Spanish Dances: The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Spanish dances have withstood the hands of time, remaining surprisingly consistent and fixed in their unique choreography. Despite centuries of external pressure from evolving migrant caravans, zealous political figures, and major changes in Spanish society itself, the tradition of dancing persists. Spain is only about twice the size of Oregon, but it packs quite a punch of cultural delight and beauty within its relatively small borders. This vibrant country keeps its culture alive by embracing the glory, history, and living story of Spanish dance.
History of Spanish Dances
Spanish dances reflect the tumultuous history of Spain itself. Even before the 15th century, regional dances and music were an integral part of life and culture for the people of Spain. Although many of these dances have ritualistic and war-related origins, the Spaniards’ creative spark transformed Spanish dance. They pushed it into a new realm of free-flowing movements that developed into the dances we see today. By the 20th century, Francisco Franco’s dictatorship threatened the traditional dances of Spain. His desire to streamline the culture led to the ban of regional dances and their music for 35 years. After his death, the people of Spain filled the air with traditional music and danced with every ounce of pride they felt for the creativity, movement, and sound that had once defined their region.
Types of Spanish Dance
At one point, there were over 200 traditional and distinct Spanish dances. Although there are not as many today, we can still see the reflection of those dances in modern interpretations. The current well-known Spanish dances are combinations of those older choreographies that embody the spirit of the country and its people.
The Jota is a typical dance from northern Spain, which most likely originated in Aragón. It has spread to many different regions in the country where distinct groups have put their own touches on the dance. It features a quick-paced tempo as couples dance with their hands raised above their heads. They sometimes play castanets, which are percussion instruments made of two ivory or hardwood shells joined on one side by a cord and held within the palms of the hand. Other times they simply move their hands as if they had castanets.
Music: Guitars, bandurrias, lutes, dulzaina, and drums accompany the Castilian style of the Jota. The Galicians, though, use bagpipes, drums, and bombos, a type of bass drum.
Costumes: Interpreters of the Jota dress in regional costumes that reflect the history of their particular people group.
Watch the Jota here!
In what’s considered the “national dance” of Catalonia, multiple couples dance in circles using short, bouncy steps to move back and forth. While they start small, the circles grow bigger as more dancers participate, which acts as an artistic expression of unity.
Music: To perform the Sardana, the dancers need an 11-member band called a cobla. Various brass and woodwind instruments comprise the cobla, with the flaviol (similar to the flute) leading the group. The tambourine and bass help keep the beat for the dancers.
Costumes: Interestingly, this dance has no official dress. Because it is used to express unity, the dancers should wear their everyday clothes so they can communicate their desire for harmony between individuals from various walks of life.
Watch the Sardana here!
Both pairs and individuals dance along to the music of the gaita, a form of bagpipe. This traditional and playful dance is typical throughout Galego, Spain. Also known as Galicia, this place is an autonomous Celtic community recognized by the government of Spain. The title of the dance means “millstone” and “miller’s wife” in the community’s regional language of Galician. The measured movements are equivalent to those of a jig or lively folk music in compound meter.
Music: Bagpipes and castanets weave together in a fast-paced, lively tempo that energizes the dancers. This prompts loads of jumping, kicking, and improvising in a cheerful, spirited expression of this Celtic art.
Costumes: The woman wears a special kind of apron, or matelo, along with a vest (chaleco), silk scarf (peno), shirt (camisa), and skirt (falda). The man wears a jacket (chaqueta) and trousers (pantalón). He accessorizes his look with a hat, or monteira, and a silk scarf called a pana de namorar.
Watch Muñiera here!
The zambra is a passionate and sensual “barefoot Flamenco” style dance, known for having different influences. It began as a Moorish dance then morphed into a traditional dance for gypsy weddings. The Spaniards have kept it alive by adapting it to the Spanish dance customs of Flamenco. However, it is highly distinct from contemporary Flamenco. In zambra, the dancer does not wear shoes and the music accompaniment normally features a woman’s voice in deep song.
Music: The cante jondo, also known as deep song or Gypsy song, guides the zambra dance with its unique sound. One prominent note provides the foundation for the melody, which is then led by the guitar. Foreign influences have greatly influenced this style of song over the years. It now frequently utilizes the flamenco guitar coupled with Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms. This gives the cante jondo a fuller sound with beautiful highs and a tight low end.
Costumes: The costume used for Zambra includes a full skirt with ruffled edges and several underskirt layers that can be wielded as a cape. The look is completed with a blouse tied under the bust baring the midriff and a wide hip scarf with or without coins.
Watch Zambra here!
