Dancing with ‘duende’

A hundred year-old word and its relevance to hip hop dance

In lists compiled by linguists and translators, it seems “duende” is a word that many experts regard as the hardest word in Spanish to convey in other languages.

In the dictionary, the word is listed as “elf” or “magic.” However, in actual practice, when the word shows up in text, it is rarely in the context of a woodland spirit, although that is where the word’s etymology begins.

These are the Electroduendes (‘Electro Elves’), puppet characters from La Bola de Cristal, a children’s show that aired on Spanish public television in the 1980’s. Although duende translates to ‘elf’, it has taken on another meaning:

“A heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity.”

This definition was popularized by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca:

So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.

-Theory and Play of the Duende (1933)

Lorca’s language takes a minute to parse out despite being so vivid. Here are two key characteristics of duende based on Lorca’s lecture:

This is only the tip of the iceberg — there are other aspects of duende like “black sounds” and “the possibility of death” that are worth looking into if you’re interested in learning more.

Although duende, like the flow state, cannot be achieved through sheer willpower alone, it requires a struggle and consistent effort. Below are examples of the fruit of such labor: fleeting moments of raw and authentic self expression.

I recommend watching the clips twice: first to experience the performance yourself, and a second time to see how the live audiences react.

It’s difficult to fully explain why performances like these are so evocative. We can use words like flavor, soul, and inspiration, but they don’t always tell the whole story. ‘Duende’ might help to fill that gap in expression.

Hopefully this article has given you a new word to use for experiences that you wouldn’t have known how to describe. Perhaps it has helped you decide whether it’s worth the struggle to express yourself fully. Either way, when duende appears from now on, you’ll know what to call it.

As always, feel free to comment here or message me on Instagram @glissando. If you liked the article, I’d be grateful if you shared it. Thanks for reading — peace!

Bonus for scrolling all the way down:

Soledad Barrio: I don’t really know what duende is. (laughs) It doesn’t really have any particular meaning just for flamenco. It is inspiration. It applies to all art. The most important thing is the work. Inspiration can only come to you if you work for it. You have to work hard and the duende will come and go. I saw a dance school in Madrid that had put up a sign advertising that they taught duende. (really laughing now) They were charging a lot of money to foreigners as though it was something that could be taught. You have to have something to say and you have to need to express it.

-Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn, Huffington Post (2017)