Can We Please Stop Perpetuating Stereotypes About Flamenco Artists?

January 11, 2021

Like many dancers, flamenco artists have suffered devastating economic losses during the pandemic. Iconic venues in Spain, such as Casa Patas, have closed their doors permanently and the newly formed labor union, Unión Flamenca, has predicted that 42 percent of artists will permanently leave the profession.

As I was trying to digest the grim outlook on the horizon for flamenco, another blow was struck. In early December, the Spanish media reported that internationally famed flamenco dancer and choreographer Rafael Amargo had been arrested and detained on December 1 in Spain on suspected drug trafficking charges. As expected, it generated a firestorm of negative publicity for Amargo. But most unsettling was the way the press used the incident to launch a deliberate attack on the entire profession.

Amargo was provisionally released on December 3. Meanwhile, flamenco was convicted without a trial.

On December 2, the Madrid-based online newspaper El Español published an article in its culture section titled “Prison, drugs and marginalization: the curse of the flamencos, from Rafael Amargo to Las Grecas.” The story explored the alleged relationship between flamenco, poverty and criminal activity. That same day, Spanish TV channel Cuatro published in its society section “Rafael Amargo’s family defends him: ‘Most artists use to give them strength,’ ” insinuating widespread drug use in the profession. It caused a wave of social media posts by flamenco dancers, rebuking the claim.

The world is full of people in every industry whose lack of judgment has brought down their careers or personal lives. For the press to make such an unrealistic association between flamenco and one person reveals that the style is not yet free from the racial prejudices that come from being a representative art form of the Gitanos (Spanish Roma); the Roma today are still among the most persecuted minorities in Europe.

The “Carmen” stereotype of a wild, rebellious, sexually provocative gypsy woman in a red, ruffled dress countered by a sleekly dressed matador, hips thrust forward, who lives on the edge of danger are clichés that live on. These two mythical images conjure a black magic that gives the dance its “passion,” the most tiresome word used to describe flamenco.

Unión Flamenca released a statement on December 3 denouncing the defamatory press sparked by Amargo’s arrest, stating it was “an offense to the entire group that practices the profession and to the millions of fans around the world.” But it didn’t stop. El País printed an article on December 15 in its dance section, titled “The curse of the male flamenco dancer: scandals, drugs and jail.” The story not only chronicles Amargo’s history of public scandals but also those of other male dancers of Gitano origin, such as Antonio Canales, Joaquín Cortés and Farruquito; outdated headlines of years past recirculated old stories to present a twisted generalization that the Gitano male flamenco dancer lives promiscuously and is surrounded by tragedy. That same day Unión Flamenca released a second statement declaring that “feeding outdated stereotypes to get more advertising revenue is not ethical.”

Flamenco originated in a family setting, and not until the mid-1800s did it become a public art form. Ever since, its economic value has been leveraged by outsiders—German Romantics, the Spanish government, novelists, the press—all of whom gained from the perpetuation of stereotypes that have dehumanized flamenco artists. Baseless claims are easy and entertaining, but most of all profitable.

For the most part, flamenco artists shrug it off, keep their heads down, press forward, quietly rising above the stereotypes. But flamenco as a profession—and as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage,” as deemed by UNESCO—continues to be delegitimized. Some choreographers have challenged this narrative for decades with works that step outside of the cliché. Still, the works of today’s genre-defining choreographers, like Mario Maya and Rocío Molina, are not what is associated with the term “flamenco” in the mainstream media. A great example of this stereotypical thinking is seen in the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory (Season 10, Episode 8): When Sheldon tries to seduce Amy by dancing flamenco, he states, “You have left me no choice but to the employ the most passionate seductive dance known to man, The Flamenco!”

It’s time flamenco has a narrative reflective of the profession today. As Riché Richardson of Cornell University said in her New York Times article, “Can We Please, Finally, Get Rid of ‘Aunt Jemima’?“, I ask: Can we please finally get rid of “Carmen”?