The Essence of Flamenco


Article by Vivion O’Kelly

Flamenco is a relatively recent phenomenon, the oldest record of which dates from 1774. That means its continuous evolution into the quintessential Andalusian art form that we know today is well documented. Along with bullfighting, flamenco music and dance has become synonymous with Spain in the wider world, even in our own times.

Flamenco dancer with black double strap flamenco shoes and red dress

It belongs to the gypsies, but not exclusively; nor is it, or has it ever been, excusive to Andalucía. Broadly speaking, a line curving southwards from the middle of Spain at its Portuguese border towards Alicante, encompassing Extremadura and Murcia, defines its geography, although its birthplace is generally considered to be the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera. That is not, of course, to suggest that flamenco is not performed throughout Spain: quite the contrary, and flamenco festivals take place all over the world, especially where there is a large Spanish-speaking population. In fact, the University of New Mexico offers a graduate degree programme on the subject.

Folkloric music and dancing enthusiasts.
The rhythmic pulse of flamenco: a dance of passion and tradition

The art of flamenco may be just a couple of centuries old, but its origins go back a lot further in time. Anybody with a passing acquaintance of the genre, who has had the rare privilege of listening to genuine sean-nós singing anywhere along the west coast of Ireland, involving very long and highly ornamented melodic phrases and lines, will have immediately become aware of similarities with cante jonda, one of the many varieties of flamenco singing. And sean-ós goes back many centuries more, to a probable common ancestry in the subcontinent of India. In fact, there is currently great interest on the part of Spanish musicologists in exploring this Indian connection. The similarity of sound here can be appreciated on any of the numerous YouTube videos by simply typing in “flamenco and Indian music” (and dance, as you’ll see).

Flamenco dancing in an outdoor event.

Like all art forms easily misunderstood, flamenco singing is easily mocked. Picture this: a half-empty village hall where sound reverberates excessively. An empty stage, except for a little old man sitting on a stool with a guitarist close by (the complexity of the art is such that performers often peak approaching middle age). Total silence, until suddenly broken by a spine-chilling wail, and emotion so raw that it unsettles the less expressive northern European sensitivities. And so it goes, until you think the performance has ended because the little old man is now silent again, but he is not. Not by a long shot. Like all art forms easily misunderstood, its appreciation is best acquired by familiarity. If you found the performance too different to be a pleasure, try again. It will grow on you.

Flamenco dance accompanied by Guitarist in the Plaza de España, Seville.
Grace and fervor: experience flamenco's true allure in the spontaneous rhythm right on the street

Flamenco dancing is easier to appreciate. Spaniards frequently point to the fact that many of the foreigners in the audience at a flamenco festival will leave as soon as the dancing has ended and the singing begins, claiming this is due to lack of knowledge of the language. This is probably not the reason, it being more likely that they are unable to appreciate an art form they are less familiar with.

The best way to hear genuine flamenco singing is to stroll through an Andalusian town or village and listen to some lone house painter or bricklayer sing. Failing this, a festival, and there are many of them all over Andalucía, or a tablao. This last venue describes a place where flamenco shows are performed, which came into being mainly in the nineteen sixties, replacing the older cabaret-style cafés cantantes. The word itself is a contraction of tablado, meaning “board”, and it echoes the typical contraction of words, common in Andalusian speech, used in the world of flamenco (note cantaor, bailaor etc, missing the “d”).

Flamenco dance with shawl.

One might be tempted to believe that the performances in the now-traditional tablao have been modified to please tourists, and this is indeed the case, but with no loss of quality. The performers are very likely to include top professionals, and the main difference between the tablao show and a festival performance is that the former presents a show that, by definition, has to be something of a mish-mash.



Tablaos are expensive, no question about it, but they are worth every euro and are at least a must-see once-in-a-lifetime experience. The venue is usually quite small, creating an intimate ambience that adds to the experience. Some charge an entrance fee with additional drink charges, some include the drink and tapas in the entrance fee, and some offer a full dinner. Check the internet for details in English.

Emilio Beauchy's 1888 print, 'Café cantante', Seville.
Emilio Beauchy's 1888 print, 'Café cantante'. This iconic snapshot of flamenco dancers in Seville became the muse behind José Gutiérrez Solana's painting of the same name

The best tablaos are in the major cities, but those in the larger tourist towns are also very good. Marbella has many small tablaos, the oldest and best-known being Ana María’s, now in Plaza de la Victoria, which up to recently was located in Plaza Santo Cristo on calle Ancha. At 25 euros entry with a drink included, it is inexpensive, and its Internet reviews are almost all positive. Personal experience confirms this.


The Peña Flamenca Sierra Blanca has been organising annual festivals late in the autumn every year since 1984 in the City of Marbella Theatre, and is a well-spent ten euros for a night out, no doubt. But the big one, Castillo del Cante, takes place up the hills in the village of Ojén, costing a lot more but offering the very best in the art of flamenco. It is, in fact, one of the most important flamenco festivals in the country.

Pink silk flamenco dress and beige flamenco shoes
Delving into flamenco is not just mastering steps but immersing oneself in the heartbeat of Spanish culture

And finally, classes. We here at BRIGHT, all accomplished flamenco dancers (algunas mentiras son perdonables), urge you to take dance classes. You may be surprised to find that your fellow Spanish students are as clumsy as you are at the beginning, but they generally teach a simplified version that enables you to join in at parties and local festivals, and become, even if only once in a while, one of the locals.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter