A new rhythm? Flamenco now (and then)

By Julia de Rosenwerth

Have you ever been to a show with people wearing long frilly red and black skirts and black heeled shoes that make complex tapping noises? This might have been a flamenco show! If you were lucky, there would have been a guitarist, a singer and a percussionist sitting on a box. If you were very lucky, there might have been a wild, wild woman wearing pants, possibly frowning and ignoring the many strands of hair falling across her face. Welcome to flamenco – my love in life. It’s fierce. It’s fire.


Okay, let’s be real, ‘fiery’ is a bad stereotype that is always associated with flamenco (and is also pretty racist considering it is embedded in the “fiery” Latina trope). Personally, I think the best flamenco dancer can find the perfect balance between hard and soft, breaks and run-ons, passion and disinterest. It’s not all fire, is it? Well, maybe the idea is that the flamenco dancer is so focused on what they are doing and so ‘in it’ that they start to access something, or someplace less tangible, more felt – the duende, as it is called – and that’s the fire? Who knows? Or maybe it’s just all of the red skirts?


While flamenco has become the traditional dance of Spain, flamenco is a hybrid dance form that is said to be born out of the amalgamation of dances from the gitanos who migrated from India to the south of Spain in the 1400s, the Muslim Berbers and Jewish people living in Spain at the time. Essentially, these three groups of people experienced persecution from the Catholic State and this caused them to flee to isolated areas in and around Spain. Flamenco, it appears, arose from the interactions and common experiences these peoples shared.


These religious and cultural influences are still present in flamenco today. For example, flamenco’s grounded stance, footwork and intricate hand motions are typical of classical Indian dance styles like Kathak. Its communal, circular tablau-style performance structure and high cantorial vocals share links with Sephardic Jewish music from medieval Spain. Flamenco music shares many links between Berber musical structure, scales, poetry, spoken word and descending vocal lines. Needless to say, there is a lot of fluidity, greyness and overlapping.


Traditionally, flamenco has four main elements: singer, dancer, guitarist and jaleos. In this structure, the singers are king. They lead the rest of the performers. If I could describe the flamenco voice in a few words, I’d have to say rough, uncensored or deep. It is simultaneously bone-chilling and freeing. The deep, gruff voice is connected to flamenco’s painful past and, sometimes, it sounds like the singer is crying. But despite this, some song styles are able to access an incredible sense of lightness – albeit coming from a low, rooted place.


Instrumentally, the flamenco guitar is played very close to the musician’s body and held almost vertically – like an embrace. There is a combination of flat strumming, finger picking, and thumb strokes. More recently the cajon has been incorporated into a typical flamenco musical line up. A cajon is a percussive box that a musician sits on and bends over to play. The sound is flat and slightly muffled. In contemporary flamenco music, jazz styles and instruments have been introduced, including the flute, drum kit, piano, violin and cello.


I mentioned the jaleos earlier. This must be one of my favourite elements of flamenco – especially when dancing. Jaleos is essentially hand clapping, or palmas and general encouragement given to the performers. Olé! And hasta! Are typical jaleos. The energy created by this is truly expansive and contributes to the feeling of duende.


Then, there is the dancing, ooooh… the dancing. Flamenco has the strangest ability to be both light and heavy at the same time. It is a form that embraces extremes. It is totally grounded, sometimes awkward or grotesque, but absolutely beautiful. Perhaps its beauty derives from embracing the ugly?


There are the arm movements that bend and twist around the body but also stretch out away from it and the intricate hand movements that require you to individuate and separate each finger. There are the precise head movements and the angular torso. Yet, more recently, and especially in contemporary flamenco there is more movement in the torso: contractions, twists and back bends. (I’m a serious fan of this development.)


Finally, there’s the footwork. This is the reason for the groundedness of the form. The knees are supposed to be kept bent the entire time and this creates the effect of the dancers being ‘under’ themselves or ‘in the floor’. For me, the footwork is the element of flamenco that really embodies the idea of movement and music being one. You can think of the footwork a dancer does as another percussive element along with the cajon and the palmas. As a dancer you’re really encouraged to treat your footwork like music – it needs to ebb and flow.


So, we have the guitarist/musicians, dancer and the jaleos and they are all guided by the singer. All this in place, because the singer is always singing a song, there is something even more fundamental that guides the singer and it is the rhythm of the song.


Rhythm is the central, binding force in flamenco. Rhythm is a technical word that indicates different types of songs. It is not just a nice sounding beat that is catchy and easy to dance to; each rhythm is specific and has a certain way of being played and danced to.


What makes a rhythm itself is a combination of the time signature, speed, mood and melody of the song. These elements guide how a rhythm is performed. For example, there is a rhythm called bulerias. It is characterised by a compas of 12 beats in a cycle which is played fast. The bulerias has accents on beats 12, 3, 6, 8, 10. The mood of a bulerias is chico which means light. There are two other moods: jondo (deep) and intermedio (medium/ neither chico or jondo). Due to this kind of rigid structure, flamenco is more like a folk dance than a contemporary dance form. Each dance/rhythm has a recognisable structure that is always performed accordingly.


Because flamenco is so structured, the innovation and originality happens less in the structure of the dance and more through personal style of the dancer. The way you do a certain step is exciting, not the fact that you are doing that step because it forms part of the basic structure of the dance. In this way, I experience the excitement of flamenco more in terms of form and less in terms of structure.


But I’ve been thinking a lot about flamenco recently. What exactly makes flamenco, flamenco? While I love flamenco passionately, my biggest challenge has been my experience of the lack of interrogation of the ‘institution’ of Flamenco. I see flamenco in South Africa as largely untapped and unquestioned site of structure, knowledge and tradition.


I have seen some interesting choreographic questions being explored by the likes of contemporary flamenco artists like Rocio Molina and Israel Galvan who live and work in Spain. Both these artists challenge the form of flamenco as well as its deep structure – the rhythm and compas.


For example Molina challenges everything from costume to set to style. I’ve seen works where she is doing footwork in stiletto heels! I’ve seen elaborate balletic-style sets that weave intricate narratives. I’ve seen her use a sunken box to do virtuosic footwork by using the sides and tops of her shoes. I’ve seen her engage is outdoor performance spaces.


Galvan is a footwork wizard and essentially messes up the structure and compas of flamenco. He is so connected to the flamenco compas that he is able to keep it in mind, move through it and disregard it and then come back to it and be in compas again! This is truly incredible. Galvan has also delved into interrogating the form of flamenco by collaborating with Akram Khan – a contemporary choreographer/performer with roots in Indian Kathak dance.


All these choreographic developments in Spain are amazing and necessary and I think that when we ask these questions in South Africa, they are equally interesting, but different. Because we live in a completely different socio-political space, and while globalisation is a thing, we also have our own histories and experiences.


Questions about what the relevance of flamenco is in South Africa is important – not with the intention to disregard it, but to be aware of its origins and placement here. This could lead to endless innovation in terms of form, content, performance space, music and so on. It may be time for some giving and receiving. I am craving a little choreographic investigation with questions like “what exactly is flamenco and what makes it what it is?” or “is flamenco a folk dance?”


I keep on asking myself “where are the lines, can I shift them and can I step over them?” Whether or not this thought process results in anything tangible is another story, but it’s something I just can’t help but do. How could you resist at least a little rule-breaking?