Updated date:

Cantes de Ida y Vuelta: South American Influences on Flamenco

Starting as a ballet dancer, Marisa discovered flamenco in her 40s. Now retired, she enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things dance.

What Are the Cantes de Ida y Vuelta?

  • In Spanish, ida y vuelta literally means "going and returning". As a phrase, it means "round trip".
  • In flamenco, the term cantes de ida y vuelta derives from the Spaniards who went to settle in the new Central and South American colonies, taking flamenco with them—and then returned with the rhythms and music of the local populations.
  • These cantes are, in general, happy and light-hearted with a simpler, straightforward beat.
Spaniards took flamenco influence to the Americas as well as bringing influences back

Spaniards took flamenco influence to the Americas as well as bringing influences back

Happy Dances From the Spanish Colonies

As most people know, large areas of the Americas were once Spanish colonies, so it's no surprise that cultural influences traveled in both directions.

Andalusians heading fo the colonies as new migrants took their flamenco traditions with them, starting in the 16th century. Over the years, their music and dance mixed with the local folkloric music and dance to produce new hybrids, many of which are still danced in South America today.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, when the Spaniards finally lost their foothold in Cuba, returning migrants brought their music home. The new music was quickly adopted by flamenco performers and given a flamenco flavor—and voila, the cantes de ida y vuelta were born. They are also (but less commonly) referred to as cantes indianos or cantes hispanoamericanos.

One of the distinctive features of these palos is that they're cheerful! Most other flamenco songs tend to dwell on sadness and suffering—even Alegrias, in spite of the name meaning "joys", often turn out to be miserable when you translate them (my favourite is about a woman's sweetheart drowning at sea!).

The other notable difference (for all except the Guajiras) is that they're in straightforward 4/4 time, instead of the traditional flamenco 12 beats.

Where to See Them

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cantes de ida y vuelta were hugely popular. Unfortunately, although the music is still played in Spain, the dances themselves have fallen out of favor. Part of the explanation lies in flamenco's status in Spain. It may be surprising to learn that at one time, flamenco gained a reputation among Spaniards as being a tourist attraction, not a genuine art form. Flamenco performers reacted by focussing on the more serious aspects of the dance. It's a pity because the lighter side is an important counterpoint to the cante jondo.

Luckily, you'll often see them in student performances outside Spain, for two reasons. One is for the audience: non-flamenco audiences can get bored watching one dramatic footwork-heavy dance after another, and the cantes de ida y vuelta lighten the mood and add variety with their lighter music and use of props like fans or shawls. The other reason is that for students: the rhythms are less complicated, and there's less fast footwork, so they're easier for students to master.

The Dances

I've included a video of each dance below so you can hear and see the styles and the differences between them.

Guajiras

Guajiras is the one cante de ida y vuelta that has the traditional 12-beat flamenco rhythm—but it 's still a light and airy style, often danced with fan (beautifully demonstrated in the clip below).

It derives from the popular songs of the guajiros (Cuban white peasants), and the lyrics are often about Havana. Dancers will often choose a white, cream or pastel lacy dress, echoing the dresses worn in Cuba. To get in the right mood to perform this dance, imagine you're a beautiful young woman on a steamy afternoon in Havana, cooling yourself with your fan—but also using it as a coquettish device to entice the young man who is watching you dance!

Note: In this clip, notice the size of the fan. At one time, flamenco dancers would always dance with a much larger fan, because it's easier for the audience to see. However, in recent years, it has become fashionable to use an ordinary fan.

Colombianas

Another light, sunny style of music.

Although the name Colombianas implies that it comes from Colombia, it has nothing to do with that country. For that reason, some people prefer to use the name Colombinas. It's actually a Spanish-invented cante, based on the genuine Latin rhythms, which appeared around the 1930s or 1940s, probably created by Pepe Marchena.

Like the guajiras, it's often danced with fan and/or a shawl, but it has a 4/4 rhythm.

Milonga

No, I don't mean tango. Tango aficionados will recognise this word as Argentinian. To them, a milonga is a dance party. In flamenco, it's another light and airy Latin-influenced song. The singer Pepa Oro popularised it in Spain.

It's not common nowadays. I had never seen it danced until I found this video clip.

Rumbas

The rumbas' closest relative is the Cuban guaracha. It is the most familiar to non-Spaniards because it's the rhythm most often played by bands like the Gypsy Kings. 4/4 rhythm, sensuous, happy, with lots of flirty hip movements and skirt flicking!

Flamenco purists tend to turn their noses up at it as "not flamenco", and I have to admit that when I dance rumbas, it feels more Latino than flamenco. It's a popular beginners' dance because the music is so familiar to many people.

Vidalita

This palo was one of the most popular when the dances first appeared—but I had never even heard of it until I came across the video below. It can have a slightly melancholy edge.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that Sevillanas is one of the cantes de ida y vuelta. It's understandable because the Sevillanas are so joyous. However, they are a 100% Spanish mainland folkloric dance.

I love the cantes de ida y vuelta, not just because they are "feel-good" music, but because I find them easier to dance to. If you are interested in delving further into the subject and have some knowledge of Spanish, you may be interested in watching the documentary below.

© 2020 Marisa Wright