Belly Dance & Flamenco

Early Gypsy Dancer

Early Gypsy Dancer

The origin of bellydance is an actively debated subject among dance enthusiasts. Some of the most popular theories include the following:

1. It descended from a religious dance that was performed during fertility rituals by temple priestesses. As early as 1000 B.C., temple engravings depicting dancers have been found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.

2. It arose out of the dance that was associated with childbirth. It prepared girls for labor and was part of the delivery ritual.

3. It descended from ancient Egyptian social dances.

4. It originated in India over 5000 years ago, and had spread through out the Middle East with the migrations of the Gypsy tribes also called Roma in Europe, Ghawazee in Egypt, and Nawar in India. The Gypsies eventually reached Europe where one of the most famous Gypsy dance styles was born – Flamenco. Many moves in modern Flamenco are still very similar to bellydance.

Perhaps the richness of Middle Eastern dance tradition and its universal appeal can be attributed to the blending of many various sources, cultures, and dance styles.

Cultural Context

Historically, dance has always been an important part of Arabic culture. One of the oldest social dances that Middle Eastern and North African people of all ages and both sexes have enjoyed at festive occasions is called Raks Beledi. In Arabic this means “folk dance” or “dance of the country”. In the ancient times, men and women did not dance together in pairs or mixed gender groups. Traditionally, in Islamic societies men and women led largely segregated lives. Women lived and socialized with female friends and family in a separate section of a house, called harem (which means “forbidden”). Men who were not members of the immediate family were not allowed to enter the harem quarters.

Through a series of invasions, Europeans gained greater exposure to the culture of the Middle East and North Africa. Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt in 1798 sparked the Europeans’ interest in the Arab world. His Egyptian expedition included a group of 167 scientists: mathematicians, naturalists, chemists, and geodesists. Although the French were not successful in Egypt, they annexed Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1878, and eventually extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. Soon after, in 1882 the British occupied Egypt and established effective control of the Persian Gulf.

Until the mid-1800s the Eastern territories, particularly Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt were collectively referred to as the Orient. The mystique of the East fueled the imaginations of a group of 19th century European painters and writers who came to be called Orientalists. Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres were some of the most prominent figures of the Orientalist movement. Orientalist paintings often depicted highly eroticized fantasy scenes from the harem life: semi-naked concubines, reclining on pillows with swaying peacock fans, dancing for the pleasure of a sultan or a group of men. These works were completely untrue to the reality of Middle Eastern culture and to the role that dance played in it. The Orientalist movement had undoubtedly contributed to the popular misconception of bellydance as a dance of seduction, performed for the pleasure of men. In fact, because of the traditional gender segregation, Middle Eastern women usually only danced in female company among friends and family. Sometimes a professional dancer and musicians were invited to a women’s gathering. Today, gender segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, and occasionally both men and women do dance socially at the family or community events.



Middle Eastern dance was introduced to the American public in 1893 at the Chicago World Fair, which included an exhibit called “The Streets of Cairo.” The exhibit featured authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers of the Egyptian Theater who gained the most notoriety. The rapid hip movements and the fact that the dancers were uncorseted, was shocking to the Victorian sensibilities of the day. In fact, many public figures, most notably Anthony Comstock, head of Society for the Suppression of Vice, attempted to close the Egyptian Theater. In an effort to publicize the Fair by creating a sensation, the promoter, Sol Bloom, allegedly invented the name “bellydance” to use in his advertising campaign. He might have actually “borrowed” the French term danse du ventre (dance of the stomach) previously coined by the Orientalists. In the late 19th century, exposing or referring to any part of human anatomy was socially unacceptable. The term “bellydance” was scandalous and, as planned, drew attention to the exhibit and to the dance.

During the next several decades, bellydancing could only be seen at vaudeville, burlesque, and carnival sideshows. It was often misrepresented by untrained imitators to be a risqué, erotic dance which gave bellydancing a questionable reputation in polite society.

Bacchante by Leon Bakst

The Modern Age

Trying to capitalize on the bellydance craze, Thomas Edison made several films featuring bellydancers in the 1890s, including Turkish dance, Ella Lola (1898), Crissie Sheridan (1897), and Princess Rajah Dance (1904). Many Hollywood productions followed which further popularized bellydance, while at the same time reinforcing either false or negative stereotypes about it. There were only three roles for a bellydancer: a slave to be saved, a background dancer while the main characters talk, or a deceitful woman who uses her charms to trick the main character.

However, Hollywood did make a significant contribution to the bellydance costume. Inspired by the European vaudeville and burlesque outfits, Hollywood designers created a fringed, beaded, sparkling bra and belt set, which was adopted first by the Egyptian dancers in 1930s, and later by the rest of the Middle Eastern dance community. Traditionally there was no special bellydance costume. In fact, native garb covered and concealed the contours of the body, with only a scarf or belt tied around the hips to highlight the movements.

A Lebanese singer, dancer, and actress, Badia Masabni, is credited with the adoption of a new costume, which in Arabic is called bedlah (meaning “uniform”). In 1930s Badia opened a night club in Cairo called Casino Opera. In collaboration with several western choreographers and a group of dancers, Badia began to transform a Middle Eastern folk dance, Raks Baladi, into performance art. The new, more theatrical version of Middle Eastern dance came to be called Raks Sharki (dance of the East). It is an Arabic name for the modern Middle Eastern dance that the Westerners refer to as bellydance.

The folk dance was usually done in small spaces, and mostly involved stationary, earthy moves focused around the hips. Badia and her company expanded the traditional dance vocabulary. Raks Sharki utilized more area to fill the stage space. More travel steps, as well as arm and chest movements were introduced, all of which made the dance more expressive and engaging for the audience.

In the 1930s and 1940s the booming Egyptian film industry produced many musicals that featured bellydance artists. During that time such legendary dancers as Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, and Naima Akef, who started their carriers at the Casino Opera club, rose to fame and eventually gained international recognition.

