The Etymology of Dance

Wordymology is a series in which the editors at The Free Dictionary explore the origins of the names of things.
You might know the steps, but do you know where these classic dances got their names?


By 1923, this iconic Roaring ‘20s dance was being done under the bright lights of Broadway. Before that, it was featured in Harlem stage shows. But its origin and name go back to Charleston, South Carolina, where it was first performed as early as 1903.

Lindy Hop

The dance craze that flew across America in the 1930s was named for famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, which might make you think that “Lucky Lindy” was also a dancer in his spare time. In reality, he just happened to be at the height of his popularity (thanks to completing the first solo transatlantic flight) when the dance was created. And his historic flights were commonly described at the time as “hops” over land masses and bodies of water.


Dance and religion come together in the etymology of “mambo.” This Cuban dance has roots in Voodoo, a religion commonly practiced in Haiti and other Caribbean islands. The Cuban Spanish word mambo comes from the Haitian Creole word manbo, meaning “Voodoo priestess”—Cuban musicians would compare the lengthy drum breaks in mambo music to the trance state exhibited by such priestesses.


The etymology of “samba” reflects how this fast-paced ballroom dance traveled around the world. The samba is very closely associated with Brazil, and samba is a Portuguese word. But the dance actually originated in Africa, and it is possible that samba comes from the Kongo word semba, the name for a dance move in which partners push out and touch their bellies.


The waltz, in which couples twirl around the dance floor together, was popularized in Germany and Austria in the 18th century. Its name is a back formation of the German Walzer, which comes from a word meaning “to turn” or “to roll.”


The Jewish wedding dance in which the newlyweds, seated in chairs, are lifted into the air—while everyone else dances around them in a circle—has a name: the “hora.” It’s a traditional dance of Romania and Israel, and its name comes from the Modern Greek word khorós, meaning “round dance.”


“Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the fandango?” Sure, why not—but what is the fandango? Well, it’s an ancient Spanish dance performed by a single couple, who interact with each other in an alluring manner. It’s possible that “fandango” comes from the Portuguese word fado, meaning “sad song,” but that seems like a strange choice for this lively dance.


If you think dancing can cure what ails you, you’re not alone! Long before modern dance therapy, there was the tarantella, an energetic folk dance from the Italian city of Taranto. Vigorous dancing of the tarantella was thought to cure “tarantism”—a disorder marked by the uncontrollable urge to dance, which was a commonly reported occurrence in southern Italy between the 15th and 17th centuries. Its alleged cause? A tarantula bite. (Yes, “Taranto” also lends its name to the tarantula.) Sometimes, dance is stranger than fiction!
Now bust a move and share these facts with your dance partner!
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