Vol 2 No 4 Spring/Summer 2006

Dances of the “Roma” Gypsy Trail From Rajastan to Spain:

by Miriam Peretz

“Flamenco is the means through which man reaches God without the intervention of saints or angels.” Luis Antonio de Vega

Flamenco is the most wide spread dance form that gives credit to the Gypsies in its development. Flamenco was not created by the Gypsies alone, but rather developed out of a fusion of the Moorish, Andalusian, Spanish Folk styles with those that the Gypsies had brought from their homelands. The art of Flamenco has undergone a great amount of development from the fifteenth century to the present. Even with the Western music and dance influences over the years, Flamenco has not lost its core Gitano “Gypsy” foundation.

The word 'Flamenco', which applies to the song, dance, and guitar, was not used until the nineteenth century, and there are various theories about the origin of the term. One theory is that Flamenco is a derivative of “flamma” meaning flame-which describes the fiery expression of the Gypsies music and dancing. Another theory suggests that Flamenco also meaning “flamingo,” was used to describe the flamingo-like posture of the dancer’s body. Of the many theories, one that seems most popular among sources is that Flamenco derived from the two Arabic words, felag and mengu which together mean fugitive peasant.

Gitanos (derived from egiptanos,) was the term for the Gypsies that entered Andalusia from Egypt. Gitanos was used loosely for fellow travelers that included beggars, escaped criminals, runaway slaves, Jews, and Moriscos (converted Moors) who chose to disappear by being absorbed by the Gypsy communities. What all of these groups had in common, was the experience of persecution. The theme of persecution is very common in the cante (singing) of the Gitanos. One of the most common types of cante in early Flamenco music is “cante grande” or “cante jondo” both meaning deep song.

Flamenco music, and in particular the cante, was definitely influenced by the Sephardi Jewish prayers, Andalusian folk songs and Moorish Arabic music since they were all living side by side. Ziryab, one of the greatest teachers and musicians of all times arrived in Andalusia in 821 A.D. from the court of Bagdad. He established the first conservatory in Cordoba, leaving his mark in Andalusian history. Under his influence, the traditions of Medina and the Classical music school of Musili in Baghdad took root and flourished in Spain. The music brought to Spain by Ziryab was that which was inherited from the ancient Middle Eastern civilizations. In Moorish Spain, the music was modified by Greek music to form the beautifully haunting Arab-Andalusian melodies. According to travelers from numerous lands, Muslim Spain in the 11th century was filled with poets, musicians, and dancers. The nine-hundred years the Arabs spent in Spain left its mark in the music, song, and dances of modern Spain. Enrique Sordo writes in his book Moorish Spain, “the ole of the cante jondo is still the wa-Allah (“oh god”) with which the Arabs cheered every poetic recitation.”

Cante jondo describes the pain, suffering, and persecution of the Gitanos. The other two types of cante are cante intermedio and cante chico. Corresponding to these styles are baile intermedio and baile chico. Chico, is characterized by exuberant, humorous, and fast movements that express a mood of unrestrained joy. It is the lightest and “happiest” of the three categories of song and dance. Some examples of baile chico are: sevillanas (danced in partners,) Bulerias, Tangos, fandangos de Huelva, and verdiales. Intermedio- being in between grande and chico; baile grande and intermedio are danced with an emphasis on the upper body, arms, and hands. The hips move gracefully (without exaggeration,) and there is a more serious mood and expression. Castanets would rarely be used in baile grande as they would only be a distraction from the graceful hand movements and serious tone. In fact, castanets were not a part of Flamenco in its early days of evolution, even though they had been used throughout the Mediterranean from early Christian times. Castanets are often played for baile chico, and are not considered appropriate for all Flamenco rhythms. Examples of baile grande are solea, sigiriya, and martinete.

