improv jams in Toronto and Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Jazz dance was developed in the United States by African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century. It drew on African rhythms and techniques that isolated various parts of the body in movement. The name was first used during World War I, and by the 1920s jazz had been taken up by general society. Its presence in film, on television and on Broadway provided a large and enduring audience. One of the earliest instances of theatrical jazz dance was George Balanchine's ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1936). Katherine Dunham and Bob Fosse were leading American jazz choreographers.

Calgary, Alberta's Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, founded in 1984, is an important promoter of jazz dance.  


In Korea, modern dance developed in the 1920s. Since the 1980s, influenced by traditional Korean dance as well as by western ballet and modern dance, contemporary Korean dance has thrived.


Modern dance usually refers to 20th-century concert dance that developed in the United States and Europe. Rebelling against classical ballet, early modern dance pioneers began to practice "free dance", often in bare feet. In America, Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis developed their own styles of free dance, paving the way for American modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and José Limón. In Europe, Rudolf von Laban, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and François Delsarte developed theories of human movement and methods of instruction that led to the development of European modern and expressionist dance.

Today the term modern dance is sometimes used interchangeably with contemporary dance. However, for some people, modern dance refers only to dance that was aligned with the modernist art movement of the 1930s and all dance that developed afterwards, from these early roots, is contemporary dance. See also Contemporary Dance.

Canada's earliest modern dance company is Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers, founded by Rachel Browne in 1964. Four years later, Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo founded Toronto Dance Theatre with the goal of nurturing modern dance in Canada. There are now hundreds of Canadian modern dance companies.

Unlike ballet choreographers, who usually work within an established vocabulary of steps, modern choreographers explore their own movement styles, creating steps as they go and passing them on to their dancers. Sometimes this results in the establishment of a specific style and technique. Below are techniques of several early modern dance choreographers:

  • Cunningham: In his work, choreographer Merce Cunningham experiments with chance methods and explores pure movement devoid of emotional implications. While his ideas and approaches are taught in dance schools around the world as the Cunningham technique, Cunningham himself prefers that his ideas not be codified but remain flexible. Some elements taught in Cunningham classes are strength, clarity and precision, and maximum use of the spine and torso.
  • View excerpts from some of Cunningham's choreographic works. Search for 'Cunningham'.
  • Graham: Martha Graham created a technique that was the first significant alternative to the idiom of classical ballet. Her dance language was intended to express universally shared human emotions and experiences, rather than merely provide decorative displays of graceful movement. Many of the steps feature forceful, angular movements originating in spasms of muscular contraction and release centred in the dancer's core. Graham technique is taught in dance schools throughout the world.
  • Horton: Along with ballet, Lester Horton studied the dance of American First Nations people and trained with Alvin Ailey and Japanese dancer Michio Ito. This wide-ranging background provided a rich base for his choreographic works. The technique based on his teachings and choreographic style is distinguished by a powerful stillness in the torso from which radiates asymmetrical movements of the limbs.
  • Horton technique is taught at The Ailey School in New York City.
  • Humphrey: Doris Humphrey was a prolific choreographer and, after training at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles, she founded a school and company in New York City with Charles Weidman. Her interest in the body's weight in relation to gravity led to explorations of fall and recovery, which became one of the main principles of her technique. She believed that dance existed in "the arc between two deaths", meaning that when dancing the body is in a constant state of either "fall" with gravity or "recovery" in a swing or rebound away from gravity.
  • The Limón Dance Company in New York City continues to perform some of Humphrey's works.
  • Limón: The Limón technique is based on the choreographic and teaching approaches of José Limón, who further developed the ideas of his teacher Doris Humphrey. Limón choreographed many works known for their drama and musicality, which can be seen today in the repertoire of the Limón Dance Company. Limón technique uses principles of opposition, succession, and fall and recovery to a state of suspension through swing or rebound. Limón created an exercise known as body as orchestra, where the legs, arms and torso represent sounds of the timpani, strings and woodwind sections of an orchestra, in order to teach integration of different qualities into a whole movement.
  • Canadian Children's Dance Theatre is a Limón-based company and offers classes in his technique.
South Asian

South Asian dance, or Indian dance, can be organized into three categories: classical, folk and modern. Classical dance forms are among the best preserved and oldest practiced in the 21st century. The royal courts, the temples and the guru-to-pupil teaching traditions kept this art alive. In rural areas, folk dancing has remained as an expression of the daily work and rituals of village communities. Modern Indian dance, a product of the 20th century, is a creative mixture of the first two forms, with freely improvised movements and rhythms to express the new themes and impulses of contemporary India.