There were some public and religious figures in Egypt and in other North African and Middle Eastern countries who considered Raks Sharki indecent and morally objectionable. After the last Ottoman ruler of Egypt, King Farouk, was overthrown in 1952, the new government representative Dr. Rageb banned Raks Sharki on religious grounds. It soon became clear that bellydance was one of the biggest forces attracting international tourism to Egypt. More importantly, bellydance was an integral part of Egyptian culture. Due to economic and social pressure the ban was lifted in 1954 but there were several restrictions which are still in effect: the stomach has to be covered; floor work is prohibited; a specific “quivering” shimmy is banned.

Raks Sharki was quickly adopted by many Middle and Near Eastern countries and developed into several distinct styles. When immigrants from Turkey, Iran, and the Arab states began to immigrate to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers started to perform a mixture of these styles in the nightclubs and restaurants. This fusion came to be identified as Classic Cabaret or American Cabaret bellydance. Bellydance continues to evolve and offers an inspiring variety of dance styles which often incorporate elements of ballet, modern, jazz, Latin, Flamenco, and Indian dance. Some of the other most prominent bellydance styles include Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, Gypsy, and American Tribal.

Gypsies originated according the legend from the Sindh or “bilad as-sind” (translated: land of the sind), a southern province of Hindustan (nowadays Pakistan).

Now before that, some five thousand years ago, the gypsies came from Egypt to Hindustan. Bringing with them instruments like the Alghoza, a pare of beak flutes. The alghoza became quickly the most popular instrument in the Sind province.

Hamza of Isfahan relates around 950 that the Persian ruler, shah Bahram Gur went to Hindustan to meet king Shangul. Bahram, a popular name for many Persian Kings, asked

him to select musicians, male and female alike. So Shangul choose among the Luri tribe around 12.000 persons capable of playing oud. The story was later repeated by Firdouzi. According to the sources the tribe was also called Zott (single. Zotti) or Zitti and calling themselves “Romas,” from the Sanskrit word meaning “man of the low caste of musician.”

Other sources talk about the “sons of Rama”, a legendary brotherhood of ancient India.

Another interesting theory is that çengi is derived from the Persian word zangi. The Dayereh zangi is a kind of frame drum used by the wandering musicians in Persia. Dayereh-zangi – also doyra, dojra, dajre, doira, dajreja – translates roughly as tambourine, an traditional instrument much used by the gypsies to accompany their dances. This round framedrum, hence the Persian name meaning “circle”, has jingles
Gypsy from Iran playing the Dayereh Zangi



The wandering gypsy tribes were mentioned for the first time in European history in the Romanian archives in 1385 as atsigani. Around 15 th century they spread over the rest of Europe. Some of them gained a living as musicians and dancers as a 16 th century Flemish wall carpet shows.
gypsy-dancer (33K)

The Manusj or Manoesjen (Sinti) arrived in the Netherlands (now Belgium and Holland) around the 15 th century. Some gypsy families settled and curiously enough the neighborhood where they lived became know as “Turkije” (Turkey) to indicate their roots.
The Rom tribe spread out centuries ago to Turkey, the Balkan, the Maghreb (North Africa), Iberia (Spain and Portugal) as well as France and Belgium where they arrived in the 19 th century.
gypsy woman 19th-century, Russia

An 1420 account of the city of Deventer in central Holland mentions a donation to “Andreas, Hertoch van Cleyn Egypte” (Andrew, the earl of Little Egypt). This was the leader of the dark skinned nomads that erroneously believed to have come from Egypt.
The “Egiptians dancing for the King in Holyrood House” received 40 shilling for their show from King James V – king of Scotland – in 1529. 78 years later another British king James I, azka James VI of Scotland, invited in 1607 gypsies to dance at the court. The tchingui as they were known in Ottoman Turkey, danced frequently in the harem and for the entertainment of the sultan and his guests.

Medieval Bohemia’s population included large numbers of gypsies dark-skinned nomads. The gypsies were the Bohemians who wandered into France in the 15 th century as itinerant blacksmiths and entertainers, forging traditions that continue today in Roma tribes worldwide, still subsisting on society’s fringes by luck and sharp wits. Bohemian became a synonym of gypsy in some European countries.

Among the many styles of Romany dance, perhaps the most wellknown is Flamenco, the typical dance from Andalusia in the south of Spain. Other styles are Ghawazee (Egyptian Gypsies), Rom (East-European Gypsies) and Tsjengui (Turkish Gypsies). The Turkish gypsies crossed Turkey through the northern Black Sea region (Kara Deniz) and moved on to Trakya passing Istanbul (former Constantinopel). In Istanbul the Sulekule district is still famous for it’s gypsy dancers – who have a dubious reputation by the way – and interesting turkish gypsy music.

Flamenco – Its Origin and evolution

Many of the details of the development of flamenco are lost in Spanish history. Flamenco is a dance form that arose in Spain, influenced by various populations passing through or living in the southern region of Andalusia. Beginning in the third century BC, Gypsies, Sephardic Jews, Christians, and Moors all contributed to Andalusian culture. The Moorish civilization was founded by Arabs and Berbers of North Africa, in the 8th century. Like the Indian Mughals, the Moors cultivated and transformed the arts, by bringing them into their lavish courts as entertainment. As a result, Andalusia flourished and came to be regarded as a major cultural center from the 9th to the 15th century.

The Gypsies migrated from India to Spain in various waves, being influenced by the customs of peoples whose land they passed through, and incorporating elements of these customs into their own already unique customs, language and way of life. A nomadic people, the Gypsies were most often met by extreme persecution and condemnation wherever they went, and were often forced to survive under the most adverse conditions.

Beginning in the 15th century, Christian monarchs in the north of Spain demanded adherence to Christianity, and during the Spanish inquisition, Muslims, Jews, and Gypsies were forced to convert or leave Spain. Many people were tortured, persecuted and even killed if they refused to conform to the accepted standard of Spanish society. Poverty and persecution were widespread and affected Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike, and the once vigorous separation that existed between them faded away as a result of their shared struggles.

