CN D Magazine

#5 march 24

Beyond Carmen and Toreros: Queering Flamenco

Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes

The artist José Pérez Ocaña protesting in the streets of Madrid, 1977 © Nazario

Ornate hand gestures and heel-clicking from women in long red and black dresses, while brooding men sing and play the guitar: Flamenco is strongly associated with stereotypes that fall along strict gender lines. Yet from the origins of the genre all the way to its contemporary reinventions, artists have attempted to challenge these norms. In his latest book, Queer Flamenco, the dancer and scholar Fernando López Rodríguez offers a dissident history of flamenco, at once deeply connected to its popular roots and to LGBTQI+, race and class struggles.

Queer Flamenco, the title of your book, seems paradoxical, as this discipline seems to convey pretty stereotypical visions of femininity and masculinity.

Fernando López Rodríguez: These stereotypes and clichés are partly a reality. Flamenco was “male at birth” and its codes, which developed in the second half of the 19th century, were organized around a gendered division between disciplines – music was for men, dance for women – and between techniques – precision and sober demeanor for men, while women’s movement was more undulating, ornate and insinuating. Maybe that’s why, since 2008, people have increasingly felt the need to question gender norms and tell stories from a non-heteronormative point of view. Some flamenco artists have experienced this as an individual journey, deconstructing their gender biases and moving on. I was really impressed by the impact that some of the more mainstream pieces have had rather conservative audiences, like Manuel Liñán’s piece in which seven male dancers perform in bata de cola [the traditional dress with a train and ruffles – editor’s note]. Other choreographers have taken a more experimental stand, going further to  tackle urgent political issues that involve questioning class, race, and ableism. I certainly have, and so has Marco Flores, Rocío Molina, Belén Maya, and Caramento, who is both a dancer and drag performer; there’s also the Queer Flamenco project in Barcelona. Surprisingly, this ongoing reflection hasn’t been that strong in the field of contemporary Spanish dance.

Rocío Molina in Caída del Cielo, 2018 © Klaus Handner

You caution readers against assuming that queer flamenco is new, and say it shouldn’t be reduced to “a branch of contemporary flamenco.” But can we say that flamenco has always been queer?

F. L. R.: We have to be cautious about this. Some critics and specialists have indeed written that there have always been transgressive artists and that flamenco has been queer from the start. But if they wrote this, it was to close the debate – being queer or not was no longer an issue then, and there was no point in going towards anything experimental. By doing so, what they are doing is telling a history of flamenco which silences all the violence, the suffering of the artists, that went on in the past and is still going on now. When I started my research, I thought I’d only find a few dissidents, a few committed artists. But I found much more than that! As a flamenco dancer and then a researcher, I hadn’t imagined that this history was, in reality, so laden with forms of hybridity, in terms of gender but also music and aesthetics.

Does your  surprise say anything about flamenco?

F. L. R.: At the very least it can be explained by the fact that Franco’s dictatorship instrumentalized flamenco for political purposes. It’s more than an oversight, it was a deliberate erasure of the transgressive elements of that art form. In most traditional flamenco cabarets, all the different social classes were represented, and prostitutes were among the regular patrons. Some cabarets were like the ancestors of modern gay bars and made some forms of homo-socialization possible. Before that, flamenco emerged within the lower social classes – as a festive musical and dance style for these communities, which allowed them to party as well as convey their joys and sorrows. The Romani influence was fundamental, but not exclusive. These artists couldn’t perform in major theaters, but because of that very marginality, they had immense freedom. It wasn’t an art form that was looking to “be pretty.” Beauty, youth and virtuosity weren’t at all fundamental values. It was about dancing and singing as you were, with the body you had, your personality, your emotions and your feelings.

Singing café El Burrero, Seville, 1888 © Emilio Beauchy Cano

Do you think that this emphasis on “telling one’s truth” can explain, at least partially, why flamenco has  attracted LGBTQI+ people throughout history?

F. L. R.: The importance given to telling one’s truth, expressing one’s feelings, is paramount, as is a taste for emotional tragedy. Emotions are expressed with such an intensity and such a strength that it exceeds form. Knowing that there are places where one can let themselves be carried away by their emotions and their desires, where that energy will exceed formal gestures, is so important for people who can’t conform to social and aesthetic norms. In flamenco, we don’t let painful emotions crush us: by expressing them, we get stronger and more resilient. This art form has been very therapeutic for LGBTQI+ people for decades. We can also think that flamenco has been a clever and strategically political way to reach conservative and older audiences and convey messages regarding gender and discrimination to them. Thanks to flamenco, we can propose another perspective on the world without immediately triggering a reaction of shock and rejection, because we do it with a vocabulary and a language that these spectators can understand and feel. 

Screenshot of the movie Ocaña. Retrato intermitente, 1978 by Ventura Pons

Why did Franco make flamenco one of the key elements of Spanish national identity? 

F. L. R.: Franco first tried to connect to folklore, which conveys an image of Spain as a unified nation with root values. Then, within a tourism-oriented economic strategy – just as it was with fado in Portugal and cueca in Chile, he turned to flamenco in the 1950’s. It’s interesting to notice that the word “flamenco” was used on TV for the first time in 1962. During the first thirty years of the dictatorship, people talked about “Andalusian dance”, “Spanish dance”, or even “Gipsy dance,” but never “flamenco”! Connecting a conservative national identity to such a specific, bohemian, and marginal style was a tricky gamble. And it was done at the expense of all the nocturnal, violent, independent, and fluid atmosphere in which flamenco was born. 

Interview led by Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes

Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes is a journalist specializing in cultural and opinion pieces. She was the editor in chief of Mouvement magazine from 2014 to 2023, and she still directs its “Leaving the 20th century” and “After Nature” sections. She continues her investigations on the connections between contemporary creation and the humanities by writing critical pieces, analytical articles and investigations in the art world. She works with several cultural institutions and often chairs panels and meetings. 

Flamenco queer
Fernando López Rodríguez
Éditions L’Arche, collection Tête-à-tête
Publication: February 2024

Au-delà de l’olé / Mas allá del Olé
An event organized by Fernando López Rodríguez and Carolane Sanchez
June 1st, in CN D Lyon