5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Flamenco

Lily Zirlin is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Salamanca, Spain.

In my culture class at the University of Salamanca, my overly animated teacher clapped her hands and stomped her feet for the class. She played a video by Carlos Saura called “Flamenco” on YouTube, that showed the range of the dance and its dancers. My Spanish teacher at home performed flamenco for the class last year, but it wasn’t until that class that I saw the insane depth and mystery of flamenco – its origins, its rhythms and forms, its evolution… Flamenco is leaving me boquiabierta

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1. There are two different ways to clap your hands.

Palmas sordas (soft claps) are typically used to accompany the guitar or a singer so as to not drown it out. You cup your palms while spreading and extending your fingers. The fingers of one hand should fit in the space between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. It makes a muffled sound. Palmas sonoras create a high, crisp sound. The first three fingers of one hand are firmly clapped into the palm of the other hand. This clap is typically used during loud footwork or musical pieces.

2. The male dancer is called a bailaor and the female dancer is called a bailaora.

Traditionally, the bailaora emphasizes her upper body with graceful arm movements and the bailaor often displays fierce footwork and masculine postures. The bailaor Vicente Escudero (1885-1980) wrote a strict set of rules called Decálogo, that dictate the male aesthetic of flamenco. Now, the differences in technique have broken down and today’s bailaors and bailaoras dance without as much gender restriction.

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3. There’s more to the outfit than just a ruffle skirt.

The origin of the flamenco dress is a gypsy work dress worn to livestock fairs. The polka dots on many costumes are rumored to have evolved from small, round mirrors worn by gypsies to ward off evil spirits. The mantón de Manila (the shawl worn by many bailaoras) originally came to Spain from the Phillipines in the 16th century. Before that, the embroidered shawl came from China, and its traditional designs with dragons, bamboo, and clover leaves evolved into the designs we see today: roses, carnations and other flowers. The flamenco shoe has nails embedded in the toe and heel to enhance the sound of the zapateado (footwork).

4. Flamenco is a melting pot of cultures, languages, and peoples.

Flamenco is an artform native to southern Spain (autonomous regions of Andalusia, Extremadura, and Murcia). Flamenco dance and music draws early influences from Greeks and Romans and later from Indian, Moorish, and Jewish cultures. Scholars say the origins of the traditional cante flamenco (flamenco singing) could have as many influences as: the traditional song of gitanos (Spanish gypsies), classical Andalusian orchestras of the Islamic Empire, Jewish synagogue songs, Mozarabic forms of music, traditional Indian song, Andalusian regional folk song, and many more.

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5. Flamenco is made up of four basic elements.

Cante (voice), baile (dance), toque (guitar), and the jaleo, which roughly translates to “hell raising,” meaning the handclapping, foot stomping, and shouts of encouragement. Jaleo can be performed by the dancers as well as anyone in the audience compelled to participate. Guitar was not originally part of flamenco, but gradually it was introduced as an accompanying instrument. Flamenco in its original form was only voice, a primitive cry or chant, that was accompanied by rhythms stomped on the floor.

Another important element of flamenco is known as duende, something just as mysterious as flamenco itself. Duende is the soul of the art. Many say duende can only be experienced in certain surroundings like intimate flamenco sessions where the cantaor (singer) and bailaor(a) are possessed by the darkness of the song. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca said, “Duende could only be present when one sensed death is possible.” It’s the mystical, magical element of the art form that gives you chills or makes you smile or cry during a performance.

After reading all of this, go find a flamenco class in your area! I did… Next week I start classes! Wish me luck.

The world awaits…discover it.

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