Dances with Style! – Habanera

What is Stylized Dance?

Sometimes music makes us want to tap our toes and move our feet – especially if that music is a dance! In classical music, the word dance can mean the steps that dancers make while dancing, but it can also mean music written to go along with dance steps.  

Classical music is full of dances that people used in history for actual dancing. Those kinds of dances are called social dance.  But that’s not the only kind of dance in classical music! Composers throughout history loved the sound and feel of dance so much that they also wrote stylized dances, which are musical pieces based on the idea of dance, but which weren’t meant for people to literally dance along.  

You can think of it this way:

Social dance is dance for moving, and stylized dance is dance for listening!

Or try this:

Social dance is dance for your body, and stylized dance is dance for your ears! 

Here’s another way to think of it:

In stylized dance, a composer puts their own unique style into a musical dance!

Let’s explore some stylized dances from history. First, we’ll look at the social dance version of each dance: its basic rhythm and emotion, and how people danced to it. Then we’ll look at stylized versions of each dance, and see what unique style each composer put into each dance! 

We’re going to use some special musical terms to talk about the nuts and bolts of dance music. To take a deep dive into the words we use to talk about music, check out ICAN’s series, The Shape of Music! 

As we explore these dances, remember one important thing: whether it’s a social dance or a stylized dance, if you feel like dancing along, then dance! 


The habanera is a dance that takes its name from Havana, Cuba. It’s a social dance that Cubans of African descent developed from old European social dances. They added their own twist, creating a dance so popular it traveled back across the Atlantic and became popular in Europe as well as the Americas. 

A habanera’s meter is usually 2/4 or 4/4, meaning there are an even number of beats in each measure. It has a memorable rhythm that repeats throughout the dance, using dotted notes, which are notes that are a little extra long, making room for smaller notes off the main beat. The rhythm usually sounds like this:  

LONG – short EV-EN 

Or, if you read music, like this: 

This rhythm gives the habanera a fun syncopation, a bit like we heard earlier in the juba. It’s also closely related to the tango, a syncopated South American dance. 

In this video, you’ll see group of couples dance a habanera the way it would have looked in a ballroom in the early 1900s – even their outfits fit that time period! They’re dancing to a habanera called “La Paloma” (The Dove) by Spanish composer Sebastian Iradier (1809-1865).

Nineteenth and twentieth-century composers loved the jaunty rhythm of the habanera, and they wrote lots of stylized ones. Here’s one for singing: it’s a song called Havanaise (that’s Habanera, in French), by the Spanish-French composer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). Here, Pauline Viardot uses the dotted habanera rhythm to create a touching love song. 

Here’s a habanera by the French composer Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944). It uses the habanera rhythm in an energetic piano solo. Its title is Danse Créole, which is French for “Creole Dance.” Creole is a word for people from Central America, which includes the African-Cuban culture that created the habanera dance! 

By now, you can see that every composer can put their own “style” into a traditional social dance! Have you found stylized dances here that you like? Have you heard any that make you imagine dancing – or want to get up and dance for real? We hope you keep listening and dancing to whatever music makes you tap your toes and whirl in your imagination! 

Learn More

To learn more about stylized dances and composers who wrote them, check out the links throughout this article! 

You can also read more about the terms in this article by looking them up in Britannica Kids, or check out Music and How It Works from DK! Older kids can check out definitions in books like The Oxford Dictionary of Music or The Harvard Dictionary of Music. You can look for these books at your local library!