A LIVING HISTORY
Flamenco is not merely a style of music, song or dance from Spain but rather a way of life that
influences the daily activities of many individuals. The art of flamenco was intended to be an outward
expression of an individuals most profound emotions and the flamenco way of life. It was never intended
to be a technical art performed with stoic precision yet without duende (a passion/feeling for flamenco).
The main components and styles of flamenco will be discussed briefly while an in depth presentation of
the characteristics of flamenco dance (baile) and its evolution shall emerge subsequently.
Present day flamenco consists of singing (cante), dancing (baile) and guitar playing (toque); each
of which is a distinctive art. Those only vaguely introduced to flamenco may be surprised to learn that
the cante was and is the centerpiece of the flamenco art form. In contemporary times singers perform in
the background and their singing is usually perceived as musical accompaniment to the dancers.
Throughout history, however, flamenco has been based on the art of singing and the cantaor (singer) often
provided his own rhythmic accompaniment with rapping of the knuckles or a stick (figure 1).
Various styles of flamenco permeate yet the art is divided into four specific categories including
deep/profound flamenco (jondo or grande), intermediate flamenco (intermedio), light flamenco (chico) and
Jondo or grande flamenco is the serious flamenco and is comparable with the blues of the southern
United States (The Art of Flamenco, p.47). Of all forms of flamenco this is the most difficult to
understand and interpret properly. The artists who explore this style are considered the nobility in the
world of flamenco. In order to grasp this style an artist must have a true feeling of flamenco (duende)
that he is able to pass on to his audience. Jondo flamenco is an emotional art and the artist must
possess only enough technical proficiency to allow him/her to communicate with spectators his emotions
and passion for flamenco. Jondo flamenco is not concerned with a mastering of technique for improved
technique does not mean an increased ability to relate emotions to the public. If an artist becomes too
involved with the difficulty or complexity of his art he loses the ability to impart duende for his
energy is focused specifically on technique.
Flamenco intermedio consists of styles that tend toward flamenco grande but the intermedio is not
as difficult to perform properly and not as moving.
Flamenco chico is sensuous, tender and poetic and is usually not intensely moving. This style of
flamenco usually consists of shouting, stomping and fast movements.
Popular flamenco is the collaboration of all three above forms and does not resemble pure flamenco.
It is the commercialization of flamenco and is aimed at the general public who like a good show but seek
no emotional involvement.
The contrast between flamenco juerga and popular flamenco is best surmised in the words of an
artist, “primitivism versus polish, warmth versus anonymity, creation versus rigidity, emotion versus
intellect, instinct versus schooling, fun versus formality.”(The Art of Flamenco, p.51).
The professional flamenco artist must follow either the commercial route in which the art is
sacrificed to some extent to money or the private route in which money is sacrificed, to some extent, for
purity of expression. True flamencos are purists who will in no way compromise the art and if they must
go hungry in the process it is just one of the hazards of the trade. The contrast between popular
flamenco and flamenco juerga is most evident in the flamenco baile due to its extroverted nature.
Often an amateur to the art of flamenco will appreciate the baile most while paying negligible
attention to the cante and toque. This occurs mainly because as a beginner one is not able to grasp the
soul searing intensity of the song or accompaniment. But one will always be able to appreciate the grace
and sensuality of the dancers movements. Unlike the other forms of flamenco, flamenco baile requires
that the body be the means of expression.
Flamenco dancers (bailaores) use movement to dig into their emotional selves and express their most
unutterable emotions through their bodys movement. A true flamenco bailaore will elicit emotional
response without analysis.
The dance of the arms, hands, shoulders and fingertips is the very essence of the feminine dance
(figure 2). The female dancer (bailaora) uses various arm movements, “rhythmically linked, flowing one
into the other, forming continuous spirals that culminate in curving, meandering, sinuous fingers. The
hands and fingers receive the emotions articulated by the arms framing a slightly arched body.”
(Flamenco, Body and Soul p.116). She dances, “with a bending, undulating waist designed by nature itself
to express her voluptuous imagination, with her curving shoulders and undulating seeking arms slender
promising fingertips begging for sanctuary. With her head and her eyes, and her flashing teeth and her
very heart.” (Flamenco, Body and Soul, p. 116) (figure 3). Hands and fingers may also be incorporated
for rhythm by finger snapping, hand clapping or the use of castanets. It has been suggested, however,
that the use of these instruments occurs due to inability to work t!
he upper torso.
The bailaor uses his feet to create the zapateado (figure 4), a rhythmic coordinated heel and toe
movement which produces a syncopated staccato sound. The bailaor digs deep into himself during his dance
to ultimately release his distress. The male dancer concentrates all movement to the feet and develops a
beat dependent upon inner rhythms.