Despite being persecuted by the Spanish Monarchy, the Gypsies continued to defend and assert cultural identity and ethnic pride, and maintain their own customs. The interplay between the Andalusian folk forms and Gypsy traditions forged the beginnings of flamenco dance and music. The first contexts of flamenco performance appeared to have been private, deeply emotional events that were kept hidden in close Gypsy familial gatherings. Early urban flamenco events took place in secluded rooms in bars, or in the patios of Gypsy dwellings. The suppressed passions and long-felt emotions of the Andalusian Gypsies were vocalized through flamenco in the cante (song), the primary element of flamenco.

In the 19th century, flamenco shifted from an intimate, ritualistic art form to a public entertainment form, developing the virtuosic footwork and an expansion of styles within the form. Performed by non-Gypsy and Gypsies alike, flamenco began to achieve legitimacy and public acclaim. The 20th century technological growth and mass media further bolstered flamenco’s popularity, as it came to be recognized nationally and internationally and moved into theatrical settings.

Although the Gypsies were not honored for their contribution to the art form until many years later, they have always been considered among the best interpreters of the flamenco arts. In recent years flamenco has continued to develop, incorporating sophisticated musical stylistic elements from other mediums, however it still maintains a core of traditional styles and techniques.

Canto (song) is the core of flamenco, and like baile (dance), it has three forms: grande or hondo (meaning grand or deep), intense, profound songs, tragic in tone, and imbued with duende, the transformation of the musician by the depth of the emotion; intermedio (intermediate), moderately serious; and pequeño (small), light songs of exuberance, love, and nature. Among these forms, several individual genres exist, including the light bulerías, the more serious soleares and its lighter descendant, the alegrías, among others.

Persian Zangi

Persian Zangi

Both text and melody of these songs, like the flamenco dance, are improvised within traditional structures such as characteristic rhythms and chords. Zapateado, intricate toe- and heel-clicking steps, characterizes the men’s dance; the traditional women’s dance is based more on grace of body and hand movements. The baile grande, especially, is believed to retain elements of the dance of North India, where the Gypsies originated. Castanets come from the influence of Andalusian dance. Jaleo, rhythmic finger snapping, hand clapping, and shouting often accompanies the song and dance. In the 19th century, guitar accompaniment became common for many genres, and guitar solos also developed as a part of the song/dance cycle.

There are several reasons for this lack of historical evidence:

1. Flamenco sprang from the lower levels of Andalucian society, and thus lacked the prestige of other art forms among the middle and higher classes. Flamenco music also slipped in and out of fashion several times during its existence.

2. The turbulent times of the people involved in flamenco culture. The Moors, the Gitanos and the Jews were all persecuted, and the Moors (moriscos) and Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Many of the songs in flamenco still reflect the spirit of desperation, struggle, hope, and pride of the people during this time of persecution.

3. The Gitanos have been fundamental in maintaining this art form, but they have an oral culture. Their songs were passed on to new generations by repeated performances within their social community. The non-gypsy Andalucian poorer classes, in general, were also illiterate.

4. There was a lack of interest from historians and musicologists. “Flamencologists” have usually been flamenco connoisseurs of diverse professions (a high number of them, like Félix Grande, Caballero Bonald or Ricardo Molina, have been poets), with no specific academic training in the fields of history or musicology. They have tended to rely on a limited number of sources (mainly the writings of 19th century folklorist Demófilo, notes by foreign travellers like George Borrow, a few accounts by writers and the oral tradition), and they have often ignored other data. Nationalistic or ethnic bias has also been frequent in flamencology.

This started to change in the late 1970’s and 1980s, when a growing number of musicologists and historians began to carry out more rigorous research.

There are questions not only about the origins of the music and dances of flamenco, but also about the origins of the very word flamenco. Whatever the origins of the word, in the early 19th century it began to be used to describe a way of life centered around this music and usually involving Gypsies. In his 1842 book Zincali, George Borrow writes that the word flamenco is synonymous with “Gypsy”.

Blas Infante, in his book Orígenes de lo flamenco y secreto del cante jondo, controversially argued that the word flamenco comes from Hispano-Arabic word fellahmengu, which would mean “expelled peasant”. Yet there is a problem with this theory, in that the word is first attested three centuries after the end of the Moorish reign. Infante links the term to the ethnic Andalucians of Muslim faith, the Moriscos, who would have mixed with the Gypsy newcomers in order to avoid religious persecution. Other hypotheses concerning the term’s etymology include connections with Flanders (flamenco also means Flemish in Spanish), believed by Spanish people to be the place of origin of the Gypsies.


Flamenco "Clap" with Guitar

Flamenco “Clap” with Guitar

For a complete picture of the possible influences that gave rise to flamenco, attention must be paid to the cultural and musical background of the Iberian Peninsula since Ancient times. Long before the Moorish invasion in 711, Visigothic Spain had adopted its own liturgical musical forms, the Visigothic or Mozarabic rite, strongly influenced by Byzantium. The Mozarabic rite survived the Gregorian reform and the Moorish invasion, and remained alive at least until the 10th or 11th century. Some theories, started by Spanish classical musician Manuel de Falla, link the melismatic forms and the presence of Greek Dorian mode (in modern times called “Phrygian mode”) in flamenco to the long existence of this separate Catholic rite. Unfortunately, owing to the type of musical notation in which these Mozarabic chants were written, it is not possible to determine what this music really sounded like, so the theory remains unproven.

Moor is not the same as Moslem. Moor comes from the Latin Mauroi, meaning an inhabitant of North Africa. The Carthaginians, for instance, came from North Africa. Moorish influence in the peninsula goes back thousands of years, but it was the Islamic invasion, by largely Berber armies in 711, that determined the main musical influences from North Africa. They called the Iberian Peninsula Al-Andalus, from which the name of Andalusia derives. The Moorish and Arab conquerors brought their musical forms to the Peninsula, and at the same time, probably gathered some native influence in their music. The Emirate, and later Caliphate of Córdoba became a center of influence in both the Muslim and Christian worlds and it attracted musicians from all Islamic countries. One of those musicians was Zyriab, who imported forms of Persian music, revolutionized the shape and playing techniques of the Lute (which centuries later evolved into the vihuela and the guitar), adding a fifth string to it, and set the foundations for the Andalusian nuba, the style of music in suite form still performed in North African countries.

