Flamenco is a beautiful, intricate and passionate solo dance, accompanied by soulful music that is a mix of whisper-soft notes that eventually escalate to the most pulsating, throbbing and feet-stomping crescendo. Flamenco is a mix of gypsy, Jewish, Moorish and the different cultures from Southern Spain that germinated over 200 years ago in Andalusia. The flamenco dance and music is an expression of Andalusian philosophy and way of life, something that integrates beliefs, likes and dislikes, and customs and attitudes. The first mention of flamenco was in a literature published in 1774. Flamenco is now taught in dance schools worldwide. It is surprising that there are more schools in Japan teaching flamenco than there are in Spain. UNESCO declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity on November 16, 2010.
It is not just a dance form or a type of music. Flamenco is so much more. It is an inspiring art form, combining several elements to make a total showpiece, interweaving el toque (guitar playing) with exquisite el baile (dance), palmas (hand clapping) and cante (singing). Wide improvisation in the music and the dance makes flamenco spontaneous and surprising, as no two performances are alike. This highly expressive Spanish dance, often danced solo involves intricate hand and arm movements, rigid yet pliant body twists and turns, hand clapping and footwork that moves in tempo with the percussive beats.
The origin of the name flamenco is uncertain but the word flamenco is the Spanish term for the Greater Flamingo, the largest of the species. The dance form has traces of movements characteristic of Romani dances coming from North India and still evident in the Kathak dance of India. For some, they believe that flamenco was given that name because some of the movements resemble those of a flamingo.
Today flamenco is performed in four different settings. In a juerga, the gathering is informal; it’s more like the people are just jamming. The core of the performance is the cantaores or the singers, accompanied by whatever instruments are available, including tables or even crates for percussion. Peña flamenca is the name of the place where these informal flamenco gatherings are held.
Since the 1960s, establishments were developed in Spain to showcase flamenco performances. These are called tablaos and some of these employ their own company of performers. Some of the internationally known flamenco artists started their career in the tablaos.
The third setting is more conventional, which is the formal concert stage. For a traditional concert, the performers consist of one guitarist and one singer. In a dance concert, two or three guitarists are used, with one or several dancers as well as singers, singing solo in turn. Although there may be dedicated palmeros or clappers, all the performers join in the clapping and the singers might take up an instrument. For the modern one, called Nuevo Flamenco, made popular by Camarón de la Isla, they utilize saxophones, piano, flutes, electric guitar and even a bass guitar.
Ensembles like the Maria Pagés Company present theatrical presentations of flamenco. The performance is an extended version and resembles a sophisticated ballet show.
Compás is the Spanish term for time signature and meter. It is the most essential element in flamenco and without it there would be no flamenco music or dance. It not just any rhythm, by the way. It has to be strictly precise even if the presentation is informal. In the absence of a guitar, palmas or hand clapping is the next best thing, or even knuckle rapping on a table. Three basic counts are used in flamenco – binary, ternary and twelve-beat cycle, which is unique to flamenco, as well as other free-form styles.
Flamenco styles like the tientos, zambra, gypsy rumba, tanguillos and tangos usually use the 2/4 or the 4/4 meters. Sevillanas and fandangos, which are not of gypsy origin, on the other hand, use the 3/4 rhythm. The most common in flamenco is the 12-beat rhythm rendered in blends of 3/4 and 4/4 beats. In some instances it could go to 12/8 beats, differing only in the accentuation of the beats.
The flamenco dance is widely known for its emotional intensity. The dancer stands very proud, with the arms and the rhythmic stomping of the feet showcasing the expressions and emotions.
You’d be able to witness the most authentic flamenco performances at gypsy or Gitano weddings and other Spanish celebrations. The basic difference here is that the arms curve around the body and head of the dancer rather than extended. Traditionally, flamenco dancers are in their 30s and beyond, as it is believed that young dancers do not possess the emotional maturity to fully express the soul or duende of the dance.
The pure flamenco or flamenco puro is the closest to the flamenco with gypsy origins. Pure flamenco is always a solo performance, with improvisation rather than structured choreography its primary focus. Castanets may also be used.
The commercially styled flamenco is the type that is known by Europeans. This style was developed as a tourist-centric performance. The dancer or group of dancers is normally dressed in polka-dotted dresses that are fitted on top with voluminous skirts with several tiers of pleats or ruffles, with slightly longer length at the back.
