Coloured picture of Kujawiak and Oberek dance performed in Poland

Anthropology: Exploring the Cultural Significance of Polish Folk Dances

Traditional folk dances across different countries, help to better understand the country’s culture, people, and values. Every country in the world has its own folk dance that originates in its culture and represents its norms, values, and traditions. Turkish sufi, Spanish jota, French gavotte, and Middle Eastern khaleegy all celebrate different cultures and tell the story of people who live in that culture. Polish folk dances have their roots in Polish tradition, regional customs, and historical events. Although today, Poles perform these dances only during major events and holidays, they continue to be significant for Polish culture. This article is going to explore some of the Polish folk dances and how they influence Polish culture and traditions.

What is cultural folk dance?

A folk dance is a form of dance performed by people from a certain region of the world to reflect their way of life and their cultural roots. Folk dances allow people from outside of that country or region to better understand its people and their values. There are various styles of folk dance around the world that have been performed for centuries.

The definition of dance has changed over the centuries. Aristotle said that dance is a medium that “represents men’s characters as well as what they do and suffer”. In Greece, dance was a way of communicating with the gods. And in Jewish culture, it is a way of communicating with God and celebrating what He’s done (Mones, 2019).

Fold dance is still part of many cultures. It is usually considered as a form of ritualistic entertainment at social gatherings. Although very little detail is known about the origins of folk dance, it dates back several centuries. Folk dances are traditional and taught throughout generations.

Thus, the evolution of the genre has been slow as various cultural groups preserve their inventories of cultural dances. In addition to this, performers often wear special costumes that represent the region they are from and their culture. Although folk dancing looks different in every country, it is all called folk dancing because it is social in nature and rooted in tradition instead of a culture of innovation.

What makes a dance a folk dance?

The name folk dance implies the style of the dance and who the performers are. The term has been in common use since the 19th century. Early scholars described folk communities as peasants or simple people who were illiterate and lacked self-consciousness. They would carry on unsophisticated and ancient traditions. Those early writers believed that folk dances were created anonymously and would be passed on from one person to another, and from generation to generation.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars would perceive folk dancing through a somewhat Darwinian social evolution, which would place certain groups of people farther down the human evolutionary tree from themselves and their peers. Hence, why, in the 1930s, the word ‘folk’ was often avoided and many cultural groups around the world demanded that their dances should be called traditional instead of folk.

As a result of the past misuse of the word ‘folk’ by early academics, the word is sometimes considered offensive. However, today, the term ‘folk’ means ‘traditional’, ‘authentic’, or ‘from olden times’. However, the word ‘traditional’ can also be problematic when applied to folk dances that have been adjusted, re-staged, and developed to reinforce cultural identity and/or attract tourists.

The main point when trying to understand folk dance is the fact that it is not a universal genre of dance. Different folk dances, from different cultures, have no common universal movement, style, or figure.

What is the importance of folk dance to culture?

People dance for different reasons. Folk dance specifically highlights the story of the people who are performing it, their culture, or even the landscape of the region they are from. For many countries, dancing is an integral part of the culture. Generally, it is considered that folk dance is important to culture because:

  1. It brings people together and allows them to engage in social aspects.
  2. It showcases and celebrates tradition and culture.
  3. Entertains.
  4. Engages people in physical activity.
  5. It allows people to engage in their hobbies and interests.

Folk dancing in Poland

One of the spectacles that a tourist can witness while visiting Poland is an authentic Polish folk dance. There are various kinds of folk dances in Poland and each one is rooted in a particular region. In order to explore each of those dances, it is important to look at different regions of Poland and how folk dance represents the particular traditions of those regions. Some of the folk dances in Poland are now considered national dances. The most notable and renowned dances of Poland include the Krakowiak, Muzur (Mazurka), Oberek, Polonez, and Bohemian Polka. These dances originated in the Polish countryside and were later performed in the royal court. Meanwhile, classical composers like Chopin incorporated them into their work.