The presence of the Moors was also decisive in shaping the cultural diversity of Spain. Owing to the extraordinary length of the Reconquesta started in the North as early as 722 and completed in 1492 with the conquest of Granada, the degree of Moorish influence on culture, customs and even language varies enormously between the North and the South. Music cannot have been alien to that process. While music in the North of the Peninsula has a clear Celtic influence which dates to pre-Roman times, southern music is certainly reminiscent of Eastern influences. To what extent this Eastern flavor is owed to the Moors, the Jews, the Mozarabic rite (with its Byzantine influence), or the Gypsies has not been clearly determined.

During the Reconquest, another important cultural influence was present in Al-Andalus: The Jews. Enjoying a relative religious and ethnic tolerance in comparison to Christian countries, they formed an important ethnic group, with their own traditions, rites, and music, and probably reinforced the middle-Eastern element in the culture and music forms of Al-Andalus. Certain flamenco palos like the Peteneras have been attributed a direct Jewish origin.

Group of Gitanos Bilaores

Group of Gitanos Bilaores

Andalusia after the Reconquest: social environment and implications on music.

The 15th century marked a small revolution in the culture and society of Southern Spain. We must highlight the following landmarks, all with future implications on the development of flamenco: first, the arrival of nomad Gypsies in the Iberian Peninsula in 1425. Later on, the conquest of Granada, the discovery of America and the expulsion of the Jews, all of them in 1492.

In the 13th century, the Christian Crown of Castile had already conquered most of Andalusia. Although Castilian kings favored a policy of repopulation of the newly conquered lands with Christians, part of the Muslim population remained in the areas as a religious and ethnic minority, called mudéjares.

Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula, fell in 1492 when the armies of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and queen Isabella of Castile invaded this city after about 800 years of Moslem rule. The Treaty of Granada guaranteed religious tolerance, and this paved the way for the Moors to surrender peacefully. Months after, the Spanish Inquisition used its influence to convince Ferdinand and Isabella, who were political allies of the Church of Rome, to break the treaty and force the Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Alhambra decree of March 31, 1492 ordered the expulsion of all non-converted Jews from Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31, 1492, on charges that they were trying to convert the Christian population to Judaism. Some chose to adopt the Catholic religion (Conversos), but they often kept their Judaic beliefs privately. For this reason, they were closely watched by the Spanish Inquisition, and accusations of being false converts often lead them to suffer torture and death.

In 1499, about 50,000 Moriscos were coerced into taking part in mass baptism. During the uprising that followed, people who refused the choices of baptism or deportation to Africa were systematically eliminated. What followed was a mass exodus of Moslems, Sephardi Jews and Gitanos from Granada and the villages, into the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountain region (and its hills) and the rural country. Many Moslems, now known as Moriscos, officially converted to Christianity, but kept practicing their religion in private and also preserved their language, dress and customs. The Moriscos rose up on several occasions during the 16th century, and were finally expelled from Spain, their rightful homeland, at the beginning of the 17th century.

The conquest of Andalusia implied a strong penetration of Castilian culture in Andalusia, which surely influenced the music and folklore. The expulsion of the Sephardi Jews and Moriscos could have led to a weakening of middle-Eastern influence on Andalusian culture. However, during the 15th century groups of Roma people (gypsies), known as Gitanos in Spain, entered the Iberian Peninsula. At the beginning, they were well tolerated. The Spanish nobles enjoyed their dances and music, and they were regularly employed to entertain guests at private parties. The Gypsies, therefore, were in touch (at least geographically) with the Morisco population until the expulsion of the latter in the 16th century. According to some theories, suggested by authors like George Borrow and Blas Infante and supported by other flamenco historians like Mairena and Molina, many Moriscos even joined the Gypsy nomad tribes and eventually became indistinguishable from them. This has not been proved scientifically. It is generally accepted, however, that the Zambra of the Gypsies of Granada, still performed nowadays, is derived from the original Moorish Zambra.

The clash between Gypsies and the Spanish would be manifest by the end of the century. For centuries, the Spanish monarchy tried to force the Gypsies to abandon their language, customs and music. During the Reconquista, tolerance towards Gypsies ended and they were put into ghettos. This isolation helped them retain the purity of their music and dance. In 1782, the Leniency Edict of Charles III restored some freedoms to the Spanish gypsies. Their music and dance was reintroduced and adopted by the general population of Spain. This resulted in a period of great exploration and evolution within the art form. Nomadic Gypsies became social outcasts and were in many cases the victims of persecution. This is reflected in many lyrics of palos (cqatagories of songs) like seguiriyas, in which references to hunger, prison and discrimination abound.

Regina Galeria Flamenco Dancer

Regina Galeria Flamenco Dancer

The influence of the New World

Recent research has revealed a major influence of Sub-Saharan African music on flamenco’s prehistory. This developed from the music and dance of African slaves held by the Spanish in the New World. There are 16th and 17th century manuscripts of classical compositions that are possibly based on African folk forms, such as negrillas, zarambeques, and chaconas. We also find mention of the fandango indiano (Indiano meaning from the Americas, but not necessarily Native American). Some critics support the view that the names of flamenco palos, like the tangos or even the fandango, are derived from Bantoid languages, and most theories state that the rhythm of the tangos was imported from Cuba.

It is likely that in that stay in the New World, the fandango picked up dance steps deemed too inappropriate for European tastes. Thus, the dance for fandango, for chacon, and for zarabanda, were all banned in Europe at one time or another. References to Gypsy dancers can be found in the lyrics of some of these forms, e.g., the chacon. Indeed, Gypsy dancers are often mentioned in Spanish literary and musical works from the 1500s on. However, the zarabandas and jácaras are the oldest written musical forms in Spain to use the 12-beat meter as a combination of terciary and binary rhythms. The basic rhythm of the zarabanda and the jácara is 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. The soleá and the Seguiriya, are variations on this: they just start the metre on a different beat.

The 18th century

During this period we see the development of the juerga (flamenco fiesta). More than just a party where flamenco is performed, the juerga, either unpaid or paid, sometimes lasting for days, has an internal etiquette with a complex set of musical and social rules. In fact, some might argue that the cultural phenomenon of the flamenco juerga is the basic cultural “unit” of flamenco.

