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Dancing to the rhythm of cultures

Updated Sunday, 24 September 2023

Spain exhibits a vast array of traditional dances all over the country. This article looks at the Flamenco, religious dances and more...

Image of spanish dancers' feet with brightly coloured skirts Throughout history the people of Spain have expressed the richness of their culture through music and dance. Greek and Romans as well as subsequent groups of visitors recorded the presence of dancing practices in the Iberian Peninsula. The emergent movements and sounds of the diverse population reflect not only the character of the various ethnic groups but also the complex relationship between religion and politics.

To this day, Spain exhibits a vast array of traditional dances all over the country. Fast and slow, spacious and contained, circular and open, in groups, pairs and individual, Spanish dance displays all the varieties of human choreographic arrangements. Communities pass their local dances, songs and music to the next generations together with their costumes and instruments. A salient characteristic is that men play an important role in these dancing events. The dominance of the masculine is particularly evident in Andalusia where most dances are still executed by groups of men.

Within what is considered traditional or folk dancing, three fundamental types have been identified in the Spanish territories: religious dances, war dances and propitiation dances. All of these share a connection with devotion and worship, hence the common presence of civil and ecclesiastic authorities in dance events of this nature. Spanish people dance during religious festivities and rituals to their Catholic virgins and saints. They dance in order to honour the Christian faith and to request favours against the dangers of the times.

Spanish dancing festival, painted on oil canvas by Joaquín Sorolla. Aragon, Jota by Joaquin Sorolla Dance words

In the Spanish language there are two main words to describe expressive movement: baile (/ˈbʌɪle/) and danza (/danθa/).

The origin of both terms is uncertain but it is believed that the word baile comes from Latin ballare, and the word danza comes from French danser.

Although danza is commonly used to refer to ritualised or choreographed movement, both terms are mostly used indistinctively. In fact, a third word is sometimes used to refer to dance in the region of Aragon: dance (/danθe/). The dance refers to a specific version of a processional dance of a more theatrical and symbolic nature.

People who dance are called in Spanish bailarines (bailarinas in feminine) or danzantes. Although in the case of flamenco, those who dance are bailaores or bailaoras, and in Basque dance, dancers are known as dantzari.

Religious dancing

Dance acts in religious festivities in Spain reflect the intricate powers of politics and religion after the expulsion of the Moors and Jews. The historic opposition of the Christian church to include dancing in its rituals is well documented. However, in the Spanish battle between physicality and spirituality, the body became victorious. Pagan customs of dancing were deeply rooted in Spanish rituals by the time Ferdinand and Isabella took control of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The reality of widely spread and continuous dance practices forced a syncretism of two world views were dance became a popular expression of religious sentiment. The consequence was an intimate connection between dance and the Catholic Church rituals that would last to this date.

Seises in Seville Cathedral Seises in Seville Cathedral The dance of the seises has been practised in major Catholic festivities within the cathedral of Seville since the first decade of the 16th century. Originally six (seis) choir boys danced to simple choreographed movement to the sound of their own singing and playing of rattles (sonajas). A century later the number was increased to ten boys and by the end of the 17th century they were already playing the distinctive castanets. A version of this ceremony can also be seen in Cordoba and Guadix.

Less well known are a variety of church dances in other Andalusian villages, which usually take place inside the temple before or after a street procession. For instance, every May, in Fuente Tojar (Cordoba) eight men with their heads covered, start their dance in honour of Saint Isidoro before the procession initiates its route across the streets.

Nevertheless, church dances were to experience constant threats. Music was consistently welcomed in public spaces and temples, but not dance, since body movement did not go well with the idea of religious reverence. In 1685, the archbishop of Seville condemned the dances of the seises but in 1690 the boys were sent to Rome to dance for the Pope Alexander VIII who, pleased with their performance, authorised them again. The legend tells that the Pope stated a condition for maintaining this practice: the same costumes should be always worn.

By the 18th century, the great majority of worship dances were moved to the streets with only music and singing allowed inside churches. In 1777, pressed by the bishop of Plasencia, Charles III approved a Royal Decree (Real Cédula) that limited popular dance activities. Dance inside churches was forbidden but also were nocturnal dancing rituals, and any dance addressing any religious imagery.

Procesión San Pedro Apóstol Valladolid 2015 from VILLAFRADES on Vimeo.

The united political and religious powers were unable to eradicate the passion of Spanish people for dancing. Placing choreographic acts outdoors did not weaken the connection between the social and the religious. In fact, religious dances continued to arise in various sites and forms in the next centuries.

War dances

Spanish woman dressed up ready for festivity War dances are well recorded all over Spain from 17th century. They became popular forms of social storytelling across the Iberian Peninsula. They were a vehicle for people to engage with their political and religious history. War dances offered a participatory space by which people could not only learn about their past but they could also enact and consolidate it.

