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Cultural dance

by Megan Cook

Pacific dance boomed in New Zealand in the late 20th century, with events drawing many thousands of people. New Zealanders of all ethnicities got together to enjoy dancing in styles as varied as Bollywood, Irish and salsa.

Dance in the 2000s

Most forms of cultural dance were brought to New Zealand by migrants from the countries where the dances originated. Cultural dance spans the recreational and concert dance divide. Often performed at school or dances, it is also seen in formal settings with a paying audience.

The New Zealand dance scene was varied and vigorous in the 2000s. A Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC) survey in 2007–8 found that dance, excluding dancing at nightclubs and parties, was the ninth-most popular physical activity among New Zealanders. Of those over 16, 6.8% danced at least once a month, with 4% dancing every week for an average of over two and a half hours. In the 2000s these enthusiasts had more ways of learning dance and more festivals at which to dance, and could join the increasing number of people watching dance.

Cultural groups and dance

Māori and Pacific dance had the largest number of participants and biggest audiences, with the Pasifika Festival and Polyfest attracting thousands of performers and tens of thousands of visitors.

Dances performed by New Zealanders from other cultures also attracted large audiences. In 2006 a Diversity stage was added to the Polyfest line-up, and Indian, Fijian, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Malaysian, Middle Eastern and African groups became part of that festival. During the Chinese New Year lantern festival and Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, dance was an important part of the festivities. Both events attracted more attention and greater participation in the 2000s. In the 1990s and 2000s children’s folk festivals were held in Auckland.

Loosening boundaries

By the 2000s different types of dance – including Pacific dance, ballet, contemporary dance, classical Indian dance, hip hop and ballroom – were more likely to be performed at the same festivals. They also borrowed movements from and provided inspiration for each other.

Mixing it up in 1970

Liong Xi, a master of Balinese dance, settled in New Zealand in 1960. Ten years later his Birth of dance was performed at the Auckland Arts Festival. It included Balinese and contemporary choreography alongside Māori, Samoan and Tokelauan dance, and was probably the first performance of mixed Pacific, Asian and contemporary dance in the country.

Auckland’s annual Tempo Festival, held since 2004, included Pacific, Māori, flamenco, bharata-natyam (classical South Indian dance) and other forms of cultural dance alongside contemporary dance and ballet. Loosening boundaries between dance forms were typified by Justin Haiu, whose Call to Wallis, based on his Wallis and Futuna Islands heritage, won best choreography by an emerging artist at Tempo in 2010. A single performance would sometimes mix forms. At Tempo 2009, for example, dancers combined breakdance with tap (itself a hybrid of English, Irish and West African dance forms).

Greater cultural dance focus

Although ballet and contemporary dance remained more prestigious and likely to receive government funding in the 2000s, cultural dance began to get more attention. In 2005 SPARC gave Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ, formed in 1993) responsibility for leading the recreational dance sector, which included a large cultural dance element. Previously, there had not been an organisation with this responsibility.

DANZ Quarterly magazine (founded in 1994) covered a wide range of dance forms, celebrating the success of New Zealand Irish dancer Aisling Ryan, reporting on the rift in Scottish dancing and highlighting the crossover between cultural and contemporary dance forms. In 2011 the Wellington-based National Dance Archive (founded in 1982), which had previously focused on ballet and modern dance, held a seminar on multiculturalism in modern dance.

Economic value of dance

In 2014 a sound dance infrastructure and economy remained elusive. There were few dedicated dance venues, and most cultural dance events relied on volunteers.

Māori and Pacific cultural dance were strongest, with dance festivals that generated tens of thousands of dollars for the communities in which they took place. In 2012 it was estimated that Auckland’s Pasifika Festival brought $400,000 into the city.

Pacific dance

Pacific Island dance – the Cook Island tamure, Tongan lakalaka, Samoan siva, Tokelauan hiva and other forms – was brought to New Zealand by immigrants after the Second World War. At first, Pacific dance was performed in the context of family and community festivities, or by school groups. By the 2000s New Zealand’s Pacific dance community (particularly but not only in Auckland) was so large and active that it attracted people from around the Pacific.

