This is the first in a four-part series on flamenco, an art form that was named to UNESCO's Representative List of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010, while I was travelling through Spain. The criteria for that designation requires that the practice must be transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity.It is something traditional that is passed on from the past but is also alive and constantly evolving. This series is intended to share my experience of flamenco as embodying Andalusia’s heart and soul, with its people as a prism, offering glimmers of the art’s history and future. —MP
From the hallway, I felt the floor shaking from a rapid-fire burst of pounding and heard a man wailing. Looking in a doorway, I saw a couple of dozen people drenched in sweat, their faces contorted in both pain and ecstasy. The group ranged in age from what looked like an eight year-old girl to a man in his 30s. All eyes were on two men in the front of the room, both dressed in black. One had long hair pulled back into a pony tail; the other had the stubble of a six o-clock shadow and sat in a folding chair.
The man standing gave an authoritative clap and barked out a series of commands. The seated man began keening, his husky voice rising in a soul-stirring, other-worldly cry. The assortment of people in the small, bare room burst into movement, simultaneously frenetic and controlled. Arms were flung skyward, hips swayed rhythmically, feet hammered against the floor, eyes shone. The energy was palpable; the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the walls dripped with condensation.
When the kinetic swirl of motion suddenly came to a stop, my heart was racing. Moved by the intensity of experience, tears sprang to my eyes and grinning both inside and out, I shouted “Ole`!”
The traditional cheer originates from the Arabic, meaning “my God,” an appropriate accolade at Madrid’s legendary flamenco school Amor de Dios Studio. Housed in a pink building on Calle Santa Isabel, its name translates from the Spanish as “love of God.” While one might be excused for thinking the lofty moniker arises from the heavenly dancing that is transmitted within its walls, the school was named for the nearby street on which it was originally located.
With a mixture of curiosity, excitement and perhaps even reverence, I had come here to pay my respects to one of Madrid’s most beloved institutions. Indeed, its reputation as a national treasure and cultural icon is renown throughout all of Spain and beyond, with admirers worldwide. So many students come from Japan, where there is a fervent flamenco fan base, the school has been nick-named “Amor de Buddha.”
I had been told that my chances of admittance were best if I came in the early evening and so despite being delirious with jetlag, I moved through the streets of Madrid’s centro historico as the soft light of dusk descended. The warm glow of the streetlights flickered on and I allowed myself to be carried along the avenues of the ancient neighborhood by the tide of its residents returning home from work.
Arriving at number 5 Calle Santa Isabel, I entered the building and was flummoxed to find a bustling market, with well-stocked stands selling lush produce and pungent cheeses alongside butchers’ counters strung with hams and fishmongers’ displays of the catch of the day. A merchant explained to me that Amor de Dios was on the second floor, above the Mercado de Antón Martín.
Climbing the stairs, I ascended into a cloud imbued with the cloying scent of pot and a cluster of thin young men with dark and slightly dangerous good looks gathered on the landing. In the school’s reception area, the walls were plastered with colorful posters for flamenco performances of all kinds being held near and far. A matron in a mink coat flirted with a white-haired man with a creased face and gleaming guitar lovingly ensconced in his lap.
A gaggle of teenage girls flew through the doors, flamenco shoes in hand, passing a middle-aged man strolling in the opposite direction, who absent-mindedly clacked a pair of castanets. Presiding over the well-practiced pandemonium behind a plate-glass window was Joaquín San Juan, who manages the school, which is a private institution.
With permission from San Juan to roam about, I stuck my head in the first door I came upon. An autocratic-looking woman with gray hair pulled back into a tight bun presided over a class of six women. In a corner, a young man with a sweater draped over his shoulders and high-top sneakers on his feet strummed a delicate and mournful tune on his guitar.
In contrast with the high voltage display I would soon see down the hallway, in this studio the emphasis seemed to be on subtleties. The women focused on form--backs ramrod straight in a regal posture, arms bent just so, and the hems of their ruffled skirts held in a certain manner. I noticed each student’s flamenco shoes were a different color—red, beige, purple, black, shades of blue—and their stylized stance mirrored that of their teacher facing them from the front of the room.
Moving on, I stopped at the next doorway, which opened into a studio the size of a walk-in closet. In it, three middle-aged couples exuberantly twirled in a sort of square dance, with grins that seemed both self-conscious and happy. Leading the charge was the man I had seen earlier with the castanets, who adroitly wielded them while shouting instructions over zesty music blasting from a boom box. I learned the couples were beginners practicing the sevillanas.
Whether this dance constitutes flamenco is debatable, according to Judy A. Cotter, a professor of Spanish culture and art history in Sevilla.
