Observing how people move to the beat of the music is a great way to learn about a particular culture. At times it’s a fast-paced dance like samba, it can be a slow dance like the bolero or slow and quick like the foxtrot. Some dances are more complex than others but they all tell a story.

This is the first of a four-part series named Gateway to Cultural Experience. The other segments are food, music, art.

Long before I ever built up enough audacity to dance in public, being culture curious, I was fascinated by the intricacies of dances from around the world. How could they move their feet so fast? How can they express themselves so well with grace and confidence? Lordy, how can they move their hips like this? I would wonder.

Whenever a group of people gathers for a celebration, in most cultures dancing plays a part. Whether it’s in the Asia, North America, Africa or Europe. In all corners of the world people dance.

Gateway to cultural experience: dance
Greek dancers during this year’s 9th Ave International Food Festival in Manhattan

The amazing thing is that even countries that are very close to each other have difference dances or variations of the same dance. Can we link the style of dance to the people’s personality? In other words, can we say, for example, that the unique characteristics of a dance from a region define how people from this region are and how they see the world?

I think there’s some correlation. Having lived in the New York area, I’ve had the privilege to be exposed to different types of dances. At times while attending free activities where they give a short class before the pro dancers perform in front of the public. I was amazed by both the “cool” factor and demanding nature of these dances, huapango from Mexico for instance (video below).

I also have taken salsa, samba, hip-hop, soca, bachata classes over the years. And, each time it’s an exhilarating cultural experience once I get past beginner’s mistakes and frustrations.

Growing up it never occurred to me that I could learn to dance some of these dances. Many believe that dancing is an innate skill, it’s either you have it or you don’t.

But, like everything else to become good at it you have to want it. I’ve seen people with two left foot, like myself, became quite good over time. Cultural curiosity usually leads to cultural exploration, and dance is a great gateway to cultural experience.

Observing dances from different places, better yet taking part in them is a way to experience a culture. Take that flamenco, swing, tango class you always wanted, not only it will be a fun challenge it will also give you invaluable insights into a particular culture.