Today, classical dance has left the temples and royal courts and is presented regularly on stages in cities across India and around the world. Nine distinct schools of classical Indian dance that exist in the 21st century are described below:

  • Bharata natyam developed over several centuries in the temples of South India. It was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the devadasi system in which women were dedicated to serve the deity as dancers and musicians. Today bharata natyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by men and women. Due to its wide range of movements and postures, and the mix of rhythmic and mimetic aspects, it lends itself well to experimental and fusion choreography. Degree and postgraduate courses covering the practice and theory of bharata natyam are offered at major Indian universities.
  • Jai Govinda and Lata Pada are two Canadian bharata natyam dance artists.
  • Watch an interview with Nova Bhattacharya as well as video excerpts of her work, which is often informed by bharata natyam. (Type Nova's name into the Video Gallery search field.)
  • Chhau is indigenous to the eastern part of India. It originated as a martial art and contains vigorous movements and leaps. Some chhau dances use large stylized masks, with the depiction of birds and animals as a distinctive feature. There are also heroic dances with sword, bow or shield. In keeping with the martial origins of chhau, some of the themes include the depiction of mythological heroes. Over time, female characters and more diverse themes have been added. The work of Canadian choreographer Deepti Gupta is partly inspired by both chhau and kathak.
  • Kala Bharati is a Bharata Natya Centre in Montréal.
  • Kathak is a classical North Indian dance, now popular around the world. The word kathak is derived from katha, meaning story. The ancient kathakas, or storytellers, were traveling bards who were the first to employ this dance in order to better communicate their tales to the masses. Kathak is characterized by intricate footwork and precise rhythmic patterns that the dancer articulates by controlling ankle bells. Both men and women dance kathak, which often conveys moods of love. British dancer Akram Khan is known for his fusion of kathak and contemporary dance styles.
  • Kathakali originated in the South Indian state of Kerala over 500 years ago. It is a spectacular combination of drama, dance, music and ritual. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The name comes from the roots katha, meaning story, and kali, meaning performance or play.
  • Kuchipudi developed in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. Historically it formed the basis of dance-dramas but today it is performed either as a solo or group presentation. Kuchipudi, which features fast, rhythmic footwork and sculptural body movements, includes singing and occasionally spoken dialogue. As well, stylized mime using hand gestures and subtle facial expression is combined with more realistic acting. This blend of techniques makes it unique among Indian classical dance. Another unique feature is the tarangam, in which the performer dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing complicated rhythmic patterns while sometimes also balancing a pot of water on the head.
  • Manipuri, a smooth and graceful form, is named after Manipur, a mountainous region of northeast India. A legend tells of the gods draining a lake in this area in order to find a place to dance. The lai haroba, a ritualistic dance depicting creation that is still alive today, is considered the precursor of Manipuri. Included in the Manipuri repertoire is the raas leela, which depicts the cosmic dance of Krishna and the cowherd maidens. Dancers wear long embroidered skirts and translucent veils as they perform swaying and gliding movements. A tall crown of peacock feathers characterizes Krishna's costume. Another dance is the pung cholam , or drum dance, in which dancers play fast rhythms on a drum while leaping and spinning.
  • Mohiniattamis of similar origin to its traditionally masculine counterpart kathakali, but involves more feminine attributes. The movement is lyrical and very soft with rounded arm and hip movements.
  • Odissi dates back to the first century B.C. Odissi, which originated in the temples of the state of Orissa in Eastern India, is characterized by fluidity of the upper torso and graceful gestures and wristwork, juxtaposed with firm footwork. The rhythmic dances are called batu (foundation), pallavi (flowering) and moksha (liberation). The acting dances are called abhinaya. An important feature of this dance is the tribhangi, which divides the body into three parts: head, bust and torso. This concept has created the very characteristic poses, which are more contorted than those founding other classical Indian dances.
  • Chitralekha Odissi Dance Creations in Ontario is dedicated to preserving Odissi in its ancient form.
  • The repertoire of the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company includes traditional and contemporary works in Odissi and bharata natyam.
  • Sattriya has its origin in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The subject of sattriya is usually mythological stories, and it is accompanied by classical raga-based compositions called borgeets. Traditionally, sattriya was performed by bhokots (male monks) in monasteries as part of their daily rituals or special festivals. Today, in addition to this practice, men and women who are not part of the monasteries perform sattriya on stage.
  • Kala Nidhi Fine Arts of Canada curates an annual festival of South Asian dance in Toronto
  • View dance by Roger Sinha, a Canadian artist of Armenian and Indian descent whose work is informed by cross-cultural influences.
  • Watch a mini-documentary on the life and work of Natasha Bakht, an acclaimed dance artist trained in bharata natyam who is also a lawyer.

Tanztheater (German, "dance theatre") is dance set in a dramatic situation, which may include dialogue. This style developed out of the earlier German form ausdruckstanz (expressive dance) originated by Mary Wigman. Today, tanztheater is synonymous with the work of choreographer Pina Bausch.


Tap dance was first seen in the United States in the late 19th century. The name comes from the tapping sound made when the small metal plates on the dancer's shoes touch a hard floor. This lively, rhythmic tapping makes the performer not just a dancer, but also a percussive musician. In its solo form, tap dance often includes an improvised section that might be compared to a solo taken by a jazz drummer. Individual tap dancers are recognized for having their own distinct voice or tapping style. William Orlowski is an accomplished Canadian tap dancer.


Ukrainian dance today, based on traditional Ukrainian folk dance, is typically rousing and virtuosic. Men competitively improvise high leaps and squatting kicks, while women dance lyrical, graceful steps. 

Canada has many Ukrainian dance groups, including Shumka and Volya Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, both based in Edmonton, Alberta.