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Every country has a dance that in the public’s mind identifies its culture. In Austria venturing into Vienna will bring you face to face with the waltz. In Argentina they dance the Tango. You’ll find the Samba in the streets of Brazil, and square dancing in the United States. Stereotypes, perhaps, but for each of these dances evoke an image of the country’s folk culture.
And in Spain, if you travel the seductive region called Andalusia, you will encounter the flamenco. Visiting Andalusia without experiencing flamenco, is like going to Paris and not seeing the Louvre. Sure, you can enjoy yourself, but there will also be something missing.
Flamenco is not found throughout Spain because that country is a complex myriad of linguistic and culturally distinct regions from north to south. Flamenco has its roots in the southern province of Andalusia. It emerged as the regions most expressive spirit and art form over the past 200 years. Andalusia, once Spain’s poorest region, it is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. Visitors flock to its sandy beaches, beautiful countryside, spectacular mountain ranges, ancient monuments and the exuberant character of its people, who dance the flamenco.
Andalusian tourism draws from a deep well of cultural history. Here, you’ll encounter the richest collection of Spain’s historical treasures, character and soul. The nation’s most treasured historical sites and greatest cities – Seville, Ronda, Merida, Malaga, Cordoba, Toledo and Granada – are noted for their classic architecture and hospitality.
Andalusia, the ancient land of the Moors, retains an Arabic look. It was once a battlefield of competing Muslim and Christian cultures. Andalusia still embraces a lifestyle that lives in the minds of most tourists. The Spain of Hemingway with imagery of bull fighting, guitars and flamenco; can still be found in the ancient Moorish palaces and cities and towns hanging on the edges of mountains.
This is where you’ll find Flamenco in all of its styles and glory. Andalusians constantly add new spice and flavor to their national dance. Flamenco singing and guitar playing has traditionally been passed from generation to generation. Theatrical flamenco dance, however, has been taught since the nineteenth century in dedicated dance academies.
So what is it? Arguably, it is the most exciting and pulsating dance form anywhere in the world. Flamenco combines acoustic guitar playing, singing, chanting, dancing and staccato hand-clapping. The dancers perform with passion, but always striving for grace and dignity. The guitar – one or several – and the rapid rhythmic hand-clapping of the singers and dancers set the tone.
Historically, the flamenco song involves a synthesis of at least four cultures: the Gypsies, Moors or Arabs; Jews; and indigenous Andalusians. If you go to one of the Tablaos where Flamenco is performed, you’ll have to put aside the images you have of gorgeous movie stars and their castanets. Castanets are not part of traditional flamenco and you usually won’t find them being used in the small cafes of Cordoba or Seville. They are an element added to enhance the finger snapping.
Tablaos are clubs that are dedicated to Flamenco dance and song. They are the best places to see an authentic, flamenco performance. The walls are decorated with embroidered silk shawls, photographs of famous people, bullfighting clothes and capes. The clubs have a warm atmosphere that will let you savour the dance. You can sit back with a drink, sample some tapas, or dine on fine Spanish cuisine.
Although Flamenco appears wild, loose and free, it is a highly structured dance form. The hand-clapping produces a sharp, almost piercing sound. Performers hold the left arm still, 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. If your fingers do not land squarely, the clap is dull and flat. When they hit just right, you’ll hear it.
Like American jazz, flamenco dancing involves improvisation with spontaneous movements that capture the spirit of the moment. And that’s what makes it so unpredictable. You can attend several flamenco performances in a row by the same troupe and never see the same thing.
If you want a massive Spanish flamenco experience, go to Seville in the fall. The Flamenco Biennial Festival is held every two years at the Cartuja Auditorium in Seville. This event combines a flamenco competition with a range of song and dance performances. This is where you find the very best of the tradition. An artistic committee selects all of the festival performers. Visitors can take courses and attend conferences offered at the site.
America has a growing number of flamenco schools. Many are funded and headed by artists devoted to this Andalusian tradition. You can visit one of the most notable flamenco centers in New Mexico. The Instituto Nacional de Flamenco (National Flamenco Institute) in Alburquerque sponsors dances, programs and exhibitions at its own Conservatory of Flamenco Art.