What is the Mexican Hat Dance?
The Mexican Hat Dance, also known as Jarabe Tapatío, is a traditional folk dance from Mexico that involves dancing around a sombrero hat placed on the ground. The origins of the dance are unclear, but it became popular in the early 20th century after being performed at the International Exposition of Mariachi and Mexican Folkloric Dance in 1991.
The dance typically involves a couple wearing traditional Mexican outfits dancing around the hat, which lies on the floor between them. They circle around the hat, tapping it with their feet and kicking it up into the air as they move around it. The male dancer often kneels down to tap the hat with one hand while spinning his partner with the other hand.
The music that accompanies the Mexican Hat Dance is fast-paced and lively, with a 2/4 time signature. The dance itself is meant to represent a flirtatious courtship between the man and woman, with intricate footwork and frequent exchanges of places around the hat on the floor.
Is the Mexican Hat Dance an authentic Mexican tradition?
While the Mexican Hat Dance has become strongly associated with Mexico over the past century, its origins and status as a genuine historical Mexican dance tradition are disputed.
Some scholars have traced the roots of the dance back to 18th century dance styles in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where it was known as El jarabe tapatío. According to this theory, the dance represents a blend of Indigenous, Spanish, French, and West African musical influences that came together in western Mexico.
However, other experts argue that the modern version of the Mexican Hat Dance we know today was invented in the late 19th or early 20th century as a folklorized “postcard dance” meant for entertainment and tourism. According to dance historian Sydney Hutchinson, the dance was “choreographed, costumed, and marketed as quintessentially Mexican by the government after the Mexican Revolution to reinforce nationalist ideology.”
The government sponsored performing troupes who traveled internationally showcasing the dance, helping to popularize it worldwide. This spawned many different staged variations that played into stereotypes of Mexican culture.
So while the Mexican Hat Dance draws on regional dance traditions, the version that became famous globally appears to be a stylized folklorization tailored for public entertainment, rather than an unchanged traditional dance. Most Mexicans today do not regularly perform it except for at folkloric events aimed at tourists.
How is the Mexican Hat Dance Performed?
The Mexican Hat Dance involves five main elements:
- Music – The traditional tune played for the dance is “Jarabe Tapatío.” The music has a lively 2/4 time signature of zapateado, a type of percussive footwork commonly used in Spanish dance.
- Costumes – The dancers traditionally wear colorful attire reminiscent of the charro (Mexican horseman) suits and China Poblana dresses associated with the state of Jalisco.
- Footwork – Quick, tapping footsteps are used to strike the hat on the floor. The dancers trace intricate patterns with their feet around the hat and each other.
- Exchanges – The partners repeatedly circle and exchange places around the hat, occasionally kneeling or kicking the hat up playfully.
- Flirtation – Movements and exchanges between the male and female dancer are meant to represent a courtship, with coyness and pursuit on display.
To dance the Jarabe Tapatío:
- Partners begin facing each other on either side of the sombrero hat on the floor.
- They move around the hat with small tapping steps, striking the hat occasionally with their feet.
- The dancers join hands and circle clockwise, then counter-clockwise around the hat.
- The male partner kneels and taps the crown of the hat with one hand while spinning the female partner.
- The dancers exchange places back and forth around the hat, circling and tapping it.
- In the finale, the male dancer kicks the hat up from the ground into the air as the music ends.
The footwork, posture, and interactions between partners can vary greatly depending on the performers, allowing for artistic interpretation and expression. More exaggerated or acrobatic moves may be incorporated as well.
Where can you see the Mexican Hat Dance Performed?
Today, the Mexican Hat Dance remains popular both in Mexico and internationally as an emblem of Mexican culture. Some of the places you may see it performed include:
- Folkloric dance shows and troupes in Mexico, especially in Jalisco.
- Cinco de Mayo festivities in Mexico and the United States.
- Tourist demonstrations at resorts and hotels in Mexico.
