The Spanish tradition of Flamenco encompasses much more than a woman twirling around in a bright dress, castanets clicking away in her hands. It is a folklore tradition rich in history and full of emotion. While flamenco originated in southern Spain, it is alive and well in other regions of the country too. Here’s my experience at the best flamenco show in Madrid.
The History of Flamenco
The exact origin of flamenco is unknown. Most historians believe that it originated in southern Spain, specifically Andalusia, in the sixteenth century.
Oddly enough, the word flamenco is Spanish for Flemish, meaning someone or something from Flanders, Belgium. And Flanders was at one time a Spanish possession. However, there are two other theories of the origin of the name. The first holds that it is derived from fellah mengu, which means expelled peasants and possibly refers to Moors and Gitanos (Romani people of Spain, or Spanish gypsies). Historians believe that these two groups of people had a profound influence on the creation of the flamenco tradition, and were later driven out of southern Spain. The second theory proposes that flamenco is from the Spanish word for fire because of the dance’s fiery emotions.
What Exactly Is Flamenco?
Flamenco is perhaps best known for its dance component. However, the musical accompaniment of a guitar, and the songs that are sung in flamenco are both integral parts to the overall flamenco experience. Flamenco’s key characteristics are hand clapping, foot stomping, and intricate, sometimes exaggerated, movements.
Traditionally, the women who dance flamenco will wear a form fitting colorful dress that flares out with layers of ruffles at the bottom.
Their hair is usually pulled back in a bun or braid, and they often will wear flowers or a special comb called a peina in their hair. They also wear a lacy shawl-like garment called a mantle over their shoulders.
My Experience at the Best Flamenco Show in Madrid
After a little research, we determined that the best flamenco show was the one held nightly at Las Carboneras, a short distance from both Plaza Mayor and the Mercado San Miguel.
Las Carboneras offers two shows nightly, and you can make a reservation for the show plus a meal, or for the show by itself. Both tickets include a drink. In order to keep our costs down (because this excursion was not sponsored), we opted to eat dinner before the show at the Mercado San Miguel.
The best thing about flamenco at Las Carboneras is that there are no bad seats. It’s a small venue, with seating for about 50 people. (Take that with a grain of salt – I’m guessing, and my estimating skills aren’t always spot on.) Tables are arranged all around the stage, and the tables and chairs in the farther reaches of the room are elevated to provide for better viewing.
The food – what we saw of it on other people’s tables – wasn’t that impressive looking, so I really felt like we made the right choice by eating dinner before hand. A trio of Italian women slightly older than us were at the next table. They had enjoyed some sangria at the Mercado San Miguel before coming to the show. Very friendly ladies, even with the language barrier. We attempted to make small talk, using gestures and Google translate, but before much time passed, the lights dimmed and the performers came to the stage.
There were seven performers — four men and three women. One man played the guitar and two others sang. The three women and the remaining man were the dancers. The women and the guitarist took a seat while the other three men stood behind them on the stage.
The music began and the performers were either singing or clapping their hands and/or tapping their feet. It was a little surprising at how much music could be created with just one guitar! After a moment of great anticipation, the dancers got up one by one and did an introductory dance.
The dancer in the vivid blue floral dress was probably my favorite. Older than the others, and less svelte, certainly not your stereotypical flamenco dancer… but she very clearly loved what she was doing and enjoyed her time in the spotlight.
The second dancer, dressed all in black except for her red patent shoes, was next. As she danced, the other dancers called out to her, sort of cheering her on.
Then it was the third woman’s turn. Dressed in yellow and green, her style was one of smoldering intensity. she danced not just with her legs and feet, but with her entire body.
Finally, it was the male flamenco dancer’s turn. He reminded me a bit of Jason Momoa, so needless to say, I was riveted.
After this sort of introductory dance, each dancer had an extended turn in the spotlight.
This time around, it was the woman in the green and yellow that impressed me the most. Her rapid-fire toe and heel tapping was amazing! Made my ankles hurt just to think about how many times she was stomping against the stage.
The Heart of Flamenco
Whether considering just the songs of flamenco, or just the dancing, and especially when considering both, there is undeniable emotion. I understood not a single word of the flamenco songs, but I could tell that they were full of emotion. Some celebratory, some mournful, but all full of emotion. It showed in the way the dancers moved, the expressions on their faces, the strumming of the guitar and the tone of the singers’ voices. It was the emotion that made the experience seem so much more than watching a performance. Seeing the best flamenco show in Madrid was a celebration of cultural heritage from centuries past. Definitely a must-see if you’re in the Spanish capital!
Some Interesting Flamenco Trivia
- Flamenco has seen a surge in popularity in Japan. In fact there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain!
- In 2010, UNESCO named flamenco a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
- There are over 50 different styles of flamenco known as palos. Some have 4 beats while others have 12, some are solo while others are for couples, some are sung while others are accompanied by guitar, some are identified by geographic region of origin, etc.
- You may know fandango as a movie app. However, the original fandango is a lively flamenco dance for couples.
- Flamenco music was traditionally only accompanied by toe and heel clicking, finger snapping, hand clapping and shouting. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the use of a guitar was incorporated.
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