Story: Cultural dance

Page 3. European cultural dance

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19th and earlier 20th centuries

Many immigrant communities brought their dance forms with them to New Zealand. The larger the number migrating, the more widespread a dance form was. The many migrants from Scotland meant that reels and Scottish country dancing were performed in homes, at dances and at public events like the Caledonian (Scottish) Games and A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows. Dalmatian migrants, who arrived in smaller numbers, also brought their dances to New Zealand, but their performances remained within the community of origin.

Over the 20th century the popularity of folk dancing rose and fell. English folk-dance and morris-dance groups, for example, were active in the 1930s and 1940s (a New Zealand English Folk Dance and Song Society was formed in 1938), after which interest died down until the 1970s.

Folk dancing’s popularity increased in the 1960s. In the 1980s folk dancing in New Zealand became broader, moving beyond its English and Scottish focus (elsewhere this internationalisation had occurred in the 1960s and 1970s). Encouraged by teachers like Rae Storey, whose New wave folkdancing (1990) was used in schools, the range of dances taught widened.

Learning to dance

English folk dancing with a dash of Scottish became a standard school dance experience from the early 20th century. Many of the dances were not widely performed before this – they had fallen out of fashion in the 19th century, when couple dancing (waltzes, polkas and the like) became popular. When English folk dance was rediscovered in the early 20th century it was identified as particularly suitable for children, and came to be widely taught in schools across the British Empire.

Prime ministerial assistance

Peter Fraser, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1940 to 1949, had been a keen Highland dancer in his youth. He continued to enjoy dancing, and helped form the NZ Academy of Highland and National Dance in 1946.

Before the Second World War dance schools often taught Scottish and Irish dancing, tap and sometimes flamenco along with ballet. The whole lot were known collectively as ‘fancy dancing’, and in the mid-20th century were separated into ballet and ‘character’ dancing.


Those performing any given form of cultural dance were not necessarily of that culture. Irish dancing provides an extreme example of general popularity. It boomed in 1997, when three-quarters of a million New Zealanders watched Lord of the dance on television, over 30,000 Riverdance videos were sold and live shows of both sold out. From being largely unknown outside a small circle of committed dancers, Irish dance suddenly had so many wanting to learn that some schools temporarily closed entry to classes.

Many of the lesser-known dances brought by smaller immigrant groups were not widely taught. Some disappeared, while others were rescued by determined teachers or community groups. The Pūhoi Bohemian community’s um-a-dum (mazurka), haamickl, Prince of Wales schottische and finger polka (a children’s dance) were almost lost by the time a local dance group was formed in 1988.

European cultural dance in the 2000s

Many varieties of European cultural dance were performed in 21st-century New Zealand, including Polish, Greek, Romanian, French, Dutch, Scandinavian and Bulgarian. Scottish and Irish dance classes, clubs and competitions continued to thrive. The growth in the number of trained dancers and dance festivals and the increasing readiness of dancers to mix forms expanded opportunities for cultural dance.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Cultural dance - European cultural dance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 October 2022)

Story by Megan Cook, published 22 Oct 2014