The term Mohiniyattam comes from the words "Mohini" meaning a woman who enchants onlookers and "yattam" meaning graceful and sensuous body movements. The word "Mohiniyattam" literally means, "dance of the enchantress". This classical solo dance form combines the graceful elegance of Bharatanatyam with the vigour and dynamism of Kathakali, to create a mood that is predominantly sringara (erotic). The performer uses the eyes in a very coy yet sensual manner, the purpose being to enchant the mind without enticing the senses.

The dance involves the swaying of broad hips and the gentle movements of erect torso from side to side. This is reminiscent of the swinging of the palm leaves and the gently flowing rivers which abound Kerala.

The traditional costume worn in Mohiniyattam is white saree embroidered with bright golden brocade (known as kasavu) at the edges and gold ornaments are worn. The unique coiffure with hair gathered on the left side of the head and adorned with jasmine flowers reflect it's aesthetic appeal, making it distinct from the other dance forms of India.

The legends in India links the name of Mohini to that of God Vishnu who had assumed the beautiful form of Mohini to entice Demon Bhasmasura and finally destroyed him. It is said that the demon had a boon, which granted him immortality and the power to turn into ash anyone whom he touches with his right index finger. Mohini danced and made Bhasmasura also dance with her and suddenly for a moment placed her index finger on her head. Bhasmasura too followed without thinking and thus came his end. There is a common belief that perhaps the dance form got its names from this episode.

This episode seems to be picturesquely represented in the first item of the Mohiniyattam called 'Colkkettu' which begins with a pose of the dancer showing her right hand, the murder of Bhasmasura with her index finger pointing to her own head.

The accompaniments for Mohiniyattam are Vocal, Veena, Venu, Maddalam and Idakka. Occasionally other instruments are also used