Flamenco Fever

A Spanish troupe brings life to the Southwest with singing, performance, dance

Dance presenter Vincent Nieto almost made a fatal football error.

He scheduled the dancers of Flamenco Passion Ballet to stomp across the Centennial Hall stage at the exact same time that the Pittsburgh Steelers are due to pummel the Seattle Seahawks in Detroit.

Yes. A dance concert. On Super Bowl Sunday.

As soon as Nieto, a Spaniard living in Las Vegas, realized his mistake, he hastily canceled the concert planned for this Sunday afternoon. But lovers of the ancient Spanish dance form can still see Flamenco Passion on Saturday night.

"We're just doing one show," he said by phone by Albuquerque, sounding relieved to have caught the conflict in time. "People can come to see us on Saturday."

Late last week, Nieto welcomed the troupe--eight dancers, three singers, two guitarists and one flutist--to Albuquerque. The troupe had flown in from Madrid, and after a 21-hour trip, Nieto said, he "put them in the sauna, the spa" to rest up for the rigors of the performances ahead. In a 10-day tour, Flamenco Passion is dancing not only in Albuquerque and Tucson, but in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Orange County. The dancers can handle it, he boasted.

"They're impeccable professionals. This is one of the best companies in Spain."

Flamenco is among the most demanding of dance genres. Dancers stamp their feet repeatedly in a rapid-fire percussion, while slicing their arms through the air, snapping castanets with their hands and keeping tight control of the body's core. They're accompanied not only by guitars and flute, but by rhythmic hand-clapping and undulating songs with roots in Arab and gypsy traditions. All three components--baile (dance), cante (song) and guitarra (guitar music)--are essential.

"It's very passionate dance," Nieto said, "very explosive."

In addition to the dancing, an opera singer, Luis Maria Bilbao, will sing well-known solos at the beginning of the show's second half.

Nieto's dancers hail from all over Spain, but flamenco began in the southern province of Andalusia, separated from Morocco and North Africa only by the Straits of Gibraltar. Even its name may come from the Arabic words fellah mangu, or "the laborer who sings," according to the cultural writer Bob Martin.

Before the Moors were defeated and the Jews expelled, in 1492, Spain--and especially southern Spain--was a thriving mixture of Christian, Arab and Jewish culture. The distinctive flamenco singing may have its origins in the Muslim calls to prayer, chanted by the muezzins from their mosques. Jewish chants in the synagogue also contributed to the musical brew, Martin writes. Gypsies began settling in Andalusia in the 15th century, bringing their own dance and music.

The movements themselves may date as far back as the days of the Roman Empire, when the writer Pliny remarked on the dancing girls of Cadiz and their castanets. Flamenco likely developed as an Andalusian folk dance, danced by ordinary people at celebrations, and accompanied only by singing and clapping. Guitars and castanets came later.

By the 19th century, the folk dance had evolved into a performance art. It found a place in urban musical cafés, cafés cantantes, where gypsies were the first professional flamenco stars. Nowadays, it's more often a theatrical spectacle, danced in concert halls for tourists, but authentic flamenco still thrives in regional festivals in Andalusia.

Flamenco remains popular in the networked 21st century, Nieto said. "There are more than 10 companies in Spain, and they tour the world."

The best flamenco dancers follow the choreography to a certain extent, but they're also expected to improvise in a demonstration of duende, a soulful ability to achieve a state of pure emotion.

Flamenco Passion Ballet retains all the traditional elements, Nieto said. "There will be solo dances, couples, sounds and special-effects lights. You have the dresses, castanets, guitars and singers. You have life. To sing, perform, dance, this is life."