Each baile (dance), or danceable compas (rhythm/beat) does not have traditional characteristics that
have to be adhered to. The rhythm largely determines the dance, and between bailes with very similar
rhythms and moods there will be no inherent differences in the dance.
Traditionally the bailaoras (female dancer) main concentration was from the hips up and the
bailaors (male dancer) from the waist down. However, flamenco dance was revolutionized by two
incomparable figures; Antonio el de Bilbao and Carmen Amaya (figure 5). These two individuals altered
the trend of flamenco dance by incorporating both feminine and masculine aspects into their dances. They
transformed flamenco baile from non-technical, simple and direct to difficult, complex and extremely
technical. Although their style incorporated more technical precision these artists were capable of
relaying duende and thus remained true to flamencos original purpose – personal expression.
It is strictly up to the dancer to use whatever technique he wishes in whatever manner he wishes,
within certain limits, as long as they help him express what he feels and is striving to communicate with
the audience. However, only certain movements and techniques are accepted as being truly flamenco. The
inner passion of the dancer must be released through his movement. When precision becomes the focus all
energy is centered on the technical aspect of the dance. The dancer no longer focuses on emotional
expression or duende and the essence of flamenco has been lost.
The origins and development of flamenco baile are obscure and murky yet can be pieced together
through historical facts and contemporary similarities in the dance of various cultures. Baile flamenco
is believed to be descended from ancient religious dances of the Indian Hindus including the Bharata
Natyam, Kathak and Kathakali (figure 6). These sacred dances involve story telling and spontaneity;
although not as openly as in flamenco. Arm gestures, hand movements and footwork bear a striking
similarity yet this is where the resemblance ends. Through its evolution flamenco has lost many
traditional elements of Indian dance; flamenco dance is not symbolic or religious and does not utilize
the various eye and facial movements of classical Indian dance. It is postulated that lay persons
adopted the highly civilized religious dances of the Indian Hindus and shed many of the highly stylized
gestures, returning to a more basic art form concerned mainly with the expression !
of oneself and ones emotions.
The development of specific Indian dances into flamenco, within Spain, still poses a mystery for the
recorded history of flamenco baile does not begin until the caf cantante period in 1842. However, a
history has been surmised through available facts and postulation.
Traditionally performed in temples during religious rites the sacred Indian dances eventually began
to be performed outside the temples in India. As the dances were performed publicly more often, lay
persons adopted and modified the movements. Through caravans and trading vessels different cultures
witnessed the simplified dances and returned home with a new and exhilarating form of movement dedicated
to personal expression. The more simplified dances also dispersed throughout Spain when Indian gypsies
followed Moorish armies during their conquest of Spains southernmost province, Andalusia, during the 6th
century. The modified Indian dances arrived with these unique cultures and a distinct dance style was
established in Spain.
A subsequent event in the development of flamenco was the second influx of gypsies to Spain. Bands
of gypsies began an exodus from India during the 9th century due to oppression. They roamed across Asia,
Africa and Europe aimlessly searching for a new homeland. During their trek the bands of gypsies
dwindled as tribes were left along the way until a few remaining gypsies filtered through the Spanish
peninsula. Eventually they settled at Andalusia, a multi-ethnic province in which Jews, Christians and
Arabs lived side by side, in the 15th century. Andalusia was currently the center of Moorish
The cultural coexistence in Andalusia was destroyed, however, when Spanish Christians completed
their re-conquest of the last Moorish stronghold in 1492. With the momentum of this defeat the
overly-impassioned Christians decided to purge Spain of all undesirable elements and passed laws ordering
the expulsion of Moors, Jews and gypsies who had no useful profession. These laws were followed by a
reign of terror against those cultures who refused to comply (Art of Flamenco, p.44).
It was due to these events that persecuted cultures (Jews, Arabs and Gypsies) who shared no common
bonds united against oppressive Christians. They grouped together into tribes/bands and went underground
hiding in uninhabited regions, living in caves and foraging for food; soon after their banishment the
oppressed cultures were joined by Christian fugitives and dissenters. Because of the forced coexistence
of the Jews, Christians, Arabs and Indians various folk and religious styles of music, song and dance
blended with gypsy abandonment and improvisation.
Controversy often arises about cultural contribution to the art of flamenco. Andalusians contest
that flamenco was an established art form within their province. They argue that gypsies brought no
style of song or dance of their own but simply adopted the culture of each land where they roamed. They
assert that if the gypsies who emigrated from India brought a folk style similar to flamenco then gypsies
in other cultures would practice flamenco styles also.