Some of the earliest Flamenco songs were the tona, cana, and polo. The tona developed into the martinete and carcelera. Examples of cante grande include martinete, carcelera, sigiriya, and solea. The martinete derives from the word martillo (hammer) and originated by the black-smiths singing about suffering and persecution. Carcelera is derived from carcel (prison) and is sung about imprisonment. Sigiriya, regarded as the most “emotional” Flamenco song, is often about the cry of someone afflicted by destiny- love, betrayal, misfortune, and death. Tomas el Nitri (of Gypsy origin,) was well known for his singing of sigiriyas. During the first half of the 19th century the most important centers for Flamenco song were Triana (Sevilla,) Cadiz, Jerez, and Sanlucar. In Jerez, the barrio of Santiago hosted many great Flamenco singers. In the second half of the 19th century Flamenco began moving out of its traditional home (taverns) in the Gypsy communities and into café’s cantantes (cafes for Flamenco performance.) Manolo Caracol was one of greatest Flamenco singers; at the age of twelve, he won a prize at the 1922 festival of cante jondo in Granada. Camaron de la Isla, one of the most popular singers of today, grew up surrounded by the Flamenco tradition and achieved pop star fame internationally. Some of the female singers that reached great fame are La Perla de Cadiz, Carmen Linares, and Fernanda de Utrera.

During the 1950’s, Flamenco tabloas began to take the place of the early café cantantes, with the purpose of making genuine Flamenco performances available to the public. In addition to the tabloas Flamenco festivals began to occur on a regular basis. In Spain today there are tons of tabloas everywhere in the country where one can see a Flamenco performance, some better than others. There are also many yearly festivals throughout Spain, which have continued over the years. Flamenco has not only become extremely popular in Spain, but has also become a highly respected, loved, and pursued art form internationally.

Early Flamenco cante was accompanied by palmas alone without any instrumentation. Only later did the guitar develop. The Flamenco guitar developed from the kithara asiria from Egypt and the guitarra morisca (known as the oud in Middle-Eastern music.) As was the case with the dance, the first truly professional and accomplished guitarists began to appear during the period of the cafes cantantes. One of the first true guitar virtuosos was Francisco Diaz, or Paco Lucena. Sabicas, or Agustin Castellon, was another. Ramon Montoya was considered a great pioneer in bringing Flamenco guitar into its modern period and style. Enrique Morente, (from Granada) is another very famous guitarist, raised surrounded by Flamenco. Paco de Lucia is one of the most well known Flamenco guitarists of today. Early in his career, he made several great recording with the singer Camaron de la Isla, and later he became more experimental, fusing elements of Jazz and other styles.

Some records show that Hindu dancers entered Spain through Cadiz as early as 500 BC performing for royalty at festivals. These dances became part of the ceremonies in Roman temples and then later incorporated into the practices of the Christian church. Later with Moorish conquer the dances were performed in public, in a secular manner by the Moors themselves. The dance emphasized the upper body of the female; the torso, arms, and hand movements. There was much less emphasis on the legs and lower part of the body (because of Islamic influence.)

The first recorded reference to the Gypsies in Spain dates back to 1447. With their arrival, Gypsy dance fused with the Moorish dance to form the early roots of Flamenco. Flamenco has since undergone drastic changes since its early development and continues to transform with different trends influenced by other dance forms. Flamenco is a passionate and extremely powerful dance form requiring both great amounts of training and physical strength as well as personal expression and depth of emotion.

