The True Roots of Flamenco

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Riverdance, the world-famous dance spectacular, which featured María Pagés, a famous Spanish flamenco dancer. Dressed in a ruffled, red dress, she twirled her hands to the melody of a guitar and tapped her feet along to the drumbeat. Throughout my childhood, I associated flamenco with that very act playing on repeat on my VHS. Little did I know that my experiences in Spain this summer would change my perception of the art of flamenco.

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Flamenco dancer in the Granada cave setting.

On our excursion to Granada in June, we saw a flamenco show in a cave that was transformed into a extravagant show room, filled with autographed photographs of famous dancers on the walls and pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. The performance included amazing tap dancers, percussionists, and guitarists, yet I realized that the act and setting was amplified for tourists, filing in every hour. The following week, our Spanish professor taught a culture lesson on flamenco, emphasizing that the dances in movies and in caves in Granada are not the real root of the art- it is the singing. [Quick history lesson!] Flamenco came about in the 18th century as simple work songs in the Andalusian countryside, with a fusion of arabic influences from when the Moors dominated the Iberian peninsula.  The lyrics were passed down over generations, slowly adding guitar accompaniment and clapping. In the following century the songs include dancers, instruments, castanets, and ~showbiz~. Suddenly, our professor’s mother, Carmen de la Jara (a famous flamenco singer in Cádiz), surprised our class by coming to sing for us. Her raspy trills and musical poetry about losing her lover made me feel her passion so much more than the “shows” I had seen before. Also, watching my professor mouth the words and clap along showed how powerful the passed on traditions are in her family. This act of clapping and stomping together with the singing voice is the truest, and clearly the best, form of flamenco. I saw this on a larger scale when our group saw an authentic flamenco show at the Peña de la Perla – where the locals in the audience applauded, sang along, and cheered on the singer the entire time she was on stage. In the US, it’s considered disrespectful to interrupt a performance like that, but in Spain it is a confidence-booster, a community involvement that highlights the appreciation for the arts. It was so simple, but so amazing. This cultural lesson most certainly showed me the importance of listening before watching in order to understand the context of the art. Next time I go to Spain, I will know how to identify between “showbiz” and authentic flamenco, which according to Carmen de la Jara, “necesita alma” (needs soul).”

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The beautiful stage of La Peña de la Perla de Cádiz
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Carmen de la Jara singing an Alegría with her daughter (our Spanish professor) clapping along -photo credits: BBC Four

Author: Ola Pozor

William and Mary Class of 2019 Government/Hispanic Studies Major Language Enthusisast