Inside Seville’s Passionate and Diverse Flamenco Scene

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Flamenco fans travel from every corner of the world to experience Spain’s fiery art form in the plazas, academies and clubs of its birthplace – and many, like Canadian writer and flamenco dancer Lia Grainger, even stay awhile.

A young flamenco dancer stands motionless on a small wooden tablet, her black ruffled skirt billowing in the warm spring breeze. The accompanying guitarist and singer perch on the edges of their chairs, awaiting her signal, while the crowd of rapt tourists gathered in Seville’s Plaza de España looks on. A sprawling semi‑circle surrounded by elaborately tiled buildings and balustrades, the plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero‑American Exposition, a tribute to Spain’s cultural dominance. Suddenly, the stillness breaks as the dancer begins to stomp her feet in a rhythm that grows steadily faster and faster.

The guitarist, a blue‑eyed man with a mop of dirty‑blond hair, is Dennis Duffin, a Toronto astrophysicist‑turned‑flamenco maestro. A Canadian dazzling audiences in the streets of the city where the art form was born might seem like an anomaly – but Duffin’s infiltration of the Sevillan flamenco scene is not that unusual. In fact, there was diversity in flamenco from the beginning. Two hundred years ago, the flamenco we know today blossomed from the musical traditions of the Roma, Spanish and North African populations present in southern Spain. The fiery blend of passionate percussive dancing, lightning‑fast guitar and mournful lyrics telling tales of the region’s disenfranchised communities quickly became Spain’s signature artistic expression, imported to Hollywood in the 1940s by superstar dancers like Carmen Amaya. Flamenco continues to be a clichéd yet surprisingly accurate representation of the people of Andalusia – rambunctious, flamboyant, hot‑blooded.

June 15, 2021
Flamenco dancer Christina Hall standing looking up
Dancer Cristina Hall before a performance at the Real Fábrica de Artillería.
Photo of a man riding a bike on the streets of Sevilla
Dancer Cristina Hall before a performance at the Real Fábrica de Artillería.
The winding streets of Seville’s Casco Antiguo, or old town, are perfect for exploring by bike.

But today, the rhythms of flamenco don’t call to young Spaniards, and the flamenco academies that dot Seville’s centre are filled with foreign pupils – dancers and musicians who travel here from countries like Japan, Israel, France, Korea, Italy and Canada, to learn from the great masters. I count myself among them. I’m a Canadian of Polish descent and I’ve been dancing flamenco professionally for 15 years, calling Spain home for five of them. Although I’m now living in Toronto, I return to Seville every winter to train and to immerse myself in a culture that I know isn’t mine, but that, like me, lives and breathes flamenco. My journey started in my hometown of Vancouver in the early 2000s. I was dining at a restaurant on Cambie Street when flamenco dancer Kasandra “La China” took to the stage and gave a performance that silenced the room. I was transfixed. I wanted to move like her, but more than that, I wanted to feel what it looked like she was feeling, everything from complete anguish to sheer joy. I started lessons a week later and within a year I was in Granada, Spain, where I spent six months taking classes in the city’s historic Sacromonte caves, ecstatic to have found something that made me feel truly alive.

A dancer and group of musicians busk beneath the columns of the commanding Plaza 
de España
A dancer and group of musicians busk beneath the columns of the commanding Plaza de España.

Back in the plaza, Duffin’s fingers dance over the frets and strings, his eyes locked on the dancer’s feet. He is waiting for her llamada, or call, a specific pattern of percussive steps that can signal the end of the dance. It arrives, tak tak tak! She spins, fists clenched, brow furrowed, centrifugal force lifting her skirt as she winds up for the grand finale. The board strains under her final stomp, as Duffin strikes the strings in perfect unison.