A turning point in flamenco appears to have come about with a change of instruments. In the late 18th Century the favored guitar became the 6 string single-coursed guitar which replaced the double-coursed 5 string guitar in popularity. It is the 6 string guitar to which flamenco music is inextricably tied. Flamenco became married to the 6 string guitar.

Carmen Amaya Spanish Flamenco Dancer

Carmen Amaya Spanish Flamenco Dancer

The rise of flamenco

During the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, flamenco took on a number of unique characteristics which separated it from local folk music and prepared the way to a higher professionalization and technical excellence of flamenco performers, to the diversification of flamenco styles (by gradually incorporating songs derived from folklore or even other sources), and to the popularization of the genre outside Andalusia.

The first time flamenco is mentioned in literature is in 1774 in the book Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso. During this period, according to some authors, there is little news about flamenco except for a few scattered references from travelers. This led traditional flamencologists, like Molina and Mairena, to call the period of 1780 to 1850 as “The Hermetic Period” or the “private stage of flamenco”. According to these flamencologists, flamenco, at this time was something like a private ritual, secretly kept in the Gypsy homes of some towns in the Seville and Cádiz area. This theory started to fall out of favor in the 1990s. José Blas Vega has denied the absence of evidences for this period:

There is disagreement as to whether primitive flamenco was accompanied by any instrument or not. For traditional flamencology, flamenco consisted of unaccompanied singing (cante). Later, the songs were accompanied by flamenco guitar (toque), rhythmic hand clapping (palmas), rhythmic feet stomping (zapateado) and dance (baile). Later theories claim that this is false. While some cante forms are sung unaccompanied (a palo seco), it is likely that other forms were accompanied if and when instruments were available. 19th century writer Estébanez Calderón already described a flamenco fiesta in which the singing was accompanied not only by guitars, but also bandurria and tambourine.

The Golden Age

During the so-called Golden Age of Flamenco, between 1869-1910, flamenco music developed rapidly in music cafés called cafés cantantes, a new type of venue with ticketed public performances. This was the beginning of the “café cantante” period. Flamenco was developed here to its definitive form. Flamenco dancers also became the major public attraction in those cafés. Along with the development of flamenco dance, guitar players supporting the dancers increasingly gained a reputation, and so flamenco guitar as an art form by itself was born. A most important artist in this development was Silverio Franconetti, a non-Gypsy seaman of Italian descent. He is reported to be the first “encyclopedic” singer, that is, the first who was able to sing well in all the palos, instead of specializing on a few of them, as was usual at the time. He opened his own café cantante, where he sang himself or invited other artists to perform, and many other venues of this kind were created in all Andalusia and Spain.

Traditional views on flamenco, have often accused this period as the start of the commercial debasement of flamenco. The traditional flamenco fiesta is crowded if more than 20 people are present. Moreover, there is no telling when a fiesta will begin or end, or assurance that the better artists invited will perform well. And, if they do perform, it may not be until the morning after a fiesta that began the night before. By contrast, the café cantante offered set performances at set hours and top artists were contracted to perform. For some, this professionalization led to commercialism, while for others it stimulated healthy competition and therefore, more creativity and technical proficiency. In fact, most traditional flamenco forms were created or developed during this time or, at least, have been attributed to singers of this period like El Loco Mateo, El Nitri, Rojo el Alpargatero, Enrique el Mellizo, Paquirri El Guanté, or La Serneta, among many others. Some of them were professionals, while others sang only at private gatherings but their songs were learned and divulged by professional singers.

In the 19th century, both flamenco and its association with Gypsies started to become popular throughout Europe, even into Russia. Composers wrote music and operas on what they thought were Gypsy-flamenco themes. Any traveler through Spain “had” to see the Gypsies perform flamenco. Spain – often to the chagrin of non-Andalucian Spaniards – became associated with flamenco and Gypsies. This interest was in keeping with the European fascination with folklore during those decades.

In 1922, one of Spain’s greatest writers, Federico García Lorca, and renowned composer Manuel de Falla, organised the Concurso de Cante Jondo, a folk music festival dedicated to cante jondo (“deep song”). They did this to stimulate interest in some styles of flamenco, which were falling into oblivion as they were regarded uncommercial and, therefore, not appropriate for the cafés cantante. Two of Lorca’s most important poetic works, Poema del Cante Jondo and Romancero Gitano, show Lorca’s fascination with flamenco and appreciation of Spanish folk culture. However, the initiative was not very influential, and the derivations of fandango and other styles kept gaining popularity while the more difficult styles like siguiriyas and, especially, tonás were usually only performed in private parties.

The “Theatrical” period: 1892-1956

The stage after the Concurso de Cante Jondo in 1922 is known as Etapa teatral (Theatrical period) or Ópera flamenca (Flamenco Opera) period. The name Ópera flamenca was due to the custom, started by impresario Vedrines to call these shows opera, as opera performances enjoyed lower taxes. The cafés cantante entered a period of decadence and were gradually replaced by larger venues like theatres or bullrings. This led to an immense popularity of flamenco but, according to traditionalist critics, also caused it to fall victim to commercialism and economic interests. New types of flamenco shows were born, where flamenco was mixed with other music genres and theatrical interludes portraying picturesque scenes by Gitanos and Andalusians.

The dominant palos of this era were the fandangos personales, the cantes de ida y vuelta (songs of Latin American origin) and the song in bulería style. Fandangos personales were based on the Huelva traditional styles with a free rhythm (as a cante libre) and with many variations. The song in bulería style (Canción por bulerías) adapted any popular or commercial song to the bulería rhythm. This period also saw the birth of a new genre, sometimes called copla andaluza (Andalusian couplet) or canción española (Spanish song), a type of ballad with influences from zarzuela, Andalusian folk songs, and flamenco, usually accompanied by orchestra, which enjoyed great popularity and was performed both by flamenco and non-flamenco artists. Owing to its links with flamenco shows, many people incorrectly consider this genre as “flamenco”.

