Dance Communication and Cultural Education

This is something I wrote in 1995 for a Transcultural Studies Module when I was studying for my Masters Degree in Health Education. I have edited the very formal way of writing that we had to follow at that time such as substituting ‘I’ for ‘the writer’.


“Long before the dawn of history, long before he could sing or even speak, man danced. Moving to his own internal rhythms, the pounding of his heart, the beating of his pulse, primitive man discovered dance. It is within us, always.”

Gene Kelly – from the film that’s dancing (1985)


In this paper, I examine aspects of dance as a form of communication and as an aid to teaching about different cultures, in particular, the contribution that dance can make to the cultural education of school children. I discuss my own experiences of dance as a universal, nonverbal, language. Brinson (1993) in his book entitled Dance as Education wrote:-

Through cultural education, dance:

  • gives access to a rich diversity of cultural forms
  • offers insights into different cultural traditions
  • develops understanding of the different cultural values attached to dance
  • introduces processes of cultural generation and change

Through examples from some of the literature, I aim to show that dance has played and still plays an important role in many cultures of the world, from the time of ancient history to the present day.

Dance as communication

Evidence of using dance as a medium of communication can be found throughout the history of dance dating back to primitive man (Hambly 1926). In his book entitled, Tribal Dancing and Social development, Hambly wrote about drumming in relation to dance.

Among primitive tribes inhabiting the frozen wastes of Siberia the magician, medicine man, or `Shaman’ is a most important person, and of greater significance than his robes and amulets is the musical drum, whose notes produce in the Shaman a hypnotic trance, during which he communicates with the spirit world.

Emotions can be communicated through dance.  Hanna [1987] discussing a Model of Dance Communication wrote :-

There are, then, psychobiological factors which seem to generate dance and certain properties which may help to explain why dance is a component of temporal and transcendental behaviour, sociopolitical manipulations, and mental health therapy. Dance appears to be the result of processes that have had a selective advantage as being potentially adaptive. Phylogenetic and ontogentic perspectives focus on the distinction between human dance and other animal nonverbal communication.

Social scientists have tended to avoid the humanistic cultural domain and have considered verbal speech to be the primary key to human thought and behaviour (Hanna 1987) however, Mudie (1968) argues that man had ideas before he could verbalise. Throughout the history of dance there is evidence to support the hypothesis that dance is a method of cultural communication (Brinson 1991, Wilkinson 1994, Mudie 1968, Clarke 1961). Blacking (1984) speaks about researching dance from an anthropological perspective and expresses the need for dance anthropologists to be concerned with patterns of movement and the structures and experience of nonverbal symbol systems. He also pointed out that when verbal language emerged some 70,000 years ago, dance did not die out and its survival suggests that its evolutionary value had resided in its effectiveness as nonverbal language.

Like man, like animal

Some tribes learned to move like animals in order to trap them and others danced animal parts because they believed that animals could control the weather (Percival 1959,  Wilkinson 1994).  Prior to primitive man going hunting, he performed a dance and sometimes he would also perform a victory dance after the hunt.  If, for example, he was going to hunt bear, he would do a bear dance.  This involved one man taking the role of the bear and the others dancing the parts of the hunters.  In such dances the bear would always be killed (Mudie, 1968).

What does the dance say?

The purpose of a particular dance or pattern of movement may be to :- amuse; celebrate; tell a story; create fear; attract attention; perform a ritual; express emotion; entertain or it may be used as a form of enlightenment.  On the island of Bali, for instance, every dance tells a story and the dancer’s limbs, feet, ankles, hips, eyes and fingers, tell a part of that story (Van Zandt, 1988).  Without, understanding the exact meaning of such movements it may not be possible to fully understand the story, however, in the writer’s own experience, it is usually, possible to understand the main idea.   However, it has to be acknowledged that misunderstandings can arise if other people’s movements are misinterpreted and that can have implications on social actions [Blacking, 1984].  During my recent trip to Russia, I visited various colleges of dance and culture and taught at workshops, watched classical and folk classes and was able to exchange ideas, movements, methods and steps despite having no command of the Russian language.  

In Discovering Dance, Percival wrote about the dances which existed (and indeed still exist in many cultures today) for many rituals and beliefs, for example :- to encourage rain for the crops; fertility; medicine used by witch-doctors; animal dances and war-dances.  By dancing themselves into a frenzy, dancers, used by the witch-doctor, would try to chase away the evil spirit of disease or transfer it to themselves and conquer it.  If one suggests `Dance your troubles away’ perhaps they do not realise just how old a remedy it is.

Language of dance

Personal experience tells me that `a dancer can feel empowered to communicate through the inspiration of the dance’.   This communication may be with an audience, fellow performers or take another form but it does exist.  Brinson (1994) includes dance and movement as languages of gesture, posture and visual expression.  Using these symbolic modes of communication, he explains how each is basic to human rationality by which we communicate to others our ideas and feelings about the world.  

Dances from birth to death

Dance was a natural part of primitive life.  From the moment he was born until he died, every important event in a primitive man’s life had an appropriate dance.  The most important events then, as now, were: Birth, Marriage and Death.       

Percival 1959

I recall the ethereal quality of some dances which had the ability to leave me, as the performer, feeling tranquil and peaceful despite the enormous amounts of energy expended during the performance. Psychologically, for some, therefore, dance may be a form of self-communication, a form of meditation, perhaps even a form of self-healing.  Hanna (1987) speaks of dance in the `mental health therapy’ context.

The subject matter of African dance is all-inclusive of every activity between birth and death.  The seed which trembles to be born, the first breath of life, the growth, the struggle for existence, the reaching beyond the everyday into the realm of the soul, the glimpsing of the Great Divine, the ecstasy and sorrow which is life, and then the path back to the earth – this is the dance.

