Traditional Indian dances

Ancient dance forms

Traditional Indian dances

India has over 5000 years of dance history. Traditional Indian dances tell stories, worship gods or express inner beauty and emotions.

English colonialism made traditional Indian dancing unpopular and some performers were proclaimed outlaws. However, after the 1930’s these dances saw a revival and today they are internationally known and admired.

Music and costumes are very important in traditional Indian dances since they support the stories told by the dances. Traditional dances in India often tell stories from mythology.

The steps and hand gestures should be executed precisely since they have specific meanings.

Traditional Indian dances are divided in eight groups (classes).


Odissi is probably the oldest of the classical Indian dances. Its name means “of Orissa” referring to to dance’s region of origin in eastern India. It was performed by the “temple girls”, (devadasi) at first, but later was danced in court to entertain royal families and their guests.

Odissi stands out because of its two typical postures.The first one is the chouka, which is a square-like posture.

Tribhangi is the signature movement of Odissi, It divides the body into three parts- the head, the bust and the torso. The concept of tribhangi lies in the independent movements of these three parts in opposing directions.

Another important element in Odissi is “mudra”. It means stamp and refers to hand positions which depict different things.

The most popular theme for Odissi is praising Krishna, who was believed to be the most perfect earthly incarnation of God Vishnu.

Odissi dancers dress in the traditional colors of Orissa - sarees in bright red, green, orange, purple and yellow. They are wrapped around the body in a unique way which distinguishes them from traditional clothing from other regions.

Bharata Natyam

Bharata Natyam (or Bharatanatyam) comes from the South of India. It dates back to 1000 BC. In ancient times the dance was known as “Sadir attam” which means “court dance” and was danced in temples of South India by the devadasis. Through this dance the devadasis worshiped the Gods or told different stories from Indian mythology.

It is believed that the Bharata Natyam set the basics for other traditional Indian dances.

The basic steps in Bharata Natyam are called “adavus”. They are combined with symbolic hand gestures known as “mudras”. It is impossible to dance Bharata Natyam without learning all adavus steps. There are about 20 types of adavus, which are danced in 3 speeds and 5 rhythms. There are 28 mudras.


Kathak originates from Northern India. Its name comes from the word “katha”- “story telling”. Evidence of the kathak dates back to the fourth-third century BC.

In the ancient times there were three major kathak schools, or gharanas- the Jaipur Gharana, the Lucknow and Banaras Gharana and the Rajgarh Gharana.

The kathak once used Urdu and Persian poetry, as well some Hindu stories. Over time the storytelling has disappeared from the kathak and today it is a combination of movement and rhythm.

Further reading

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