The training of a Flamenco dancer is rigorous and takes many years, or truly a lifetime for those who choose it as a profession. Unlike many Western dance forms, Flamenco dancers commonly reach their artistic peaks in their later adulthood. This is because personal expression and emotionally maturity are at the heart of the dance form. They are equally if not more valuable than the technique. For this reason Flamenco can be danced anywhere no matter how small the stage. Flamenco dancers are not only required to have technical skill which includes brazeo (hand/arm movements,) and zapateado or taconeo (footwork,) but they are also required to develop a keen sense of compass (rhythm,) and an emotional understanding of the music. Flamenco rhythms are often complex and have unexpected accents and syncopation with the palmas (hand clapping,) and cahon (box like percussion.) The majority of the rhythms are in 4/4, 6/8 or in twelve-count time signature with varying placement of the accents. A dancer needs to understand each of the rhythms to be able to dance accordingly as well as play palmas. Palmas is a crucial instrument in Flamenco music, and is necessary for the dancer. In Flamenco, the dancers become an integral part of the music through their ability to play palmas, and do percussive footwork. A well-trained dancer knows exactly when and how to enhance the music through her footwork and other percussive body movements. Each palo (rhythmic structure) in Flamenco corresponds with a very particular style of singing that sets the mood and tone for the dance. For example Solea, derived from the word soledad (solitude,) has very tragic and sad lyrics that the dancer will reflect in her mood and facial expression. Allegrias, derived from the Spanish word happiness has a much more bright and cheery mood.

Carmen Amaya, a gitana pura is regarded as the greatest Flamenco dancer of all times. Born in 1913 in the Gypsy area of Somorrostro (on the edge of Barcelona,) she began her career at the age of four. She changed Flamenco dance for women drastically by introducing fancy footwork, which was previously a characteristic part of the male dance. Carmen Amaya also preserved elements of the traditional style of the female dancer, and had a unique way of combining masculine and feminine elements in her dancing. Since Carmen Amaya’s time, female dancers are almost parallel with male dancers in their footwork abilities. Sadly, she died in 1963, at the age of fifty. In a description of Carmen Amaya Walter Terry wrote, “……..a Gypsy woman whose heel-beats sounded like the rattle of machine guns,…..whose swiftness of action sent combs and roses flying through space and brought a stunning blur to the onlooker’s eye.”

Around Carmen Amaya’s time, two other very famous dancers were La Argentinita and her sister Pilar Lopez. During the last fifty years, there have been many great Flamenco dancers, Christina Hoyos, Manuela Vargas, Merche Esmeralda, Manuela Carrasco, Carmen Cortes, Joaquin Cortes, Manolo Marin, and many, many more.

The zambra mora (Moorish dance) is a Flamenco rhythm and dance form that has a very Arabic feeling. Although the zambra is hardly danced anymore, it is a commonly used theme in the Middle-Eastern dance world as dancers strive to incorporate elements of Flamenco in their repertoire. Zambra is 4/4 rhythm, that uses hip movements similar to in Middle-Eastern dance. Some very early dancers, were known to dance the zambra barefoot and accompany the dance playing sagat, or finger cymbals. The most famous barefoot dancer was La Chunga, or Micaela Flores Amaya. She danced in the early 1950’s and represented a very traditional gitana dressed in simple street clothing, dancing barefoot and holding a simplistic, serious expression. She later became more popular and gave up dancing barefoot for a more glamorous stage look. La Mareqia is another gitana well- known for dancing the zambra. In the documentary film, “The Romani Trail- Part I”, there is a short clip of her dancing in a family fiesta in Granada where she lives and teaches. She is not barefoot, although her dance is very Middle-Eastern in feel with strong hip movements, hair throwing, and a Turkish drop as a finale.

One interesting superstition or belief throughout the various Gypsy cultures, is that each individual is controlled by certain spirits in their daily lives. A Gypsy artist must wait, hope, and pray for his personal duende to enter into him, filling him with great inspiration necessary to achieve true artistry. Duende is an ecstatic, magical energy that enables an artist to produce an exceptional performance. When an artist reaches the place of duende, both the dancers, musicians and audience members can feel it. It is difficult to explain duende in words, to someone who has never experienced it either personally or as an audience member, but anyone who has had this experience will never forget it and always try to return to it.

