The Keepers of Flamenco

How a Roma tradition became one of Spain's most famous exports

Flamenco shoes of all colors lined the walls of the Gallardo store like rows of candy. Jeweled tones in shiny patent leather, rich browns and charcoals in suede and nubuck, animal prints in fur and cowhide, whites and creams against wooden heels. I had just landed in Seville, snaking my way from the Santa Justa train station through the narrow streets and Moorish architecture in a rental car. Windows down and local flamenco radio station locked in, excitement and anticipation propelled me on my first mission. My luggage had been lost during the flight from San Francisco, and along with it, my flamenco shoes. I had to make it to the store before closing time, as my dance training started early the next day in the city of Jerez de la Frontera.

The fit and quality of flamenco shoes are essential, as they are a dancer’s instrument for percussive footwork—footwork made audible by clusters of small nails pounded into the soles of the toe and heel. My desire was to better understand and dance bulerías, a driving and central rhythm and song form in flamenco. I decided on red snakeskin shoes as my tool of choice, but it would be dancing barefoot that brought me closest to this art form. I arrived in Spain with the hope to connect with some authentic source of flamenco and Gitano culture. What I left with was a much more expansive, nuanced and multicultural view of who and what constituted flamenco music and dance, and a lingering question: to whom does flamenco belong?

• • •

Rosalía, the rising Spanish pop star, brought a unique brand of nuevo-flamenco music and dance to the international popular music stage at the 2020 GRAMMY Awards. She donned a skin-tight white bodysuit with mesh-lined cutouts along her pelvis and backside and trimmed with sparkling fringes. Her angelic voice ached and cascaded over a traditional flamenco tangos accompaniment composed of guitar strumming and palmas (hand clapping). Her long, bedazzled silver nails rose like daggers to meet the crescendos of her voice, enshrining the microphone.

Then, she danced in white platform sneakers. Over the fast, driving intensity of a flamenco siguiriyas rhythm, she stomped, kicked, and clapped, using her body as a percussion instrument. Her fringes took flight as she struck cobra-like poses with her arms angled above her head. The final act of this medley was a performance of “Malamente,” a hit from her 2018 sophomore release El Mal Querer. Upon its release, the album was celebrated for its feminist narrative, inspired by Flamenca, the anonymous thirteenth-century Occitan novel about a jealous husband who imprisons his wife in a tower. Surrounded mainly by Black and brown male dancers clad in red jumpers that resembled mechanics’ suits, her flamenco movements turned more toward the undulating hip grinds and pop-and-lock movements of hip-hop. The performance was dazzling and confusing, and it reminded me of the Gypsy Rappers, a group of MCs who rap over flamenco rhythms. My fellow flamenco dancers and I debated passionately over this mixture of styles. Was this flamenco or a performed reimagining of flamenco? And what is she telling the world about flamenco?

Rosalía is not the first artist to mix flamenco with other forms of music on a global stage. Singers Concha Buika and El Cigala come to mind for their incorporation of jazz, soul and Cuban rumba. Nor is she the first payo (non-Gitano) to achieve international recognition, as guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucía made some of the most popular and influential recordings in flamenco history in the 1970s with famed Gitano singer Camarón de la Isla. But Rosalía’s fusion of flamenco and various pop music forms such as hip-hop, R&B, reggaeton and electronic music has evoked unprecedented controversy. As a young non-Gitana Spanish woman in her 20s from a town just north of Barcelona—a city far removed geographically and culturally from the Andalusia region which gave rise to flamenco— critiques of cultural appropriation have clouded her skyrocketing journey to fame.

While the origins of flamenco are somewhat mysterious—or “lost in the night of time,” as Marta Carrasco Benítez has written—it is unequivocally associated with the Roma people, who entered Spain at the beginning of the fifteenth century and have been the targets of ongoing marginalization and discrimination. As a form of cultural resistance and resiliency, flamenco developed from these small Roma communities (specifically referred to as Gitanos), who blended the multiple musical legacies inherited by the Andalusians of Southern Spain: Jewish and Christian chants, Muslim songs, North and West African rhythms and ancient Hindu musical systems, among others. The most common jaleo, or shout of encouragement, in flamenco is “Olé,” which derives from the Arabic “Allah.”

Despite flamenco’s place as a national symbol, Gitano history and experience remains out of sight.

Even before the Roma arrived in Spain, they had already integrated elements of the different musical cultures they encountered along their nomadic routes from India, through the Middle East and Africa and finally into Europe. Flamenco is born of mixture and movement—a creative remaking of music, dance and song that is more oriented toward the Mediterranean and North Africa than Europe. And ironically, it is this mixture, composed of many cultures beyond Spain’s national borders, that has come to represent the epitome of Spanishness. Indeed, in every tourist shop I passed throughout my travels in Spain, the holy trinity of soccer, bullfighting and flamenco is celebrated in commodity form through trinkets and souvenirs. Despite flamenco’s place as a national symbol, Gitano history and experience remains out of sight.

