Cultural Appropriation in Dance

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How we come to understand dance may be impacted by our own background cultural knowledge, by relying on a culture we are familiar with rather than expanding the knowledge of other cultures. Negative attributes that are associated with this way of thinking hold old-fashioned ways of thinking and demonstrate superiority complexes, such as being single or narrowed minded and constantly comparing and belittling other cultures to your own. Thus, leading to ‘cultural appropriation to occur, in an individual does not attempt to learn about another culture they remain ignorant and risk offending cultural identities. Throughout the class course, many dance cultures were demonstrated, however, three different dance cultures primarily stuck out, due to my unfamiliarity with them such as Aztec dancing, Balie Folklorico, and Turfing.

The initial reaction towards these dance cultures was skepticism and thought of them to be strange. Coming from a dance culture that heavily practiced European aesthetics, particularly centered in ballet. Given this background, I rarely wanted to approach new ways of dance that were unfamiliar to my own style. The dances mentioned throughout tend to stray away from straight, rigid, and upright postures instead they focus on more free and stylized movements. However, after witnessing these dances I came to appreciate the dances presented. While I did have fun watching the dances being performed, I came to the realization that I still had little to no knowledge of the dance cultures nor the cultures presented. In order to gain some form of knowledge, I began researching and reading about the cultures I hadn’t previously known about. I mostly looked at hashtags found on Instagram, to see the community and view videos on dances.

The first dance culture I encountered that I was unfamiliar with was Aztec dancing. Although it came from my own roots and ancient ancestors, I had never personally experienced it firsthand. Among the Aztecs music, song, dance all played a critical role within their culture. Before the Europeans had ‘discovered the New World and the initial conquest, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan music culture, was rich, vibrant, and heavily predominant. The musical sounds, songs, and dance movements were important aspects of their religious meanings and often were associated with many ritual acts, such as offerings and sacrifices. The Aztec Gods viewed music and dance as gifts in addition to the many offerings and sacrifices. Although music played such an important role in their culture, there was no actual word for ‘music’, rather ‘music’ was best translated as ‘sing with the feet’, meaning they have heavily beaten and rhythmic movements.

However, in today’s modern context, “In contemporary central Mexico, Aztec danced, referred to as la danza, is common and publicly visible activity an accepted part of the fabric of everyday life in the country” (Garner 414). As such, when I witnessed Aztec dancing, it emphasized heavy lower body and arm movements. With the lower body movements, the dancers would constantly stay on the balls of their feet to tap, stomp, and jump to the rhythm of the drums, chanting, and rattling instruments. These rattling instruments are carried as bracelets on the wrist of the female dancers and looked to be made up of shells with a center causing rattling sounds. While the attire of the dancers wore very traditional and ancient garments typical worn during religious celebrations and ceremonies. It also featured many features on the male’s bottoms, the female’s dresses, and both headdresses. In addition, the colors typically seen on the dancers were bright and variant such as red, yellow, orange, and purple. The symbolizes of both feathers and colors in the attire represent freedom and lightness, only emphasized by the lightness of their steps.

The second dance culture I encountered that I was unfamiliar with is Balise Folklorico. As mentioned before, although I come from Mexican descent, I had not actually known what baile Folklorico was, When I had walked through festivals and Disneyland during the holiday season, I had seen baile Folklorico dances, viewed them, but once the performances were over I would walk away and think very little of them. Balise Folklorico, “is a collective term for traditional Latin American dances that emphasize local folk culture with ballet characteristics – pointed toes, exaggerated movements, and highly choreographed arrangements” ( Had I not taken the time to research and learn about a new culture I would have never known that baile Folklorico had ballet influences and background.

The final dance culture I encountered that I was unfamiliar with is Turfing. Turfing is defined “as a form of American street dance that originated in Oakland, California” ( that was created by the group, The Architeckz and specially Jeriel Bey. He created it as an “acronym for Taking Up Room on the Floor since the terms having fun with it or hitting it was not marketable” ( Turfing was created to establish a voice in the political world to ensure the silenced voices of minorities, specifically black street dancers are heard. “Circulating in an antiblack world, the R.I.P dancers gain visibility and value on the global stage, ensured (and insured) by the turf dancers’ embodiment of captivity and death” (Bragin 101). This is most notable in the R.I.P videos by YAK Films such as R.I.P Oscar Grant.

In both the Aztec and Bailie Folklorico dance cultures share Latin backgrounds, that take on the region of Latin American and primarily Mexico, however, only baile Folklorico holds Eurocentric dance forms such as ballet. While in Turfing, it centered away from feature any form of European aesthetics. “As a model of the mode of black thought and sociality, hood dance resists the terms of choreocentricity a racialized logic that sustains a European discourse of choreography as the standard by which to evaluate peoples and cultures that are non-Western, not completely Western, or antagonistic to Western modes of thinking and being” (Bragin 102). In addition, Aztec dancing also centers itself away from Eurocentric dance ideals, given it was created before the Spanish conquest. All together these three dances cultures were centered around the ideals of community and group solidarity or group feeling. The cultural connotations and need to establish kinship with one another are presented throughout these dance forms.