The leading artist at the time was Pepe Marchena, who sang in a sweet falsetto voice, using spectacular vocal runs reminding of bel canto coloratura. A whole generation of singers was influenced by him and some of them, like Pepe Pinto, or Juan Valderrama also reached immense celebrity status. Many classical flamenco singers who had grown up with the café cantante fell into oblivion. Others, like Tomás Pavón or Aurelio Sellés, found refuge in private parties. The rest adapted (though often did not completely surrender) to the new tastes: they took part in those mass flamenco shows, but kept singing the old styles, although introducing some of the new ones in their repertoire, as is the case of La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol, Manuel Vallejo, El Carbonerillo and many others.

This period has been considered by the most traditionalist critics as a time of complete commercial debasement. According to them, the opera flamenca became a “dictatorship” (Álvarez Caballero 1998), where bad personal fandangos and copla andaluza practically caused traditional flamenco to disappear. Other critics consider this view to be unbalanced. Popular figures of traditional cante like La Niña de los Peines or Manolo Caracol enjoyed great success, and palos like siguiriyas or soleá were never completely abandoned, not even by the most representative singers of the ópera flamenca style like Marchena or Valderrama.

Typical singers of the period like Marchena, Valderrama, Pepe Pinto or El Pena, have also been reappraised. Starting with singers like Luis de Córdoba, Enrique Morente or Mayte Martín, who recorded songs they created or made popular, a high number of singers started to rescue their repertoire. A CD in homage to Valderrama was recorded, and new generations of singers claim their influence. Critics like Antonio Ortega or Ortiz Nuevo have also vindicated the artists of the ópera flamenca period.

Musical characteristics


Whereas, in most Western music, only the major and minor modes are explicitly named by composers, (except as an occasional oddity in jazz and classical music) flamenco has also preserved the Phrygian mode, commonly called the “Dorian mode” by flamencologists, referring to the Greek Dorian mode, and sometimes also “flamenco mode”. The reason for preferring the term “Greek Dorian” is that, as in ancient Greek music, flamenco melodies are descending (instead of ascending as in usual Western melodic patterns). Some flamencologists, like Hipólito Rossy or guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar, also consider this flamenco mode as a survival of the old Greek Dorian mode. I will use the term “Phrygian” to refer to this mode, as it is the most common way of referring to this mode in English speaking countries.

The Phrygian mode is in fact the most common mode in the traditional palos of flamenco music, and it is used for soleá, most bulerías, siguiriyas, tangos and tientos, and other palos. The flamenco version of this mode contains two frequent alterations in the 7th and, even more often, the 3rd degree of the scale: if the scale is played in E Phrygian for example, G and D can be sharp.

In the descending E Phrygian scale in flamenco music, G sharp is compulsory for the tonic chord. Based on the Phrygian scale, a typical cadence is formed, usually called “Andalusian cadence”. The chords for this cadence in E Phrygian are Am–G–F–E. According to guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar, in this flamenco Phrygian mode, E is the tonic, F would take the harmonic function of dominant, while Am and G assume the functions of subdominant and mediant respectively.

When playing in Phrygian mode, guitarists traditionally use only two basic positions for the tonic chord: E and A. However, they often transport these basic tones by using a cejilla (capo). Modern guitarists, starting with Ramón Montoya, have also introduced other positions. Montoya himself started to use other chords for the tonic in the doric sections of several palos: F sharp for tarantas, B for granaína, A flat for the minera, and he also created a new palo as a solo piece for the guitar, the rondeña, in C sharp. Later guitarists have further extended the repertoire of tonalities and chord positions.

There are also palos in major mode, for example, most cantiñas and alegrías, guajiras, and some bulerías and tonás, and the cabales (a major mode type of siguiriyas). The minor mode is less frequent and it is restricted to the Farruca, the milongas (among cantes de ida y vuelta), and some styles of tangos, bulerías, etc. In general, traditional palos in major and minor mode are limited harmonically to the typical two-chord (tonic–dominant) or three-chord structure (tonic–subdominant–dominant). However, modern guitarists have increased the traditional harmony by introducing chord substitution, transitional chords, and even modulation.

Fandangos and the palos derived from it (e.g. malagueñas, tarantas, cartageneras) are bimodal. Guitar introductions are in Phrygian mode, while the singing develops in major mode, modulating to Phrygian mode at the end of the stanza.

Traditionally, flamenco guitarists did not receive any formal training, so they just relied on their ear to find the chords on the guitar, disregarding the rules of Western classical music. This led them to interesting harmonic findings, with unusual unresolved dissonances. Examples of this are the use of minor 9th chords for the tonic, the tonic chord of tarantas, or the use of the 1st unpressed string as a kind of pedal tone.


Dionisio Preciado, (quoted by Sabas de Hoces), established the following characteristics for the melodies of flamenco singing:

Microtonality: presence of intervals smaller than the semitone.
Portamento: frequently, the change from one note to another is done in a smooth transition, rather than using discrete intervals.
Short tessitura or range: The most traditional flamenco songs are usually limited to a range of a sixth (four tones and a half). The impression of vocal effort is the result of using different timbres, and variety is accomplished by the use of microtones.
Use of enharmonic scale. While in equal temperament scales, enharmonics are notes with identical name but different spellings (e.g. A flat and G sharp), in flamenco, as in unequal temperament scales, there is a microtonal intervalic difference between enharmonic notes.
Insistence on a note and its contiguous chromatic notes (also frequent in the guitar), producing a sense of urgency.
Baroque ornamentation, with an expressive, rather than merely aesthetic function.
Greek Dorian mode (modern Phrygian mode) in the most traditional songs.
Apparent lack of regular rhythm, especially in the siguiriyas: the melodic rhythm of the sung line is different from the metric rhythm of the accompaniment.
Most styles express sad and bitter feelings.
Melodic improvisation. Although flamenco singing is not, properly speaking, improvised, but based on a relatively small number of traditional songs, singers add variations on the spur of the moment.

