Traditional vs. Theatrical Flamenco Dance

Tradition is defined by the dictionary as the handing down of knowledge, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.

Theatrical is an adjective that refers to the theater, to the stage. While traditional Flamenco dances can be presented on the stage, and -although- many times theatrical Flamenco dances have been referred to as “traditional,” the reality is that they are both quite different.

Flamenco dance has been, and still is to this day, an oral tradition used by the people of Spain (both Kalé (Gitano) and non-Kalé) to express and share important moments in life.

In this context, Flamenco dance fulfills the function of a social dance. Some of the dances that come from the oral tradition are: Bulerías and Tangos typically danced at Kalé (Gitano) gatherings.

Then, we have the Sevillanas and Rumbas, danced by everybody at major celebrations called “Ferias” throughout Andalusia and other regions of Spain.

There are also a few local styles of dancing like the Verdiales (Malaga), or the Fandangos (Huelva, Granada).

On the other hand, theatrical Flamenco dances tend to be long interpretative renditions of Flamenco singing (Cante), such as Siguiriyas, Martinetes, Tarantos.

These are styles of dancing originated by specific artists and then perpetuated by other professional dancers. These are personal creations, products of the studio and the stage.

The way Flamenco dance is interpreted at celebrations and the way it is often interpreted on the stage can be quite different.

Traditional Flamenco dances tend to be very brief, effortless and playful. There is very little or no footwork in them. Traditional Flamenco dances are learned instinctually, by imitation or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.

This way of dancing Flamenco is absolutely contrasting with what we see these days on most stages, where Flamenco dance is displayed as a highly technical dance style requiring years of study.

The emphasis for both male and female performers on theatrical Flamenco dance these days is on lightning-fast footwork performed with absolute precision.

It is interesting to observe how many of these theatrical dances were called “nuevo” (new) when they first emerged, only to be called “traditional” as soon as something newer came out.

Specially, nowadays, a big deal is being made about the “Nuevo” Flamenco, as if the wheel just got invented!

However, the concept of “Nuevo” in the field of theatrical Flamenco dancing is really nothing “nuevo” under the sun. Quite the opposite, Flamenco, as a performing art, has been historically fueled by the innovative spirit of its performers.

As we shall see, what was considered “new” and ground-breaking in its day, later was to be labeled as “traditional” even though they are theatrical dances, not traditional ones.

The formal development of Flamenco as a performing art is considered to have started during the so-called Golden Age of Flamenco, approximately between 1869–1910.

Flamenco as a performing art developed at the time in the Cafés Cantantes, a sort of Music Hall or Vaudeville establishments. This was a time of tremendous creativity, both in the form of new dances as well as new songs.

Back then, it was a new, ground-breaking and utterly innovative thing to dance with props used in daily life, such as the Manton de Manila (shawl), the fan, and the sombrero Cordobés (hat).

Dancing with a train dress (bata de cola) also was taken to the state of the art during this time. All this “nuevo” Flamenco is considered now completely “traditional.”

This golden period is characterized by the clear difference between the male and female styles. In Flamenco’s original form, males did the footwork (never nearly as much or as fast as it is seen today), while women would dance in a feminine fashion, moving their hips, torsos and hands in a sensual, elegant way, but no footwork.

Around this time, another huge innovation came about from the visit of Sergei Diaghilev to Spain. The famous impresario of the Ballet Russes fell in love with Spanish dance and music.

He commissioned composer Manuel de Falla the development of a ballet called El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) to be performed by his Ballet Russes. Sets and costumes were done by Pablo Picasso, the choreography by Léonide Massine.

Diaghilev brought with them on tour a Gitano dancer - Felix el Loco, who was considered a genius of the instinctual oral tradition style- to teach directly to Massine how to dance Flamenco.

The Three-Cornered Hat premiered in London in 1919. Inspired by  traditional Flamenco dance and traditional folk forms of Flamenco music a new classic style was created. This style, which was totally “nuevo” then, is considered classical now.

In the late 20s the dance style of Carmen Amaya was to change Flamenco forever. She was a Gitana dancer who did not dance like women did. She danced like a man. Actually, her footwork was the strongest and fastest anybody had ever seen.

Carmen was not only the creator a whole style of dancing using fast, intricate footwork, she was also the creator of new dance: el Taranto, which premiered in New York City, at Carnegie Hall in 1941.

Carmen revolutionized Flamenco dance. She broke many of the rules of the female dance, which traditionally had concentrated on the arms, hips, and upper torso, gracefully embellished with serene or lively sensual moves.

