It’s fiery. It’s passionate.
It was banned for decades for being too “sensual.”
And yet, Buzz Lightyear did it in the animated children’s film Toy Story 3.
What am I talking about?
Spanish dancing, of course!
Your mind probably goes straight to flamenco, which is by far the most popular dance in Spain.
However, as I’ve recently found out, there’s a lot more to dancing in Spain than energetic flamenco performances with stomping feet and strumming guitars!
Traditional Spanish dance has a long, complex history, including more than a dozen regional dances unrelated to flamenco.
Keep reading and let’s explore the fascinating world of Spanish dances!
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The History of Dancing in Spain
In ancient times, Spain was conquered and ruled by the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain established the first global empire that stretched from the Americas to the Phillippines.
With so many different cultural footprints over the years — Greek, Celtic, African, Jewish, Gypsy, Arab, and more — is it any wonder that music and the arts (including dancing) flourished in Spain?
Like other parts of the world, dancing in Spain began with ritualistic ceremonies centred around battles and war.
During the Middle Ages, the focus shifted to religion and sombre, structured themed dances.
Everything changed during the Renaissance, which began in the 15th century.
Serious, subdued dances were replaced with happier, free-moving styles of dance.
Folk dances emerged in each region in Spain connected with local customs, holidays, and festivals.
Then, during the Baroque period, the first Roma gypsies arrived in Spain, bringing their free-spirited music and dancing with them.
Historians point to this “blend” of traditional folk dance with gypsy influence that led to the birth of the most famous Spanish dance of all — flamenco.
By the Romantic era of the 19th century, flamenco had a firm foothold in Spanish literature and the arts.
It appeared onstage in ballets, operas, and theatre performances.
In the late 1800s, flamenco became commercialised as bars and cafes began hosting evening performances for travellers.
Motion pictures further spread the popularity and mystique of Spanish dancing during the 20th century.
At a time when sex could only be inferred onscreen, the sensuality of Spanish dance became a highlight of many classic films.
Meanwhile, back in Spain, the popularity of traditional dances declined during the post-war Franco era.
Thankfully, since Spanish Communism ended in 1975, there’s been a resurgence in traditional arts, music, and Spanish dances.
Different Types of Spanish Dances
Now that you understand the background of dancing in Spain, let’s talk about some of the most popular types of Spanish dancing.
We’ll start with the big player — flamenco — which is unquestionably the most well-known of the dances in Spain.
As mentioned earlier, flamenco has its roots in gypsy culture, which originated in India over 1,000 years ago.
Everywhere the gypsies settled in their westward trek, they were marginalized and persecuted, with their “bohemian” way of life viewed as a threat to traditional society.
Why is it important to understand this background?
Because it’s the heart and soul of flamenco dancing.
The energy, temperament, and passion of the dance reflect the centuries-long struggle that the gypsy community has experienced.
Every performance runs the gamut of emotions — joy, grief, tragedy, fear, rejoicing, hope — often bringing the performers and audience to tears.
Flamenco is made up of four important elements.
There’s the song (cante), the dance (baile), the music (toque), and percussion (jaleo), which includes clapping, snapping, stomping, and percussion instruments, such as tambourines and castanets.
The performance often begins with the cante.
The singers (male, female, or both) remain seated and sing beautiful, simple lyrics without any background music.
Then baile is introduced as one or more performers express the emotions of joy, sadness, and everything in between through dance.
Male dancers display high bursts of energy through rapid, heavy stomping of their feet, while female dancers often use slower, more sensuous movements.
At some point, toque is introduced with the guitar.
The musician may strum quickly or slowly to match the mood of the song and dance performance.
Far more than a casual pastime, flamenco transcends history, cultural backgrounds, and social classes.
Once shunned by the aristocracy, it soon began showing up in religious festivals, government ceremonies, and bullfights.
It first became popular outside of Spain during the 1950s, when the Franco regime needed money and saw an opportunity to capitalise on foreigners’ interest in the “exotic” art form.
Today it is internationally beloved as one of the world’s most beautiful dances.
It’s no surprise, then, that in 2010 UNESCO added flamenco to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
If you visit Catalonia (the northeast region of Spain sharing a border with France), you’ll find an ancient folkloric dance known as the sardana.
It’s so popular and deeply rooted in the culture there that it’s officially known as the national dance of Catalonia.
This dance involves alternating men and women who join hands and dance in a circle.
It’s accompanied by music from a cobla, an ensemble of 11 musicians playing wind instruments and drums.
No one is sure exactly when or how the sardana developed.
Historians believe it’s rooted in other ancient circle dances dating back to the times of the ancient Greeks.
Like flamenco, it transcends social class and was enjoyed for centuries by nobility and commoners alike.
Sardana doesn’t involve any complicated footwork or great physical feats, so it’s suitable for people of all ages and abilities.
During public performances, it’s not unusual for passersby to join in the fun…
3. Paso Doble
Which Spanish dance mimics a bullfight, appears in 18th-century comedies, and was once used to train militia?
If you guessed the paso doble, you’re correct!
The paso doble, or “two-step,” is believed to have originated in southern France in the early 1900s.
There, soldiers would march using quick footwork known as “pasa redoble”.
