Village to the Stage

From the Village to the Stage

Shaping Traditional Dance for the Concert Venue

by Karen Lynn Smith

Authenticity is a major concern when presenting dance of another culture or historical period in a theatrical setting. As one transforms traditional dance to artistic rendering, the dancer/choreographer must answer the question: How can traditional dance be choreographed or reworked for the stage and audience viewing, including considerations such as appropriateness of the dance to “formal” treatment, removing dance from its traditional environment to a performance space, authentication of costuming and music, and training of company members in ethnic forms not native to them? The choreographer must be well informed about the commonalities and differences between the cultures of the audience and the dance they are seeing with respect to customs, costumes, geography, movement vocabulary, relationship to the music and society, its root and level of complexity, and changes as a result of western influences or the evolution of the society itself. The choreographer, performers, and viewers alike must be sensitized to the aesthetics, identity, underlying meaning, and context of the traditional dance form.

Professor Karen Lynn Smith

Presenting traditional dance on a modern stage poses numerous challenges, the primary one being that audiences perpetually compare traditional dance forms to modern, western, classical dance forms, i.e. ballet or modern dance. Traditional dance tends to be much subtler in execution yet just as difficult in terms of style, technique, and performance than what most people have now come to understand as dance. Therefore, the key to a successful presentation is information. Providing the audience with narratives and explanations of style, step vocabulary, etiquette, costuming, choreographic notes, funny anecdotes (where they might be of interest), and so forth, totally transforms the performance. The audience then has specifics for which to watch, and they can better understand what they are seeing. This not only makes dance less intimidating to the public, it helps to alleviate some of the profound seriousness that pervades classical performances.

Staging Renaissance or Baroque court dance, for example, presents its own set of challenges. Certainly the audience historically was comprised of nobles knowledgeable in the intricacies of the dance; and if twentieth century audiences can be properly informed about the dignified and elegant steps that served the social functions of courtly life in the sixteenth or even eighteenth centuries, they have a better chance of fully appreciating what they are seeing. The dances were originally designed to be viewed by a population often in the round both on the same level as the dancers and from balconies or tiers around a long hall. The modern choreographer, just as in an earlier time, must arrange relatively simple steps into intricate patterns that make them interesting to observe, because the way to dazzle is with complex geometrical floor patterns performed with precision and grace.

Often both steps and style of “folk” or social dance can be used as theme material for a composition for stage purposes. For example, it is a simple matter to use the exact steps and actual patterns of the vivacious, bouncy, flapper style of the Charleston, keeping the lighthearted composition fun and interesting with a varied floor design, and changing the configuration of the performers to add interest and contrast. Patterns and steps from the 1920’s can also be abstracted to match the shape of the performing area—proscenium stage, open space, or theater in the round.

If we look at the Middle Eastern traditional form of dance called raqs-al-beledi, which uses the more traditional music and dance styles that are reflective of the gypsy tribes in the Middle East, we see embroidered costuming decorated with heavy coins and metal jewelry, belted at the hips, and traditional musical instruments such as the mizmar and tabl beled. In contemporary major cities, such as Cairo, Egypt, the traditional beledi dance style has been transformed within the theatrical stage environment with the dancer accompanied by a large orchestra of musicians, who may play contemporary versions of traditional instruments, such as flute or violin, rather than traditional mizmar and rebaba. The dancer’s costumes are much more refined, with intricate beading and sequins (Hanada-Rogers, 1995).

In the United States dancers have learned and recreated both the Middle Eastern beledi village dance forms and the modern cabaret dance styles. This process of transforming dance from its traditional setting and placing it on the theatrical stage is a challenging venture since the dancer(s) must understand and master the movement principles of the dance technique while preserving the integrity of the folk style and selecting appropriate music and costuming. Since Middle Eastern dance does not have a codified dance vocabulary or classical repertory, the problem of authenticity continues to be an issue of debate and concern. Dancing has traditionally been taught within the family unit and passed down from generation to generation. Only recently has traditional dance been analyzed and broken down into its basic components by dance instructors, historians, scholars, and dance ethnologists. While this helps us to understand the fundamental principles of the dance technique, its music and rhythms, and the importance of the Middle Eastern dance aesthetic, it removes us from the community setting in which the dance belongs.

While we look for big leaps, high kicks, and an overt exhibition of technical athleticism in classical ballet, in Middle Eastern dance it is the subtlety and fluidity of the dancer’s movements, the intricate moves of torso and hips, that are considered beautiful and determine a dancer’s proficiency. Thus, looking at Middle Eastern dance and judging it using western standards or a Greco-European classical aesthetic is a profoundly narrow perspective.

Although each culture has its own aesthetic and customs, there are similarities between them. By using those similarities, one can present common or familiar movements and themes to a wide audience, making it more meaningful and giving a point of reference to those unfamiliar with a particular culture. Finding threads by which to compare traditional dance and western classical forms may provide a less threatening environment for the viewer, though we must avoid ascribing western meaning to non-western dance.

Appropriate choices for costumes and music are of prime concern. Ideally, costumes can be imported from the country of origin of the dance, though hand craftsmanship and transportation elevate the costs. With historical dance, costumes must be custom-made based on written and pictorial information, using modern materials. Practical or financial considerations usually determine the ultimate choices. While authentic music and costumes are ideal, a determination must be made concerning what is authentic. For some viewers, authenticity may be equated with the bizarre, exotic, or mysterious, while for others authenticity relates to style, form, functionality, or historical reference. Because societies and dances are constantly changing and evolving, a truly authentic dance form as it is practiced today may not be the same as it was practiced 500 years ago.