Kraków and “Krakowiak” (Cracovienne)

Krakowiak is one of the best-known national dances from the region of Kraków, which used to be the old capital of Poland. The dance was named after an opera from 1794, called “Krakowiacy i Górale” (Cracoviennes and Highlanders) which was performed at the time at the National Theatre in Warsaw. Krakowiak refers to a group of dances from the southern and central Małopolska, a region in Poland, and it is one of the five most popular national dances in Poland.

The krakowiak has different names: mijany (to pass by), przebiegany (to run past), suwany (to drag your feet), or dreptany (to toddle). The integral part of the krakowiak is mid-air foot clicking, which is a move called hałubiec (Lagierska, 2014). The dance is fast and syncopated and featured in many ballets, operas, and Singspielen in response to the Western fashion for showing peasant dances representing specific regions on the stage.

A photograph of Polish folk dancers performing the Krakowiak in traditional costumes
Folk dancers performing the Krakowiak in traditional costumes (


The kujawiak is a dance that originated in the region of Kujawy, in central Poland. It is considered the most romantic of the national dances, as it is danced slowly in a calm, flowing manner, and can be performed by couples, typically as the last dance of the evening.  The couples spin around in a rotating circle and gently stamp their feet. The melody of the dance represents the peaceful landscape of the region. The smooth flowing manner is “reminiscent of the tall grain stalks in the fields swaying gently in the wind”.

Kujawiak was introduced in 1827. Today there are different ways of performing kujawiak and they all have different names, depending on the figures used: Ksebka, Odsibka, Gladki, Owczarek, Okragly, and so on. The dance reached popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Oskar Kolberg, an ethnographer, folklorist, and composer, wrote over 1000 melodies and songs from Kujawy, describing the folklore of the area.

Colored image of old postcard, designed by Zofia Stryjeńska in 1927
An old postcard, designed by Zofia Stryjeńska in 1927, illustrates a couple performing the kujawiak (

Mazur (also known as the Mazurka)

Another one of five Polish national dances is called the Mazur and originated in the Mazowsze region of central Poland. The Mazur started in the 16th century and gained popularity by the 17th century when it was danced in villages across Poland. At first, Mazur was performed by peasants but eventually, it became popular among the Polish noblemen and became one of the national dances. Later, Mazur started to be performed in European courts, and the French named it Mazurka. The famous Polish composer, Frederic Chopin, is well known for his Mazurkas and the rhythm he created for the dance.

The dance is quick, with movements such as heel-clicking, slides, and running steps. It is often danced in different ways to different types of music. For example, the peasants would perform it delicately in their regional folk costumes, while the military would perform Mazur in their soldier uniforms, while women would wear ball gowns).

Black and white image of Feliks Krzesiński with his daughter Matylda, performing the Mazurek in folk costumes in 1898
Feliks Krzesiński with his daughter Matylda, performing the Mazurek in folk costumes in 1898 (


The Oberek (also known as Obertas) started in the 17th century, also in the Mazowsze region of central Poland. The term ‘obertas’ appeared for the first time in 1679, in a book by Korczynski, “Lanczafty”. The dance became popular in the 19th century. Oberek would be accompanied by small village bands. Violin, accordion, or bass and drum would dominate the music. The dance has a quick tempo, so it is lively, with many turns and circular movements. The steps have to be small, light, and flexible. The name Oberek comes from the verb ‘obracać’ (to spin).

According to Ada Sziewanowska (1999), the oberek is a national dance, not only because it is known across Poland, but because it is danced by all the social strata. Each region has its own style of oberek which varies depending on the local culture and their specific music (Polish Music Center).

