Dance to Health: Flamenco-style
I have been captivated by flamenco since I graduated from the Laban Centre London where I trained in contemporary dance and ballet in the ‘80s. I am now the Creative Health lead at King’s College London and, in the spirit of living the wellbeing mantras I espouse, I attend flamenco classes weekly as a full work out for mind, body and spirit.
Flamenco is a dynamic form of artistic expression that originated in Spain and has gained worldwide recognition for its cultural significance and emotional intensity. It emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Andalusia region–an area known for its diverse cultural influences from the Moors, Jews and Romanies. The Romani people, also known as Gypsies, played a significant part in the development of flamenco as they brought their music, dance and folklore from India to Spain, although the precise origins of flamenco are still debated by scholars. What we do know is that Flamenco has evolved into a unique art form that combines music, dance and singing to express the pain, joy, sorrow and longing of the human experience, and serves as a catharsis for the performers and audience alike.
It has also been used as a form of protest and expression of social and political values during times of oppression and social inequality, being a channel over centuries through which to call out social injustice.
I discovered flamenco by chance, in Humberside of all places, whilst working as a community dance artist shortly after I graduated from Laban. My training in contemporary dance and particularly classical ballet had hardly equipped me for this encounter.
What I witnessed was unbridled passion and an ‘unseemly’ outpouring of emotion. I joined a local class and immediately felt like I had come home. No standing in a straightened stance at a ballet barre poised for the next hectoring instruction on perfectly and uniformly executed steps, the flamenco class had a whole different feel–it was all about digging deep into visceral feelings; the power of the dance had to come from inside and learning the fiendish technique was the vehicle to express this. My training in the Martha Graham technique, in particular the dreaded ‘contraction’, had at least given me some preparation for flamenco’s dramatic and expressive qualities as it is based on the opposition between contraction and release - sharing much in common with the opposing tensions that make flamenco such an explosive art form.
The renowned classical guitar scholar Robert Vidal once said: ‘I love flamenco because it is an art form, which you don’t listen to with your ears but with your intestines. First you have to feel the music before you can think about it.’
My weekly flamenco class is now essential to my wellbeing and an opportunity to explore and join up the different parts of myself, a powerful release from the stresses of daily life. The transformation begins as I change from my working clothes to the classic polka dot skirt (la falda) and elegant high heeled suede shoes with reinforced nails under the toes and heels designed to make as much noise as possible! I then go through the checklist of accessories and props: the fan, the shawl (manton) and of course the castanets which are so difficult to master as if the ferocious footwork is not enough. There will be no chance of switching off mentally or physically at the end of the working day as absolute focus and intensity will be required: no half measures.
Arriving at the studio I hear the strains of the guitar and I’m about to enter another world. Class begins with the foot work as a warm-up, and to synchronise the feet with the complex rhythms of the guitar. Understanding just the rhythm (compas) is a lifetime’s study.
Focus then moves from the footwork to the exquisite circle of the hands in harmony with the lyrical motion of the arms working deep into the back muscles. The skirt is used as an extension of the arms, one minute protectively wrapped around the body, the next hitched up coquettishly on the hips, then suddenly turning into the ripping, slashing movements of a bullfighter’s cape. Typical of flamenco, the class moves from ice to fire, from the introspective to the tempestuous, challenging the dancer to combine explosive footwork with subtle arm movements. There is always that feeling of drawing on emotions transmitted through generations.
One of the most exciting aspects of flamenco is the interplay between dancer and musician, both working within a highly disciplined structure but responding to each other in the moment with space to improvise and interpret according to individual experience. To dance flamenco well you must strike the balance between being true to this most rigorous of forms and at the same time letting go and allowing other forces to take over. Each song evokes such a different mood, from the melancholy , profound mood of the Soleares and Siguiriyas (in the cante jondo category) to the more upbeat Tangos and Alegrias (Cante Chico). But the heart of flamenco is not a step or a rhythm or a song, it is the mysterious creative force called duende, an expression of soul and of struggle which are the life forces of flamenco and the threads that link generations of performers to their Gypsy roots.
Flamenco dancing can certainly be a powerful tool for improving mental health and well-being. Research has demonstrated that engaging in flamenco dancing has positive effects on mental health, including reducing stress and anxiety, boosting self-esteem and confidence, and promoting mindfulness and emotional regulation (Dolores, 2017; Koch et al, 2019). The rhythmic footwork and music of flamenco can help to induce a state of relaxation, which in turn can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety whilst the physical activity involved in flamenco can release endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals (see Dunbar et al. 2012).
This most challenging of dance forms can also help to boost self-esteem and confidence in building a sense of mastery over the complex physical movements which require such a high level of control and coordination (see Maraz et al. 2015). The sheer emotional intensity of flamenco allows individuals to express their emotions in a safe and supportive environment leading potentially to greater self-awareness and acceptance. The focus required to perform this technically and emotionally very demanding dance may also promote mindfulness and emotional regulation. At the centre of this art form is social connection and collaboration, hence participating in a flamenco dance class or group can provide individuals with a sense of purpose and meaning, community and belonging which can improve mental health and well-being
The entire experience of flamenco dance training is a reminder to stay present, to keep a sense of the spontaneous and to let the spirit run free and untamed but at the same time adhere to a rigorous discipline. Not a bad lesson for life and one I keep firmly by my side in all that I do.
British Choreographer Royston Maldoom once said ‘You can change your life in a dance class’ and so you can!