Swirling skirts, clicking castanets, rousing rhythms: flamenco encapsulates the drama and verve of Seville. This southern Spanish city is frequently called the birthplace of flamenco. But it's not quite so straightforward. The dance as we're familiar with today combines a range of influences that cannot be traced to a single time and place. Here's your introductory guide to Flamenco's history, elements and venues.
Although flamenco became popular with Spaniards in the 18th century, it originated in Roma communities centuries earlier. Historically called Gypsies, the Roma first arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century. Blending their own folklore with Moorish and Andalusian influences, flamenco testifies to the diverse cultural forces that Roma communities have collected through their diaspora.
As bohemian Spaniards became interested in the rousing dance, they quickly romanticized it. Among the most famous of these idealized depictions is Carmen. Although it gained fame as an opera by Georges Bizet, it was originally a novella by Prosper Merimee that told the story of Don Jose, a soldier seduced by a flamenco dancer named Carmen.
Under Franco's regime, flamenco was used as part of the propaganda machine to aggressively sell the idea of Spanish-ness and Spanish culture abroad. As a consequence, the historical connection between flamenco and Seville has become overlooked as visitors to Galicia expect to find the dance just as they would in its region of origin. There are signs that this is changing. In 2006 the Museo del Baile Flamenco opened in Seville in order to celebrate flamenco's origins.
Although the choreography draws you in, flamenco enthusiasts agree that the music, vocals and atmosphere are just as important, if not more so. Flamenco is an ensemble art and there are always at least four performers on stage: a dancer (la bailaora, el bailaor), singer (el cantaor), guitar player and a hand-clapper (elpalmero).
The dancer, una bailaora or un bailaor, is considered good when they exhibit duende, best translated as emotion. Whether with their costume, castanets or hand movements, each element of their movement should highlight the emotion of the performance.
The singer and the guitar player work in unison to intensify the duende. There are several types of flamenco songs. Cante grande, also called cante jondo or cante gitano, express anguish or despair and are frequently described as the backbone of flamenco performances. But not all the music is downcast. Cante chico are short, uptempo songs about love and joy, while cante intermedio are sad songs with positive notes. Toque, the guitar, accompanies the vocals and contributes a quick, almost feathery sound. This is possible thanks to its unique construction, which uses thinner strings than a traditional guitar.
But it might be the palmero who has the most crucial job. Using their claps, they set the tempo for the dancers and musicians—and hopefully encourage the audience to participate with subsequent claps and screams of ole. Such cries contribute to the jaleo, or hell-raising atmosphere of a rousing performance.
The most common place to catch a flamenco performance is at a tablao. These large performance halls put on big-budget shows with professional dancers. They may also involve drinks and dinner for a complete night out.
For a more intimate experience, head to a pena. These are cultural associations that host smaller and more intimate shows. The performance may be traditional, or it might be more modern and experimental. In Seville, you can also find performance at the Museo de Baile and other cultural institutions devoted to preserving and popularizing the art form.
In Seville, your best bet for an intimate, impromptu performance is in the Triana neighborhood. This former Roma ghetto once collected families in tenements called corrales de vicinos and was the site of many ebullient juergas, parties where flamenco was performed. The neighborhood comes up in many traditional flamenco songs. While the Roma were relocated from the city center to the outskirts in the 1960s, the flamenco heritage still runs deep in the area. Head to the T de Triana bar or Casa Cuesta and you'll find old-school flamenco memorabilia and, if you're lucky, a performance.
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