After Dennis Duffin’s busking set, I take an afternoon stroll with my old friend. We weave our way north on the wide Avenida de la Constitución, past the Gothic Seville Cathedral, where vendors peddle painted fans and embroidered shawls. Dennis waves to friends we pass: Adi, a dancer from Israel, rushing to class, and Toby, a French guitarist on his way to pick up his son from school. We have walked this path many times since first arriving in Seville nearly a decade ago. Dennis had just finished his PhD in astrophysics at McMaster University, and I was starting my career in journalism, as a magazine intern in Toronto. But we loved flamenco more than anything, and connected at parties and shows in Toronto. And then, in September of 2012, we both decided to head across the ocean to devote our lives to this foreign art form.

Flamenco guitar player Dennis Duffin playing stading on the streets of Sevilla.
Close photo of an acoustic guitar.
Dennis Duffin plays the oud with Ebla Sadek’s Arabic‑flamenco fusion group against the old town’s ancient wall.

At first, Dennis studied guitar at the Escuela de Arte Flamenco de la Fundación Cristina Heeren, a full‑time flamenco school, and practiced eight hours a day. But it was at the juergas – a local term roughly meaning “flamenco parties” – that he got his most valuable education. As the revellers jammed, he realized flamenco is more than a memorized series of chords or verses or steps – it’s being able to feel the melody of every flamenco song ever sung, moving your body to it from the day you’re born and then every day after that. “It’s already in the people here,” says Dennis. I know what he means. In Vancouver, my teachers would tell me: “Studying flamenco isn’t enough – you have to live it.”

When I’m in Seville, I start every day with a class at Flamencos por el Mundo, a dance academy in the Macarena, a neighbourhood in the northeast corner of the historic old town. In Manuela Ríos’ class, 10 dancers repeat the same intricate footwork pattern. “Otra vez!” (Again!) yells Ríos, as we finish our routine, panting, the small studio’s tall mirrors fogged from top to bottom. Ríos, who was born in Seville and learned from flamenco legends Paco de Lucía and Camarón de la Isla, teaches an hour‑long class twice a day, Monday to Friday. After Ríos’ class, I run to one of the nearby academies for a second class, and then rehearse on my own for a couple of hours before heading home for a well‑earned siesta. It’s a standard dancer’s schedule: There are around a dozen schools in the Macarena, and students scurry from one to another in long practice skirts trying to pack in as many classes as possible.

A mural depicting a classic flamenco scene graces a wall of the nearly 50-year-old Peña Flamenca Torres Macarena
A mural depicting a classic flamenco scene graces a wall of the nearly 50‑year‑old Peña Flamenca Torres Macarena.

In the evenings, our education continues at performances at clubs, bars and venues, many of which line the Alameda de Hércules plaza in the old town. At a Monday night juerga, about 20 flamencos sit in a wide circle of chairs, while a crowd grows around the perimeter. It’s led by La Chocolata, a local singer and dancer who encourages everyone to participate. We all clap along to the compás, or rhythm, as La Chocolata belts out verses of bulerías, a lively flamenco form made for parties and improvisation. Today, flamenco companies like the Ballet Nacional de España perform tight choreographies accompanied by piano and violin. But the music we’re hearing tonight is the kind made for jamming in the streets – performed with the hands, the feet and the voice.

We dance one at a time as the crowd shouts encouragement – “Olé!” “Toma que toma!” “Eso es!” Doing the moves perfectly doesn’t matter here. What impresses the crowd is dancing in time to the music with character and confidence. A little girl stamps fiercely, and the circle claps faster to match her pace. A Japanese woman jumps in the ring, chest puffed up and chin held high. A short man with a shock of white hair is the champion of the evening, wiggling his hips as he exits the circle to great whooping cheers. I take my turn, too. It’s always a heart‑pounding experience to enter into that chaos of human energy. I spin, clap, stomp my feet, as my hair clings to my face. I feel at once brave and foolish. Then I hear the shouts of “Olé!” and see the raised eyebrows – that this tall, blond foreigner knows a little something of their arte – and I feel something else: exhilaration.

Flamenco is more than a memorized series of chords or verses or steps – it’s being able to feel the melody and move your body to it from the day you’re born.

