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When you think of Spain and Spanish culture, flamenco immediately springs to mind.
Dramatic dancing, soulful tunes, colourful costumes and the rhythmic strumming of acoustic guitars are the iconic images and sounds of Spain.
We had a few wonderful encounters with flamenco in Seville, and they were some of the highlights of our trip.
So when you visit Andalucia, make sure you spend some time learning about this centuries old art form. It’s the heart beat of the city and completely exhilarating.
The origins and art of flamenco
Flamenco is not a single dance but a family of song, dance and performance that started in Andalucia.
Some say flamenco was born in the Triana neighbourhood of Seville although several other places in southern Spain also make this claim.
Regardless, its roots are in the folk dances brought to Andalucia in the 15th century by gypsies or gitanos.
These people travelled across Europe from as far away as India and Iran to escape persecution, picking up snippets of folk music and dance at the stops they made along the way.
When they reached Andalucia, their emerging culture fused with Moorish influences and evolved as a unique form of artistic expression. At its core are cries and chants backed by rhythm made with hands and feet.
It’s this outlet of raw emotion and passion that makes flamenco so special.
Elements of flamenco
Before travelling to Spain I thought flamenco referred only to the famous dramatic dance movements and guitar playing.
In fact there are four different elements to flamenco – each with its own nuances and techniques.
Cante refers to the voice or singing approach. The most important of these are Cante Grande – the most deep and profound songs about death and anguish. Cantadores or flamenco singers like Manolo Caracol are feted throughout Spain.
The many different steps involved in flamenco dancing are referred to as Baile. Like the cante, flamenco dance movements have different flavours. The raw expression of the gitano style is in contrast to the technical precision and years of training required to be a classical flamenco dancer.
The Palmas (hand claps) and zapateado (foot stomps) may look easy, but you need skill and practice to perfect the intricate rhythms. The dancers also have to manage props like castanets, fans and shawls.
Toque – refers to the flamenco guitar playing that requires a unique instrument and many special techniques to produce the traditional melodies and sounds.
One of the most critical (in my opinion) elements of flamenco is the Jaleo, which roughly translated means “hell raising”. This is the foot stomping, rhythmic hand clapping, and spirited shouts of encouragement that makes flamenco so unique.
Lastly, the soul of flamenco is known as duende. It’s the intangible spirit that takes over a performance and something the Spanish believe can only be conveyed with the emotional maturity gained through life experience.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the art form we know as flamenco was documented. Since then, over 50 flamenco palos or styles have emerged.
Different technique combinations are used depending on the style. Some are simply sung unaccompanied, some use guitars and others are danced with or without music or a partner. Each has its own melody, lyrics, rhythm and beat.
Cantiñas, Alegrías and Bulérias are festive and joyful flamenco styles. While others, like Tangos and Tintos, are more emotional and sometimes tragic. They explore themes of unrequited love, betrayal and passion.
Some of the styles are specific to particular regions and events. The Fandangos de Huelva (a city south of Seville) is performed during the annual pilgrimage to Rocio – the Romería del Rocio.
Seville’s annual spring festival – Féria de Abríl en Sevilla – inspired the lively Sevillanas partner dance, perfect for celebrations.
Where to find flamenco in Seville
Just follow your ears and wander the streets of Seville and you find flamenco.
The sound of rhythmic guitars, clapping hands, stomping feet and soulful voices follow you wherever you go.
But if you want to be a bit more systematic about your flamenco experience, here are some recommendations for discovering the flamenco tradition in Seville.
Flamenco Museum – Museo del Baile Flamenco
Established by famous flamenco dancer Cristina Hoyos, the Museo del Baile Flamenco (Flamenco Museum) should be your first stop. Here you learn about flamenco styles and history of the art.
Close to the Cathedral and Real Alcazar in Seville’s old town, the museum is small but has many interactive displays. They showcase the many different forms and styles of flamenco.
I particularly loved the life sized videos of performances and the wonderful costumes.
Did you know that the famous colourful and dotted flamenco costumes were adapted from those worn in Seville during their famous Spring festival – Feria de Abril en Sevilla?
The museum is open daily from 10:00am to 19:00pm including holidays.
Cost €10 for adults with reduced prices for students and children
A male and two female dancers are accompanied by two male singers and a guitarist so you experience a broad range of styles – from a heartbreaking Tiento to the jubilant and fun Alegría.
Even people who think they are not very interested in dance (perhaps some men..) would enjoy this show. It’s fast paced and energetic enough to transfix our fidgety four year olds.
We walked out of the theatre on a high, so glad that we had reserved tickets the day before. In fact, we were lucky it was not peak tourist season. Be prepared to book in advance for the best flamenco shows in Seville.
Make sure to get there early to secure a coveted front row seat where you can watch the amazing foot movement. Also worth noting, cameras and video recording is not allowed so you must submit yourself to the moment.
Family travel tip – check the schedule at the Flamenco Museum as they often have performances starting at 5pm. Perfect for little people
You can see flamenco performances at several other venues in Seville. Known as tablaos, these theatres have nightly performances where you can enjoy a drink and sometimes dinner with your show. The cost is around €50 per person depending on the venue.
These tablaos were recommended to us by our AirBnB host:
Tablao Flamenco El Arenal – a large 100 seat venue where you can have dinner while watching a show – >more information
El Palacio Andaluz – set in a 19th century mansion this theatre is popular for featuring award winning artists – >buy tickets in advance
Patio Sevillano – the show at this historic venue features several flamenco styles – >pre book tickets
As I mentioned, you literally stumble upon flamenco in Seville. On street corners and in shady plazas, guitarists and dancers put on small shows for visitors and locals alike.
I have no way to judge the technical standard of the dancing we saw on the streets of Seville but the atmosphere was joyous and friendly. Crowds gathered around and shouted many encouraging olé‘s.
By this stage of the trip, our daughter was becoming little obsessed with foot stomping, clapping and the wonderful swooshy dresses that she demanded to have her photo taken with the very obliging dancer.
Tip – stopping to watch a street performance of flamenco is the perfect way to take a break as you hop the tapas bars of the city
If we had been travelling without kids I would have tried to find a peña.
These are the small Seville flamenco bars where it is said you witness the most raw and pure flamenco. Often in tiny venues, audiences cram in like sardines to watch the art form at its passionate best.
There is no schedule of performances, you just have to be lucky to spot an advertisement on a lamp post or hear some music floating down a street. Now that’s my kind of adventure.
My highlight of Seville
In a city so rich with beautiful sights, food traditions and culture, it is hard to pick an ultimate highlight.
But as I reflect on our trip, my favourite experience was discovering the rich and mysterious art form that is flamenco.
Even now I can hear feet stomping, hands clapping and colourful skirts swishing dramatically past our faces. Olé!
What’s your favourite memory from Seville?