The dance is one of the dances that feature mazurka rhythms. The group of the dances includes kujawiak, which is the slowest, mazur, which is danced at a moderate tempo, and oberek, which is the fastest dance of this group. To dance Oberek, people wear different kinds of costumes from many regions of Poland, but the most favored costume is the Łowicki. According to the essay on Oberek by  Maja Trochimczy, to perform the oberek :

“Women wear wool skirts made of striped cloth woven from vivid hues over layers of white petticoats finished with lace and ruffles. Their white shirts have elaborate white embroidery and are covered with tight vests embroidered with flowers. They wear bright kerchiefs wrapped around in elaborate patterns and long braids with ribbons. The men wear pants made from the same striped cloth, high black boots, long dark vests and white shirts. The costumes are extremely rich in color and ornaments – hence its popularity among Polish American folk dance groups.”

Black and white image of a couple performing the Oberek
Polish couple performing the oberek (

Polonez (The Polonaise)

The Polonez is another one of the five historic national dances of Poland. It was especially popular in the 18th century and was known as the walking dance (Chodzony). It belonged to the 18th-century nobility but has its roots in folk. The dance originated as a peasant dance and was recorded in the 15th century. Polonez would traditionally open up balls and weddings in country villages around Poland.

Today, Polonez is the first dance at large events, such as studniowka (senior prom that occurs 100 days before exams), where it is performed in pairs. Hence, nowadays, the Polonez is considered a royal dance that every Polish teenager has to master.  The dance has a long history and there is a reason for its French name.

It was known outside of Poland and was popular throughout Europe during the 18th century when Poland was considered a powerful state and its culture influenced other European countries. Back then it was not yet called the Polonaise, but taniec polski (Polish dance). It would be performed without music, and dancers themselves would sing as they danced. It then spread to Scandinavia. As a result of this, today one of the most popular traditional dances in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway is called ‘Polska’ (Poland). Eventually, it was introduced in French courts, designed to entertain the French royal court. The polonez lost its popularity abroad in the 19th century (Kępa, 2016).

Colored picture of a painting by Korneli Szlegel
A painting by Korneli Szlegel illustrating Polonez, titled “Polonez pod gołym niebem” (

Cultural significance of Polish National Dancing in Anthropology

Dancing in general benefits society. It promotes creativity, critical thinking, healthy minds, and bodies. It can be inspiring and convey a message just like any other art form. The stories told through dance can be inspiring and motivate the audience to overcome obstacles or help uplift the community in another way.

National dances are an intriguing phenomenon that has been adopted by different social classes in Poland, starting off with the peasant culture and finding its way to the higher social strata (the noble class and the bourgeoisie) after a long process. The tradition that originated centuries ago and belongs to a particular community is passed down the generations in the form of dance. The culture portrayed by folk dance refers to the past and is projected into the future. The history of Polish national dances shows that Polish culture became a model for other emergent national cultures in the region, from Scandinavia to the Adriatic Coast (Nowak, 2016). All of the folk dances in Poland are of peasant origin but underwent significant changes throughout the centuries.

Choreographers, dancers, and viewers of dance are socially and historically placed individuals who operate according to socio-cultural conventions and aesthetic systems. According to Anthropologists, folk dance must be seen as an integral part of a total way of life, and it is not simply entertainment (Kaeppler, 2000).



Britannica. The Expansion of Folk Dance Experiences. Available: Britannica

Dancefacts. Folk Dance – History and Types of Folk Dance. Available:

Dolina Polish Folk Dancers. National Dances of Poland. Available:  Dolina Polish Folk Dancers

Kaeppler, A., L. (2000) Dance Ethnology and the Anthropology of Dance. Dance Research Journal. 32 (1). Available: JSTOR

Kępa, M. (2016) Polonaise – The Royal Dance Every Polish Teenager Has to Master. Available:

Lagierska, A. (2014) A Foreigner’s Guide to Polish Folk Dances. Available:

Lowiczanka (2010) Poland’s Five National Dances. Available:

Mones, A., B. (2019) The Cultural Significance of Dance. Available: BJUtoday

Nowak, T. (2016) National Dances in the Canon of Polish Culture. Musicology Today. 13 (1). Available:

Polish Music Center. Oberek (Obertas): Essay by Maja Trochimczyk. Available:

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