Flamenco stirs the senses with its fiery passion; this all-consuming art form continues to enthral audiences around the world.
She stands still momentarily, head bowed low, face intense. Slowly, she grasps her skirt with both hands, begins stamping her feet in syncopated rhythms — alternating soft and vigorous, gradually accelerating to crescendo like a thundering runaway train. Her frenzied footwork goes on for an eternity, until she suddenly stops, arms raised, head held up high. Sweat trickles down her cheeks. Her broody expression gently morphs into a smile, as if to say: “I don’t give a damn what you think, I’m amazing!” Rapturous applause fills the room.
It’s a scene that typifies the passion of flamenco; a dramatic, enchanting art form that has long cast its spell on audiences around the world. There’s no other traditional dance more riveting, more all-consuming, that can delve so deeply into an artist’s emotions as flamenco. But where does this all come from?
Flamenco is to Andalucia what ‘blues’ music is to the US Deep South, both borne out of racial oppression and deeply rooted in their respective cultures. Waves of migration to and occupation of Andalucia between the 8th and 16th centuries have all contributed to Flamenco’s formation and evolution, encompassing strands of native, Jewish, Moorish, Castilian and Gypsy influences tightly woven into its fabric.
The 8th century was a significant period, when the Moors (Arabs and Berbers) from North Africa came, ruled and named the region Al-Andalus. The 700 years that followed saw the cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba flourish to become centres of culture, education and commerce. It was during this period that magnificent palaces and monuments were erected, notably The Alhambra in Granada, and Cordoba’s Mesquita — Moorish legacies enshrined in Andalucian heritage.
Gypsies arriving from northern India in the early 15th century were also instrumental in moulding Andalucian culture through their dance and music, such as the classical Kathak style of stamping with bare feet and graceful hand movements. Referred to as Gitanos, they were treated as second-class citizens, resulting in their geographical isolation and repression of their cultural practices. When the Christian rulers gradually took power back, the Moors were expelled from the peninsula, and those remaining were persecuted along with Jews and Gypsies, most of whom sought refuge in the caves of Sacramonte in Granada. These cave dwellings have remained home to later generations that have kept flamenco alive over the centuries.
If dance is a celebration of life, flamenco is an expression of life’s emotions. Gitanos live and breathe in rhythms and music, and training happens early in life — in the womb — when the foetus is introduced to flamenco by its mother’s clapping, singing and stamping. By the time they’re old enough to go to school, kids are dancing and showing off their talent, even on stage. It runs in the blood. “Flamenco is passed down from parents to children, from grandparents to grandchildren,” says Farruquito, a world-renowned dancer who comes from a family of flamenco artists. At the age of five, he performed in New York City alongside his grandfather, the great El Farruco: his idol and mentor.
Although flamenco was originally just about singing, purists refer to ‘cante jondo’ (deep song) as authentic, expressed in a singer’s tormented cries as he recounts tales of sorrow, love, loss, regret and persecution. Moorish tones are recognisable in his raspy, trembling voice echoing the haunting call to prayer resounding from a mosque loudspeaker.
The art form as we know it today brings together dance (baile), song (cante), guitar playing (toque) and clapping (palmas), performed to precise timings and rhythmic patterns (compas). And let’s not forget the percussionists who tap on the ‘cajon’ (wooden box) with bare hands to syncopated rhythms of the dance style (palo) being performed. Emotions are expressed in various styles, from the earthy Solea, broody Tientos and soulful Seguiriya to the evocative Tarantos and Martinete originating from the mining region of Almeria.
But there is a light-hearted side to flamenco too. The Buleria is a fast, high-energy dance from Jerez de la Frontera. Performed with a cheeky attitude, gaiety and humour, it is a dance in its own right, and is the perfect ending to the intense and sombre Solea. Aside from the Buleria, the Alegrias from Cádiz, and Sevillanas from Seville are also favourites at fiestas and informal gatherings (juergas), which are vital elements in any flamenco stage repertoire. Apart from the Sevillana, these dance forms are given impetus by speedy, complicated footwork (zapateado).
Then there is the illusive ‘duende’, (Spanish for ‘elf’ or ‘goblin’), which in flamenco evokes a spiritual connotation, philosophised and romanticised by numerous intellectuals, such as renowned Spanish poet Federico García Lorca:
“To help us seek duende there is neither map nor discipline.
All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass,
that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has
learned, that it breaks with all styles.”
In layman’s terms, duende is an overwhelming emotional response to music: a provocation that surfaces from the heart’s abyss when you least expect it; a powerful force that moves the soul, manifesting itself in a dancer’s facial expression and movement. Like a spiritual orgasm, it can make you cry and experience euphoria all at the same time.
Flamenco is still evolving today, and in this highly competitive arena, many artists have had to reinvent their style and approach by introducing contemporary and ballet elements, while a few incorporate avant-garde, gimmicky moves. Unbeknown to most audiences though, true flamenco is intuitive, often improvised on stage — and very few artists have the talent and privilege of that flamenco purity. But as the saying goes, ‘what goes around, comes around’. Choreographers are taking inspiration from flamenco’s roots, such as Indian Kathak, or the raw and powerful African influences in Paco Pena’s mesmeric Quimera production.
Flamenco is hard to comprehend, let alone master, and the best place to absorb this art form is in Jerez, in the province of Cadiz. Barely mentioned in the annals of flamenco history, Jerez isn’t only synonymous with sherry, from which it derives its name. It is the ‘Cradle of Flamenco’, and the birthplace of the Buleria. Several famous artists hail from its Santiago neighbourhood, and the town is home to numerous studios, where rhythms of stamping, clapping, singing and guitar playing spill onto narrow cobbled lanes and plazas, where locals old and young, male and female, add their own interpretation to the sounds from within. Afficionados from all over Spain and the world flock here to learn the art and witness the annual Festival de Jerez, two weeks of intoxicating workshops and masterclasses, and soak up the duende while watching intimate tablao performances. Flamenco has been declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.
With today’s technology dominating our lives, it’s refreshing to know that flamenco artists can stir emotions that reconnect us with our own feelings and each other. And when an artist arouses that duende with his voice, his strumming or his dancing, then he’s made a true connection with his audience — and hopefully the rest of humanity.