Folk dances are traditionally performed during social events by people with little or no professional training. New dancers often learn informally by observing others and/or receiving help from others. Folk dancing is viewed as more of a social activity rather than competitive, although there are professional and semi-professional folk dance groups, and occasional folk dance competitions.
The term "folk dance" is sometimes applied to certain dances of historical importance in European culture and history; typically originated before 20th century. For other cultures the terms "ethnic dance" or "traditional dance" are sometimes used, although the latter terms may encompass ceremonial dances.
There are a number of modern dances, such as hip hop dance, that evolve spontaneously, but the term "folk dance" is generally not applied to them, and the terms "street dance" or "vernacular dance" are used instead. The term "folk dance" is reserved for dances which are to a significant degree bound by European tradition and originated in the times when the distinction existed between the dances of "common folk" and the dances of the "high society".
A number of modern ballroom dances originated from folk ones.
The terms "ethnic" and "traditional" are used when it is required to emphasize the cultural roots of the dance. In this sense, nearly all folk dances are ethnic ones. If some dances, such as polka, cross ethnic boundaries and even cross the boundary between "folk" and "ballroom dance", ethnic differences are often considerable enough to mention, e.g., Czech polka vs. German polka.
Not all ethnic dances are folk dances; for example, ritual dances or dances of ritual origin are not considered to be folk dances. Ritual dances are usually called "Religious dances" because of their purpose.
Types of folk dance include clogging, English country dance, international folk dance, Irish dance, Maypole dance, Morris dance, Nordic polska dance, Ball de bastons, square dance, and sword dance. Some choreographed dances such as contra dance, Israeli folk dance, Scottish country dance, and modern Western square dance, are called folk dances, though this is not true in the strictest sense. Country dance overlaps with contemporary folk dance and ballroom dance. Most country dances and ballroom dances originated from folk dances, with gradual refinement over the years.
People familiar with folk dancing can often determine what country a dance is from even if they have not seen that particular dance before. Some countries' dances have features that are unique to that country, although neighboring countries sometimes have similar features. For example, the German and Austrian schuhplattling dance consists of slapping the body and shoes in a fixed pattern, a feature that few other countries' dances have. Folk dances sometimes evolved long before current political boundaries, so that certain dances are shared by several countries. For example, some Serbian, Bulgarian, and Croatian dances share the same or similar dances, and sometimes even use the same name and music for those dances.
Although folk dancing was historically done by the common people of the local culture, international folk dance has received some popularity on college campuses and community centers within the United States and other countries.
Mexican folkloric dance developed over five centuries from the pre-Columbian era, through the Spanish conquest, the French Intervention which included an Austrian influence, the Porfiriato, and the 1910 Revolution, to the modern era. The fusion of these influences with the indigenous culture created over 300 dance styles within the thirty-two Mexican states, to comprise a unique Mexican folk dance tradition.