The lights are dim and the first cords of the guitar are strummed softly at first, then faster and more violently. The singers chime in with chant-like lyrics, their voices wailing. Costi “El Chato”, the male dancer stands poised opposite the guitarist, waiting for his female counterpart Tamar Gonzalaz to enter.
Suddenly their feet are moving rapidly, crossing, twisting and tapping, with small kicks and heavy steps—a signature of Flamenco dance. Lights illuminate the wooden stage of Madrid tablao Cardamomo in alternating shades of whites and reds.
“I was mesmerized and confused,” said Kim Mogg. “I couldn’t figure out how their feet moved so quickly, and their arms stayed so graceful. Arms and legs were in all different directions, yet there was rhythm.”
Most tourists express similar reactions after experiencing Flamenco for the first time. Visitors come to Spain feeling obligated to visit a Flamenco show, but most have no idea of the history behind the dance. Flamenco is much more than a tourist attraction and reaches far beyond the tablao experience.
Flamenco originated as a dance among the gypsies in the pueblos or towns of Andalucia. It was a private ritual that others were not allowed to watch. Now, however, over 100 years later, Flamenco is completely the opposite. It is an ever-evolving art form with steps and music unlike any other type of dance. Its appeal stretches around the world from tourists to history and culture buffs to younger modern fans thanks to Flamenco fusion artists who mix the traditional Flamenco with hip-hop, jazz, and blues.
Numerous restaurants and tablaos in Madrid, host Flamenco performances every night of the week. It has evolved and become a major tourist attraction, as well as a protected part of Spanish culture through UNESCO’s World Heritage Program. Flamenco has been modernized and incorporated into pop culture and music thanks to artists like Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía who introduced the cajón, a percussion instrument now commonly used in Flamenco. Other artists such as Huecco, Macaco, Chambao, and Ojos de Brujo fused hip-hop and jazz with Flamenco.
After Flamenco artists left the pueblos and entered the cities in the late 1800’s, they began to sell tickets to public shows in cafés cantantes. The forms of Flamenco practiced during this time became what are now known as “Traditional” dances in modern tablaos. These tablaos replaced cafés cantantes in the 1960’s and feature wooden floors on which dancers perform.
Cardamomo has been putting on Flamenco shows for the last 25 years. The exposed brick walls with captivating black and white portraits of various flamenco dancers house tables covered in mismatched polka dot table cloths where guests can enjoy drinks or a meal while enjoying the Flamenco. Two guitarists strum a variety of picados or scales, two singers belt out cantes or songs while also forming a beat through palmas (clapping) and pitos (snapping the fingers). They also have one percussionist playing the cajón, and two dancers performing the Flamenco.
Bailaoras, or female dancers wear brightly colored Flamenco skirts, called faldas with ruffled layers that reach to the floor. During her performance, Tamar Gonzalaz alternates between hiking up her bright blue ruffled falda to showcase her intricate taconeo or footwork, and letting the falda swish and swirl as her whole body moves with the rhythm of the dance.
Greeting guests as they entered in excited anticipation of Gonzalaz’s performance is Nacho Gonsson. Tourists come from all over the world to witness the Flamenco extravaganza in Madrid, and Gonsson prides himself on being able to communicate with the majority of them.
“Yes I speak English, that’s not a problem,” said Gonsson. “German and Italian as well if you’d like.”
Although many Spaniards feel that Flamenco shows in Madrid are solely for the benefit of tourism, Gonsson disagrees.
“This is Tablao; this is a show.” He responds adamantly that it doesn’t matter where the audience is from, but that Flamenco is meant to be performed for an audience.
Yolanda Granado, a Spanish dance professor at SLU Madrid, specializes in Flamenco. She studied at the Amor de Dios School of dance, and continues to study with La Tati, La China, y Circo among others. Granado has danced in several Flamenco companies and even worked professionally as a choreographer.
Granado is an example of a new generation of school-trained artists. Rather than learning from their elders, dancers enroll in classes to improve their arm and hand movements, known respectively as braceo and floreo, as well as to learn and incorporate other types of dance. Zapateados is a dance derived from the tango and characterized by intricate footwork, and a compás, or rhythm that alternately speeds up and slows down.
Artists such as Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía made Flamenco more popular and universal. Camarón was a pioneer in pop/ rock and Flamenco fusion and acquired a large fan base that stretched across Europe. Paco is a famous Flamenco guitarist and his albums feature traditional Flamenco and more experimental using bass, drums, saxophones, and cajón. Some criticized Paco for straying from the traditional, and others copied his style and built on it.
One Spanish artist in particular, Huecco is known for combining reggae, hip-hop, and punk music with Flamenco guitars. Huecco helps mainstream Flamenco in a completely different way, appealing to younger generations and different musical tastes. He has released albums in countries all over the world, including: Mexico, United States, Portugal, Chile, Puerto Rico, Spain and Colombia.
“It brings people from other genres to start listening to flamenco,” Granado says of Flamenco fusion. “And helps take away the way people think of Flamenco. Huecco is great, as long as his music doesn’t represent all of Flamenco.”
Daphne Biniori, a veteran dancer, has been studying Flamenco for the past four years, is enrolled in the advanced Flamenco class at SLU, and is a Huecco fan.
“Flamenco fusion—that is what’s helping Flamenco not become a dying art,” said Biniori.
On November 16, 2010 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO added Flamenco to its list of Intangible World Heritages to preserve in an effort to protect and preserve Flamenco as a part of Spanish culture.
“It’s a living art – it is alive,” says Granado. “It goes through phases, some wonderful and sometimes it goes into crisis. There is still pure Flamenco, but in the moment that Flamenco becomes something mainstream it is lost. We’ll have lost it.”