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Catherina Goussiou

The cultural perceptions of dance and the construction of identities. The flamenco case.

Goussiou, Katerina: "The cultural perceptions of dance and the construction of identities. The flamenco case", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

1. Introduction

This presentation refers to the case of flamenco, that well-known andalusian style, which I intend to analyze from an anthropological point of view. I will focus on the cultural meaning flamenco may have in the contemporary, globalized and commercialized era and I will try to compare it with the corresponding one in the past. In this way, I aspire to deduce some contentions about the way folk dance, and especially flamenco, traverses different spheres of sociability and expression, during its presence in the social life. More specifically, I intend to reach the assumption that flamenco has been transformed through the years in a dual way, which means it has been changed both in its form and its technical characteristics, as well as, in the cultural meaning with which it is imbued. In another level of analysis, I will try to relate the way in which cultural perceptions about dance contribute to the construction of personal and collective identities.

The case study I will present in this conference is based on the data I collected by the method of participant observation, during a thirteen-day research project in Andalusia, south Spain, from 31/7 to 12/8/2001. Within the framework of that research project I visited two flamenco schools, in Seville and Jerez [1], I watched two performances in Seville and Granada and a folk celebration in Jerez in honor of the local flamenco dancers and musicians. Moreover, I had numerous discussions about relevant matters with different people interested in flamenco. Finally, I will also present my personal opinion about the matter I am proposing, as I have experienced it for three years in several flamenco schools in the cultural context of Thessaloniki.

2. Folk dance as cultural drama

I would like to refer here to Victor Turner’s theory of performance (1969, 1974, 1979) which I will use as an analytical tool. In the first place, I will consider folk dances, and especially flamenco, as a specific version of cultural drama, a particular kind of performing dramas. From this point of view, I intend to embed flamenco in its social and cultural context and analyze it in accordance with that specific context. Through this analytical procedure I will try to reveal the way folk dances – and especially flamenco - function as cultural mirrors, in which social agents, on the one hand, represent and reflect themselves and the conditions of their social and cultural lives and, on the other, transform the perception they have about these representations. In other words, I aspire to depict the procedure through which different social agents construct their personal and collective identities by their participation in a cultural drama, which, after all, is a cultural defined procedure.

According to the theory of performance, there are two categories of performing dramas in social life; social and cultural dramas. The cases of spontaneous social break and crisis - which may have temporary or permanent character - belong to the first category, that of social dramas. On the other hand, there are the cases of transformed social dramas in rituals (sacred or secular) and the cases of performing arts (including folk dance) which belong to the category of cultural dramas. The common characteristic of both these categories refers to the particular conditions of "liminality" and "communitas" [2].

It is obvious that, given this theoretical framework, we reach the conclusion that folk dances – and particularly flamenco which I am interested in - is confronted as a specific version of cultural dramas and gathers the conditions I have referred to in this unit. In the following unit I will shed light to these assumptions.

2.1. Folk dance as a field of representation and reflection

Focusing on the second category of performing dramas, that of cultural drama, it is proved that the symbolic context in which everything takes place offers the proper conditions for social and cultural representation and reflection. The social agents, which participate in this symbolic procedure, have the opportunity to reflect on their social action, to re-consider their social roles in the given cultural context, but in a secure and controlled way. After all, every specific cultural drama expresses a version of social order, an attempt to interpret the social conditions which prevail in the given cultural context. In this way, the social agents depict to “themselves” an image for “themselves”, narrate to “themselves” a story for “themselves”; construct their identity.

Another interesting point in the theory of performance, which concerns the assumptions of this paper, is the possibility of transformation that cultural dramas offer to the participants. In every procedure of this kind, appear the conditions of a potential transformation of the symbolic meanings that are represented within their framework. There is a liminal/marginal point of the drama, a threshold, beyond which a particular interaction between audience and performers is noticed, and where the above mentioned transformation in the meaning of the drama itself and the perception of the symbolically represented cultural meaning of the drama might take place.

According to the previous points, it is clear that the particular versions of cultural dramas are properly conceived within the framework of the social-cultural context which produces and preserves them. Consequently, there is an opinion that cultural dramas should be studied together with the framework of “real life”, should both be confronted as parts of a system of interaction, in which the one depends on the other and the one interprets the other.

