Flamenco is associated with Spanish culture and is particularly close to the hearts of those in Andalusia, where the art is thought to have originated. It is important to remember that the flamenco tradition is not only centred on dance (baile), but also involves strong instrumental (toque) and vocal (cante) elements.
The flamenco custom has its roots in the gypsy communities (comunidades gitanas) of Spain, though also demonstrates a huge variety of other influences, including Moorish, Jewish and, more recently, Cuban elements. It is generally agreed that the very earliest forms of the Spanish flamenco were developed around the time of the Reconquista in the 15th century, when a number of these different cultures came into contact and their ideas merged. The word flamenco however was first recorded in the 18th century and is most commonly thought to be from the Arabic fellahmengu, meaning "expelled peasant".
In terms of the music, Islamic influences are unmistakable and are thought to have resulted from the invasion of Spain in 711. Various types of string instruments from Islamic and Christian societies are said to have been mutually influential and resulted in the classical guitar, which formed the basis of the flamenco guitar that is used today.
What differentiates the flamenco guitar from its classical precursor is its construction. The type of wood and other materials used are carefully chosen in order to achieve a brighter and louder sound so that the flamenco music can be heard over the sound of the dancers’ nailed shoes. These guitars also often include a golpeador, which functions to protect the wood from rhythmic finger tapping.
Having said this, some people believe that early flamenco art did not involve any instruments at all, solely unaccompanied singing. It is thought that the guitar was introduced later, along with hand-clapping, rhythmic stomping and dance.
The Golden Age of Flamenco was between 1869-1910, when the art developed rapidly and performances became a public attraction. With this came fame for many flamenco dancers, guitar players and singers. What followed was, for some commentators, a change for the worse in the flamenco tradition. Previously, the art had been a dynamic, unorganised, spontaneous and intimate event, usually involving fewer than 20 people and strongly focused on adapting to the mood of the performers and audience alike. However, with its increasing popularity came a far more commercial approach to the flamenco shows and performances were staged at set times and locations and featured the top artists of the era.
Today, flamenco dance has lost some of its traditional improvisation and emphasis on self-teaching, with most artists being professionally trained, though there are still many people who enjoy holding spontaneous gatherings as their ancestors would have done. Having said this, the skill with which modern dancers perform flamenco is astounding – the aim is to execute high-speed and high-precision footwork, which involves a huge amount of technical and physical ability, particularly when props such as castanets, shawls and fans are introduced as well.
Most recently, a new style of flamenco has emerged, influenced by contemporary dance styles and fashions. While the roots of the dance remain the same, customary elements such as the elaborate costumes and props are lost in this modern re-interpretation.
Flamenco can be found all over Spain, but is arguably most vibrant in its native land, Andalusia. One of the most celebrated flamenco festivals is the Fiesta de la Bulería which has taken place every September in Jerez since 1967. This all-night event sees over 7,000 people gather together in the city’s bullring to experience the magical sights and sounds of the most renowned and talented flamenco artists in the country, not to mention sampling delicious local drinks and food under the stars. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been described as "the greatest flamenco experience you could ever hope for".