Musicologist Hipólito Rossy adds the following characteristics:

Flamenco melodies are also characterized by a descending tendency, as opposed to, for example, a typical opera aria, they usually go from the higher pitches to the lower ones, and from forte to piano, as it was usual in ancient Greek scales.
In many styles, such as soléa or siguiriya, the melody tends to proceed in contiguous degrees of the scale. Skips of a third or a fourth are rarer. However, in fandangos and fandango-derived styles, fourths and sixths can often be found, especially at the beginning of each line of verse. According to Rossy, this would be a proof of the more recent creation of this type of songs, which would be influenced by the Castilian jota.


Compás is the Spanish word for meter or rhythm or time signature in classical music theory. In flamenco, besides having these meanings, it also refers to the rhythmic cycle, or layout, of a palo or flamenco style. When performing flamenco it is important to feel the rhythm — the compás — rather than mechanically count the beats. In this way, flamenco is similar to jazz or blues where performers seem to simply ‘feel’ the rhythm.

Flamenco uses three basic counts or measures: Binary, Ternary and the (unique to flamenco) twelve-beat cycle, which is difficult to confine within the classical measure. There are also free-form styles, not subject to any particular meter, including, among others, the palos in the group of the tonás, the saetas, malagueñas, tarantas, and some types of fandangos.

Rhythms in 2/4 or 4/4. These meters are used in forms like tangos, tientos, gypsy rumba, zambra and tanguillos.

Rhythms in 3/4. These are typical of fandangos and sevillanas both of these forms originate in Spanish folk music, thereby illustrating their provenance as non-Gypsy styles, since the 3/4 and 4/4 measures are the most common throughout the Western world but not within the ethnic Gypsy, nor Hindi musical tradition.

12-beat rhythms usually rendered in amalgams of 6/8 + 3/4 and sometimes measures of 12/8 in attempts to confine it within the classical constraints. The 12 beat cycle is fundamental in the soleá and buerías palos, for example. However, the various accentuation differentiates these two. These accentuations don’t correspond to the classic concept of the downbeat, whereby the first beat in the measure is emphasized. In flamenco, the different ways of performing percussion (including the complex technique of palmas) make it hard to render in traditional musical notation. The alternating of groups of 2 and 3 beats is also common in the Spanish folk or traditional dances of the 16th Century such as the zarabanda, jácara and canarios.
They are also common in Latin American countries.

12-beat amalgams are in fact the most common in flamenco. There are three types of these, which vary in their layouts, or use of accentuations:

The seguiriya.
The soleá.
The bulería

Seguiriya, liviana, serrana, toná liviana, cabales: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 The seguiriya is measured in the same way as the soleá but starting on the 8th beat .

Soleá, whithin the cantiñas group of palos which includes the alegrías, cantiñas, mirabras, romera, caracoles and soleá por bulería (also “ bulería por soleá”): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12. For practical reasons, when transferring flamenco guitar music to sheet music, this rhythm is written as a regular 3/4.

Bulerías is the emblematic palo of flamenco, today its 12 beat cycle is most often played 12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11. The accompanying palmas are played in groups of 6 beats, giving rise to a multitude of counter rhythms and percussive voices within the 12 beat compás.

Among the flamenco rhythms, the Bulerias remains supreme as the favorite fiesta rhythm. It is highly complex rhythmically with many variations and a rich tapestry of guitar, dance, and song effects.

There are two main approaches to Bulerias – one in its interpretation as a rhythm in its own right, and the other is its use as a finale to many of the other songs and dances.

The Bulerias is performed in most keys easily available to the guitar; A and E Phrygian Modes, A and E Minor, and A and E major (although usually not in C major – it doesn’t seem to have the required “punch”). Sometimes, for fun, guitarists will solo in F# or B Phrygian as well.

The structure of the bulerias cante was derived from that of Soleares, complete with cambio. The traditional verse form is called copla; however, many popular versions of Bulerias verses exist (called cuples).

The dancer uses a two compas (12 count) sequence called the desplante which is used to differentiate sections of her performance and to mark transitions between steps. The first compas has a traditional form, and is used as a signal to the guitarist; the second compas is where the creative stuff happens (pelizcos), and is where the dancer can express his/her choreographic originality. The 12th count of the second compas is strongly emphasized, since it is usually the transition to a 6/8 six count compas cycle in the next section of the dance.

Between coplas of the cante and steps of the dance, the guitarist has quite a bit of freedom – he can play any number of 6/8 or 3/4 six count or 12 count measures of guitar rasgueados and falsetas. (Singers and dancers also have this freedom, of course; that is why Bulerias can always be accompanied with the preferred dobles palmas – since it gives everyone a six count reference.

Compás is fundamental to flamenco, it is the basic definition of the music, and without compás, there is no flamenco. Compás is therefore more than simply the division of beats and accentuations, it is the backbone of this musical form. In private gatherings, if there is no guitarist available, the compás is rendered through hand clapping (palmas) or by hitting a table with the knuckles. This is also sometimes done in recordings especially for bulerías. The guitar also has an important function, using techniques like strumming (rasgueado) or tapping the soundboard. Changes of chords also emphasize the most important downbeats. When a dancers are present, they use their feet as a percussion instrument.

Forms of flamenco expression

Flamenco is expressed through the toque — (flamenco guitar), the cante (singing), and the baile (dancing)

Flamenco guitar.

The flamenco guitar (and the very similar classical guitar) is a descendent from the lute. The first guitars are thought to have originated in Spain in the 15th century. The traditional flamenco guitar is made of Spanish cypress and spruce, and is lighter in weight and a bit smaller than a classical guitar, to give the output a ‘sharper’ sound. The flamenco guitar, in contrast to the classical, is also equipped with a tap-plate, called a golpeador. This is often plastic, similar to a pick guard, and protects the body of the guitar from the rhythmic finger taps, called golpes. The flamenco guitar is also used in several different ways from the classical guitar, including different strumming patterns and styles, as well as the use of a cejilla (capo) in many circumstances.

Flamenco Singing.