“This dance was originally a folk dance and later ‘flamencoized,’ in terms of the rhythms, gestures, and footwork,” Cotter said. “It is often included in the repertoire of numbers performed in a flamenco tablao, however the purists do not really consider it ‘true’ flamenco. Every day, however, it seems that more musical forms are being included into the world of flamenco – a phenomenon called flamenco fusion.”
“The basic reason the purists don't equate it with the deeper, more emotional flamenco is because it has to be choreographed in order for partners to perform the dance,” she continued. “Flamenco, in its origin, is an expression of a personal emotion so deep that it just has to be externalized and how can you choreograph an emotion?”
Amor de Dios has a roster of well established instructors, but there are no specific teaching methods. Each teacher develops his own approach, competing with his or her peers. According to San Juan, in that sense, it can be said that there are as many Amor de Dios as teachers. He said it’s difficult to know how many students train at the school, but approximately 1,000 people pass through every day. Each year, 27, 500 hours of flamenco activities take place at the school.
Flamenco is a three-part ensemble, and Amor de Dios offers instruction not only in dance, but in singing and guitar as well. The school was the first to offer singing classes—the “cante flamenco” had never been taught or studied in a collective way prior to Amor de Dios introducing its study in 1994.
Clara Mora Chinoy, a Madrid-based flamenco dancer and anthropologist, explained that singing, guitar-playing and dancing are each integral to flamenco, and inter-related.
“Flamenco has become popularly known largely through the dance, and through solo guitarists ranging from Carlos Montoya to Paco de Lucía,” Chinoy said. “But it is the singing, though perhaps the least accessible of the three facets, that is the most flamenco of flamenco, the heart of it. It provides the raison d'etre of the dancing and the musical structures of the guitar. It is the quintessential expression of something which, more than an art form, is a way of life.”
“In the true ambiance of flamenco, the three art forms of song, dance and guitar are not separable; very often the dancers sing, the singers dance or play the guitar, and the guitarists are often wonderful dancers, to say nothing of the ‘palmeros,’ professional specialists in the rhythmic hand-clapping,” she continued.
According to San Juan, it is hard to find an artist who has not spent time at Amor de Dios, with most of the greats of the day having taken classes with masters here, and rehearsed at its studios before going on to the stage. For its work in diffusing this showpiece of Spanish culture over its almost 50 years of existence, in 1993 Amor de Dios received the silver Merit Award in Fine Arts from the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture.
My fall visit to Spain coincided with the art itself being recognized—on November 16, flamenco was named by UNESCO as an item of intangible cultural heritage. Spain’s Ministry of Culture in Madrid had nominated flamenco for inclusion on UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” a designation that, among other things, serves to spotlight the diversity of intangible heritage manifestations.
According to Ms. Maria Angeles Albert de Leon, Spain’s Director of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets, the flowering of flamenco during the 19th century as an emergent and different art was not only an artistic development but also an expression of social expansion and urbanization.
“Flamenco has deep roots in our autonomous community, Andalusia,” she said. “It creates, it keeps and it enhances our cultural identity and it perpetuates this art with its transmission from one generation to another. It is an art that represents Andalusia.”
“Flamenco cannot be understood without the contribution of the gypsy community and the gypsies cannot understand their lives without flamenco singing for their most important rites of passages,” Albert observed. “Gypsy and Castilian-Andalusian artists go hand in hand showing off a cultural dialogue never seen before, which integrates communities and is a communication link and meeting point.”
“We must emphasize the contribution of the gypsy community, settled since the 16th century in the south of Spain,” she stressed. “Being located in the poor urban areas, in the course of time a specific map for the traditional settlement of flamenco artists took shape. The combination of the Andalusian and the gypsy essence is an exemplary intercultural case and it represents an essential value of flamenco as a primitive, malleable and mixed art form.”
“The cafés cantantes appeared during the last quarter of the 19th century,” Albert said. “From the 1920s until 1970s the big stars of flamenco spread this art in performances in theaters and bullrings throughout Spain, making flamenco an art form nationwide. Flamenco was, from the beginning, linked to the international community as it aroused interest from people of other countries who, even if they could not understand the poetry, were seduced by the expression of flamenco.”
Albert said that flamenco has evolved and now mixes with other artistic disciplines such as jazz or contemporary dance, among others, while respecting its orthodox roots.
“We are talking about a mixed cultural form and in this characteristic is one of its essential values. From its beginning, flamenco was noted for being a dialogue element,” she noted.
Indeed, in leaving Madrid and travelling throughout Andalucia, flamenco spoke to me, its spirit alive in the artists, aficionados and owners of tablaos and studios, as well as the everyday citizens whom I met in the streets of the region’s cities and towns. With Andalucia’s people as a prism, I came to appreciate for myself how flamenco embodies the region’s heart and soul, and offers a window into both its history and future.