Flamenco: Unwavering art of Spanish culture

May 6, 2013

Embedded in the Gypsy community of Andalusia, flamenco remains an unwavering part of Spanish culture. Here, young girls begin lessons at age six or seven, and parents pass down tales of famous Spanish dancers, sharing stories and the meaning of flamenco between generations.  

But, as professional dancers enchant tourists with smoldering gazes, vigorous foot stamping and an overflow of feelings within each performance, the musical art has grown famous worldwide.

While Irene La Sentío admits that she grew up in Italy taking gymnastics and modern dance lessons rather than flamenco, she said she remembers her first show. At age 21, she said she was past her prime for learning the craft, but after watching Farruquito, a famous male dancer, perform in Seville, La Sentío said she needed to study the foreign dance. And she needed to begin quickly.

Now, after studying at the Centro de Flamenco in Andalusia, La Sentío spends her nights on a small circular stage, performing, stepping fast and holding her polka-dot dress away from the wooden platform as she prepares for a turn.

“[Flamenco], it’s another world of emotions, of personal worth,” La Sentío said. “It’s a language.”

Since she dances at Tablao de Carmen, a restaurant well known for food and flamenco in Barcelona, La Sentío said she looks at an audience mixed with people.  She said she peeks into the crowd only while waiting for her act to begin, but as she watches their faces tense, smile and relax in response to the performer dancing, La Sentío said she knows they understand.

“I think flamenco is a language, a universal language because, without understanding the words of the singer, for example, the pain or the happiness, you can feel it,” she said. “And you can share this feeling.”

Luis Lorite, a professional dancer who teaches extensive flamenco workshops in Canaria, Spain, also feels this connection when in performance mode. In fact, once on stage, Lorite says that he feels as if he is in a sacred place, moving the emotion of his audience, touching their feelings and making them ask questions.

However, while Lorite and La Sentío recognize the potential for magical moments during performance, they, too, are familiar with the hardship.

“I enjoy [flamenco] when I am on the stage, or at least I try,” Lorite said. “But it is not as beautiful as it seems. Your mouth tastes like blood, you think in mistakes even if nobody noticed them, and, sometimes, you aren’t in the mood to expose yourself.”

La Sentío said she knows the feeling.

“There are some days that you feel tired and you think, ‘I can’t dance.  I don’t know what I will do, but I can’t dance.’” La Sentío said.  “And your body surprises itself because you have more strength on these types of days than when you feel good.”

But after ten years in the business, Lorite knows the pain does not last, and La Sentío has found her solution, the stage.

“On stage, it changes everything,” she said. “You enjoy it. You don’t think that you are tired.”

La Sentío said she performs in two shows a night, and, each night, she continues to challenge herself, working to improve for the next. Also, since she is not native to Spain, La Sentío said that she tries to study the dance’s history and learn about a country that is not her own.

“You always have to be studying, to update and to grow because it’s an evolution,” she said. “In a personal way, too, because dance and life go together.”

La Sentío works at Tablao de Carmen, a venue devoted to remembering a great figure of flamenco, Carmen Amaya.  In fact, on the stage in the center of the room, which is surrounded by round tables covered in crisp white tablecloths, La Sentío performs in the exact location where Amaya once danced for King Alfonso XIII.

With photos framed on the walls and her image printed on fans and stickers in the lobby’s souvenir cabinet, flamenco dancer Irene La Sentío looks at a portrait of Carmen Amaya in admiration, recognizing the dancer’s importance in history and her fearless desire to break with tradition.

“She made a revolution in the type of style,” La Sentío said. “She was one of the first dancers to use footwork. Her dance is founded on strength, on fast footwork and very fast rhythm.”

When dancing almost at the edge of the platform, a position she now finds comfortable, La Sentío said she feels connected with her audience, a mix of Germans, Americans and visitors from Japan. In this intimate arrangement, air swirls away from the wooden stage almost as if delivering a dash of the dancer’s passion, energy and love for flamenco to each chair in the dining space.

“All good flamenco dancers, in my opinion, are emotional and put it into their dance,” said Marianna Mejia, an instructor and gypsy flamenco dancer in Soquel, Calif. “They must be devoted to their craft in order to achieve what they do. Flamenco is not easy.  In my opinion, flamenco without emotion is not real Flamenco.”

But, while the dancer engages with the audience and projects an air of emotion through the performance space, Eukene Izagirre, a lover of flamenco working at Taller Flamenco in Seville, said the dance is not the only emotion. And it is not always happiness.

“For tourist people or flamenco beginners, dance is very emotional,” Izagirre said. “But as the time goes by, I love more the singing. This is our folk music—free your mind, it’s very explosive.”

While in the center of the two-story room at Tablao de Carmen, La Sentío is far from the center of flamenco, Seville.  But, here, she said she remembers an icon of flamenco while performing. She knows she is not in Seville, but with such closeness to Amaya, La Sentío said she feels drawn to the dancer, and she can’t help but feel inspired.

“You remember that charismatic figure, and you find the motivation to dance,” she said.

As La Sentío surveys the framed portraits on the walls beneath the balcony, she talks about the woman who once danced on the stage at Tablao de Carmen, the woman who, like her, performed for tables overflowing with sangria, bread and conversation.  A dancer who broke traditional techniques in the 1940s and 1950s, La Sentío says Carmen Amaya is important inside the tablao, but she is also important in the world of flamenco.

“In that time, it was a revolution,” she said. “Now a days, that’s the flamenco that we know.”

And, with this knowledge, La Sentío said she is starting to understand the significance of the dance. Yes, she shares a personal connection with the art form, and she now understands—to a certain degree—the importance of flamenco in Spain’s culture.

“Flamenco was born out of a need to express a collective feeling of anguish, and protest against oppression,” said Pamela Peterson, a blogger in the United States. “And the performers sing, clap and dance as if they are fighting for their lives.”

Lorite does not think dancers today are trying to fight for their lives with each performance, but he said he understands the need to find expression through dance. When leading his flamenco course, Lorite said he encourages this form of expressiveness, teaching his students not only the physical techniques and rhythmic situations typical of flamenco. Instead, he wants his students to leave with an attitude of flamenco towards music and life.

“I’m from Cordoba, Andalusia—it’s South. The South is poor, but not in art. It happens everywhere,” he said. “And you love what you have, even more with this kind of thing that you bring with yourself.”

And, while he now teaches on the Canary Islands, Lorite said he shares the art of his hometown through flamenco. At the end of each course, he said he hopes his students leave with an understanding of its history and movement. But most importantly, he hopes they appreciate the art.

“Flamenco contains a lot of families of styles reunited by origin, subject of lyrics and rhythm,” he said.

With teachers altering the dance as they work with students around the world, Izagirre said she wants people to know Spain is not just flamenco.

“Flamenco—it’s an art,” she said. “And, as an art, it has a beginning but not an end.”