The bolero is one of the oldest and most traditional of the Spanish dances. In contrast to many others, the bolero was primarily a dance for a solo female performer whose hand and arm would move in sync to the accompaniment of castanets. The dance consists of sharp turns and revolutions of the body, with short quick rushes of two or three steps, going to one side, then to the other. The beating steps (called battements) are set in time to the music. When there is a sudden pause in the tune, the dancer stops rigidly in a picturesque pose, bending her body slightly backward, her hands on her hips, and her head erect and defiant.
Music: A slow Rumba-style music provides the beat for the bolero. However, many contemporary dancers use any song that has a very slow beginning, a faster-paced middle, and a slow end to it.
Costume: As a dance, bolero has evolved tremendously over the last two centuries and has tweaked its style along with the various costumes that show off its purpose. Some more traditional female dancers still use large, wide skirts with a frilled bottom and a long-sleeved shirt. Other dancers, though, wear a sleek, tight dress with slits on either side of a long skirt to highlight the various movements of their legs.
Watch the Bolero here!
There is some controversy about the origins of this dance, but it seems likely that it was born in Andalusia, Spain. Although it started as a folk dance, it was later copied and modified in other parts of the world. At one point the fandango was the most famous dance of Spain, where dancers usually “compete” to expand upon one another’s movements. Some movements include snapping their fingers or using castanets. The rhythm signaled by these maneuvers escalates throughout the song, making it a lively, happy Spanish dance.
Music: The Spanish both dance and sing the Fandango. Regardless, foot-stomping, hand-clapping (or palmas), castanets, and a clean, crisp guitar sound usually accompany the Fandango.
Costumes: Like many Spanish dances, the Fandango dancers use a particular costume. The woman’s dress is detailed with black lace, which contrasts the bright color of her short dress. Likewise, the man’s embellished vest reflects the details sewn into the woman’s dress.
Watch the Fandango here!
The Paso doble has a rich history with Spanish and French roots, danced as an embodiment of the Spanish bullfight. This quick one-step dance is a performance of great pride, arrogance and strength displayed by the man, who represents the torero, or bullfighter, while the woman dances around him with graceful curves as she morphs into the bullfighter’s cape that taunts the bull.
Music: This dance requires a fast-paced beat as it allows the torero to showcase his strength and prowess in movement. A good example is the traditional music faena, which is played during a bullfighter’s entrance into the ring – the paseo – or during the dramatic moments just before the torero kills the bull. One song in particular, the “Spanish Gypsy Dance,” has become the universal anthem of the Paso Doble.
Costumes: The costume is central to this dance, as it represents the full story of the bullfight in action. The man often wears a traditional bullfighter’s costume while the woman, acting as the cape, wears a long circular skirt whose sensual fluid movement enhances the drama of the dance.
Watch Paso Doble here!
A soulful, passionate dance that originated with the Roma (gypsies) in Andalusia, Spain, flamenco has become internationally known for its emotionally riveting dance moves, hard foot stamping in rhythm with the guitar, and intense outpour of palpable sentiments. Finger snapping, hand clapping, and shouting accompany the song and dance.
Music: The core of flamenco lies with the music since the canto, or song, sets the tone of the entire dance. There are three forms of song in flamenco: profoundly tragic and deep, moderately serious, or light in themes of love and nature.
Costumes: Women wear colorful dresses with multi-layered sleeves and skirts – batas de cola – to add dramatic flair to their movements. Although the women’s costumes are much more elaborate than the men’s, the gentlemen also wear impressive costumes. Their attire mimics the style of the traditional matador’s costume that was worn during bullfights.
Watch Flamenco here!
It Takes Two
Spanish dances have a clear and present impact on dance all over the world. It continues to evolve and grow into new forms of artistic expression for those who choose to dance and embody them. The dancer and the dance develop a special bond, which is one of the most sacred expressions in the human experience. One dance in particular, Flamenco, has proved to be of such value to Spanish culture itself. In terms of defining and characterizing it, that UNESCO has named it an “Item of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. Learning any of the aforementioned Spanish dances is an exceptional way to open your horizons. These dances open the door to learning more Spanish and provide the perfect excuse to travel to Spain!
For the Love of Latin Dance
Are you looking to learn more about dance in Latin countries? Look no further! We visited a Guatemalan latin dance instructor named Martin to give us the best tips on how to cha-cha-cha and more. Check it out here!
In this video, you’ll see how to shake your chest and hips in dances like the Bachata—native to the Dominican Republic—the Merengue, and the Cha-cha-cha. You’ll even learn some salsa steps from Puerto Rico. You don’t want to miss it!
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