Ruffled skirts, snapping fingers and stomping feet—these are the hallmarks of flamenco. But few people realize that the dance and music style has a history as intriguing as its sexy rhythms and vibrant movements. Flamencologists—yes, that’s really what they’re called—know that flamenco was created in the mountains of Andalusia and in Southern Spain, but beyond that much of the artform’s development remains a mystery. Now, flamenco is finding a resurgence, both in its traditional form and in a fusion with other dance forms, from ballet all the way to hip hop.
A Fiery History
The major development period of flamenco lasted from about 1492 (when the Spanish Inquisition forced all non-Catholics to convert or be excommunicated) to the late 1800s. The artform took shape in Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, now Spain and Portugal, where cultures from Europe, Africa and the Middle East collided. Inhabitants included Jews, Moors, Arabs and Gitanos (Spanish Gypsies). “Flamenco took on many of the traits of various cultures and became a culmination of these styles,” explains Jeff Teta, a historian with a focus on flamenco in NYC. “[Gypsies] fused together the various aspects to create flamenco, which is full of stomping, snapping and storytelling through body language, movements of the hips, clicking of tongues and clapping hands.”
Because many Gypsies were illiterate, they couldn’t record their dances or songs on paper. And since they practiced their own religions, they had to perform their artform secretly, to avoid unwanted attention from the Roman Catholic Church. In spite of these limitations, flamenco spread as the Gypsies moved from town to town, sharing their music, stories and choreography—passing down the artform from generation to generation.
During the Golden Age of flamenco, roughly 1869–1910, the artform finally became respected in Spain. Dancers became a major public attraction at outdoor cafés, theaters and bullfighting rings. Since then, this dance and music form has continued to evolve as performers research its history and create its future.
A Wealth of Influences
While there aren’t enough written records to truly pin down flamenco’s influences, flamencologists know that the style is a melding of a variety of cultural dance forms. The percussive footwork resembles African tribal music and dance, while scroll-like hand movements are similar to Indian dance. Flamenco expresses the spirit of the street, created by a repressed people. The lyrics and rhythms are desperate, exciting and alluring, building to a climactic breaking point. Just like the Argentine tango, there’s an aura of mystery between the dancers of a flamenco piece, and between the dancers and musicians.
Since it was a folk form, the technique often varied from city to city, but today flamenco has become more codified. Flamenco has a distinctive 12-count rhythm and accent structure, as well as footwork segments called llamadas. Staccato gestures coupled with fluid movements create a balance between grace and rigidity. The dancer’s sharp movements must be precise and perfectly timed with (or against) the music and the singer. At the same time, an arm or hip might be following a slower countermelody. As in tap dance, flamenco dancers spend years practicing the style’s heel stomps and clicks to perfect the sound as well as the look. The hands are incorporated for sound as well—dancers can snap their fingers or wear small hand cymbals called castanets. “The ear gets as much a workout as the body,” explains Laurena Marrone, the president of Solo Flamenco in Portland, OR.
In this artform, the music is as vital as the dance. A flamenco dancer is not alone in performance—he or she reacts to a singer throughout the piece. The performance weaves musician and dancer together so that neither can exist on its own. They interact through eye contact, call-and-response movements and expressions, and even rhythmic interplay. “Flamenco is distinctive in that the movements, right down to the smallest facial expressions, directly correlate with the emotion being conveyed by the singer,” explains Marrone. As opposed to being directed by a choreographer, Marrone says “the dancer responds to the singer by percussively punctuating the rhythms or moving fluidly with the melody and emotion of the song.”
With fusion dance so prevalent today, flamenco has experienced a resurgence. “Flamenco has definitely come into its own, and it is in constant evolution with a very modern influence,” says María Bermúdez, who runs Sonidos Gitanos dance company in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain—the official birthplace of flamenco. Though there are still numerous traditional flamenco troupes and festivals, flamenco elements have also popped up in modern, jazz, ballet and tap pieces, and conversely, flamenco has incorporated influences from hip hop to pop music. “I think flamenco is in a glorious moment,” says Bermúdez. “So much creativity and evolution, with outside influences infiltrating the movement. There is so much crossover.”
Full of vibrant movements and songs, flamenco is an enthralling, unique artform. Its blend of cultures and musical rhythms makes it distinctive, and its dramatic element—telling the stories of a banished group of people—adds richness to its diversity.