Taking into consideration that all the mentioned above points could actually be applied for the case of folk dances, and particularly flamenco which is the subject matter of this presentation, there is room for further conclusions. There is another reliable scientific opinion from the anthropological point of view, which summarizes and extends the point I have already expressed. Kaeppler (1992) argues that dance and other organized kinetic systems are products of social action and interaction. Moreover, they constitute cognitive systems - that means, social structures - which are socially and culturally defined. The conception of these specific kinetic and cognitive systems demands the relevant comprehension of the familiar social and cultural context and the opposite; the study of such systems contributes to the perception of the social and cultural conditions which have produced them.

In other words, as far as the folk dances are concerned, it seems that they incorporate and re-produce in their symbolic and kinetic system the cultural conditions which give them their meaning. On the other hand, the transformation of the form and meaning of these expressive kinds corresponds, in a way, to the relevant transformation of the social and cultural context, conditions and values.

From that point of view, flamenco, as a sub-category of cultural drama and as a kind of folk performing art, does not exhaust itself in a technical kinetic system which is deprived of any further meaning. On the contrary, it constitutes a particular kind of ritual action and maintains an unambiguous relation and relevance with the familiar social and cultural context. According to Cowan’s point of view (1998), within the framework of the dance event, the social agents take part in the event as male or female embodied subjects, as culturally and socially defined subjects, they symbolically construct and negotiate their social sex, their social class, their self, their identity. For this reason, it is more than suggested to analyze cultural dramas together with the cognitive systems and categories of the familiar society. This is the fact I intend to focus on in the following unit.

2.2. The cultural meaning of flamenco and the construction of identities

Instead of seeking absolute facts concerning the origin of flamenco, I would refer to the functional relation flamenco may have had with the social and cultural groups that performed it in the past and with the social and cultural context where it emerged. I believe that, in this way, I will be able to highlight the conditions of the transformation that took place in that relation through the years.


According to several ethnographic and historical sources, the Iberian Peninsula had always been a place of cultural exchange and interaction; Arabs, Jews, fanatical Catholics and Gypsies had come together and formed a particular cultural amalgam. From the 15th century, mainly in Andalusia, such circumstances and influences prevailed, that led to the emergence of a special musical and dancing style, that of flamenco [3] (Xifara 1999).

In its folk version, flamenco constituted an expressive kinetic system that the Gypsies used to perform in every social occasion, sorrowful or joyful. Its symbolic structure represented the gypsy social order, which corresponded to the familiar cognitive system and included two opposed categories; the male and the female. The whole performance was constructed around these two cognitive categories.

When the performance was culminating, which means, when it was reaching the threshold, females symbolically subverted the social order. They represented themselves as the “warm” and “natural” element of the gypsy cognitive system while the males represented the opposite one, the “cool” and “civilized” element. They symbolically dominated the males, which is an inadmissible situation in gypsy “real life” and social order. Nevertheless, all the performers had the opportunity to subvert the social order within a symbolic and controlled system and to reestablish it in “real life”, to reflect upon their social conditions and roles, to narrate to “themselves” a story for “themselves”, to construct an aspect of their collective identities (Washabough 1996). In this way the political dimensions of the above mentioned procedure are revealed.

3. The transformation of flamenco cultural meaning through the years

According to the available ethnographic data, flamenco has never stopped being influenced by different cultural sources and being “developed” as a style in its musical and dancing technical elements. It has come in touch with different artistic/sophisticated idioms and it has received and incorporated their various effects. Nevertheless, it was not until the end of 19th century that it was “consolidated” in the form which is familiar to us as a typical Andalusian style. In this form, and having been deprived of its racial origin and character, it has been used as an element for the construction of contemporary Spanish ethnic identity and was acknowledged as a distinct artistic style.

During its trajectory, flamenco has been transformed from a folk, racial - gypsy means of expression to a typical element of Spanish cultural tradition. In other words, it constituted for once more what I have already mentioned, that is, it has been used for political reasons towards an ideological orientation, in order to support the procedure of the construction of the Spanish ethnic identity. On the other hand, it was established as an artistic style, with high technical and aesthetic level. Without doubt, together with that transformation, the cultural meaning that corresponds to it has been changed too.

