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Home > Dance History

Cultural identity through dance in Spain

By Natasha Payne

España…what connotations does the word carry? Surely one of the first stereotypes that springs to mind is that of passion and fiesta until the early hours, accompanied by a bronzed female with a long frilly dress and a flower in her hair. However, I aim to undermine this simplistic cliché by examining Spain’s constantly shifting identity throughout history and arguing that even today, the existence of one national image that most Spaniards can identify with is doubtful.

Dance, just like any form of art, is not just a social manifestation, but rather a reflection of society itself. In the case of Spain, the course of history is expressed through traditional folklore styles and those common to other countries, such as ballet and contemporary dance.

Taking the 20th century as a starting point, after the Spanish Civil War, a centralized Spanish nationalism, based on past tradition, was promoted by the Franco regime. Flamenco, the notorious folk dance originating from Andalusian gypsies, and La Escuela Bolera, Spanish classical dance which also incorporates characteristics of folklore, were used as instruments of propaganda, smothering other forms of expression. These intense forms of dance, permeated with spontaneous olés and golpes (stamps), are strongly associated with the passionate stereotype of Spain that was portrayed during the dictatorship and that still exists today.

Nevertheless, with the fall of the Franco regime and the return to democracy in 1978, Spain experienced a revolution, both within and beyond the field of dance. Spaniards felt the need to create and participate in something new that broke with the old ways of the dictatorship. This search for modernisation was manifested with an artistic boom: not only did the amount of literature published and films produced suddenly increase, but dancers began to experiment with modern dance. Having been previously restricted from communicating their ideas and feelings, Spaniards were attracted by the communicative system of dance in which the performer enjoys total freedom of expression. Liberated from the previous repression dictated by religious tradition, people also discovered a new-found awareness of their bodies – the perfect companion for what lies at the heart of modern dance: the emancipation of the body. Dance institutions such as El Ballet Nacional, under the direction of Antonio Gades, were formed as Spaniards attempted to create a new national identity based on modernity and liberal expression.

Spanish choreographers searched for themes that captured lo español (the essence of Spain) and aimed to integrate it into choreographic modernity. But, after such a turnaround, what did the country’s national identity consist of? Despite what one might expect, the cliché of the fervent Spanish temperament was left behind. In contrast, the tragic sense of life was commonly used as a base for new creations. Even before Franco’s death, choreographers outside of Spain used the Spanish Civil War as a foundation for their choreographies, for example José Limón’s Danza de la Muerte (1937) and Pauline Koner’s Tragic Fiesta (1939). After the return to democracy, tragedy continued to be a widespread theme, frequently associated with the works and life of the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca: Bodas de Sangre (Ballet Nacional de España), Romancero Gitano (Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía) and Cruel Garden (Rambert Ballet) based on Lorca’s life.

Another element to consider when studying Spanish national identity is that of the country’s Autonomous Communities. In Franco’s efforts to make Spain a uniform state, he attempted to remove the traditions and languages from such regions. In order to unite against this repression, folk dance was used as a symbol of the regions’ pride and identity, based on their traditional ways of life. Ever since the legalisation of the Communities, the idea that Spain's identity consists more of an overlap of diverse regional identities than of a single Spanish identity has grown stronger and stronger. An example is that of the people of Catalonia, who tend to think of themselves as responsible and hard-working, an identity based on reason, not passion; a total contradiction of the cliché we tend to associate with Spaniards. This identity is promoted with the traditional sardana dance in Catalonia, an expression of the customs that originate in their region and differ from those throughout the rest of Spain. A similar situation may occur in Galicia with the muñeira and the zorcico from the Basque Country.

As we can see, typecasting Spaniards as ardent individuals, reluctant to work but eager to party may not be altogether correct. It is undeniable that certain traits belonging to this stereotype were promoted during Franco’s regime via traditional symbols of Spanish folklore such as flamenco, but this image was soon discarded after his death. People were suddenly at liberty to escape from the rigid national image that had been created, an aim achieved through an outburst of creativity and experimentation, especially with new dance forms. Themes entirely opposed to Franco’s manipulated image of Spain, such as tragedy, were chosen to represent the core of the country in new choreographies and the cultural diversity provided by the Autonomous Communities was encouraged instead of suppressed. The result of all of this is that although Spain is able to enjoy an extensive range of customs originating from all over the world, such variety within the Peninsular, together with the inconsistent image of the country during the last few centuries, makes the construction of a sole national identity rather problematic. The image of the flamenco dancer certainly seems too simple to encompass what the country has to offer.

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