In many parts of the country war dances are linked to the Christian rule after the victory against Muslim power. Spades, sticks and protective seals are common props for simulated battles, which inevitably end in the triumph of the Christian soldiers and the conversion of the infidels. Real horses, but most commonly fake ones made of wood, cardboard or wicker, are frequently seen in the dancing spectacles. Fancy costumes establish the identity of two main groups Moors and Christians (moros y cristianos). By dancing as Christians or Moors, women, men and children acknowledge the presence of these cultural forces within them.

Propitiation dances

Spaniards also focus their dances, although to a much lesser extent, to influence farming practices as well as the destiny of the dead. Interestingly, the city of Cordoba stands out for their propitiation dancing practices. As all the other types of ritual dance, these dances are performed outdoors.

Flamenco: The singing lament that became a dance

Flamenco is first song, then dance and finally guitar. It is not Spanish dance as the international community may think. As we have seen, in Spain there are multiple and distinct ritual dance forms.

The origins of flamenco are debated but there is no dispute about the fact that it was an eclectic form of gypsy singing born in the South of Spain known as deep song (cante jondo). The etymology of the actual word ‘flamenco’ is also unknown. Several hypotheses have been proposed by scholars but none is supported with enough evidence.

The writer James Woodall has explained that flamenco “bears witness to all the major historical and ethnic upheavals of the Iberian Peninsula over a thousand years”. Gypsies were a novelty group that arrived in Northern Spain from the East and were immediately labelled as Egyptians. The gypsy preference for spatial mobility and the use of their own language was restricted by law; however that did not cause a mass exodus as in the case of other ethnic groups. Luckily for them, in the eyes of the Inquisition, gypsies did not appear worthy of persecution. Therefore, the various regions of Andalusia became their home.

Flamenco singing started to manifest in the 16th century. It amalgamated gypsy ritualistic habits with the local musical languages. Originally, it was just that, a tragic song with a range of percussive bodily sounds. Fingers, palms, knuckles and stamping feet dialogued with a melody of words. Poverty and marginalisation forged an oral lament transmitted in natural and social spaces entering the homes in the nineteenth century but also conquering minor artistic stages. By then, flamenco had incorporated dancing and the guitar. In this fuller version, it transformed itself into spontaneous entertainment for family and friends but also into formal shows for the wider public in the cafés cantantes, where the castanets were also introduced. Eventually, in the second half of the twentieth century, flamenco proliferated within the walls of tablaos, a folk version of nightclubs. More than a natural expansion, the relocation of flamenco in this new context has been explained as an economic strategy of the political establishment in order to take advantage of the tourist industry.

Image of people in 1850 sitting around in a cafe together. 'Un cafe cantante' by Jose Alarcon Suarez (1850)

As opposed to other traditional dances of Spain, flamenco dancing has no direct links to religious spirituality; it is rather an existential response to being human. Flamenco expressions encapsulate the deepest joys and sorrows of human life. Each individual involved in flamenco appeals to their inner feelings that get articulated in historical sounds, gestures and language. This means flamenco had at its roots an intrinsic individuality compared to the other traditional dance forms from Spain.

Dance beyond the empire

Dance traditions are one of the cultural elements that the Conquistadors took with them to the New World. Vestiges of the Spanish musical sounds and movements are found across Latin America. In fact, a dynamic dialogue has been recognised between the singing and dancing cultures of Latin America and Spain. The concept of “roundtrip songs” (cantes de ida y vuelta) was created to refer to the mix of Andalusian and Latin American songs that, after being transformed by the Americans, travelled back to Spain in their new hybrid forms.

Spaniards found in the New World participatory bodies. The native Americans as well as the slaves of African origin displayed a fondness for physical expressivity which was a perfect match for an invading festive culture with dance, music and singing at the core of their identity. Spanish traditional dances spread quickly in the New World but the indigenous dance repertoire was also very attractive to Spanish sensibilities which allowed them in specific events.

As it was the case in Spain, there were various attempts to restrict dance from public forms of worship as well as for sheer enjoyment in the Latin American territories. However, recognising the unifying power of dancing, some ecclesiastical groups proposed pious singing and reciting of poems as accompaniment to the dances in religious celebrations and festivities. This had a seductive effect for the indigenous population and a repertoire of mestizo dance was born. Autochthonous dances blended with the imported dances around religious practices. Dance not only became a means to teach the Catholic rituals, it was also a tool to teach the Spanish language.

Unsurprisingly, with time, some popular dance forms aimed at criticising political and religious impositions. Others had what it was seen as some degree of eroticism. These forms were immediately detected by the Inquisition that was also at work in the Americas, in order to ensure “good manners” in the behaviour of the population. Being persecuted only meant that dance practices outside that criterion simply became clandestine.

La Zamacueca, by Manuel Antonio Caro. Chile. La zamacueca by Manuel Antonio Caro (1873)

During the Independence period throughout the 19th century, popular dance forms not only survived, they became part of the rebellion. Many dances went through a process of secularisation and were reinvented with a strong socio-political narrative. After the Independence from the Spanish Empire, dances adopted their national and distinct characters that can be appreciated nowadays as the joropo in Venezuela, the cumbia in Colombia, the tango in Argentina, or the danzón in Cuba.


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