The pain, passion & joy of flamenco

What is Flamenco?

Flamenco is a Spanish Andalusian dancing and music style that incorporates singing, guitar playing and hand clapping. Often described as being wrought with emotion and great spiritual intensity, flamenco exhibits many hand movements and arms gestures, swift footwork and throat-gripping cries which are accompanied by the strumming of a guitar. Flamenco has roots in gypsy, Christian, Jewish and Moorish traditions, but ultimately transcends ethnic borders to become a form of artistic expression that’s widely enjoyed all over the world. In fact, flamenco was designated as an intangible cultural heritage by Unesco in 2010.

Origin of Flamenco

There is a long colourful history to flamenco. The art was established in the middle of the 18th century in Andalusia, although its roots can be historically identified in numerous other cultures artistic expressions – from nomadic Gypsies to Arabs, Jews, and Christians. All of these cultures have contributed to the development of flamenco by mixing elements from their respective cultures into the distinctive flamenco style, reflecting time, religious beliefs and culture of a multinational base of people. In time there were also African influences that left their own footprint as Africans both passed through Andalusia and due to the slave trade during colonial times.

The origins of flamenco date back to the 18th century, with gypsies as a decisive influence on its development. But flamenco gets its true character from Arabic and Jewish culture, which had already mixed with other cultural influences in Andalusian society prior to the arrival of Sephardic Jews and Muslims: all these cultures came together and mixed their varied cultural elements (such as dance and music) when they co-existed throughout Southern Spain.

Flamenco is almost always associated with gypsies. Perhaps because they are the group that contributed the most to its birth and development. The gypsies intermingled all these multicultural elements in a harmonious way. And then they dedicated themselves to spreading flamenco outside their own group.

Multicultural Roots in Flamenco

The multicultural roots in flamenco are reflected in all its aspects: dance, singing and guitar music. In the singing and music, for example, one finds influences from:

  • Synagogue chants
  • Gregorian chants
  • Andalusian folk songs
  • Traditional Andalusian music
  • Arabic sounds
  • African rhythms

Flamenco dance is influenced by traditional Spanish dances, Indian dances brought to Andalusia by gypsies and African dances, according to the historian José Luis Navarro García, author of the book Historia del Baile Flamenco, the essential characteristics of flamenco dance come from three cultures gifted for music and dance:

  • Andalusian culture brings grace, elegance, mischievousness, freshness and salt.
  • The gypsy culture brings temperament and interpretative grit.
  • The African culture brings the sensuality of the swagger and its binary rhythms.

Dancing, Singing and Guitar in Flamenco

In flamenco dancing, singing and guitar playing merge into a single artistic expression. When all three elements are present, the dance is what unites all the elements.

The bailaora or bailaor interprets the feelings expressed by the cantaor or cantaora in the cante. To create his or her dance, he or she uses the language of flamenco dance: arm and wrist movements, continuos, turns, zapateos, rhythms and contratiempos. The bailaor or bailaora becomes a musician as well. The guitar and the percussion that he or she plays in the zapateo become a complete piece of music.

The interpretation in dance depends very much on the type of cante being performed. Each flamenco cante or palo has its own universe, texture, feeling and rhythm. The bailaor or bailaora creates his or her dance according to these characteristics of the cante. However, he or she does not follow a set pattern of steps and movements.

Instead, the bailaor or bailaora uses the basic structure of flamenco dance in a personalised way which combines the tradition of the dance with their own expressions. In this way, the structure allows the three elements of the art of flamenco to merge in harmony.

Pain, Passion and Joy in Flamenco

Flamenco is an art that expresses deep feelings. It was born as a means to express the emotional, social and even political experience of the artists.

Pain, loneliness, anguish, despair, love, heartbreak, passion and joy are central themes in flamenco. Some flamenco palos are even named after feelings, such as soleá and alegría.

It could be said that each flamenco palo expresses a different type of feeling. The cante jondo or cantes grandes express painful and deep feelings. The cantes fiesteros express joy, sensuality and passion.

But no matter what feeling each dance or each flamenco palo expresses, there is always a common emotional element in all of them. In flamenco, whether dancing or singing, there is always a catharsis that culminates in the transformation of a painful or deep feeling into a lighter or more joyful one.

Trips to get you here

Explore the gastronomical delights, vibrant cities, stunning beaches and natural parks of Northern Spain – from the Basque Country to Barcelona and Madrid!

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