Finally, a dance where I can stomp my feet and throw a tantrum. It’s Flamenco!
The dancer looked really angry. Feet stomped wildly and arms flung in every direction as her gaze pierced outward beneath a brow furrow that squeezed out every bit of her angst. She was really throwing a tantrum on that stage, and I thought, “Is that the best you can do?” I couldn’t wait to try my first Flamenco class.
Oscar Nieto has been living Flamenco for 40 years. “Flamenco is a way of life,”, he says, “you eat it, you breathe it, you live it. It’s constantly with you. I’ve tried to leave it many times but I’m still here.” Indeed, Oscar demonstrates the many ways that Flamenco becomes a part of one’s life. More than a dance and certainly more than just a tantrum, Flamenco is an art form that expresses stories and emotions dating as far back as the 15th century in Andalusia, southern Spain. During that time, Flamenco gained prominence amongst the Gypsies, Sephardic Jews, Muslims and other ethnic minorities who were persecuted under the Spanish Inquisition. Through Flamenco, they shared their hardships and expressed sentiments of oppression and marginalisation, sadness and also happiness in life’s simple pleasures. Many believe Flamenco’s history is even older, though earlier details are not well documented as the art form had been passed down orally for centuries.
Steeped in this rich history, I was shocked when Oscar began by teaching me something so simple as clapping. However, Flamenco rhythms, called the “compas”, have many forms and can get quite complex. In Flamenco, clapping is often the sole percussion of a performance and a musician dedicated to this is called a “palmero”. Those of you keen on drumming or tap dancing will have endless hours of pleasure figuring out which beats to clap on and which are silent. Rhythmic ability is just as important for the other performers, traditionally a singer, guitarist and a dancer or two, in addition to the palmeros, which make up the often improvised act. The best Flamenco artists can actually perform together, without having rehearsed together, just by agreeing to a Flamenco style, tempo and a few other elements, then exchanging cues to guide one another along the way. For example, the singer may change his tone or volume to emphasize lyrics, and the dancer will answer by accentuating certain movements. The palmeros could dictate the tempo while the guitarist improvises to the dancer’s movements.
By the end of my Flamenco lesson with Oscar, I had learned the basic steps to a simple dance routine including the proper posture and mannerisms; I had even perfected the brow furrow. But, before I could perform Flamenco, I had to understand the conversation that my dance was engaged in. That, is the art which takes years to fully understand and embody. Flamenco expresses its complex themes in simple and relatable emotions, contributing to both its proliferation and its vulnerability. While the art form has remained popular throughout the centuries, it has also been mixed with unexpected styles and interpretations. From fashion trends that swapped skirts for pants, to modern Flamenco music that has even fused elements of hip-hop and rap, these evolutions guarantee ongoing debate of their authenticity amongst those who consider themselves traditional Flamenco artists.
- Flamenco gained prominence in Andalusia the 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition.
- The golden age of Flamenco is considered to be in the late 1800’s.
- Flamenco songs are called “cante”.
- Federico Garcia Lorca was a poet famous for his writings of Flamenco and Andalusia. His poetry has been incorporated into more recent Flamenco cante.
- A Flamenco guitarist is a “tocaor”.
- Paco de Lucia is a Flamenco guitarist with a leading influence on contemporary Flamenco, fusing traditional Flamenco music with jazz and Latin styles.
- A Flamenco dancer is a “baliaor”.
- Joaquín Cortés is Flamenco dancer known as much for his talent as his celebrity status which has brought new worldwide attention to Flamenco.
- The venue where traditional Flamenco is performed is called a “tablao”.
- Castanets are not commonly used in Flamenco dance; they are more often used in other styles of Spanish folkdance.
- A “llamada” is a dance step signaling to the other performers of a change in a dancer’s movement.
Oscar Nieto’s website has a wealth of information on Flamenco.
Where to Dance Flamenco
Vancouver Al Mozaico Flamenco Dance Academy – Co-founded by Oscar Nieto, Flamenco dance classes of all levels are offered.
Spain Jerez Flamenco Festival – The Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera is believed to be the birthplace of Flamenco; the festival happens every spring.
Seville Flamenco Biennial Festival – Every two years in the autumn in Seville, Spain.