Dance is perhaps the most physical creative medium out there, allowing us to use nothing but our bodies to express ideas, share stories, and create beauty. Whether you’re just getting started on your journey or are looking to explore more styles, read on to learn more about what dance is, where it came from, and all the different ways you can do it. 

Dance Definition

A group of people dance
A group of people dancing.

When you think about the definition of dance, you’ll find it’s actually quite hard to pin down. 

Some people define it as moving rhythmically to music, and while the majority of dance does involve interacting with a beat, it’s also possible to move without music.

Some people think the definition is related to choreography, or a specific sequence of steps and movements you must follow. But dancing can be done without choreography, like the type of free grooving you might do when you’re out for a night of fun.

Others still may think dance is only a performing art, done by professionals on stage to physically express emotion, tell a story, or show off athletic skills. But there are also plenty of dances where the goal is to get everyone to participate—from ceremonial group dances to the electric slide at a wedding. Even just dancing by yourself to your favorite song can bring joy and exercise into your day.

So, at its simplest, the definition of dance might be moving your body in an intentional and creative way.

A Short History of Dance

Renaissance art of a dance school.
Renaissance art of a dancing school.

Entire books could be written about the history of dance, and there’s still so much that we don’t know about how it fit into the lives of various cultures. As far as we can tell, dance has been around all over the world since the most primitive of human civilizations: early cave paintings seem to depict dancing figures as early as 3300 BC. Early on, dance seemed to primarily be used for ceremonial purposes or to communicate stories. By Ancient Greek times, dance was being used as a performing art as part of the theater.

And while dance had a brief falling out during the Middle Ages—at least in the Western world where religious leaders associated it with ritualistic activity and sexuality—nothing could stop us from moving our bodies. By the Renaissance, dance was having a resurgence, both as a social activity (think: lavish royal balls) and as an art form with the advent of ballet.

Since then, dance has continued to develop and become a major part of our culture, with new styles and moves coming in and out of fashion every few years (or, thanks to TikTok, every few days). 

9 Different Types of Dance 

1. Ballet

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Ballet is a classical form characterized by movement that is extremely technical yet graceful at the same time. Correct form is critical to ballet, with dancers paying attention to everything from their posture to the turnout of their legs to create specific shapes and lines with their bodies. It may be done on pointe shoes to further the look of long, straight leg lines. Many ballet performances use the style to tell a story with elaborate sets and costumes. 

Learn Basic Ballet Moves!

Basics of the Classical Ballet Technique at Home

2. Latin

There are so many different styles of Latin dances—including salsa, bachata, tango, merengue, mambo, samba, rumba, and so many others—it’s almost unfair to group them. But they all have one thing in common: They originated in Latin America. Whether they’re performed ballroom style or danced casually in the club, they tend to be partner dances that involve a lot of specific footwork (or steps) and often have a very sensual vibe. 

3. Hip Hop

Hip hop is another dance genre that encompasses a huge variety of styles—including breakdancing, popping, locking, krumping, and even sometimes including jazz or contemporary moves. What brings them all together is that they typically originated as part of Black culture and are often performed to current pop or hip hop music. Hip hop can be choreographed or more casual and improvisational.

4. Tap Dance

Tap dance is a percussive dance style where the dancer wears special shoes with metal taps on the bottom that create a loud noise when they hit the floor. The various sounds a tap dancer can create with their footwork is part of the performance and can either integrate with or counteract the beat of the music—or can replace the need for music entirely. 

5. Jazz

The Rockettes “All That Jazz” Fosse Tribute

While jazz dance arose out of the types of moves people in the 1920s liked to do to jazz music—and actually has its roots in African dance—today it refers more to the style of dramatic dance often used in musical theater (think of the famous style of Bob Fosse in the musical Chicago). It’s typically an energetic style that involves movements tied to the beat and meaning of the music. While it involves technique like ballet, the movements in jazz are usually intentionally more grounded and rough around the edges.

6. Contemporary

Youth – Daughter || Bonnie Su Dance Choreography

It’s really hard to answer the question: What is contemporary? This is a bit of a fusion style—combining aspects of ballet, jazz, and more—but is also a reaction against the rigidity of these classical forms. Because of this, it often involves unpredictable and unusual movements that intentionally go against what you’d expect from dance (such as sharply flexed feet instead of pointed), abstract movements that don’t directly tie to a narrative, and a lot of floor work. 

7. Ballroom

Ballroom refers to any number of dances that originated out of social settings and involve two people dancing together, usually with a leader and a follower. This includes more traditional styles of ballroom like the waltz, modern styles like the swing dance, and even many Latin styles.

8. Belly Dance

Belly dance is a Middle Eastern style that originated in Egypt. It’s centered around fluid and sensual movements of the hips and torso, occasionally punctuated with sharper movements to match the percussion and shimmies to add variety. 

9. Ritual or Folk

Kapa Haka dance

Throughout history, there are plenty of examples of dances that have been used for ceremonial purposes or as part of the rituals of a group of people. One example of this is the Haka dance. What is Haka? This is a ceremonial dance of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people characterized by vigorous movements and foot stamping accompanied by chanting or shouting, often used at the start of battle. Another example is the Indian dance Odissi, which helps tell stories from Hindu texts.

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Written by:

Erin Greenawald