The History of Flamenco
About one thousand years ago Romany people of India began migrating to Europe and North Africa, bringing with them a rich heritage of dance and music. Most Romany did not integrate into societies the settled in to but instead, assimilated the local cultures and created and preserved these cultures for future generations. Such is the case of the Spanish Romany.
Then in 711 Muslim forces invaded and in seven years conquered the Iberian peninsula. It became one of the great Muslim civilisations; reaching its summit with the Umayyad caliphate of Cordovan the tenth cen
tury. Muslim rule declined after that and ended in 1492 when Granada was re-conquered by Ferdinand, II and Isabella, I in 1474. At that time, Spain was a country of diverse cultures, including Spanish, Moorish and Romany peoples, all living peacefully.
During their reign, Isabella and Ferdinand ordered the conversion or exile of all Jewish and Muslim subjects, as well as the “gypsies” (Romany) people. Punishment for failure to comply meant imprisonment and torture. This became known as “The Inquisition”.
Jews and Moors that stayed pretended to convert to Catholicism and became known as Marranos yet continued to practice Judaism or Islam in secret. They, along with the Gypsies, lived together in the caves of Sacromonte in Grenada and in other Andalucian cities, sharing their cultures intimately [Today, Gypsies still live and work in caves in Grenada and if you go there going to a show is a must]. In the caves and prisons, they shared their arts.
Flamenco started as a musical art. Prisoners sang to relieve their pain and longing for their families. After the inquisition, guitar was added and then dance. You can see the influence of each of the cultural arts in the dance and music that emerged from this event and era. The slapping, clapping and foot pounding comes from the Indian Roman; the wailing and arm work comes from the Arab influence and the complex footwork and costuming from the Spanish Jews.
In the early 1800’s flamenco began to appear in taverns as a form of entertainment for the general public. As it evolved it became more and more sophisticated and complex. A perfect example of how fusion gives birth to greater art.
Flamenco is my favorite dance and music style, and while I studied it as a dilettante I never aspired to become a pro – it is extremely difficult! I recall in the 1980’s at my (then) studio, a ballerina walked out of a flamenco class and declared: “It will take a lifetime to learn this and I can’t give that much time to another dance art”.