The oral tradition of flamenco
When I (Renae) first started studying flamenco dance one of the biggest challenges I had was finding sources of information to enable me to do my own study and deepen my understanding of the art form.
It was 1999, I lived in Perth, Western Australia and the internet wasn’t as big a part of our daily lives as it is now.
I could go to my local library and find books about classical ballet, jazz and tap dancing but finding anything about flamenco was near on impossible.
Since then things have changed quite a bit, being able to share information online has made it so much easier to study but it is still pretty difficult.
Firstly, because flamenco is so vast, you could spend a lifetime studying and just scratch the surface of everything there is to learn.
Secondly, flamenco is an art form that has been largely shared across generations through the oral tradition which means that is hasn't been documented in the same way as, for example, classical music or classical ballet.
What is an oral tradition?
From the Cambridge English Dictionary:
a system for preserving a group's beliefs, customs, and history, in which parents tell their children about them, and the children tell their children, and so on
The oral tradition is a form of communication between generations of knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material which is held in common by a group of people.
What is oral history?
An oral history typically involves a person telling their life story (which is generally recorded in some form) or their experience of a certain aspect of their history.
So you could think of an oral tradition being common beliefs or knowledge held by a group of people that is passed from generation to generation and oral history as being one person’s experience or knowledge that has been recorded for further study.
Why is it important to recognise the oral tradition?
The nature of the evolution of flamenco has meant that it was never codified and documented. Instead it has been shared between members of families and communities and passed down from generation to generation through song, music and dance.
It is only recently that more formal academic investigations have begun and records created to try and preserve as well as transmit the art form.
To this day there still remains a vast amount of collective knowledge that has not been formally documented.
Intangible cultural heritage
In 2010 Flamenco was inscribed on to the representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
It was recognised by UNESCO as being "strongly rooted in its community, strengthening its cultural identity and continuing to be passed down from one generation to the next".
What does "intangible cultural heritage" mean?
The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.
- Paragraph 1, Article 2, Section 1 - "Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage". UNESCO
Do you have a part in the preservation of the cultural heritage of flamenco as a part of the oral tradition?
What ever you choose to study or devote time to I believe you have a responsibility to learn and expand your knowledge and respect for the culture and history of the art form you are learning.
In order to be an accomplished performer or teacher you need to study the history of your craft.
Since flamenco is an art-form that has not been well documented that means taking the time to listen to the stories and histories of those who do hold a part of that history.
That doesn’t mean you need to overload yourself, but continue to be curious about what you are learning.
Don’t be afraid to ask a questions and don't be in a hurry to collect steps and choreographies without understanding what it is that you are trying to learn and where it has come from.
It is a gift to be able to sit and listen to the stories of those who grew up with flamenco, who can share the stories from their families and of their professional experiences.
There are many ways you can expand your knowledge.
Your first point of contact will be your teacher of course but from there you must expand your horizons. Take the time to search for information online, try to go to different classes and performances given by visiting artists. Discuss flamenco with your friends from class. If you are a dance student and you have a guitarist that plays for your class or in the local community talk to them. If you happen to be in the presence of a grous of artists talking and swapping stories... open your ears and listen!
Flamenco is not just the steps that you learn. It is a sharing of life experience through song, music and dance.
When you go on to share your knowledge of flamenco with others, what are you going to share?