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January 2002
by Marina Keet

Another holiday in the Canary Island of Gran Canaria prompts me to write
about their dances for a second time. It was precisely one year ago that I
visited the island. My previous article on this subject (see bibliography at end
of this article) was mainly about a visit to the revered Spanish dancer Trini
Borrull who lives there, but also about a memorable performance which I saw
by groups from three of the islands: ".... we went to watch the local folk
dancing in a charming square in an area of Las Palmas called Pueblo Canario
(the Cañarían Village), reconstructed in traditional Cañarían style." ... "The
music has a specific sound and is reminiscent of that of the Balearic Islands.
However, there is just that touch of influence from South America to make it

Some of the dances of the Canary Islands are: 'La Isa1, the old Canary
Island jota; a simple 'Malagueña* inherited via Andalusia, a province which has
also influenced the local accent; 'El Paragua' from Tenerife; the 'Tanaguillo de
Santo Domingo', which was said to be a type of seguidillas. All have a slight
touch of gracious nostalgia. The stately 'Mazurca', the lively 'Polca', and the
'Berlina' which is most common on the islands of Fuerteventura, La Palma and
El Hierro, were all introduced to the islands in the 19th century from Central
Europe (Eddy, 1989 - see bibliography). It should be stressed here that the
islanders have over the centuries had far more contact with South America
than with mainland Spain or with the rest of Europe, and even their dialect of
Spanish is more akin to that in South America. There has been a lot of cross

These subtropical islands fall into two groups, the 'lusher' western
ones of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, La Palma, Gomera and El Hierro (Ferro),
rising directly from the ocean floor and ending in volcanic mountains - the
highest mountain on Spanish soil, rising to 3,718 m, is Teide Peak on
Tenerife. And the more arid eastern ones of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote that
are more like Western Sahara, which is only 90 km away; they differ from the
others in that they are made up of flat lava flows. A third of Lanzarote was
covered by lava as late as in the 18th century. The cool current from the
north gives the islands a delightful climate all year round, with a remarkably
even temperature, the average afternoon temperature varying from 21 degrees
C (70 degrees F) in January to 26 degrees C (79 degrees F) in August. Eddy
states that the micro-climate has allowed some animal and plant species to
develop virtually unaffected by the ice ages. Certainly there are fascinating
plants and some beautiful flowers.

The original inhabitants, long extinct, were Berbers from Morocco,
usually called 'Guanches', who arrived in the islands during the five centuries
before the birth of Christ. The name 'Canaria' comes from the Spanish word
cane or dog, because of all the large dogs on the islands mentioned by the
Roman author Pliny the Elder. The Romans became aware of the islands
through the writings of Plutarch and Pliny who preserved the account by Juba
II, King of Mauritania, of an expedition in about 40 BC. The islands were
visited by Arabs (in 999), Genoese, Mallorcans, Portuguese and French
navigators. Juan de Béthencourt became king in 1404 by order of Henry III of
Castile. After conquering Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro in 1406 he
returned to Spain, leaving his nephew Maciot in charge. The Portuguese and
Spanish vied for the islands until a treaty was signed in 1496 recognising them
as belonging to Spain. Christopher Columbus, whose house is still intact in
Las Palmas, used the islands to replenish his stocks on his voyages to the

An unhappy event in these otherwise so happy islands is that at dawn
on 18 July 1936 General Fancisco Franco (a non-Canarian) launched the fascist
rebellion from his military post in the Canary Islands, triggering off the
Spanish Civil War which directly caused the death of more than half a million people,
and indirectly of many more. From his base in the Canary Islands hewent to Morocco,
secured the loyalty of the Spanish troops there, and then went on to subjugate Spain
itself, often using Moroccan troops against his own people.

Today the Canary Islands are an autonomous community of Spain, established
as such on 10 August 1982. There is a movement for complete independence,
and you see its slogans on the islands, like "Seven Islands, one People", but
only a minority of the voters support it. The autonomous community is divided
into the two provincias of Las Palmas and Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

The most famous dance from these islands, the 'Canario* or 'Canary*,
became all the rage in Europe in the 16th century. It is a spirited couple
dance with a catchy tune, and it is now classified as a historic dance rather
than as a regional one. It was first written about in an Italian dance manual of
1581, and then again in the French 'Orchesographie' published in 1588 by
Thoinot Arbeau. He preferred to think of it "as a ballet composed for a
masquerade in which the dancers were dressed as kings and queens of
Mauritania, or as savages with feathers dyed of many a hue." The dance is
mentioned in Shakespeare's 'All is well that ends well': "Make you dance the
Canary with sprightly fire and motion", and musical examples are found in the
harpsichord suites of Couperin (Craine and Mackrell, 2000). Eddy states that
"By the eighteenth century the Cañarían had been turned into a courtly and
pompous Jota instead of a truly wild jig".

