¡Olé! Five things you didn’t know about Spain’s flamenco art form

November 16th marks World Flamenco Day, so to commemorate the occasion here are five fascinating facts about Spain’s most famous and fiery music and dance genre. 

Flamenco superstar Sara Baras performs in New York.
Flamenco superstar Sara Baras performs in New York. A seductive Spanish art form in the popular imagination, flamenco is now known around the world. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

Where flamenco got its name from is unclear 

Did you know that the Spanish word to refer to the Flemish language spoken in Belgium is also flamenco? Some have linked the dance’s name to Spain’s 16th century conquest of Flanders and the Netherlands, but this seems unlikely as the dance wasn’t documented as an artform until three centuries later. 

Some theories suggest flamenco got its name from the similarity between the dancers’ pose and a flamingo bird, while another hypothesis is that it comes from the Andalusí Arabic expression “fellah min gueir ard” to speak of a farmer without land, used to refer to gypsies in Andalusia.  

Image: Alfred Dehodencq’s 1851 painting “A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar”.

The origins of flamenco are also shrouded in mystery

The general opinion is that Andalusia’s gitanos (gypsies) – who first arrived in Spain in 1425 as Christian pilgrims allowed in by King Ferdinand V of Aragon – were the creators of flamenco. 

It’s believed that flamenco emerged in the 18th century in cities and villages of southern Andalusia such as Jérez de la Frontera, although other historians think its roots can be traced back to the Indian subcontinent where gypsies are thought to be originally from and where similar dances such as Kathak originated.

But the general consensus is that flamenco is an amalgamation of cultures and folkloric dances that began in Spain at around the time of the Reconquista – influenced by Christians, Muslims, gypsies and even Africans. 

Café cantante in Seville was the first flamenco tablao establishment to open in Spain. Photo: Emilio Beauchy (1888)

Napoleon helped to make flamenco quintessentially Spanish

Following the Spanish War of Independence in the early 19th century, in which Spain freed itself of Napoleon’s clutches, there was a push in Spain to embrace what was truly Spanish and shun French influences in language and culture.

This was known as casticismo, and gitanos’ flamenco dance together with the growth in popularity of bullfighting at the time in Andalusia, saw Madrid adopt these trends from southern Spain as representative of what it means to be Spanish, known as costumbrismo andalúz

This trend reached its peak in the 50s and 60s in Spain thanks to flamenco’s greatest star – Lola Flores – who popularised the artform internationally as quintessentially Spanish.

For better or for worse, these stereotypes live on to this day, as flamenco and bullfighting only form a small part of Spain’s varied and rich culture.  

Flamenco has its own language 

Flamenco incorporates four different elements: cante (voice), baile (dance), toque (guitar playing), and jaleo, which literally means making a racket or causing commotion but actually refers to the hand clapping and foot stomping.

Male flamenco dancers are called bailaores and females ones bailaoras, whereas any other dancers are called bailarín/bailarina in Spanish.

The flamenco ensemble are known as a cuadro (frame) rather than grupo (group) and the place where they perform is called a tablao

To refer to the different styles of flamenco dance and song, the correct word is palos, which actually means sticks in Spanish. Then there’s the cante jondo which refers to the wailing that’s characteristic of more sorrowful flamenco singing.

But perhaps the most interesting flamenco word is duende, which in regular speech means elf but in the context of flamenco refers to a mystical and powerful heightened state of emotion and expression which only the most gifted flamenco performers have. 

The right shoes are everything in flamenco dancing. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

Hands and shoes are musical instruments

Flamenco’s fast-paced Spanish guitar playing is what most outsiders are familiar with, but hand-clapping also plays an essential role in the artform. 

Children who grow up in flamenco-loving families learn to finetune the art of hand-clapping and distinguish between hard (fuertes) and soft (sordas) claps. In other words, if they can’t sing, dance or play guitar, they’ll be expected to at least know how to dar palmas (clap).

Special flamenco shoes for both men and women provide the bailaores with another means of percussion other than the handclaps and the cajón flamenco (flamenco box drum).

However, castanets, which most people automatically associate with flamenco, are not a traditional element of flamenco performances, even though they are sometimes used to intensify finger snapping.

READ ALSO: Meet the New Yorker who moved to Spain to become a flamenco dancer

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Does Spain have a dog poo problem?

