Flamenco is a Spanish art form with roots deep in Andalusia -- Spain's southern region.
Although there are clues as to how this dance and folk music evolved, the details are lost
Even the origin of its name is elusive. Some attribute it to the early 1500s and the Flemish
courtiers during the reign of Spain's Charles V. Their bright clothing inspired the names
given things garish or conspicuous, such as flamingoes and flamenco.
Others say flamenco -- still referring to the Flemish -- was the nationality erroneously
given by the common people to Gypsies. Still others claim the name comes from the Arabic
fellah mangu -- the laborer who sings.
Flamenco combines acoustic guitar playing, singing, chanting, dancing and staccato
handclapping. The flamenco dancer performs with passion, fervor, even tortured
expressions but always striving for grace and dignity.
The guitar -- there may be one or several -- and the rapid rhythmic handclapping of the
singers and dancers set the scene.
Flamenco handclapping produces a sharp, almost piercing sound. Those performers not
dancing or guitar playing hold the left arm still. Its bent at the elbow with the hand about
neck high and just slightly cupped. The fingers of the right hand slap the left crosswise,
covering the hollow.
Try it yourself. If your fingers do not land squarely, the clap is dull, flat. When they hit
just right, you'll hear it.
The dancer does not begin immediately, but waits, absorbing the strumming, clapping and
singing until inspired to dance.
Like American jazz, flamenco dancing involves improvisation. It's the dancer’s spontaneous
expression of the moment’s emotions. The Spanish call it duende (DOOEN-day). The word
means goblin or fairy or magic, but to the flamenco dancer it signifies an inner force that
fuels an inspired performance.
A dancer with duende goes beyond technical mastery to vent his or her feelings, achieving
a powerful, compelling dance. Those who aren’t singing may shout encouragement: olé or
¡baile! ¡baile! -- dance! dance! As an observer, you don’t really see good flamenco, you
Flamenco Blends Many Influences
The Pyrenees Mountains running along the Spanish-French border have throughout history
cut Spain off from the mainstream of European culture. But a Mediterranean coast
hundreds of miles long opened the country to influences from cultures not only bordering
this sea but beyond it as well. As a result, Spain’s folk music is completely different from
what you’ll find in any other European country.
Flamenco blends influences the earliest of which came from Hindu dances, the threnodies
of Greek mourners and the mimes of Imperial Rome.
In the days of the Roman Empire, Andalusian dance was already thriving and achieving a
measure of fame. The writings of Pliny, Strabo and Martial mention the dancing girls of
Cadiz, who were even then using castanets.
Under Roman rule large numbers of Jews entered Spain. And the chanting of Jewish synagogue
services found its way into the local music.
In 711, the Moorish warrior Tarik crossed the narrow strait of Gibraltar separating Europe
and Africa at the western end of the Mediterranean. He brought with him an army that
would conquer all of Spain. Thus began almost 800 years of Arab influence on the culture
Early in this occupation, as the new culture was beginning to take hold, a renowned
Moorish singer named Ziryab settled into the Andalusian city of Cordoba. The songs he
brought with him formed the basis of much Spanish music.
Ziryab accompanied himself on a special lute. Traditionally, the lute has four strings, but
he added a fifth. It was this five-stringed lute that evolved in Andalusia into the Spanish
From high in the minarets of the mosques that sprang up throughout Andalusia, the
muezzins would call the faithful to prayer. And their cry, too, colored the local singing.
Finally, the Gypsies began to arrive in Spain during the 15th century. Large numbers
settled in Andalusia. They brought intensity to the local music -- sentimentality, tragedy.
The Gypsies seem to have consolidated the assorted strains into the flamenco we know
today. They cultivated and popularized cante hondo -- deep singing. The name refers to
the emotional depths reached by its singers.
While its origins are ancient, it was not until after 1700 that flamenco came into its own.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries it flourished, achieving a peak in popularity from
about 1875 to 1900. Practically every Andalusian town in the period had its singing cafe.
Seville boasted five. With few exceptions, the famed singers and dancers were Gypsies.
Types of Flamenco
There are more than a dozen varieties of flamenco songs. Many are laments. One classic
type, the petenera, tells the story of a beautiful girl named Petenera who brings tragedy
to herself and her village.
Some songs are named after the Andalusian towns in which they are popular: granadinas
(Grenada), malagueñas (Malagá), rodeñas (Ronda) and sevillanas (Seville). Words tend to
be arbitrary, and the songs seem to have as many versions as there are singers.
While flamenco songs and dances may differ with the performer and the location, they all
have one element in common -- emotion. Flamenco done right creates a profound, moving
Where to See Flamenco
Unfortunately, much flamenco today is staged for tourists and just doesn’t cut it. The
performers may go through the motions, but they lack duende.
Your best opportunities to see good flamenco will be at the flamenco festivals held
throughout Andalusia during the summer.
Andalusia’s fairs -- ferias -- held during spring, summer and early fall can also give you a
look at fine flamenco. Take a late-evening stroll among the pavilions erected for these
events. You can then watch dancing and singing that results from the spontaneous
exuberance of Andalusians enjoying themselves.
flamenco festivals will be held during your visit to Spain. Many are held throughout the
year. Also stop in at the local tourist offices when in Spain. Ask where you can see the
best flamenco the area has to offer.
For more information on Spanish life and culture, read the e-book Culture Briefing: Spain
Also available as a FREE e-book
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