Rosalía’s use of Gitano language, music, dance and imagery as a non-Gitana, Catalonian woman, despite her decade- long study of cante (singing) with flamenco virtuoso José Miguel “El Chiqui” Vizcaya, echoes this continued silencing of the Gitano experience. The Association of Feminist Gitanas for Diversity (AGFD) has critiqued Rosalía for her simultaneous profiting off of flamenco and refusal to credit Gitanos for their “fundamental contribution” to flamenco. It is not that flamenco is Gitanos’ alone—many non-Gitanos participate in flamenco and have shaped it into what it is today—but Gitano families and communities have been the primary culture bearers for hundreds of years amidst thorough structural and socially embedded violence, so to not give them credit or equitable financial access is to ignore their stake in flamenco.

While many traditional flamenco artists and aficionados of flamenco puro condemn Rosalía’s music as meaningless bubblegum pop, she brings a cultural power and the symbology of flamenco to global audiences in new and dynamic ways. The flamenco influence in Rosalía’s work is potent precisely because of the self-ownership, power and eroticism she projects— weapons of survival born of struggle and inherent to flamenco. Audre Lorde spoke of the erotic as “an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered.” But the erotic becomes easily exotified when decoupled from political realities and spiritual meaning.

Flamenco and its artists—especially Gitana women—are often exotified even among flamenco fans. Roma women have long been exotified in Western literature, painting and performance— their bodies hypervisible, othered and stereotyped as dark, sensuous and unruly, and yet their experiences, life stories and lifestyles are rendered invisible. We do not see the women right before our eyes.

When my fellow dancer friends and I plotted our study plan and travel to Spain, we knew we needed to seek out not just Gitana women, but the elder madres (mothers) of flamenco as our teachers. Our first week of private study would be with Manuela Moneo Carpio, one of the great Gitana dancers descended from the renowned Moneo family. With my red shoes, I headed south for Jerez de la Frontera.

• • •

Jerez is one point of a golden triangle of flamenco between Triana (a previously expulsed Gitano neighborhood of Seville) and Cádiz, and it is home to many famous flamenco artists such as La Paquera de Jerez, Lola Flores and José Mercé. A city known for its horse fairs, sherry wine and dynasty of flamenco families, it is often considered an underdog in comparison to the larger Andalusian capital of Seville. Located on the border between the Moorish and Christian territories of Spain during the thirteenth century, Jerez’s name came by way of the Arabic sherish, and the city’s fútbol (soccer) club continues to use the old spelling of Xerez.

Walking through the winding streets of Jerez, you will hear people playing palmas (clapping) or singing flamenco. It is so common, so of the people, that you see why this is the home culture of flamenco. Groups of friends erupt into spontaneous song over lunch in a plaza. Street musicians play flamenco rhythms on cajóns—the booming box drums from Peru that have become a staple of flamenco percussion. You might even hear the sounds of flamenco a mile away, echoing through the alleyways, luring you toward it.

Pink and white polka dots lined the walls, reminding us of our grandmothers, who had sewn endless ruffles and curtains and also had first introduced us to flamenco.

While Manuela Carpio is one of the foremost female tradition bearers in flamenco, her humble studio is not located in the city center. As we crossed into the low-income barrio of San Telmo, the streets became more uneven and we were greeted by a black-and-white graffiti mural of Tupac holding up a “West Side” sign. Our word-of-mouth directions led us in ever-diminishing circles, until we finally stopped to ask two old men sitting on the steps of a tiendita (small shop). They assured us that we would find the unmarked studio by the El Semaforo bar at a three-way intersection. After several more inquiries with the locals, we finally arrived.

Lined with framed black-and-white photographs of flamenco artists and performances of Manuela throughout her career, the dance studio felt regal yet also girlish with its homemade dollhouse-like curtains, ruffles and tablecloths. Pink and white polka dots lined the walls, reminding us of our grandmothers, who had sewn endless ruffles and curtains and also had first introduced us to flamenco.

The polka dots often seen on flamenco dresses carry the nomadic legacy of the Roma people dating back to eleventh century Rajasthan, when they sewed small circular mirrors onto their dresses to ward off bad spirits. These small moons, or lunares in Spanish, later became polka dots, also representing the importance of the moon as a cosmological guide and compass during long, dark nights of travel.

It was a typical sweltering July in Andalucia, and we sweated it out in that home of flamenco puro accompanied by Manuela’s nephew, Juanillorro, on guitar. (He has since passed.) As a teacher, Manuela was generous and honest. While only standing at 4’5”, her reputation as a powerhouse dancer cast a long shadow. She gained another foot with her flamenco heels and coiffed pompadour. In the studio, she dressed in simple shorts and a T-shirt or shift dress, feet encased in the classic “Carmen”-style flamenco shoes laced with a ribbon. She was always casual yet gutsy, and unassumingly herself—a living example of defiance to the unequal gender dynamics that endure within and outside of Roma communities.

Masterfully gifted from a young age, Manuela does everything in flamenco except play the guitar. One journalist noted that she is “a fiesta unto herself,” providing her own backing track of jaleo—“Aha ha! ‘He ha ha!” As a dancer, she is the James Brown of flamenco, combining rhythmic prowess, technical mastery and contagious funk. Her swagger is supernatural. And like the Godfather of Soul, her performance is not just about showmanship; it’s about survival. And survival is not just about escaping death, but also keeping tradition alive. Her student and relative, Gema Moneo, carries the Moneo legacy forward with graceful intensity and impeccable technique. The geography of tradition is inscribed on these womens’ bodies.

