Flamenco is a genre of music, song and dance from the region of Andalusia in Spain. Spanish Flamenco is noted for its energetic, staccato style. It grew from Andalusian music, song and dance styles and the song and dance of the gitano (gypsies).
The cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps) are the principal features of flamenco.
El baile flamenco is known for its emotional intensity, proud carriage, expressive use of the arms and rhythmic stamping of the feet. As with any dance form, many different styles of flamenco have developed.
In its most authentic form, flamenco can be seen danced informally at gitano (Gypsy) weddings and celebrations in Spain. There is less virtuoso technique in gitano flamenco, but the music and steps are fundamentally the same. The arms are noticeably different to classical flamenco, curving around the head and body rather than extending, often with a bent elbow.
"Flamenco puro" is considered the form of performance flamenco closest to its gitano origins. In this style, the dance is always performed solo, and is improvised rather than choreographed.
The type of dance most Europeans would call "flamenco" is a commercialized style, developed as a spectacle for tourists. To add variety, group dances are included, and even solos are more likely to be choreographed. The frilly, voluminous spotted dresses are derived from a style of dress worn for the annual Feria in Seville (the original is actually too tight to dance in!).
"Classical flamenco" is the style used in modern Spanish flamenco dance companies. It is characterized by a proud, upright carriage - for the women, the back is often held in a marked back bend. Unlike gitano flamenco, there is little movement of the hips, the body is tightly held and the arms are long, like a ballet dancer. In fact many of the dancers in these companies have trained in ballet as well as flamenco.
Modern flamenco is a highly technical dance style requiring years of study. The emphasis for both male and female performers is on lightning-fast footwork performed with absolute precision. In addition, the dancer may have to dance while using props such as castanets, shawls and fans.
"Flamenco nuevo" is the new wave in flamenco, characterized by pared-down costumes (the men often dance bare-chested, and the women in plain jersey dresses). Props such as castanets, fans and shawls are rarely, if ever, used. Dances are choreographed and include influences from other dance styles.
In traditional flamenco, young people are not considered to have the emotional maturity to adequately convey the "duende" (soul) of the genre. Therefore unlike other dance forms, where dancers turn professional early to take advantage of youth and strength, many flamenco dancers do not hit their peak until their thirties and will continue to perform into their fifties and beyond.
From its roots in 18th century popular theatre, most flamenco performers were professionals. Originally they learned from other performers in the manner of an apprenticeship, not in conservatoriums or dance schools as is usually the way now. Today, most guitarists undergo rigorous professional training and often can read and play music in other styles like classical guitar or jazz and many dancers take courses in ballet and contemporary dance as well as flamenco.
Flamenco occurs in four settings - the juerga, in small-scale cabaret, concert venues and in the theatre.
The juerga is an informal, spontaneous gitano gathering (rather like a jazz "jam session"). This can include dancing, singing, palmas (hand clapping), or simply pounding in rhythm on an old orange crate or a table. Flamenco, in this context, is organic and dynamic: it adapts to the local talent, instrumentation, and mood of the audience. This context invites comparison with that other creation of a dispossessed class, the blues. The Gypsy Blues, or even the European Blues as a means of providing a frame of reference to those new to the genre.
One tradition remains firmly in place: the cantaores (singers) are the heart and soul of the performance. A Peña Flamenca is a meeting place or grouping of Flamenco musicians or artists. There are also "tablaos", establishments that developed during the 1960s throughout Spain replacing the "café cantante". The tablaos may have their own company of performers for each show. Many internationally renowned artists have started their careers in "tablaos flamencos", like the famous singer Miguel Poveda who began in El Cordobés, Barcelona.
The professional concert is more formal. A traditional singing performance has only a singer and one guitar, while a dance concert usually includes two or three guitars, one or more singers (singing in turns, as flamenco cantaors sing solo), and one or more dancers. One of the singers may play the cajon (a wooden box drum played with the hands) if there is no dedicated cajon player, and all performers will play palmas even if there are dedicated palmeros. The so-called Nuevo Flamenco (New flamenco) may include flutes or saxophones, piano or other keyboards, or even the bass guitar and the electric guitar. Camarón de la Isla was one artist who popularized this style.
Finally, there is the theatrical presentation of flamenco. However, it is now an extended and sophisticated performance in its own right, comparable to a performance of ballet.