- Theme parks like Disneyland and Disney World.
- International Latin dance competitions and exhibitions.
- Multicultural festivals and Mexican cultural events.
The dance is still sometimes incorporated into ballet folklorico, a dance style blending indigenous Mexican dance traditions with European stylistic influences. However, it’s most commonly seen today in entertainment venues catering to tourists who expect to see the dance as a representatively Mexican experience.
While Jalisco is the Mexican state most historically associated with the dance, it can be witnessed across Mexico depending on the setting and region. When performed by folkloric dance troupes aiming for cultural preservation over tourism, the Mexican Hat Dance may demonstrate greater authenticity and skill.
Is the Mexican Hat Dance Offensive?
In recent years, some Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have spoken out against the Mexican Hat Dance for promoting cultural stereotypes. Here are some of the criticisms surrounding the dance’s imagery and popularity:
- Its exaggerated, folklorized style reduces Mexican culture down to familiar tropes like mariachi costumes, overly festive music, and partying with tequila.
- Performances often feature fake mustaches, sombreros, and other costume elements that caricature Mexican people.
- The flirtatious male/female dynamic perpetuates archaic gender roles.
- It promotes the idea that Mexicans constantly party and revolve their lives around alcohol.
- The dance’s emphasis on flamboyant costumes and comedic flourishes fuels a view of Mexicans as overly colorful and goofy.
However, perspectives on the dance remain complex. Some Mexican folklorists argue that when performed with skill and respect for tradition, it can still celebrate Mexican artistry and vibrance. They feel that criticizing the dance as a whole overlooks its nuances.
Ultimately, the debate surrounding the Mexican Hat Dance mirrors larger concerns about cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and respectful representation. But its status as a folk tradition still beloved by many Mexicans ensures it will likely remain a staple performance for years to come, albeit with evolving interpretations.
Interesting Facts about the Mexican Hat Dance
- The dance is known as Jarabe Tapatío in Mexico, named after the state of Jalisco and city of Guadalajara it originated from.
- It became Mexico’s national folk dance in 1984 and is celebrated annually on August 31st.
- The largest recorded Mexican Hat Dance involved 12,987 participants dancing together in Guadalajara in 2011.
- Versions of the dance exist across Latin America under names like the jarabe ecuatoriano, jarabe cartagenero, jarabe sureño, and jarabe charro.
- In the United States, a simplified version called the “Mexican Mixer Hat Dance” is sometimes taught to elementary school students.
- Olympic figure skaters have incorporated the dance into their routines, like Russian pair Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin in 2006.
- The viral children’s song and dance “Hokey Pokey” may have origins in the Mexican Hat Dance.
- In recent years, artists like Arcángel and Becky G have referenced the dance in music videos as a nod to their Mexican heritage.
- Selena Quintanilla performed the dance to “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” at the Houston Astrodome in her iconic last concert.
- Many variations exist adding acrobatics, multiple partners dancing together, or swapping the hat for props like canes or machetes.
The Mexican Hat Dance continues to adapt as it spreads internationally, maintaining its place as one of Mexico’s most recognizable folk traditions. The dance’s fanciful costumes, playful spirit, and distinctive footwork help provide a vibrant glimpse into Mexican culture.
While its origins are murky, the Mexican Hat Dance has undoubtedly become one of Mexico’s signature cultural exports and tourist attractions. The flamboyant dance presents a blend of Indigenous footwork and Spanish-influenced costumes and music.
Though some critique its stereotypical portrayal of Mexicans, it holds an enduring popularity due to its energetic rhythm and lighthearted amorous theme. Versions of the dance appear worldwide in folkloric performances, though more tourists encounter it in Mexico itself.
Debate continues around the dance’s authenticity as a traditional vs. invented hybrid. But its fusion of European and Mexican aesthetics parallel Mexico’s own diverse cultural history. The Mexican Hat Dance promises to persist as an emblem of Mexico’s spirit, even as its meaning continues evolving for new generations.