Meanwhile, something similar happened in Spain.
Apparently, the fast-paced paso doble music was originally played to train Spanish infantry troops to march at double the normal speed — 120 steps per minute.
Later, it became the rousing introductory theme played when bullfighters entered the arena.
Although troops no longer two-step and many Spanish cities have outlawed bullfighting, the paso doble is alive and well.
In fact, it’s one of five Latin dances that appear in international competitions.
The dance (see below) involves a man and a woman, where the man plays the part of the matador and the woman plays the part of the bull.
They dance to a slow-building song using sharp, confident movements, with their heads and chests held high. It also features flamenco-inspired stomps and claps.
Did you know that parts of northwest Spain were heavily influenced by Celtic culture?
Look no further than the Galician muiñiera, which more closely resembles the Irish jig than the fiery flamenco.
Dancers perform to a lively, upbeat tempo that comes from — are you ready for it? — a bagpipe known as a “gaita”.
The dancers form circles and parallel lines, where they spin, hop, and jump in time with the fast-paced music.
The dance is playful and jovial, expressing elements of chivalry and gallantry.
Muiñiera performers dress modestly compared to flamenco dancers, usually wearing traditional folk costumes.
Women wear a blouse, a scarf, and a long skirt with an apron, while men wear trousers and a traditional jacket, vest, and hat.
There are variations of the jota across Spain, but the most famous one comes from the region of Aragon.
The dance developed sometime in the 18th century and became popular across the entire nation during the 19th century.
Jota comes from a medieval word meaning “jump,” which is an accurate description of the dance’s main characteristic.
The jota features fast, energetic music and equally fast footwork, with plenty of jumps and hops thrown in.
Traditionally danced in pairs, many call it a courtship dance. In other parts of Spain, the dance’s theme varies from religion to patriotism to sexual exploits.
Today it’s considered one of the national folk dances of Spain.
To see the Aragonese jota in its purest form, get tickets to a performance in Zaragoza, Calanda, Albalate, or Andorra.
Similar to flamenco but more sensual (even risque), the “zambra mora” has roots that are decidedly Andalusian.
It was traditionally danced at gypsy weddings and today is performed mainly for tourists visiting Granada.
The zambra blends the lively dancing style of the Roma gypsies with traditional Arabian belly dancing.
Barefoot women in long skirts perform the dance with their shirts tied under their chest to expose their midriff.
The accompanying music has a Middle Eastern flair that could make you forget you’re in Spain. In fact, it’s been called the perfect fusion of Spanish and Arabic dance styles.
No discussion of dancing in Spain would be complete without mentioning the bolero.
Historians believe it to be a blend of two other Spanish dances that were popular in the 1700s — the Sevillana and the contradanza.
Elegant, graceful, and beautiful to watch (see below!), the bolero became the dance of choice in 18th-century ballrooms.
It can be performed solo or as a couple and is comparable to a slower version of today’s rumba.
Although not often performed outside the professional ballroom anymore, its legacy lives on in dozens of famous musical pieces.
Classic composers including Chopin, Verdi, and Herve all composed boleros for orchestra and opera performances.
10 Fun Facts About Spanish Dancing
Still keen to learn more about the dances of Spain? Here are some fascinating bite-sized facts about Spanish dances!
1. In the 19th and 20th centuries, flamenco performances took place in seedy urban areas and were most often performed by the ostracized Roma Gypsy population.
2. During the Franco era, from the late 1930s to the mid-1970s, the Communist government banned regional music and dancing in hopes of creating a “unified” Spain.
3. Obi-Wan Kenobi can dance? That’s right! A young Alec Guinness dances a sultry rumba flamenco with actress Yvonne de Carlo in the 1953 flick The Captain’s Paradise.
4. Fifteen to twenty minutes into a performance, flamenco dancers are said to fall into a “duende,” a trance-like state where emotion takes hold and leads the dancer to ecstasy.
5. Outside of Spain, flamenco is most popular in the United States and Japan. In fact, there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain!
6. The oldest known record of flamenco dates to 1774 in the book Las Cartas Marruecas.
7. The songs in flamenco performances include elements of Punjabi singing, Persian Zyriab, Jewish synagogue chanting, Arabic Zayal, and Caribbean/Latin American music.
8. The city of Barcelona hosts regular sardana performances in front of the Gothic Cathedral. It’s not unusual for hundreds or even thousands of participants to join in the fun!
9. Still surprised by the muiñiera dance and the popularity of bagpipes in Galicia? You’ll be even more surprised to learn that the world’s largest bagpipe museum isn’t in Scotland or Ireland — it’s in the small town of Ourense, Spain.
10. The zambra dance was banned throughout Spain for centuries because it was considered too sensual.
Traditional Spanish Dance 101: Class Dismissed
Flamenco might be the first Spanish dance that comes to your mind.
But, as we’ve discussed, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dancing in Spain.
Every region has its own style of dance and music that reflects the local culture.
The fact that all of these Spanish dances have survived through centuries of wars and political changes is a true testament to the fortitude of the Spanish people.
You can learn more about Spanish dancing by watching YouTube videos or attending a cultural performance in your area. Better yet, book a flight to Spain and get ready to enjoy the real thing!
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