• • •

After several days of study with Manuela, she invited us— “las mujeres de California,” as she used to say—to attend and perform at her annual student show at the historic Peña Flamenca La Bulería. Peñas are community spaces that present intimate flamenco shows and house family gatherings. They are similar to nonprofits, and they receive government assistance. Peña Flamenca La Bulería first opened in 1977, named after the bulerías—the cheeky, playful, communal song of flamenco organized around a lively 12-count rhythmic cycle, and for which Jerez is known.

The 500-capacity venue was packed with people of all ages, from toddlers to elders. Manuela’s family surrounded her on stage—a formidable group of guitarristas (guitarists), cantaores (singers) and palmeros (those providing the clapping accompaniment)—but she was la reina. She sang for most of the show, guiding her students’ movements with her cante, watching them closely so as to better support them in their expression.

The younger girl dancers performed first. Barefoot, with 4-inch yellow flowers blooming atop their heads, they sat in a semicircle and took turns entering the circle of dance. No strict choreographies—just each girl dancing in her own way, instinctually drawing from the reservoir of moves Manuela entrusted to them. The geography of tradition took shape in their small bodies.

At the end of most shows is a fiesta por bulerías or fin de fiesta—a raucous communal dance ritual in which performers and audience members alike take turns dancing in the circle. These dances are short, spontaneous reactions to the music. Personal expression is valued over beauty and technical skill. Several dozen bodies crowded onto the stage to play palmas and give jaleo—“Olé! Arzaaa! Allah!”—for each dancer. The room was alive, bristling with unbridled joy and serious play.

Several foreigners danced before Manuela summoned a young girl in denim cutoff shorts and a white T-shirt: “La bailaora!” With a focused gaze sharpened by her dark hair pulled back in a low, tight bun, the girl carved circles with her hands. Her fingers resembled sprouting tendrils. In a final gesture both sweet and sassy, she blew a kiss at the musicians before stomping her way off the stage.

An elderly woman in a long fuschia dress, glasses and black flats entered the circle next. She grabbed the air with a defiant fist to punctuate accents in the music as her other hand pulled at the back of her skirt. Then she ceased all movement and was completely still, embodying the words of the great dancer Carmen Ledesma: “El arte es en la paciencia,” or “the art is in patience.” The room held its breath until she cut through the stillness with a fury of clapping as if to get the attention of an unruly child. The most seasoned dancers are acutely aware of silence and of maintaining space between explosive flourishes.

The woman continued, pointing at the musicians with the power of an elder’s hand—a recognition of the artfulness of their playing and also a taunt to match her gravitas. To make her exit, she pulled out a young, handsome man—perhaps her son or nephew—to dance her back to the edge of the circle. But in typical flamenco fashion, she unexpectedly ceased her movements half-way across the stage and instead casually walked the rest of the way back to her seat, where she began fanning herself.

Manuela was the last to dance. A trickster-like smile spread across her face as she strutted around the circle, emboldened by her ancestors and energized by the extended flamenco family of locals and foreigners she had congregated on this night. She motioned to an old bearded man dressed in a black suit and tie to join her on stage. They faced each other, mimicking each other’s footwork and arm flourishes. As they made their final exit, he swung his hand at her backside in a repeated flamenco accenting move to a chorus of “Ole!” and we saw proof of what we knew. Flamenco is the wrestling with and resolution of opposites—of sacred and profane, of light and dark, of nastiness and beauty, of death and rebirth. Rosalía would later showcase and commercialize these elements in her music and dance.

Later that night, we returned to our rented flat with a group of flamenco revelers to continue the fiesta. The door kept opening, and soon, our small courtyard was filled with a mixture of people as diverse as the roots and routes of flamenco: a couple of Manuela’s Gitana students, an Iranian female guitarist, an Italian man making a documentary on flamenco, a New Orleans-based Americana singer-songwriter, the son of a US military family stationed in Spain and raised on flamenco song and local dancers from Jerez.

We all sat in a circle, sharing sherry and songs, the sounds of cante and guitarra, palmas and jaleo echoing across the terracotta tiles. And we danced. No shoes, but barefoot and ensouled. In that moment, flamenco belonged to all of us. We were now colorful threads, amongst so many others, woven into the giant tapestry of this tradition and bound to its care. As the sun rose and we collapsed into our beds, the undulating groove of bulerías pulsed through our bodies, and we too were lost in the night of time.


Christina Zanfagna with Anya de Marie

Christina Zanfagna is an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Santa Clara University and author of the book, Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels. She is also a flamenco dancer, performing regularly with the East Bay collective Oakland Flamenco Sessions.
Anya de Marie is a dancer, educator and strategic advisor to organizations driving impactful social change. She co-founded the Commonality Institute to reach across cultural and gendered differences, and is the director of Oakland Flamenco Sessions.

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