What I didn’t know about flamenco

Until tonight, if you’d asked me what flamenco was I probably would have said a Spanish dance accompanied by percussion and I might have said there’s flamenco music too. After all, I have heard flamenco guitar! Tonight, though, we attended a performance by  Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca, and I learnt more about flamenco in two hours than I’d learnt in my somewhat longer lifetime.

Noche Flamenca was formed in 1993 by Martin Santangelo and his dancer wife Soledad Barrio. The performance we saw comprised two guitarists, two singers and three dancers (all male except for Soledad Barrio). The show commenced with the company on stage tapping out percussive rhythms on a table as if they were at a bar (cantina) and ended with the company doing another hand percussive piece, but this time without table. In between was a sequence of dance and singing items all performed on a stark, minimal stage and pretty well all accompanied by one or two guitars. The only props were chairs, and the lighting was simple but dramatic. I am no dance and music critic and so will not attempt an analysis of what we saw but I will say that it was a beautiful show. It wasn’t what we, naively now I realise, expected: we expected red dresses and castanets, along with stamping feet. We got the stamping feet but there wasn’t a castanet in sight. The whole show was presented as if it were a highly stylised cantina: performers appeared from the group to “show off” a dance or song and controlled but seemingly natural chat could be heard occasionally in the background. The dancing was splendid. I was particularly taken with some travelling moves by Soledad in which, if I hadn’t actually heard the feet tapping, I would have believed she was floating above the surface. Eat your heart out Michael Jackson!

Flamenco Dancer, photo by Gilles Larrain (via Wikipedia)

Flamenco Dancer, photo by Gilles Larrain (via Wikipedia)

So, what did I learn? I learnt that flamenco covers dance, music and song, and that a major feature is its complex syncopation against a strict rhythmic structure (called the compás). My most interesting discovery, though, was that while it is now defined as the music and dance of the Andalusian region of Spain, its origins are wider. During the performance, I was surprised by the singing in particular as it had, to my admittedly untrained ears, a Middle Eastern sound. A quick search of the Internet after we got home told me why – flamenco’s roots are Arabic (Moorish) and European gypsy. How nice to discover that my untrained ears are slowly being trained!

Oh, and I also learnt – rightly or wrongly – that flamenco is a very male thing, that male posturing and bravado are very much part of the tradition. At least that’s how it appeared to me as presented by this company of six men and one woman.

I came away a much wiser person. I also came away wishing I could swish and swirl my skirt the way Soledad did. First though I have to get the skirt!

2 thoughts on “What I didn’t know about flamenco

  1. Melbourne’s flamenco school is just around the corner from where I live, and from time to time they put on a performance in our local theatre, a small and very intimate space which for their performance was configured like a cantina (and yes, we enjoyed a wine while we watched). It was as you describe it, with singing, dancing and percussion, and I loved it. I’m hoping to see more of the real thing when we go to Spain next year!

  2. Lucky you (re having flamenco nearby) … have you been to Spain before? We are thinking of going overseas next year and Spain is high on the priority list. My husband went there before I met him so we are talking 35 years ago … I LERVE the Mediterranean. If I had a choice of places to live (outside Australia of course) somewhere Mediterranean would be it.

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