Live music is ideal, but finding skilled musicians who play authentic instruments and traditional music is often difficult. It is usually more practical to use recorded music, though selection and quality are often limited; and in many cultures, it is the interplay of musicians and dancers that makes the dance truly authentic.

And who is entitled to present cultural dance? Is cultural expression also cultural property? Do we have the right to transport ritual dances from their original environment? When we remove dance from its “home”, can we avoid trivializing or stereotyping a culture?

As Nicole Plett reminds us, “Traditional dances are intimately connected to the places, people and landscapes that nurture them.”1 Forms of dance that are appropriate for the village street, temple, cabaret, or even Louis XIV’s palace may not be appropriate for modern performing spaces. Thus the choreographer must decide whether the space where the dance is to be performed properly represents, describes, and honors the traditional environment.

In the final analysis, one must remember that dance is primarily an active, participatory activity. The understanding of a people about their own culture, values, and beliefs often is manifested in their dances. Dance expresses values, cultural identity, and group distinctiveness. Separation or removal from context takes out community involvement and often eliminates deeper meaning, especially where ritual or religion are concerned. The study of traditional dance reveals universal themes — creation, birth, death, rites of passage, healing rituals, worship, thanksgiving. Regardless of the form that dances take, they must be learned accompanied by cultural and social significance through interaction of the dancers with one another and with their audience. Dances of non-western cultures placed in a western social context often take on the “western” perspective of performing for an audience. Preserving the integrity of the movement and the intent is paramount, and every attempt must be made not to decontextualize, reinterpret, distort, or dilute the underlying purpose or meaning.

Questions for the choreographer to ask when taking traditional dance to a staged setting include:

How will the context as well as the content be presented?

What is the goal?

What are the ethics involved in presenting traditional dance?

How can the integrity of the movement be preserved?

How can the staging best present the dance in its social/cultural context so as to preserve the intent of the original?

How can the unique cultural dynamics or experiences be preserved and still appeal to a diverse audience?

How can the impact of a cultural label be reduced in order to promote the worth of the product?

The key is to communicate to the audience about what they are seeing: customs, costumes, geography, movement vocabulary, relationship to the music and society, how the dance evolved, what is the root, what is the level of complexity, how evolution of the society has changed the dance, what western influences have altered the dance or its intent. The viewers must be sensitized to the aesthetics, identity, and context of unfamiliar dance forms so that they better recognize the commonalities and respect the differences between their own culture and what they are seeing.

The importance of preserving the integrity of the historical or cultural aesthetic of a dance form is essential. In order to accomplish this, the dancer/choreographer needs to create the proper context in which the dance can be viewed. As dance educators, it becomes our responsibility to educate our audiences, to teach them how to appreciate a different standard of beauty or values. This may be accomplished through detailed program notes, a pre-concert lecture, or incorporated within the performance itself through narrated introductions. Traditional dance may be simply human activity, divine or social expression, spectacle, art, or representation of cultural mores; but regardless of culture or diversity, we all share humanity — and good art can transcend these differences.


Gere, David, ed. Looking Out: Perspectives on Dance and Criticism in a Multicultural World, New York: Schirmer Books, 1995.

Hanada-Rogers, Trisha. Presentation for Dance Symposium From Traditional Dance to the Stage at the 38th World Congress of the International Council for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport, and Dance, Gainesville, FL, July 1995.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. Issues in Supporting School Diversity: Academics, Social Relations, and the Arts, presentation to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Education Department, Alliance for Arts Education Regional Conference, Denver, 1990.

O’Brien, Elizabeth Fernancez. Teaching Dances of other Cultures, JOPERD, Feb. 1991, pgs. 40-41.

Plett, Nicole. Geography of the Sacred, “Looking Out: Perspectives on Dance and Criticism in a Multicultural World,” David Gere, ed., New York: Schirmer Books, 1995, pg. 52.

Professor, Chair of the Physical Education Department, and Director of the Dance Program at Washington College in Chesterton, Maryland, Karen Lynn Smith has a B.S. in dance and an M.A. in Physical Education, both from the University of Maryland. In addition to teaching, choreographing, and serving as artistic director for the Washington College Dance Company, she has formulated courses in Lifetime Fitness, Gender and Multiculturalism, and Women in Sport and Society. She was recipient of the Maryland Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance William Burdick Award (1981) and Presidential Citation (1976), Eastern District Association of the American Alliance for HPERD Merit Awards in Dance (1987) and Physical Education (1990), the Honor Award from EDA/AAHPERD (1991), the 8th Annual Maryland Council for Dance Award for Service to Dance (1984), two Presidential Citations from the National Dance Association (1993 & 1996), and the ICHPER-SD Distinguished Scholar Award in Dance Education (1995). Her numerous teaching activities include master classes for universities and colleges, private and public schools, state festivals, and national and international conventions.

Throughout her career, Prof. Smith has been an active member of numerous committees, boards, and commissions of state, national and international organizations, including the Performance Committee, the International Dance Committee, Future Directions Committee, and the National Choreographic Evaluation Project for the National Dance Association. She is founder-charter member of the Maryland Council for Dance and is its Executive Director. Currently she is Director of the Dance Commission for the International Council for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport and Dance (ICHPER-SD). She is widely published in scholarly journals, and serves on the editorial boards for the AAHPERD Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; the European Physical Education Review; and the dance research journal, IMPULSE.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.