Pasifika Festival

The Pasifika Festival, first held in 1992, was started by the South Pacific Island Nations Development Association and the Auckland City Council. It became one of New Zealand’s biggest cultural events and the largest event of its kind in Oceania. Run over two days in Auckland, with 11 stages and 10 villages (representing Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, Niue, Tahiti, Kiribati, Tuvalu and New Zealand), it included food, music and fashion, with dance at its heart. In 2013 the festival involved 1,500 dancers and musicians (most of whom were volunteers), and more than 200,000 people attended.


The ASB Auckland Secondary Schools Māori and Pacific Islands Cultural Festival, or Polyfest, was the largest gathering of Māori and Pacific dancers in the world, and the largest dance event of any kind in Australasia. It was first held in 1976; by 2013, 9,000 performers were watched by more than 90,000 spectators over four days. The event’s purpose was to maintain dance and other traditions among secondary-school students.

Long-term commitment

In 1976 three secondary-school students set up the cultural competition between their schools that became Polyfest. Thirty-three years later one of the original trio, Boaz Raela, was tutoring a group that performed at the festival. ‘When we thought of it back then, we never thought about it [happening] the next year – but look at it now,’ said Raela. ‘Students coming together, enjoying one’s culture and appreciating other cultures … performing in [each] others’ cultural groups – these are the sorts of things that unite us.’1

Pacific Dance New Zealand

In 2009 Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ) set up the Pacific Dance Project, which became Pacific Dance New Zealand (PDNZ). By 2013 PDNZ was producing professional dance theatre, running choreographic labs and the Pacific Dance Fono (with DANZ), taking Pacific dance into prisons, providing one of New Zealand’s two Pacific dance residencies, taking part in dance activities in the Pacific Islands and providing dance classes to the community.

The Pacific Dance Fono was first held in 2006. It brought together dancers from around New Zealand, giving them a chance to discuss issues and strategies for development. Numbers attending the fono nearly doubled in the first seven years, from 45 to 87.


European cultural dance

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.

Asian and other cultural dance

Non-European cultural dance forms were not widely known in New Zealand until the late 20th century. From the 1980s the public celebration of Chinese New Year and Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, the increasing number of tours by dance groups and the internationalisation of folk dance all expanded the cultural dance scene in New Zealand.

Balinese legong

Legong, a classical Balinese dance, was brought to New Zealand in 1960 by Liong Xi, a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. He organised classes at Auckland University, tours and festival performances, often combining other dance forms with legong. Liong’s experience in the European dance world drew other dancers to New Zealand, including Amala Devi, teacher of bharata natyam at the Paris Opera.

Indian dance

Bollywood dancing, like Irish dancing, became known well beyond its original community. Based on Indian classical and folk dance, an important element of the melodramatic musical films made in Mumbai, India, Bollywood dance became popular with Indian and non-Indian New Zealanders.

More demanding and complex forms of Indian dance were less widely practised. Classes in kathak, mohiniattyam, oddisi and bharata natyam were available in different locations across the country. Some forms were better known than others. Bharata natyam benefited from the presence of Vivek Kinra, an internationally known dancer and teacher, who set up the New Zealand Academy of Bharata Natyam and the Mudra Dance Company in Wellington in the early 1990s.

Chinese dance

In the later 20th and early 21st centuries national culture societies often taught dance. Wellington’s Chinese Social and Cultural Centre, for example, taught Chinese lion and dragon dancing, entering a team in the 2010 World Luminous Dragon Dancing Competition.

African dance

African dancing was most common in Auckland, where many of the African migrants who began to arrive in New Zealand in the 1990s settled, but classes could be found as far south as Dunedin.

Other forms

New forms of cultural dance developed in the 20th century became popular in New Zealand. Israeli folk dance was developed as part of the culture of the new state of Israel. It combined elements of Arabic (particularly Yemenite), Romanian, East European Hassidim and other forms of cultural dance. Salsa, one of the most popular dance forms in New Zealand, developed in the United States from a mix of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Latin American ballroom dancing.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Cultural dance', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2021)

Story by Megan Cook, published 22 Oct 2014