Dancing as a Cultural Experience

Sam, Cate and Susan have all written about their dance experiences in the 80s, something I managed to meet almost entirely (though I did own a copy of a Jane Fond workout book that I never used). Weirdly, I did rather enjoy those high school girls-only gym classes in the 70s, where we learned folk dances and square dancing. That might have influenced my curiosity about dance options over the last decade.

Following a foot injury and surgery, I needed a way to dance that was easier on my feet than ballet. Since I knew people in the local bellydance community, I decided to give that a whirl. It turned out to be the most body positive dance form I have ever enjoyed. The annual student performances were a celebration of all ages, sizes, and dance styles. There were university students through to women in their 70s, tall, short, thin, fat, traditional Egyptian dances, American Tribal, and even popular music interpreted through bellydance. There were rank beginners and breathtakingly skilled experts. Almost all were women, though we did get a few men in one of the Bollywood groups.

Seven women dancing in colourful costumes and headdresses. The music was actually a carnival song from St Lucia.

Those Bollywood performances led me to my next experiment. Without a doubt, Bollywood was the most physically demanding in terms of sustained cardio workout of any dance form I have tried. But so much fun! There are all kinds of Bollywood and Bhangra dance videos available on YouTube if you want to try. I particularly enjoy those showing off iconic Canadian images, such as this one from Peggy’s Cove (, or any of Gurdeep Pandher’s videos from Whitehorse, Yukon.

Women in a mix of colourful Bollywood and bellydance costumes. This was at a fundraiser to provide menstrual products to homeless women.

More recently, I have taken advantage of opportunities join on-line classes offered as part of Black History Month and Ontario Culture Days. They were a very approachable way to learn a bit about Black history and various communities in Canada.

My latest love is powwow workouts, a series of weekly classes offered through the Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. These classes are based on powwow dance steps but can vary widely. Some weeks they are almost like a HIIT workout to indigenous hip-hop. Other weeks there is a bit of modern choreography using traditional steps, to the sounds of traditional musicians or popular groups like A Tribe Called Red or Snotty Nosed Rez Kids. Occasionally there is a gentler class with traditional dances, complete with a bit of a language lesson and the meaning of the movements. I even tried my hand at hoop dancing.

With most of these classes, I worry about the perception of cultural appropriation. But bellydance is largely a western invention (though it has roots in traditional Middle Eastern dance), and that is the only style I have ever performed in public. All the other classes have been taught by or included people from the cultures where the dances originated, and were intended to introduce students to the basic steps, regardless of their origins.

What about you? Did you ever try folk or traditional dance? If it wasn’t from your culture of origin, did it make you feel uncomfortable, or was it a fun way to learn about others?

Diane Harper is from Ottawa, where she joyfully dances around her living room.