A guide to the traditional dances of Spain

Stop what you’re doing for a second! Name a traditional Spanish dance. The chances are you’re thinking of a dancer delivering an emotional and hypnotising performance in a …

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Spanish Dances guide

Stop what you’re doing for a second! Name a traditional Spanish dance.

The chances are you’re thinking of a dancer delivering an emotional and hypnotising performance in a traditional dress alongside some rather passionate music – an internationally recognised dance called Flamenco. Alternatively you could be thinking of a similar, yet more upbeat dance that’s heavily inspired by the Flamenco called the Sevillana. It’s easy to mix them all up! The fact is there are dozens of traditional dances from all around Spain so let’s take a look at them.

The Jota

Aragonese Jota
Couple amidst an Aragonese Jota

One of the most popular dances commonly found around the Spain is the Jota (pronounced ho-ta). Though to many Spaniards Jota is simply the letter ‘J’, it comes from the word of a medieval Iberic language “xatha” adapted from the Mozarabic “sáwta”- to jump. The two most famous types of Jota in Spain are the Jota Aragonese and the Muñeira (Galician Jota).

So prominent is it that many regions have their own variations of this lively caper accompanied by different styles of music. All share the general lively vibe, typically featuring pairs of dancers that perform elegant leaps, curved arm movements, kicks, and spins as the main visage of these choreographies. Even Catalonia has its own version of this dance.

Take a look:

The Sardana

Sardana dance
A typical Catalan Sardana circle dance

This is without a doubt the most Catalan of dances as it’s unique to the region (okay, and Andorra who liked it enough to use it too). A type of circle dance, a Sardana brings together people in community spirit as it is a group dance typically shared during celebrations. Played to traditional music, what makes the Sardana special is that the dance goes in defined phases of short and long steps. Men and women are placed alternately in the circle and a typical structure of the dance steps is Intro, short, short, long, long, short, long, break (arms lowered while flute plays a quick riff), long, synchronised finale. But there are longer and quicker variations too.

The grace of this dance is that it can be as complicated or as simple as the participants wish to make it. Traditionally though it is a simple dance as the fun is had in partaking rather than watching.

Here’s a traditional Sardana:

The Fandango

Fandango in Malaga
A Fandango at a festival in Malaga

Will you do the Fandango? In Spain they have been since around 1700. This is a typical and lovely couples or “rivalry” dance (depending on the genders involved) that features spins and all-round merriment. Much like a waltz it goes in triple time and much like a Jota it features castanets. So popular is this dance that you will also see it in countries like Portugal and Mexico. Each region of Spain seems to have its own variation, and in some areas like Andalusia is has evolved as far as to become a variation on Flamenco.

Heres a traditional one though:

The Sevillanas

Sevillanas
Various dance partners performing the Sevillanas

A Sevillinas dance to an outsider may at first seem glaringly identical to a Flamenco, but don’t be mistaken. In its raw and original format, the dance dates back to one called a Seguidilla. Originally a lively and upbeat partner dance with animated leg movement alongside a stiff upper body. Because of the rhythm of the 3 verses, the seguidilla style was popular in operas by artists like Bizet and Offenbach. Eventually, with the strong influence that flamenco had on Spanish culture during the 1700s, this popular dance fused old and new creating something that we know today as the Sevillanas style of dance. As such it is a great entry for many dancers into the world of Flamenco dancing.

The Flamenco

Flamenco performance
A full on flamenco performance with baile, cante, toque, and jaleo.

Why is flamenco so recognised? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s said to have come from a fusion of cultures including the moors, gypsies, and even Jews. It’s no wonder then, that the cultural organisation of UNESCO recognises it as one of the most important pieces of heritage in the world. It is a full performance of song (cante), dance (baile), guitar (toque), and jaleo, which refers to the exclamations and outburst of encouragement such as “venga”, “eso es”, “así se baila”, and of course “olé”. There are many technical rules for the accompanying music, but the cante typically comes straight from the heart and is to be felt and heard as the pure will of expression of its performer.

Modern flamenco is such a vast spectrum of dance that there are a wide variety of musical styles or “palos” that accompany it. There are too many to list but suffice to say flamenco in its most raw and visceral form is much more of an improvised affair rather than choreographed. This means to see a traditional flamenco performance you’d need to be lucky enough to witness a “juerga” – a term used to describe a spontaneous jam session of sorts between artists – as opposed to a staged performance, which is more likely to be modern Flamenco. That said, modern flamenco is an incredibly refined and elegant field that dancers study for years to perfect. Both modern and traditional are beautiful in their own rights, and you’ll be pleased to witness either.

Here is an example of a juerga flamenca in action with Juan de Juan (note the setting and atmosphere):

Aurresku de honor

Aurresku de honor dance at a Basque wedding
Traditional Aurresku dancer honouring a newly wedded couple

Last but not least – and certainly the most honourable – is the Basque country’s Aurresku de honor dance. This is easily the most charming considering it is a dance specifically to pay honour or homage to someone (typically a man to a woman), be it at a wedding, stately event, or a celebration as simple as the one you’ll see in the video that follows. It customarily starts with a dancer in traditional white outfit and hat opening with a spin to the introduction before removing said hat and throwing it to the person whom they are honouring.

The dance itself involves intricate footwork that mimics the accompanying instruments and is complimented by leaps that make for stunning photos when frozen in mid-air. There are pauses throughout for the performer to take an admiring bow and onlooker(s) to applaud to return the admiration. It’s fun, it’s quirky, and you should certainly hope to see one!

Here it is:

And of course, even with all that said and done, there are countless more dances from around Spain with a plethora of names like the Chotis, Bolero, Corri-Corri, Ball pla, pericote, pasodoble, danza prima… and more! So the next time you thought the Spanish only danced the flamenco, well… Think again!

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