The Canario's most interesting link is in Argentina where it is still full
of life and exciting as the Argentinian 'Zapateado' known under the name of
the 'Malambo' which has a more direct link to the 'Canario' than to the Spanish
'Zapateado'. It is a VERY strong link. The beats are done with the same
slapping movements as in the Canario. The spurs worn at the back of the
boots in the 'Malambo' are often used when the foot kicks forward, so typical
in the Canario, back and across. The variations are endless. However, the
Argentines have added the swinging of the implement used to catch cattle and
other animals, the 'bolas', two balls linked with a long thong. They swing this
in various patterns around them as they dance, holding the one ball and
hitting the floor sometimes in a rhythmical way to accent the beat or in
contratiempo. I have seen this danced with the balls doused in petrol and set
alight. In the dark, the flames moving through the air and the rhythmic
stamping is spectacular. I have also seen a dancer hit himself on the head by
mistake and get concussion; he managed to walk off the stage before

Eddy also compares the 'Canario' to the "present-day 'Sirinoque' of La
Palma, which has a lot in common with the 'Tajaraste' of Tenerife and Gomera.
The word 'Tajaraste' is Berber in origin and is the name used for a rattle or a
tambourine accompanying a dance or chanting." The lyrics of the modem
'Tajaraste' are clearly pagan in origin, despite the use of Mary and Joseph as
the two protagonists, and they are explicit in their reference to fertility or
lack of it."

By the end of the 18th century the dances from mainland Spain began to
appear, among them the dances mentioned in my previous article on this
subject - the 'Folia', a court dance from the 16th century introduced by early
colonists but only becoming established as a folk dance a century or so later.
The steps are reminiscent of the old, elegant 'Jotas' of Aragón, the feet
tapping the toe lightly on the floor and stepping elegantly with legs raised in
front with a bent knee. The woman dances with her partner and moves on,
changing partners, following the dance in a circle and eventually returning to
her own original partner.

The 'Malagueña', a Fandango from Malaga became a favourite in the 19th
century, taking over from the 'Fandango' in popularity amongst the peasants.
Again the dance moves in a circle and suddenly, through the music, the
melody of the 'Malagueña' is heard. Eddy quotes Olivia Stone, an
Englishwoman living in the Canary Islands who wrote at the end of the 19th
century, that the music of the 'Malagueña' was "an inseparable companion
during our excursions on horseback or by the sea." It is a gentle couple
dance. So popular has been the Malagueña in the Canaries that, according to
Eddy, it has been suggested that it should really be called the 'Tinerfena*
(the Tenerifean).

The 'Seguidillas', which has been called 'Seguidillas corridas' (running)
in the eastern islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria, is lively
and spirited. When two singers alternate verses, repeating the last words
sung by their partners, it is known as 'saltona' or 'leap'. Another well-known
'Seguidillas' is suggestive of Christmas, 'Baile de la Cunita' or cradle dance.
Eddy writes that it is danced around a wooden cradle, men going in the
opposite direction to the women and repeatedly changing partners, which
seems a hallmark of the island dances.

Again we come across the word 'leap* in the name of the 'IsaT which is
probably derived from the word 'to leap' in the Asturian dialect (Eddy). The
'Isa' is a Cañarían variation of the peninsular 'Jota', a word also derived from
one meaning 'to jump1. Eddy maintains that in its late 19th century form it was
accompanied by playing castanets and required skilled footwork, as the 'Jota'
does. "Nowadays it has evolved into a variety of different forms comparable to
square dances." To me it is the most evocative tune of the islands and creates
a happy feeling as the lively dance moves swiftly and urgently through the
various figures performed in a circle. One wants to jump up and join in the
infectious gaiety.

The musicians of the Canary Islands use strangely rounded castanets
worn on the thumb, and tambourines, both made from chestnut wood. The
small guitar called a timple which Eddy says looks like a toy, needs great
agility of the wrist and expertise in playing, because of its size.

Eddy quotes the engineer Leonardo Torriani who was sent in the late
16th century by the Spanish Crown to the Islands to do a survey of their
military defenses, then threatened by Barbary pirates, and by English and
French raiders. Torriani also wrote about the history, customs and music. He
mentions female lamentations called endechas from Gomera and other islands,
of eight, nine or ten syllables similar to Spanish-Jewish laments, "of such
sadness that they [the singers] themselves wept, as those who are descended
from the last inhabitants can be seen to do." No musical instruments are
mentioned until the poet Viana writes in 1640, mentioning cane flutes,
tambours and bagpipes with a wheat-straw chanter, in other words "late
medieval peasant instrumentation."


Arbeau, Thoinot. "Orchesography", translation Mary Stewart Evans, Dover
Publications Inc. New York, N.Y. 1967. International Standard Book Number
(ISBN) 0-486-21745-0. Library of Congress catalogue number: 65-26021. First
published in 1589.

Concepción, José Luis. "Costumbres y Tradiciones Canarias", Asociación
Cultural de las Islas Canarias, 1999, Museo Canario, Las Palmas, ISBN 84
89692 04.

Craine, Debra; and Judith Mackrell. "The Oxford Dictionary of Dance".
Oxford university Press, 2000, ISBN 0-19-860106-9.

Eddy, Mike. "Crafts and Traditions of the Canary Islands", Shire
Ethnography publication No. 17, 1989, Shire Publications Ltd, Cromwell
House, Church Street, Princes Risborough, Aylesbury, HP17 9AJ, UK. ISBN
074780011 1.

Grut, Marina. "A Visit to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria and to Trini Borrull,
and the Cañarían Dance 'El Gorgojito"'. The Spanish Dance Society^ first
newsletter of 2001.

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