Flamenco danser and groups on stage
África “de la Faraona” Montoya – daughter of Pilar “La Faraona” Montoya, one of the matriarchs of the famous Farruco family of dancers – does a closing move called a remate.

For many of us foreign dancers, American Cristina Hall is a trailblazer. I meet her on a patio on Calle Regina, a stretch where third‑wave coffee shops and organic grocers are replacing the city’s old bodegas. “When I arrived here it felt like home,” says Hall, who left San Francisco two decades ago, in her late teens, to pursue flamenco at a time when most people in the dance academies were still Spanish. Now, Hall performs her boundary‑pushing work at Spain’s – and Europe’s – most prestigious festivals. Her choreographies bear little resemblance to the traditional: She’s not afraid to writhe on the ground, perform to Nina Simone or brandish a metal chain instead of a delicate fan. She belongs to a new wave of flamenco, composed of artists who have mastered the old rules and now feel free to break them. Young Andalusian Rocío Molina wears knee pads and cellophane and rolls across the stage in paint. Sevillan dancer Israel Galván dons a feria dress and stomps his feet on a shaky platform covered in loose change. Their flamenco is less a representation of place and culture and more a bullhorn through which to scream who they are to the world.

Photo of the flamenco singer Ebla Sadek
Syrian‑German singer Ebla Sadek performs with her Arabic‑flamenco fusion group Makam Mundo in Jardines del Valle, a small park in the old town.
Photo of the moonlight on historical buildings of Sevilla
Syrian‑German singer Ebla Sadek performs with her Arabic‑flamenco fusion group Makam Mundo in Jardines del Valle, a small park in the old town.
Afternoon light hits the sun‑soaked city

On my final night in Seville, I head out to see my friend Ebla Sadek, a 27‑year‑old Syrian‑German singer, perform with her ensemble YaWely, featuring an American flamenco guitarist, a French percussionist and an Uruguayan oud player. The quartet fills the tiny stage at the cozy neighbourhood restaurant and bar that is packed with locals and a few foreigners‑turned‑residents like myself. I jostle my way through the crowd, squeeze into a space at the front and sit cross‑legged on the floor, gazing up at Ebla.

Portraits of flamenco greats line the walls of the Peña.
Portraits of flamenco greats line the walls of the Peña.

Her eyes are closed, and one arm is gently raised as she sings a siguiriyas, a slow and mournful song from east Andalusia. I recognize the melody, but the sounds are shaped differently. And then I realize, it’s not Spanish I’m hearing: It’s Arabic. It feels like flamenco – it is flamenco – but tonight, in this little Sevillan bar, flamenco’s melodies don’t tell of poverty in southern Spain, but of war in the Middle East. And this mostly Spanish audience is enthralled. It is this blending of cultures, this fusing of stories that has always pushed flamenco forward, and the mix has never been so rich.

When you go

Seville, Spain

Corral del Rey.

Corral del Rey

The converted 17th‑century home is set around an inner courtyard and topped with a terrace, plunge pool and views of the Seville Cathedral’s famous Moorish tower. Hotel staff will gladly book tickets for a show at one of the storied flamenco venues within walking distance of this 17‑room oasis in the heart of the old town. 

Photo of a dressed dish, Eslava Restaurant, Sevilla
Eslava.   Photo: Fernando Alda

Eslava

The tapas are small at this elegant family‑run restaurant, so order your own plates of the three signatures: slow‑cooked egg on a mushroom cake, a cuttlefish and algae “cigar,” and the honey ribs. When it comes to dessert, though, you may want to share: The manchego cheese ice cream is so rich that a bite or two is all you need. 

Peña Flamenca Torres Macarena 

Head north of the old town’s Roman wall and down a quiet street until you reach the unassuming front door of the city’s liveliest local flamenco club. Try to score a seat close to the front and prepare for an intimate show with an audience that’s as rowdy as the masters onstage.