Why Are Fans So Important In Both Spanish and Japanese Dance?

In the harsh heat of a summer’s day, there’s no doubt that fans are an essential accessory to keep us cool and refreshed. But in some countries, like Spain and Japan, hand fans are not only a practical summer accessory but an important part of traditional culture.

Lladró’s Iris and Cherry Flower Fan is ornately decorated with traditional Japanese symbols and imagery.

The story of the folding fan begins in Japan around the 6th Century, when, inspired by the movement of a bat’s wing as it flew, a Japanese artist invented a fan that could be opened and closed depending on whether it was being used. The novelty of being able to close the fan when it wasn’t in use meant that it quickly became a fashionable accessory. In fact, the folding fan soon became so popular in Japan that its use was restricted to the upper classes! Fans were even given to visiting nobility from China and Korea as gifts, and from there made their way through the Silk Road trade route to Europe. So how did they transition from a practical accessory to an important cultural symbol?

Lladró’s Japanese Dancer captures the elegance of Nihon Buyo fan dance in matt white porcelain.

The answer lies in the traditional dances of these two cultures. In Japan, the limitation of the fan’s use to the upper classes meant that it became an obvious way to distinguish the social status of a person. Because the traditional Japanese dance style of Nihon Buyo evolved from the dance theatre style of Kabuki, it is rich in storytelling and uses pantomime to communicate ancient poems and legends. Naturally, the use of fans was integrated into these dances, as it enabled the viewers to identify the characters in the stories more easily in a storytelling medium that didn’t use any words. The fans were also ornately decorated with rich symbolic detailing that represented the strength and beauty of Japan itself, and the creases of the fan were said to represent the rays of the sun, known throughout the world as an important symbol of the Japanese Empire.

Learn more about the elegant dancers of Nihon Buyo

The dancers of Lladró’s Passion and Soul flamenco figurine communicate with their traditional Spanish fans.

Similarly, the fan is also used in Spanish dance to communicate a story. As the fan’s popularity spread to Europe in the 16th Century, they quickly became the trendy accessory that every European woman included in their wardrobe. Due to the conservative nature of many European cultures at that time, including Spain, a ‘language’ of fan signals quickly developed as a way for women to communicate with potential suitors, without having to speak to them directly which was seen as unladylike. Although this fan language has largely become obsolete in everyday life, it has been adopted into the passionate dances of Flamenco as a way to communicate the dance’s story to the viewer.

Spanish Fan Language

  • I love you: cover your eyes with an open fan.
  • I am engaged: fanning with rapid movements on the chest.
  • No: fan resting on the left cheek.
  • Yes: fan resting on the right cheek.
  • It’s over: lend the fan to someone else.

Like Nihon Buyo dance in Japan, Flamenco is a dance style that is rich in folkloric meaning and tells important cultural stories. Flamenco is also a passionate and sensual style, and the elegant movement of the fans — especially when combined with the swirling and twirling of the dancers in their flowing flamenco dresses — only adds to the captivating nature of the dance.

In Spain and Japan, dancing is a way of communicating to the world the most important stories and legends of a culture, In both of these countries, fans have become so intertwined in traditional dancing that they have evolved far beyond their origins as a practical accessory, to become a renowned and timeless symbol of the cultures and peoples themselves.

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