After Carmen, Flamenco dance became a footwork-based dance. Even though this fast, heavy, footwork dance style was really ground-breaking, "nuevo," and totally contrary to tradition, it is -paradoxically- considered “traditional” today.

Around the same time (30s-50s) another brand of Flamenco was developing. It was schooled and codified. Antonio el Bailarin, creator of the theatrical dance style Martinete, along with Pilar López were perhaps the most outstanding performers of a “classical” theatrical style.

They took oral tradition dances and stylize them. They took concepts of ballet and applied them to Flamenco. So, Flamenco dancing became increasingly more and more a hybrid, a fusion between Gitano and classical, male and female, instinctual and codified.

That is why, perhaps the concept of Flamenco “puro” emerged, in the hopes of some Gitano performers to establishing a claim and an identity for the purely Gitano style.

Yet, they themselves started performing dances like the Siguiriyas and the Martinetes, which are non-Gitano. They are theatrical, interpretative dances of traditional Gitano songs. But, they are not traditional. They are neither Gitano nor Flamenco dances in their own right.

These theatrical dances are magnificent and awesome. These intricate theatrical dances are probably what have made of Flamenco a great art. But they are not traditional.

Even though there is nothing “puro” about these theatrical dances, you can still find articles written using the adjectives “puro”  and traditional to describe dances like Siguiriyas and Martinetes. 

During the 60s and the 70s another form of “new” Flamenco emerged. This time in the form of Dance-Theater. Antonio Gades, Mario Maya and Salvador Távora led this new concept and expression of Flamenco as a dance form, bringing it to the best theater across the globe.

In the 90s innovation came from a Gitano performer: Joaquin Cortés. This time, however, his dancing was neither instinctual, nor rooted in the oral tradition.

Unlike most Gitanos, Cortés had studied ballet in Madrid. He also seemed to be very aware and able to implement important marketing tactics.

Cortés has been hailed as a dancer for his virtuoso heel-work, nothing really new to Flamenco. Yet, what has brought him notoriety has been things like performing half-naked showing his well defined torso, dating Noemi Campbell, having his costumes designed by Giorgio Armani, adding feminine touches to his dance such as moving his hands in very feminine ways (floreos) and performing wearing a skirt.

The artistic licenses he took on the stage -and his broad success doing so- opened the way for many young performers to follow a path of pushing boundaries.

There are critics who think that these tendencies (some call it obsessions) towards radical innovation are not benefiting Flamenco, because Flamenco vocabulary and identity as a dance form are becoming diluted and confused.

Many people in Spain think that what is happening today is dangerous because some young performers, in their thirst to stand out, see no limits in doing something that is radically different from whatever has been done before.

The concern revolves around the question: Can a dance that is 75% something else and 25% Flamenco, be called Flamenco?

A representative of this tendency is Israel Galván. Those who criticize these “new” tendencies, think that these young performers should sell their dance to the world as their own personal expression of themselves, instead to sell it as Flamenco and thereby confuse international audiences as to what Flamenco dance really is.

Controversy is nothing “nuevo” to Flamenco either. Controversy has followed every little bit of innovation brought about by each generation of Flamenco performers.

While some traditional Flamenco dances are almost in danger of extinction as older generations are dying and culture and life-styles are changing rapidly, theatrical Flamenco dances are on a fast trend of  innovation to a point when some people don’t recognize them as Flamenco anymore.

Time will tell what’s coming up next.

      Alvarez Caballero, Angel. El baile flamenco. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1998.
      Navarro García, José Luis. De Telethusa a La Macarrona : bailes andaluces y flamencos. Dos Hermanas (Sevilla): Portada, 2002.
      Navarro García, José Luis. El ballet flamenco. Dos Hermanas (Sevilla): Portada, 2003.
      Navarro García, José Luis. Tradición y vanguardia: el baile de hoy, el baile de mañana. Colección Cumbre flamenca, no. 6. Murcia: Nausícaä, 2006.

About the author
Native Spaniard Puela Lunaris, who holds a B.A. in Dance Education and Spanish Culture from the State University of New York, is a professional dancer, workshop leader, lecturer, filmmaker, writer, and producer using many mediums of expression to integrate the primordial aspects of dance with the cutting-edge aspects of technology.

As founder of Dances of the World Society, Puela has developed The Chanelar Flamenco Project, a program focused on saving aspects of Flamenco in danger of extinction, such as Zambra Mora and Feminine Flamenco. She leads empowering dance teacher trainings at her online school to pass down these traditions.

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