Before I moved to Spain, I thought I knew what flamenco was—the traditional dance from Spain, right? But in the four and a half years I’ve lived in Spain (including 15 months where I moved to Seville specifically to deepen my knowledge of flamenco), I’ve learnt that this isn’t really the case. I could write a whole essay about what I’ve learnt so far, but here are the basic things you should know.
1. It’s From Andalusia, Not Spain as a Whole
Although I don’t dance at a high level, I have been learning different dance styles since I could walk. I started with disco and ballroom as a toddler, moved to ballet and tap as a teenager, and then to English folk dancing at university. So the obvious thing for me to do when I moved to Spain was to sign up for flamenco dance classes. So as soon as I arrived in Castelló, in the Valencia region, that’s exactly what I did. To my surprise, this caused quite the confusion for my local friends. “Why are you learning flamenco here, in Castelló?!” they asked. “Well, because I’m in Spain, so obviously I want to learn the traditional dance,” I replied. “Yes, but flamenco isn’t from here, it’s from Andalusia.” You can, of course, learn flamenco anywhere. But the heart and birthplace of the art form is in Andalusia, a region in southern Spain. That is by far the best place to learn and immerse yourself in the culture.
2. It’s Not Just One Style
I never even considered that flamenco could be more than one style. But it is so varied, with over 50 different palos (styles), although many are just sung, never danced to. These range from the common alegrías, tangos, or bulerías, to the less common garrotín, martinete, or farruca. There are many ways to categorise them. One way is by where they come from, as most originate from a different town or city in Andalusia, Spain. Some (the “ida y vuelta” styles) come from the mix of styles between Spain and Latin America that were then reintroduced into Spanish flamenco. Another way to classify them is based on their rhythm. Most palos are either 4-count or 12-count rhythms. But don’t start thinking it’s easy. Many 12-count palos have this strange accentuation that takes a while to get used to (stressed counts in bold): 1 2 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
3. It’s Different Than Spanish Folk Dance
Flamenco is a traditional dance from Spain, but it is not the only one. Many regions of Spain have their own folk dances. Some, like the jota aragonesa, are even quite famous (at least within Spain). But flamenco dance is different, mainly because of the strong influence of the Roma people’s (gitanos) music and culture. It is also usually much more complicated. Folk dances tend to be simpler and more repetitive, so non-professional dancers can pick them up and dance together socially. Some flamenco palos are simpler and can be danced socially (like bulerías). But most of them involve much more complex footwork, and years of practising to get to a high level. Although Spanish folk dances and flamenco have influenced each other a lot, they are not the same thing.
4. A Lot of Flamenco Is Improvised
If you’re watching a group flamenco performance in a theatre, it’s likely to be fully choreographed. However, if you’re watching a flamenco dance in a tablao, then this won’t quite be the case. Dancers will practise steps, and have an idea of the structure they want to dance, but they will have to adapt this on the spot to what the musicians play. They typically don’t rehearse together ahead of the performance! This results in a complex mix of improvisation, while also following a set of rules and conventions of what steps go where, and how to respect the musicians too. And if you’re lucky enough to see a group of people dancing bulerías at a bar or a wedding, that will usually be completely improvised. (Still following some conventions though!)
5. Communication Between Artists Is Key
This is the most fascinating part of flamenco for me. Since the musicians don’t know what the dancer plans to do, there has to be communication. There is a whole code of steps and “intentions” which the dancer can use to indicate to the musician what they want them to play or sing. But this doesn’t usually dictate what length or style of lyrics the singer sings for example. And if the musicians aren’t as experienced, they may not pick up on the cues. The musicians can also choose to play different things which the dancer has to react to, like a guitarist choosing to play a falseta, a solo where they get to shine and the dancer chooses steps that aren’t overbearing.
The necessity of this communication means that when you watch a high-level flamenco performance, all the artists are completely in tune with each other, and there is an intense focus that you can feel even from the audience.
6. The Musicians Sometimes Follow the Dancer
Due to the possibilities that this communication allows, flamenco is the only dance style I know where sometimes the musicians can follow the dancer in this way. This power is so exciting, but it’s difficult to learn how to use it correctly. If the musicians are following you but you’re not confident in this code of communication, things can completely fall apart. Many times when improvising in class, I didn’t quite understand where I was in the music and how or if I should be leading the musician, and my teacher had to help me get through the situation! It’s a steep learning curve, but an incredible feeling when it goes right.
7. It’s Not Just a Dance Style
Most of the dance styles I learnt growing up, like ballet, tap, and modern, were just that—dance styles. But flamenco is so much more, especially when you study it in Andalusia. It is a way of life and a deep cultural phenomenon. Some palos, like bulerías, are very sociable, and it’s common to hear rhythmic clapping and jaleos (“Olé! Arsa! Guapa!”) accompanying the dancers at bars or from a group of friends in the street. Flamenco artistry runs in families for many generations, and it is a symbol of identity for many groups of people, especially the gitanos in Andalusia, Spain.
8. The Palmeros Are Really Important
The palmeros are the people who stand and clap the rhythm, and shout things like “Olé!” at the right time. I used to think they weren’t as important as the dancer, and that they were extra accompaniment that could be done without. But now I’ve realised how important they are. Not just to mark the rhythm and keep the dancers and musicians together, especially in parts where they speed up or slow down or where there is syncopation (very often). But also the climax of the dance would be nothing without the intense clapping that accompanies it. The stronger, faster percussion is essential to build the intensity needed for the climax of a good flamenco performance.
9. The Climax of the Dance
And talking about that climax, there are many different parts to a flamenco performance. From the escobilla where the dancer shows off their complex footwork, to falsetas where the guitarist gets to shine, and strong verses (letras bravas) where the singer can really show off. The climax isn’t an official part of the performance, but it’s the name I give to the most intense moments in a dance (which can often be ~15 mins long). The fast footwork and impressive spins of the dancer match strong accompaniment from the musicians and fast clapping from the palmeros. The climax of a good flamenco performance is such a special experience, especially in Seville where the standard is so high. Your heart rate goes right up, and you are drawn in to that incredible intensity, skill, and passion.
If this all sounds intriguing, I invite you to check out my article on How to Learn Flamenco in Spain. Or come and visit the beautiful city of Seville, the heart of flamenco, by using this suggested itinerary as a guide! You won’t regret it!