The most famous Spanish poet, Garcia Lorca reflects on his experience of duende. “duende is the power which climbs up inside the performer from the soles of the feet, the spirit of the earth scorches the artist and produces an inspired performance….Deep song………..is truly deep, deeper than all of the wells and oceans of the world, it comes from the first sob and the first kiss.” Lorca believed that cante grande is capable of expressing the deepest, and most universal emotions, “the most infinite gradations of sorrow and pain, placed at the service of the most pure and exact expression.” Lorca saw the Gypsies as the perfect embodiment of Andalusia. He published a volume of poetry called “Gypsy Ballads” in 1928 that centered on Andalusia and Gypsy life.

Over the course of the past four years, I have immersed myself in the Flamenco world in the Bay Area, Israel, and Spain. During my first trip to Spain, I spent a few weeks taking intensive workshops in Sevilla with master teachers. On my second trip in 2003, I spent time in Madrid and Cadiz (Sanlucar) where I took workshops with Carmen Cortes. The most significant part of this trip was the nightly fiestas that she and her husband arranged. At these fiestas students as well as locals showed up to participate. I saw some of the best dancing I have ever seen in those bars. There was one gitana, an exceptionally beautiful dancer from Granada. She danced barefoot several times reminding me of the zambra style that I love. During this trip, I also spent hours in the Jerez library of Flamenco, viewing endless videos dating back to footage of Carmen Amaya in the 1940’s. I was particularly interested in finding old footage of the zambra and “old-fashioned” barefoot flamenco. It was difficult to find and the librarian only laughed at me. The only footage that I did find was of La Chunga, dancing her barefoot zambra.

In Israel, I studied with Michaela Harrari and Sharon Saguy who spent fifteen years studying and performing Flamenco in Spain. Despite the fact that I was still very much a beginner, I was performing with “Pasos” Flamenco Troup under the direction of Michaela Harrari. We performed for many private events, cultural festivals, as well as in some theatres. More recently, since moving back to the Bay Area I have been training with Yaelisa, an award winning master teacher and dancer, regarded as one of the top Flamenco dancers in the Bay Area and beyond. Her classes put you in the setting of a class in Spain, having singers and guitarist accompany the classes. She teaches us the ultimate significance of dancing in relationship to the music as well as the art of improvising which is at the heart of Flamenco. Yaelisa constantly reminded me that I am beginner and have a long way to go in the Flamenco world, although she constantly challenged me to move forward and perform.

Of the many Flamenco palos, my two favorite that I have choreographed pieces for are Sigirillas and Tangos. They are both at opposite ends of the spectrum, with Sigirillas being one of the saddest and Tangos one of the more lively and light. Tangos is in a 4/4 rhythm and has a very Arabic feel to it, similar to the zambra. In Tangos, I am able to bring in much of my Middle-Eastern body language. I have experimented with the fusing of Flamenco dance with Middle-Eastern dance using various music sources that have both instrumentations. Another source of inspiration in my choreography as a dancer has been through using Flamenco dance props such as the abanico (fan,) and the manton (shawl.) Sigirillas, my other favorite palo (singular for palos,) expresses a deep sorrow that hits a very deep place in my soul. I have performed my choreography for Sigirillas on several occasions, and each time I am moved to the place of tears. Garcia Lorca observed Siguirillas “the most emotional song of cante grande, the cry of dead generations, a painful elegy to lost centuries, the moving evocation of love under other moons and other winds.”


  1. Encounters with Dance Immortals: La Argentinita and Carmen Amaya by La Meri, Arabesque Magazine Series:
  2. Arab Influences in Spanish Music, Song, and Dance, Arabesque by Habeeb Salloum, Magazine Series: A Magazine of International Dance, Volume XI, 1985
  3. Flamenco by Gwynne Edwards Co. 2000
  4. Latcho Drom, a film produced by Tony Gatlif
  5. Romani Trail, Part I & II a film produced by Jeremy Marre Co., 1992
  6. Interview of Michaela Harrari (Director of Pasos Flamenco Company)

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