3.1. The cultural perceptions about flamenco in contemporary, globalized and commercialized era

The previous points depict the basic assumption I would like to underline, which is the argument that flamenco has always been both the product of social and cultural transformation and the reflective mirror, where this transformation is symbolically represented. If someone accepts this argument, the following step would be the analysis of the transformed social and cultural conditions that led that style to be established as such and the way it is appropriated in contemporary “real life”.

3.1.1. The data of the participant observation

According to the previous statements, it seems that flamenco in the contemporary era has been familiar to an international audience and has become an aspect of popular culture, due to the function of mass media and the universal system of cultural production. Moreover, its worldwide diffusion is owed to a proper cultural value, which refers to the commercialization of culture and its consumption as industrial product. These two courses are imprinted on the contemporary form of flamenco and correspond to the demands of contemporary “real life”.

Within the framework of participant observation I carried on, I visited two different flamenco schools in Seville and Jerez and I tried to grasp the perception both the professional flamenco teachers and the multicultural group of students who attended the courses had about flamenco and themselves. For this reason, I collected personal views from both sides and I tried to register my personal sense, extracted by my participation in these intensive seminars.

The first point refers to the group of the teachers, which was mainly consisted of Spanish professional flamenco dancers, having attended the NationalFlamencoAcademy and having appeared in several metropolitan theaters. In other words, it represents in my research the most technical and obviously ideological orientated opinion. One relevant opinion that I registered, mentioned that “my basic aim as a flamenco teacher is to transmit the love I feel for flamenco dance and culture, to communicate its expressive power and potential”. Of course, “every student has his/her own way, which mainly depends on his/her age. Usually, the older students approach flamenco more technically, emphasizing the perfection of zapateados / of flamenco steps, without paying attention to the level of their expressive immediacy. Even if the matter of expression is for the most of them the main reason to be involved in flamenco learning, there are really few who finally manage to reflect their personal style on the performance of an allegria [4]”.

As far as the several groups of flamenco students are concerned, they could easily be classified, at least for the summer period, when intensive courses are given. Most of them belong to the middle class, are rather well-off and come from different parts of the world. Here we have a picture of a typical class at the flamenco school of Jerez; the school I am referring to belonged to a prominent professional dancer, who was inactive for the last years. The school consisted of two underground rooms – up to 15 cm2 each, which were coated with wooden floors and with perimetric mirrors on the walls. There was also an independent room, which was functioning as changing-room. The temperature inside was climbing up to 45-47 C degrees. In each room, there were approximately twenty-five students crowded, mainly women, of all ages. The view of the sweaty students, of one delicate Chinese girl or of one hefty Senegalese girl, dressed in the most professional costumes, was as interesting as the view of one middle-aged woman, probably English, who was dressed in sports costume, or of a young man, who was dancing with an L label on his chest, trying to justify his clumsiness. Looking upon the students, there is no possibility for misunderstandings. Each of these persons was attending the courses for his/her personal reasons, but, according to my opinion, there was a common point; that of the culture of leisure and the consumption of cultural products.

In one of the lessons at that school, I noticed with admiration the style and the expressiveness of the teacher of the course. She was a delicate, restless, young girl, with long black hair, who was wearing her casual jeans, instead of a professional costume. Of course, she had on her flamenco shoes. At first, I thought that I was the only person in the room who was astonished by this view, but soon I realized that most of the students were commenting on their teacher’s style and temperament. There was spread out the impression that Maria was not “just” a flamenco teacher but had a particular charisma. Later that afternoon I was informed that Maria… “had gypsy blood running in her veins”, besides her perfect technical and artistic knowledge.

According to the prevalent opinion among professional flamenco teachers, “flamenco is a kind of art that everyone can have. There are few, still, who can express it properly and express themselves through it, and without doubt most of them are gypsies”. “It is true that there is a very high level at the NationalFlamencoAcademy, but gypsies are still the best flamenco dancers”, claim some professional teachers who do not belong in the second category. Nevertheless, even nowadays there is a difficulty in the communication between these two poles. While there is some current from the academic flamenco dancers towards the gypsy ones, the opposite is more unusual.