Many foreigners in Spain complain that the streets are full of dog faeces, but is that actually true and what, if anything, is being done to address it?

Does Spain have a dog poo problem?

Spain is a nation of dog lovers.

According to the country’s National Institute of Statistics (INE), 40 percent of Spanish households have a dog.

In fact, believe it or not, the Spanish have more dogs than they do children.

While there are a little over 6 million children under the age of 14 in Spain, there are over 7 million registered dogs in the country. 

But one bugbear of many foreigners in Spain is that there’s often a lot of dog mess in the streets, squares and parks.

The latest estimates suggest it’s as much as 675,000 tonnes of doodoo that has to be cleaned up every year in Spain.

Many dog owners in Spain carry around a bottle of water mixed with detergent or vinegar to clean up their dog’s urine and small plastic bags to pick up number twos.

And yet, many owners seem to either turn a blind eye to their pooches’ poo or somehow miss that their pets have just pooed, judging by the frequency with which dog sh*t smears Spanish pavements. 

So how true is it that Spain has a dog poo problem? Is there actually more dog mess in Spain than in other countries, and if not, why does it seem that way?

One contextual factor worth considering when understanding the quantity of caca in Spain’s calles is how Spaniards themselves actually live.

When one remembers that Spaniards mostly live in apartments without their own gardens, it becomes less surprising that it feels as though there’s a lot of dog mess in the streets. Whereas around 87 percent of households in Britain have a garden, the number in Spain is below 30 percent.

Simply put, a nation of dog lovers without gardens could mean more mess in the streets. 

Whereas Britons often just let their dogs out into their garden to do their business, or when they can’t be bothered to take them for a walk even, Spaniards have to take them out into the street, unless they’re okay with their pooches soiling their homes. 

There aren’t many dog-friendly beaches in Spain, and the fact that on those that do exist, some owners don’t clean up their dogs’ mess, doesn’t strengthen the case for more ‘playas para perros‘ to be added. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / STR / AFP)

Doggy dirt left in the streets is most certainly not a Spain-specific problem either, but rather an urban one found around the world.

In recent years, there have been complaints about the sheer abundance of canine faecal matter left in public spaces in Paris, Naples, Rome, Jerusalem, Glasgow, Toronto, London, San Francisco and so on.

READ ALSO: Why do some Spanish homes have bottles of water outside their door?

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a worldwide study to shed light on which cities and countries have the biggest ‘poo-blem’, with the available investigations mainly centred on individual nations, such as this one by Protect my Paws in the US and UK

And while it may be more noticeable in Spain than in some countries, it doesn’t mean the Spanish are doing nothing about it.

In fact, Barcelona has been named the third best city in Europe for dealing with the problem, according to a study by pet brand

Although Barcelona’s score of 53/80 was significantly lower than many British cities (Newcastle scored 68/80 and Manchester 66/80, for example) its hefty fines of 1,500 for dog owners caught not cleaning up after their canine friends might be a reason. 

And some parts of Spain take it even more seriously than that.

In many Spanish regions doggy databases have been created to catch the culprits. Over 35 Spanish municipalities require dog owners to register their pets’ saliva or blood sample on a genetic database so they can be traced and fined, if necessary. 

In Madrid, you are twice as likely to come across someone walking a dog than with a baby’s stroller. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

This DNA trick started earlier in Spain than in many other countries; the town of Brunete outside of Madrid kicked off the trend in 2013 by mailing the ‘forgotten’ poo to neglectful owners’ addresses. Some municipalities have also hired detectives to catch wrongdoers.

So it’s not as if dog poo doesn’t bother Spaniards, with a 2021 survey by consumer watchdog OCU finding that it’s the type of dirt or litter found in the streets than bothers most people.

READ ALSO: Clean or dirty? How does your city rank on Spain’s cleanliness scale? 

It’s therefore not a part of Spanish culture not to clean up after dogs, but rather a combination of Spain’s propensity for outdoor and urban living, the sheer number of dogs, and of course the lack of civic duty on the part of a select few. Every country has them. 

On a final note, not all dog owners in Spain who don’t clean up after their pooches can be blamed for doing it deliberately, but it’s certainly true that looking at one’s phone rather than interacting with your dog, or walking with your dog off the leash (also illegal except for in designated areas) isn’t going to help you spot when your pooch has done its business.

Article by Conor Faulkner and Alex Dunham