It’s one of the most iconic sights of the performing arts, an elegant lady in a graceful red dress that flutters and flows like fiery liquid. The twirling, the whirling, the blurring of red ruffles, hands that clap and heels that snap like the cracks of whips. There are calls and responses, singing and the strumming of guitars. It is the art of flamenco.
In 2014, Ruven Afanador published a stunning series of black and white photographs in Ángel Gitano, capturing the men of flamenco, all of various builds and backgrounds. Some are old, their faces creased and knowing, others are young and athletic, arching or leaping, mid-pose. Some men are naked, some are wrapped in shawls, others, intriguingly, clad in traditional women’s dresses or peeking from beneath a delicate lace veil. The images drip with sensuality, some verge on the erotic. A selection of the shots contrasts against a dusty, desert backdrop, others against bare, earthen walls. And the location is Andalusia, the region where flamenco was born.
Fusion and Fury
As well as upending conservative traditions, Afandor’s photos riff on the notion that this centuries-old dance—now recognised by Unesco for its cultural significance—was once thought of as vulgar, even pornographic. Sandie Holguín, history professor at Oklahoma University and author of Flamenco Nation: The Construction of Spanish National Identity, says that for a long time the dance was considered, like bullfighting, a “scourge of the nation” that “lulled the masses into stupefaction”, restraining Spain’s “progress toward modernity”.
Flamenco was established by gypsies who had picked up various folk moves on their journeys through the Middle East and from north Africa to southern Spain in the 16th century. Later, the dawn of Romanticism heralded the embracing of all manner of artforms throughout Europe, especially ones considered to be of a bohemian nature, like flamenco. The dance seeped into everyday Spanish life, regularly performed at bars and cafés throughout the land.
Intellectuals, the Catholic Church and the revolutionary workers’ movements especially despised how flamenco had come to be represent Spain in the eyes of foreigners. “Flamenco came to encapsulate the Spanish elites’ feelings of shame about the country’s declining status as a great power in the modern era,” writes Holguín for Smithsonian. “…What they were really complaining about was the permeation of modern mass culture into the daily lives of everyday citizens.” The Spanish Civil War put an end to such celebrations.
Flamenco, Franco, and the Future
In helping to rebuild the Spanish economy following the civil war and the isolation of Franco’s fascist regime that followed, the dictator came upon the idea of luring more tourists to his sunny nation by playing on foreigners preconceptions and stereotypes, harvesting the power of flamenco as part of his propaganda. The dance featured prominently in films and tourist brochures, while clubs and bars were filled with performers. Perversely, given its historical disdain by the country’s thinkers and creatives, flamenco has since experienced a cultural renaissance, too.
“One could say that flamenco today has undergone both extreme commercialization and renewed artistic and academic respect,” notes Holguín, “once again demonstrating its complex relationship to Spanish national identity.”
Part of that re-evaluation includes Afanador’s photography, and, more recently, the show Viva!, by Manuel Liñán. Premiered in Madrid in 2019, in was described by local critic Roger Sala in El País as “one of the best things happening in this critical moment in flamenco and Spanish dance”. Performances and choreography aside, what truly sets this production apart is that it is performed by men in drag.
While men are traditionally taught to hold themselves more rigidly during a flamenco dance, women are allowed to move more of their bodies more expressively, and, growing up, Liñán admits that he couldn’t “hold back these impulses” so began to move his hand and his hips to flamenco music, began to “move between genders”.
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once”
According to Fernando López Rodriguez, contemporary flamenco artist and author of Historia Queer del Flamenco(“The Queer History of Flamenco”), the dance has long attracted cross-dressing performers but they were forced underground while Spain was under the rule of Franco’s iron fist. Then, in the 1960s, he tells the New York Times, that drag returned “in the sphere of gay parties and shows, exclusively for cross-dressing performers”.
Even though Spain became one of the first countries to legalise gay marriage, and now Liñán is recognised as one of the world’s preeminent flamenco artists, he and his troupe still suffer homophobic abuse both within the profession and online, accused of shaming the industry and even of destined to be taken by the devil. It is painful, he laments, “but that’s the world we live in”.
So how sweet it must have been, then, that when his show played in February at the Festival de Jerez—in the city known as the birthplace of flamenco—among the many rave reviews came one that read: “it’s one of the best to have been seen at the festival in all its 24-year history”.