The Bata de Cola
Meaning literally robe with a tail, the Bata de Cola is a traditional Flamenco skirt or dress with a train featuring many ruffles. It is a striking garment and is a memorable feature of Flamenco performance. The costume enhances the expressive nature of Flamenco but dancing in the Bata de Cola is a difficult skill to master. Not as difficult, however, as charting the history of Flamenco. This is largely shrouded in mystery and so it is impossible to fully understand how the Bata de Cola evolved.
It might seem strange that so little is known about history of Flamenco. Especially given that Flamenco is so dramatic, distinctive and popular. But the truth is that historians can't even agree on the origins of the term 'Flamenco'! So how did this attention grabbing and memorable art manage to remain under the radar for so long?
In the fifteenth century gitanos (gypsy people originating from the Indian Subcontinent) arrived in Spain. Their journey across Europe had taken centuries and so their culture was already greatly removed from their Indian heritage but they remained a distinctive people. Unfortunately, during the Spanish Inquisition, the gitanos were exiled to the mountains. They were joined by the Moors of North Africa and many Jews who had refused to convert to Catholicism.
Clearly a subculture began to develop as these diverse peoples lived together and created a new community. But these were exiled people who were forced to keep themselves to themselves. In addition, the gitanos were largely illiterate and had a tradition of passing knowledge down through the generations verbally. A unique dance culture must have begun to develop but it can be no surprise that so little is now known about it.
By the latter half of the eighteenth century there was a greater acceptance of the gitanos in Spain. But they were considered a low class of people and so the cultural commentators of the time largely ignored them. This is perhaps why there are so few written references to the gypsy culture of the period. Travellers to the region were mostly exposed to Spanish folk music and dance rather than to any performances by the gypsies.
The gitanos that had first arrived in Spain in 1425 already boasted a heritage of music and dance. This could not have been a style which resembled Flamenco as the gitanos passed through and settled in many countries but Flamenco only evolved in Spain. Somehow the gitano ways were influenced by the Moors and the Jews to create a new art form, but the precise details of how this developed will never be known.
The Golden Age of Flamenco
By the nineteenth century, Andalusian taverns were hosting Flamenco performances. What had probably been a ritual rather than a form of entertainment was now receiving a public airing. It was capturing the public's imagination and performers began to be paid for their work. Flamenco was drawing in the crowds and so became highly significant to the taverns. More and more establishments opened and Flamenco entered what is known as its 'Golden Age'. This was the period between 1869 and 1910.
The History of the Bata de Cola
Flamenco developed in an exiled community that did not create written records. When that community finally emerged from the mountains its people were often treated as second class citizens. The unique culture which had evolved and which was continuing to develop, was largely ignored by educated society. So the written and visual records that we need to chart its history simply do not exist. This is as true of the costumes as it is of the music and dance.
It appears that the Bata de Cola became a feature of Flamenco performance during the Golden Age. The style probably had its origins in the dresses worn by gypsy women when they accompanied their husbands to livestock sales. These dresses would have been fashioned from cheap fabrics but would have featured bright colours. Somehow an ancient Indian heritage had been influenced by Spanish, Moorish and Jewish culture to produce colourful skirts with ruffles.
The length and voluminous nature of the skirts may have been the result of Moorish modesty. Women were not permitted to show their legs and some historians have suggested that early female Flamenco dancers did not even move their legs. The performance was focussed on the upper body and the arms. This would certainly explain why the arms became such an important and expressive feature of the dance.
Perhaps the dramatic nature of the Bata de Cola skirt developed in order to create balance. If only the upper body was involved in the dance then a little drama was required below! The shape of the dress certainly flatters the feminine figure. It creates a somewhat voluptuous look and this might also have been a factor in the dancers' choice of costume.
However the Bata de Cola came to be the preferred dress of female dancers, it is known that the skirts became more dramatic as the popularity of the Flamenco performances spread. They were taking place in progressively larger venues and the skirts were growing to match them! By the Golden Age, the dancers were using their legs and the Bata de Cola served to enhance the movement and scope of the performance.
The Bata de Cola Today
During the twentieth century, Flamenco costumes were certainly influenced by changes in feminine fashion generally as the hems began to rise. However, the tradition of the Bata de Cola survives and remains a significant element of Flamenco performance. Dancers require great skill and exceptional technique to perform well in these heavy garments and to fully capitalise on their potential.
The colour and fabrics vary as do the number of ruffles and the style can be worn as a dress or as a skirt. But the Bata de Cola is an instantly recognisable style that is intrinsic to Flamenco culture. We would love to be able to tell you more about how this wonderful garment evolved, but the truth is that nobody really knows!