Cante is the centre of everything in flamenco. So the simple answer to this question is yes, you do need to understand cante in order to dance flamenco. However, in order to gain an understanding the best way to learn about cante is by experiencing it.
Cante came before everything else, it is the heart of everything we do as dancers. It inspires us to move, to feel and to communicate something to an audience.
Cante flamenco is also vast. Amongst the many palos (styles) of flamenco there are regional variations and then within these regions there are familial and personal variations of all of the styles.
We recommend watching this wonderful documentary 'El cante bueno duele' below for an introduction to the school of flamenco from the Morao family of Jerez.
So if you weren't born into a flamenco flamenco and haven't grown up living and breathing flamenco how to come to understand it?
The first thing you can do is start listening to it. You need to train your ear and become familiar with what flamenco sounds like. It doesn't matter what you listen to, choose something that inspires you.
Along with training your ear you need to start to experience what it is like to dance with cante flamenco. Choose a verse of flamenco that you have become familiar with and try dancing with it. Start by just doing some simple marcaje with the compás and then start to notice where the cante creates an impulse for you to want to do something different.
You need to open yourself up to the voice of the cantaor/a and let yourself be moved.
As you continue to build your personal experience of cante you will find that your understanding slowly builds.
You can also build your understanding through going to see live flamenco in your home country or when you come to Spain. You can learn from every teacher whose class you attend. If you learn a choreography never just learn the steps and copy them, try to figure out how they connect to the cante.
This is a process that will continue for the whole of your flamenco dance career. You will never stop studying and learning.
With that in mind never give up the chance to dance with a singer if the opportunity arises, if you try and it doesn't work for whatever reason it's really ok. What did you learn from the experience?
The common theme that we hope you are sensing is that your study of flamenco cante should not be passive. You can't sit back and wait for information to be given to you, you need to actively seek it.
Work on developing your sense of compás, work on developing some basic movements that you can dance confidently and then open your ears.
Going back to the original question, 'Do you need to understand cante in order to dance flamenco?' the answer is yes but you gain your understanding by getting in there and doing it. We don't expect to see you dancing at the Teatro Real here in Madrid but we don't want you to be shy if you find yourself in class or at a juerga and you have the opportunity to try.
Here are some resources that interest you.
Flamencopolis - spanish language website about cante flamenco
Experience Flamenco - each week Laura shares a letra with translation to english
Rito y Geografia del Cante Flamenco - a documentary series broadcast on television in Spain during the 70s.