There is a last point I wanted to refer to and regards the tourist version of flamenco culture, mainly in Andalusia. There are numerous tablaos where one can watch excellent flamenco performances, which are totally addressed to tourists. This constitutes the framework where someone can observe the objectification of flamenco culture and the version which is indented to be consumed.

4. Conclusion

The previous points may reveal that flamenco kinetic and symbolic system strongly maintains one of its main functions, even if it has incorporated many changes and transformations. It continues being a symbolic place for self-definition and for the construction of personal and collective identities. It is clear that even if people rush in bulks to “learn” flamenco, they do so for some reasons which are related to one aspect of their identities. Besides, the certificate they get for the attending of flamenco seminars or the photos they take from the tablaos they visit, may not be very important to them but they will serve for the particular stories they will narrate to their friends when they come back home. Finally, the consumption of cultural products and the culture of leisure constitute important cultural values for the contemporary globilized era and are uncontested requests for social agents, at least for the “west” ones. These cultural values are perfectly fulfilled in the consumption of intensive flamenco courses which, after all, are abundantly offered.

5. Notes

[1] Jerez is one of the traditional and most famous flamenco cities in Andalusia. It is a place where flamenco flourished in the past and, nowadays, it is a beloved destination for flamenco enthusiastic followers.

[2] With these two terms, Turner wanted to describe two particular conditions of performing dramas; on the one hand, with the term “liminality”, he describes the fact that performing dramas go beyond a specific social limit. On the other hand, with the term “communitas”, he describes the conditions of the symbolic procedure which, in the framework of performing dramas, connect the social agents in a community (Turner 1969).

[3] For further information see:

[4] Allegria is regarded as the most complicate and complete kind of flamenco. It comprises a great part of flamenco kinetic vocabulary while it demands dramatic ability.

6. Bibliography

Ξιφάρα, Π.: Ισπανικός χορός, Εκπαιδευτική Ελληνική Εγκυκλοπαίδεια: Θέατρο, κινηματογράφος, μουσική, χορός 28:182-183. Αθήνα, Εκδοτική Αθηνών, 1999.

Cowan, J.: Πρόλογος, Μπαίνοντας στο χορό, Η Πολιτική του Σώματος: Χορός και Κοινωνικότητα στη Βόρεια Ελλάδα, 1-34. Αθήνα, Αλεξάνδρεια, 1998.

Kaeppler, A.: Σκέψεις για τη θεωρία και τη μεθοδολογία της ανθρωπολογικής μελέτης του χορού και των συστημάτων της ανθρώπινης κίνησης. Εθνογραφικά “Ο χορός στην Ελλάδα” 8: 17-25. Ναύπλιο, Πελοποννησιακό Λαογραφικό Ιδρυμα, 1992.

Turner, V.: Theritualprocess: Structureandantistructure, Routledge, 1969.

Turner, V.: Dramas, fields and metaphors, Cornell U.P., 1974.

Turner, V.:Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites of passage, στο W.Lessa – E. Vogt (eds.): Reader in comparative religion, 1979.

Washabaugh, W.: Preface in Flamenco: Passion, politics and cultural theory, iiix-xix. Berg, 1996.

7. The author

I was born in Thessaloniki in 1975 and I was graduated from high school with the grade “excellent”. Moreover, I graduated in 1998 from the Department of International and European Economic and Political Sciences, in the University of Macedonia, with the grade 7,72. From 1999 to 2001 I attended the postgraduate seminar of the Department of Social Anthropology, in the University of the Aegean. From March 2002 I am working on my doctoral thesis which is entitled “Olympic Games and the politics of culture. The case study of the Olympic Games of 2004 in Athens. An anthropological approach”. During the postgraduate seminar in the Department of Social Anthropology, I dealt with the subject matter of the construction of cultural identity. Moreover, I carried on certain field researches and I worked for a year in the “Social and Cultural Communication and Documentation Laboratory” for the research project “Promitheas: The European Union’s institutions in a digital database”.

Katerina Goussiou


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