Pearl Primus, b, 1919 (Exley, 1993)

On no occasion in the life of primitive peoples could the dance be dispensed with.  Birth, circumcision and the consecration of maidens, marriage and death, planting and harvest, the celebration of chieftains, hunting, war and feasts, the changes of the moon and sickness – for all of these the dance is needed.

Curt Sachs (Exley 1993)

Dance is an integral part of many cultures and plays a part in the important stages of lives.  Hambly [1926] wrote about dancing in relation to birth, marriage and death and gave examples of how some rituals or beliefs came about.  Many of the rituals were used as a means of communicating information to the community.  The Kayans of Sarawak, sometimes perform a dance with a model of a baby which is supposed to facilitate delivery.  This ceremony was adopted after a widow died in childbirth and the infant was passed to a woman who happened to be dancing at the time of the birth.  As the child grew up to become influential and prosperous, a precedent was set for the custom of dancing with an effigy of the newly born child.  It is not possible within the confines of this paper, to look indepth at ways that customs are created, however, the example given, suggests that simple events can become customs through belief arising from one experience.  This is consistent with Bem (1970) who wrote about many primitive beliefs being the product of direct experience.

Cultural Education through Dance

The hypothesis that ignorance can play a part in cultural problems is addressed by Brinson (1993) :-

The inadequacy of cultural education in the British educational process may be a significant reason for the racism, violence and intolerance which beset British society.  Cultural education helps young people to recognize and analyse their own cultural values and assumptions; brings them into contact with the attitudes, values and institutions of other cultures; enables them to relate to contemporary and historical forces which moulded them; and alerts them to the evolutionary nature of culture and the potential for change.

Cullingford (1990) wrote that children, like adults, prefer to acquire knowledge and ideas by themselves rather than obviously through the medium of teachers.  Such a learning style could be well suited to exploring cultural dance because of the opportunities for the teacher to offer encouragement and facilitation whilst empowering children to examine their own creative ideas perhaps within given guidelines, for example, exploring dance and customs from a chosen country, area or people.


Dance and nonverbal communication are inextricably linked and the significance of dance surviving man’s evolution of verbalisation suggests that dance still has a role to play in todays’ societies.  It could be argued that dance as a nonverbal communication, conceptualises a philosophy of a language which has the potential to be universal.  I noted on a recent television programme, Get a Life, that American body language specialist, Richard Green, said :-

“93% of what is communicated between people is nonverbal.”

If this is indeed the case, then perhaps schools should be considering increasing their access to dance education.  The Labour Party Policy – Dance our cultural future, states :-

Dance, because of its ability to surmount language barriers, can be at the forefront of international arts communication.

As there are many forms of dance, it could be argued that this diversity facilitates the communication and appeal of dance to a wide ranging population, including schoolchildren.

There are implications of raising the status of dance in schools.  Consideration would need to be given to :-

  • who would teach cultural dance in schools – at the present time, dance is usually included as part of the sports syllabus (Brinson, 1993)?
  • would dance be compulsory for schoolchildren?
  • the funding to enable proper dance tuition to be part of the curriculum
  • the focus of dance and how it would fit into the curriculum, for example, would it be taught primarily for health and exercise, cultural education, social interaction, to develop individual and/or team skills or would it be mainly seen as a nonverbal language skill?

Brinson (1993) clearly demonstrates that dance develops a broad base of skills and is not confined to just physical education and fitness.  Communications skills through movement and visual images, providing a context for considering attitudes and values of society and developing the ability to make informed and critical judgements, can be developed through dance training. 

If dance, has the potential to affect so many areas of society, from health, to education, to how people communicate, then perhaps, the image and role of dance needs to be re-examined further within society today.

Gene Kelly speaks the words at the start of this post in the beginning of this clip from that’s Dancing

References and suggestions for further reading

Bem D J (1970) Beliefs, Attitudes and Human Affairs   California  Wadsworth
Blacking  J (1984) Dance as cultural system and human capability: an anthropological perspective in Report of the Third Study of Dance Conference University of Surrey  Dance – A Multicultural Perspective  Guildford  National Resource Centre for Dance
Brinson P (1993) Dance as Education  London  Falmer Press  
Clarke M (1961) People Who Dance  London  Paul Hamlyn  
Cullingford C (1990)The Nature of Learning  London  Cassell Educational Limited  
Dance UK (1991) The Healthier Dancer  London  Laban Centre for Movement and Dance  
Dance UK (1993) The Papers of the 1993 Conference Training Tomorrow’s Professional Dancers  London  Laban Centre for Movement and Dance  
Davies M (1995) Helping children to Learn Through a Movement Perspective  London  Hodder & Stoughton  
Exley H (editor) (1993) Dance Lovers Quotations  Watford  Exley Publications 
Giordano G (1975)  Anthology of American Jazz Dance  Illinois  Orion
Hambly W D (republication of 1926 edition) Tribal Dancing and Social Development  New York Dance Horizons 
Hanna J L (1987) To Dance is Human  London  University of Chicago Press 
Labour Party Dance our cultural future – Labour’s Dance Policy   
Miller G A (1973) Communication, Language and Meaning  New York  Basic Books Inc 
Mudie J (1968) The Story of Dancing  London  BPC Publishing Ltd  
Percival R (1959) Discovering Dance  London  University of London Press
Van Zandt E (1988) Dance  Hove  Wayland 
Waterman R A  (1962) Focus on Dance II  Washington  National Education Association
Wilkinson J G (1994) The Ancient Egyptians Their Life and Customs Volume 1  London  Senate
Dr Sho Botham PhD, MA