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A short introduction to Flamenco

Flamenco is a dance of passion, pain and longing; of the soul laid bare. To the ringing sound of guitar strings and the raw, impassioned wail of the cantaor (singer), the flamenco dancer pours emotion from their body as rhythm bursts forth from their feet – beautiful, fierce and possessed.

At the heart of flamenco is not a step or a rhythm or a song, it is a mysterious quality known as duende. A dark creative force, an expression of soul and of struggle, duende is flamenco’s life force and the thread that links generations of performers to their Gypsy roots.

Those roots lie as long ago as the 15th century in Andalusia, southern Spain, where Moors, Jews and Gitanos (Gypsies) all faced persecution from the Catholic regime, and their cultural influences mixed with native Andalusian folk music to lay the foundations for this famous Gypsy art.

Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival 2008
Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival 2008
Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival 2008
Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival 2008

The first flamenco schools appeared in the late 18th century but flamenco saw its Golden Age from 1869-1910 when it was performed at café cantantes (music cafes) and began to reach a wide audience. In the early 20th century flamenco was presented in theatres and later in tacky shows for tourists. But when it looked like flamenco’s only function might be to flog castanets to sunburnt Brits, a new generation emerged to guarantee the integrity of the art form.

There is still heated debate about the importance of authenticity versus modernisation among the current crop of flamenco stars. Yet many dancers happily combine both, moving from spontaneous rhythmic improvisation to slicker choreographed sequences, or they dance the traditional forms – solea, alegria, buleria – while also drawing on broader influences.

Joaquin Cortes is the world’s most famous flamenco star and much derided by purists for giving flamenco some showbiz dazzle with his dramatic staging, designer costumes, flashy footwork and celebrity status. Cortes’ successor in the pin-up stakes is Farruquito, who also has a dazzling technique, but takes his pride in continuing the authentic tradition of his family, a flamenco dynasty beginning with grandfather, El Farruco.

Sara Baras is probably Spain’s most popular bailaora (dancer), known for her breakneck footwork, commanding presence and slick shows, while Eva Yerbabuena is a refined dancer, who can strip flamenco bare and conceive it anew. Maria Pages is an innovator who has performed to the music of Astor Piazzolla and Tom Waits, while Rafaela Carrasco is a non-conformist who doesn’t mind dipping her toe into the avant garde, and flamenco rebel Israel Galván is making exciting moves, bringing diverse influences such as butoh dance into the mix.

by Lyndsey Winship