This argument is quickly refuted since startling similarities between the music and dance of the
Spanish gypsies and gypsies of other countries are present. Vicente Escudero in his work, “Mi Baile”
states that a Russian gypsy dance is very similar to the famuca in its compas (footwork) and movements of
the arms plus upper torso; Nevertheless, the dance there has developed much more acrobatically (Lives and
Legends of Flamenco, p. 176). In addition, the many falsettos of Hungarian gypsy violin and flamenco
guitar are nearly identical as much in feeling as in structure (Lives and Legends of Flamenco, p.178).
Additional accounts of similarities between Spanish gypsy style and gypsies from other countries exist
yet will not be explored in depth here.
The Moors ruled in Andalusia for eight centuries and it is thus impossible to deny their influence
in the development of flamenco dance. The movements of the upper torso, arms and hands remained in
existence due to Moorish approval. However, there was discouragement of feminine footwork due to a
ruling in the Koran – women would not utilize footwork in order to not show their legs (Lives and Legends
of Flamenco, p. 144). This ruling and the fact that gypsy dancers were not technically trained are the
main reasons why feminine footwork was nearly non-existent in flamenco baile until this century.
Throughout all of the debates about the evolution of flamenco it is clear that the art of flamenco
had been brewing for many centuries in Andalusia. During the time of the Moors flamenco dance was
popular and still somewhat religious yet after their expulsion from Spain all religious affiliation was
lost. It was then that the baile along with cante and toque went underground and became the art of a
persecuted people. Consequently, the mingling of the various cultural styles of these persecuted people
can be cited as the creation of an art form we today call flamenco.
The recorded history of flamenco dance does not begin until the start of the caf cantante period in
1842 and the majority of flamenco dancers, at that time, were gypsies with fundamental technique and
sparse repertoires. The footwork of the men was relatively simple and primitive while women, with very
few exceptions, used almost no footwork and concentrated on the arms, hands and upper torso. In gypsy or
primitive flamenco dance neither men nor women used castanets but relied on movement of the upper torso
and their own personalities (gracia) (figure 7). It was a completely spontaneous dance and provides a
look at what flamenco was intended to be.
Dance found itself on stage during the caf cantate period, however, and it began to expand in the
amount of space it utilized. The arm movements once motivated by inner feelings now became repetitive,
concentric movements made by a number of dancers and the syncopated rhythms of the zapateado (dance
concentrating on footwork) became the protocol for male dancers. The larger space of the caf cantante
period demanded a company of dancers and choreography became a vital component of flamenco.
During the cafe cantante period choreography dominated flamenco dancing. The possibilities in
choreographing flamenco dance were numerous yet the dance became delightful, festive and jovial but also
boring and routine. The essence of flamenco was lost and no longer were dancers exploring their
emotional selves on stage.
Then in 1915, Serge Diaghlievs Ballet Russe came to Spain and changed the tide of many art forms
including flamenco dance. Diaghliev demonstrated how to utilize space and all the qualities a dancer
possessed. Flamenco dancers suddenly re-evaluated their profession once confronted with Diaghlievs
integrity. Three paths were unexpectedly available to flamenco dancers; please the public with routine
dances, return to their origins as individual bailaores, or enlarge their companies with more brilliant
choreography to present pure flamenco dancing on a large scale.
A return to pure flamenco dancing, as it was originally performed by individual dancers, and the
development of large professional companies dedicated to authentic flamenco baile were the two new
directions in which flamenco dance moved.
Unlike in Indian religious dances the various movements of flamenco do not have specific meanings
and the dance is not attempting to convey a story. The techniques and movements in flamenco are not
symbolic and in a solo dance no actual story is being told. The dancer utilizes the techniques and
movements of the dance to help express the inner self and also utilizes whichever passions or moods are
affecting him at the time of dancing. The same movement can denote love or hate, tragedy or happiness
depending on the mood of the dancer. “Dancing is such like an abstract painting in that two individuals
will be moved differently by the same dance and the same viewer may be affected differently if viewed on
separate occasions.” (The Art of Flamenco, P.70)
The passionate dancer, when he feels himself moved during the course of a flamenco session, responds
with creation of movement and a release of passion and emotions beyond rehearsed arrangements and
memories (figure 8). The technique helps him achieve the release and the arrangement help solidify the
technique but his inner passion is his motivating force.
Flamenco baile is a wonderfully moving art form which lost its focus for some years but has regained
its integrity. It is an art form which relies mainly on the passions of the performer and not on
technical precision. Flamenco baile was intended to be a spontaneous art and has returned to its
original purpose through the efforts of many dedicated and pure flamencos; both performers and
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History. Spain: Society of Spanish Studies, 1978.
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