Oftentimes what we are familiar with is the classical flamenco, performed by modern dance companies. With the classical style, the female dancer stands proudly, body held tightly with the upper torso remaining upright and held with a back bend and very little hip movement. The arms are extended like that of a ballet dancer and are very expressive. You could say that this type of flamenco is highly technical instead of spontaneous. This is the version that requires years of extensive study. Much of the emphasis is on the lightning-fast foot movements and stomping, which requires sheer precision. Fans, shawl and castanets are sometimes used as props in modern flamenco.
Still another style of flamenco is performed today. This is called the flamenco nuevo. This style, although choreographed is influenced by other styles of dance and often have less elaborate costumes, and usually performed without additional props.
Although there is a separate flamenco dance and style, there are other dances and songs, which fall under the flamenco category. These are called palos differentiated by the rhythmic patterns, geographic origin, stanzas as well as mode and chord progression. More than 50 palos are in existence although some are very seldom performed. Some palos are sung a capella while others have some form of accompaniment, such as a flamenco guitar. Other forms are danced, some reserved for women only and others are performed solely by men. Time has changed the distinctions and some forms, just like Farruca, which was solely for men originally, is now performed by women.
Three classes of palos exist, with the cante jondo or cante grande being the most serious. The frivolous, lighter one is the cante chico while the other one, which might not fall within the other two classes fall into the cante intermedio category.
In Sevilla, one of the provinces in Andalusia, the dance style Sevillanas was formed. It has an infectious rhythm, with a style that evolved from seguidillas manchegas that came from Castile. Sevillanas, a colorful couple dance, which is considered as the liveliest of the dances in Spain is accompanied by the cante or song performed by children, men and women.
Soléa is a gypsy-shortened version of soledad, which translates to loneliness. It is a combination of Soléa, which is danced in the beginning before building up to the faster and livelier tempo of the Bulerías. Soléa por Bulerías is like a story; it is the central figure from which the other flamenco styles originated. Depth and pathos are the key elements of this dance style.
The dance style originated from Cadiz, another province in Andalusia. It is a mix of songs and dances brought in by travelers that came to the region aboard ships. Eventually it evolved into a flamenco, with the beat or compas that is identical to tango.
The tango song is considered the most basic and oldest gypsy song, although its exact origin is unknown. People from Argentina claim that it is a relative of the Argentinian Tango. Others believe that the word tango is of Latin origin, with the music closely related to the names of different musical instruments. Still there are theories that the tango music came from Northern Spain’s ancient songs. Whichever theory is true, tango is an embodiment of the spirit of the people of Cadiz where tango is very popular. Through its years of development, the tango could be performed with several degrees of intensity and uniqueness.
It is a flamenco version of a rhythm from Cuba, which bears the same name, brought into Spain during the 16th century by the soldiers taking well-earned rest after months and years of conquering countries overseas. The lyrics are somewhat satirical, albeit in a fun and comedic way, about Cuba and its residents and often quite sensual and indolent.
The Fandangos de Huelva or the Fandanguillos many proponents believe evolved from Northern Spain’s regional dance, the Jota. The dance was originally accompanied by castanets, violins, tambourines and guitars but as it spread to the inner recesses of the province, other instruments were used and developed. For about 30 to 40 years, the fandango and fandango grande became to be the most popular forms of flamenco, much to the consternation of purists.
While the Soleáres are basically sad songs and dances, the Alegrias, which translate to merriment or happiness have the same beat, meter and rhythm but are lively forms of flamenco.
This flamenco dance form focuses on seriousness and sadness. It is about the pain of love, the setbacks in life, cruelty of fate or general sorrow. In this dance, the dancer has to generally pour in a huge amount of emotional involvement to fully express the lamentations that are central to the dance’s theme. Among flamenco songs, the Siguiriya is considered to be the most difficult.
Flamenco, the embodiment of the essence of Andalusia in Southern Spain is an evocative, hauntingly expressive dance that is amazing to watch. It is a very emotional dance, characterized by strong, defiant and almost masculine movements. If you ever get the chance to visit Sevilla in Southern Spain, take a tour of the Museo del Baile Flamenco, where you could not only trace the dance’s history, you would be treated to an awesome live performance or even take some flamenco dancing lessons.