However, one must take into consideration the effect that not learning nor attempting to learn about other cultures and dance styles are making on youth culture. “Young people throughout the planet, in their formative stages of puberty and beyond, are particularly affected by this fast-paced-MTV-sound-byte-information-gutted age that is at the center of the increasingly homogenized post-modernization process. African American music, dance, and style, at the epicenter of American culture, are not only part of this technology-mediated global youth culture but are essential to it” (Osumare 171). This calls into account the basis for claiming cultural appropriation. “Cultural approbation in the arts is a diverse and ubiquitous phenomenon. It might plausibly be thought to include occurrences as varied as

  1. the representation of cultural practices or experiences by cultural ‘outsiders’ (sometimes called ‘voice appropriation);
  2. the use of artistic styles distinctive of cultural groups by nonmembers;
  3. the procurement of continued possession of cultural objects by nonmembers or cultural distinct institutions”.

In America alone, we see many cases of artists being called out for cultural appropriation in their music, dance, and especially stylistic choices such as hair, attire, and even darkening of the skin. That is not to blame the cultures themselves but rather the ways people are viewing them, whether positively or negatively. For example, the artist Nicki Minaj was accused of cultural appropriation during her SNL performance of the song Chun-Li. The song title itself could be considered for the ground of cultural appropriation, however, it was the attire and stylistic movements during the performance that caught the attention of so many. During the performance, the four male backup dancers were dressed in identical full-bodied suits that one would see in a dojo or old Kungfu films, black masks covering the lower face of their face, and headgear that strongly resembled an Asian conical hat or in its Chinese a doula. While the artist herself and two female backup dancers wore buns of their heads with chopsticks embedded in them, and identical Chinese dresses or qipao. However, these dresses were not traditional in any means, being made of leather and closing resembling the attire of Chun-Li, an iconic Street Fighters character rather than the Chinese garments.

On the other hand, when one does learn or even attempt to learn about another culture, not only are they exempt from grounds of cultural appropriation but also begin to develop an appreciation for it as well. For example, the music video, A Head Full of Dreams by Coldplay took place in Mexico and featured many moments that displayed cultural appreciation rather than appreciation. For example, the video begins with various video shots of the city of Mexico and its citizens going about their daily lives such as walking their dogs, children playing soccer on the streets, men, and women hard at work; and finally, a shot of the Mexico flag. We see people dressed in modern attire, baile Folklorico dresses, and even people with colored hair and tattoos. That is not to say, I am not pitting two artists or distinct music styles against one another but attempting to show that both see the form of beauty in another culture whether it was properly reciprocated or not.

As such, the song A Head Full of Dream has a beginning monologue from the controversial Charlie Chaplin speech from the 1940 film The Great Dictator shows this appreciation for one another. “I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate or despise one another. In this world, there is room for everyone, and the good of the earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way” (Chaplin, The Great Dictator 1940). All the dances styles mentioned thought this paper have showed cased beauty in their performers and dance cultures. Aztec dancing, Baile Folklorico, and Turfing all come from rich backgrounds and have a history that gives its symbolism a more impactful meaning. Dance gives individuals the freedom to express not only themselves on a personal level but also the cultures that helped shaped who they are and what they’ve come to represent.

If not for this course, I doubt I would have been given the chance to dive into other forms of dance that were unfamiliar to me. For example, apart from witnessing Turfing during this course’s lectures, I recall once witnessing this dance form in person but had not known what it was at the time. When I was younger, my family and I were coming down from Sonoma once vacations had finished, and decided to stop in Oakland at a gas station and make a quick stop. While waiting in the car I saw a group of young men turfing on a street corner, their dance moves seemed very strange to me at first. Curious I asked my mother what the men outside were doing, and she had dismissed it as street antics. Sensing the tension, I didn’t bring it back up and have never thought about it since then, that is until taking this class course. After learning about these dances and others mentioned during the course, I began developing an appreciation for them and any other dance cultures I may encounter in the future. Cultural knowledge and lack of can impact ways we are able to understand dance however this can be overcome through knowledge and attempting to keep an open mind when new dance cultures are presented. Cultural appreciation is a delicate balance, although an individual may apricate a culture if it is displayed inappropriately, it will come off as being distasteful and have mocking connotations.

Works Cited

Bragin, Naomi. “Shot and Captured: Turf Dance, YAK Films, and the Oakland, California, R.I.P. Project.” The Drama Review, vol. 58, no. 2, 4 June 2014, pp. 99–112., doi:

Coldplay, director. Coldplay - A Head Full of Dreams (Official Music Video). YouTube, YouTube, 19 Aug. 2016,

Garner, Sandra. “Aztec Dance, Transnational Movements: Conquest of a Different Sort .” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 122, no. 486, 2009, pp. 414–435.

Matthes, Erich Hatala. “Cultural Appropriation Without Cultural Essentialism?” Social Theory and Practice, vol. 42, no. 2, Apr. 2016, pp. 343–366.

Minaj, Nicki, director. Nicki Minaji - Chun-Li (Live on SNL / 2018). YouTube, YouTube, 20 May 2018,

Osumare, Halifax. “Beat Streets in the Global Hood: Connective Marginatlites of the Hip Hop Globe .” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures, vol. 24, no. 1-2, 10 Sept. 2009, pp. 171–180 ., doi:

“The History of Folklorico .” Samson Agonistes: Introduction,

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Cultural Appropriation in Dance. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved November 30, 2023 , from

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