Foreigners often think that the essence of flamenco is the dance. However, the heart of flamenco is the song (cante). Although to the uninitiated, flamenco seems totally extemporaneous, these cantes (songs) and bailes (dances) follow strict musical and poetic rules. The verses (coplas) of these songs often are beautiful and concise poems, and the style of the flamenco copla was often imitated by Andalucian poets. Garcia Lorca is perhaps the best known of these poets. In the 1920s he, along with the composer Manuel de Falla and other intellectuals, crusaded to raise the status of flamenco as an art form and preserve its purity. But the future of flamenco is uncertain. Flamenco is tied to the conditions and culture of Andalusia in the past, and as Spain modernizes and integrates into the European community, it is questionable whether flamenco can survive the social and economic changes.

Cante flamenco can be categorized in a number of ways. First, a cante may be categorized according to whether it follows a strict rhythmic pattern (“compas”) or follows a free rhythm (“libre”). The cantes with compas fit one of four compas patterns. These compas-types are generally known by the name of the most important cante of the group. Thus

The solea group includes the cantes: solea; romances, solea por bulerias, bulerias, alegrias (cantinas); La Cana, El Polo

Flamenco Dance

El baile flamenco is a highly-expressive solo dance, known for its emotional sweeping of the arms and rhythmic stomping of the feet. While flamenco dancers (bailaores and bailaoras) invest a considerable amount of study and practice into their art form, the dances are not choreographed, but are improvised along the palo or rhythm. In addition to the percussion provided by the heels and balls of the feet striking the floor, castanets are sometimes held in the hands and clicked together rapidly to the rhythm of the music. Sometimes, folding fans are used for visual effect.


Flamenco music styles are called palos in Spanish. There are over 50 different palos flamenco, although some of them are rarely performed. A palo can be defined as musical form of flamenco. Flamenco songs are classified into palos based on several musical and non-musical criteria such as its basic rhythmic pattern, mode, chord progression, form of the stanza, or geographic origin. The rhythmic patterns of the palos are also often called compás. A compás (the Spanish normal word for either time signature or bar) is characterized by a recurring pattern of beats and accents.

To really understand the different palos, it is important to understand their musical and cultural context:

Some of the forms are sung unaccompanied, while others usually have a guitar and sometimes other accompaniment. Some forms are danced while others traditionally are not. Amongst both the songs and the dances, some are traditionally the reserve of men and others of women, while still others could be performed by either sex. Many of these traditional distinctions are now breaking down; for example, the Farruca is traditionally a man’s dance, but is now commonly performed by women too. Many flamenco artists, including some considered to be amongst the greatest, have specialized in a single flamenco form.

The classification of flamenco palos is not entirely uncontentious, but a common traditional classification is into three groups. The deepest, most serious forms are known as cante jondo (or cante grande), while relatively light, frivolous forms are called cante chico. Other non-musical considerations often factor into this classification, such as whether the origin of the palo is considered to be gypsy or not. Forms which do not fit into either category but lie somewhere between them are classified as cante intermedio. However, there is no general agreement on how to classify each palo. Whereas there is general agreement that the soleá, seguiriya and the tonás must be considered cante jondo, there is wide controversy on where to place cantes like the fandango, malagueña, or tientos. Many flamenco fans tend to disregard this classification as highly subjective, or else they considered that, whatever makes a song cante grande is not the song itself but the depth of the interpreter.

The classification below reflects another traditional classification of cantes more based on rhythmic pattern, but also taking the origin into account.

Toná Palos (usually known as Cantes a palo seco)

Palos based on the Soleá rhythm
Bulerías – Bulerias (and Jaleos from extremadura, a variety of Bulerías)
The Cantiñas group, including:
The related palos Caña and Polo.
Soleá – Soleares and Bulerías por Soleá.

Palos derived from Fandango
Fandangos de Huelva
Fandangos orientales (from Eastern Andalusia and Murcia)
Fandangos abandolaos, including:
Fandangos libres (free of rhythmic pattern):
Media Granaína
Cantes de las minas (songs originated in mining areas): Minera, Tarantos, Tarantas, Cartageneras, Murciana, Levantica, Cantes de madrugá
Fandangos personales (personal creations)

Seguiriya Palos
Siguiriyas – (also seguiriyas)

Palos with a Tango rhythm
Tarantos (when played for dance).

Palos de “Ida y vuelta”
Other palos with a tango rhythm are often considered as “Ida y vuelta”, that is, originated in Spanish America.

Other palos of difficult classification

Flamenco artists

Flamenco occurs in two main types of setting. The first, the juerga, is an informal gathering where people are free to join in creating music. This can include dancing, singing, palmas (hand clapping), or simply pounding in rhythm on a table. Flamenco, in this context, is very dynamic: it adapts to the local talent, instrumentation, and mood of the audience. One tradition remains firmly in place: singers are the most important part.

The professional concert is more formal and organized. The traditional singing performance has only a singer and one guitar, while a dancing performance usually included two or three guitars, one or more singers (singing in turns, as in traditional flamenco, singers always sing solo), and one or more dancers. A guitar concert used to include a single guitarist, with no other support, though this is now extremely rare except for a very few guitarists. The so-called New Flamenco has included other instruments, like the now ubiquitous cajón. Flutes, saxophones, piano, and even the electric bass guitar are unfortunately also common.

A great number of flamenco artists are not capable of performing in both settings at the same level. There are still many artists, and some of them with great ability, who only perform in juergas, or at most in private parties with a small audience.

As to their training in the art, traditional flamenco artists never received any formal training: they learnt in the context of the family, by listening and watching their relations, friends and neighbors. Since the appearance of recordings, though, they have relied more and more on audiovisual materials to learn from other famous artists. Nowadays, dancers and guitarists (and sometimes even singers) take lessons in schools or in short courses organized by famous performers. Some flamenco guitarists can even read music and learn from teachers in others styles like classical guitar or jazz, and many dancers take courses in contemporary dance or Classical Spanish ballet.

Flamenco is a moving target, restless, never static for long, lovingly preserving the past, yet looking expectantly toward the future.
It will continue to evolve, and who knows where it will end.

Hopefully throughout its evolving process, it will still carry with it the echo of its origins, for if that becomes lost, then it will have evolved into something less than its humble but pure beginnings.


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