What is Flamenco?
Having spent decades as a performer in this unique dance form, I offer a perspective on its essence. The word flamenco is an odd choice to designate an art which is distinctly Spanish and more specifically of Andalucía . There have been a number of explanations why a word which means Flemish in Spanish is associated with the form of dance, music, and song recognized as the exciting, flamboyant, mysterious display of technical skill it is.
One example given is the elaborate dress of Flemish courtiers during the reign of Carlos I. It was adopted and connected with the Andalusian Gypsies during this era. However this came about, it is now ingrained in the public perception.
The true name of flamenco art is: Cante Jondo: Deep or profound song. I have often heard “En España el cante viene primero”. “In Spain the song comes first” It is a truth that the dancer does not interpret the words or letras of the song; again the performance is not literal but non-verbal. in a musical sense, the guitarist’s chords which are used to accompany singing are the basis for the tunes or melodies (falsetas) which develop from the chord structure. The rhythms or compas which are attached to the melodies drive the work. Moreover, flamenco is not Western music but Eastern in origin. As such, Eastern scales tend to have a falling cadence. The tones are close together creating dissonance and ambiguity. This presents a mournful and mysterious feeling, whereas Western musical tones have a tendency to rise and has a different impression.
Without question much has evolved over many decades. The incorporation of different chords such as jazz and other musical influences have changed the texture of performance and the entire presentation of what is seen today. Some are displeased with this but as in everything else in culture, whether language, fashion, life styles or advances in all manifestations of art, new ideas are presented. Forward thinking is inevitable. I personally have altered my material as the years pass to bring it into the present.
Flamenco has always possessed a strong tradition and a rich vocabulary. Out of this material, develop interpretation and much variation. The dance has a character not duplicated in any other dance style. Unlike other techniques the dance turns in upon itself and is held taut to the body. A kind of stillness which can be eloquent is part of the language of forms. This explains why one can perform movements in a very small space and still convey feeling. The tensions, kinetic urgency, and focus, are central to the form. Articulation, attack and nuance, all attributes one expects in a musical performance. Each performer colors this with his or her own personality.
Above all, flamenco is a musical art. Because of the methodology in the system and the reality that it is an unwritten, open-ended form, the dancer functions as a musician to conduct and ring the changes from one variation to the next. We know the guitarists gaze never leaves the dancer. The feet making intricate patterns, arms accenting movement, all is rhythm which dominates throughout a performance. An important point is that the dancer actually has to know the material before leading the guitarist. In other words to be able to perform the steps and movements on his or her own. The cantaor (singer) too, must obey the force of the compás. And the guitarist is watchful throughout. The collaboration and interplay of the elements of song, guitar and dance is demanding, not to mention the addition of hand clapping or palmas and other percussion added to the score. Since all is non-verbal and without notation, it creates the power we see and accounts for its popularity today as never before.
Without rhythm there is no music, therefore it is mathematical. Flamenco is organic. The end of one variation opens the door on the next into infinitude.