Before going abroad, I always say that you have to have a reason that attracts you to a particular country. I went to Spain primarily because I wanted to learn Spanish – and because I had taken a vacation there and loved it – but the flamenco was just icing on the cake. When I first arrived in Spain, I was too caught up in getting settled and finding a way to support myself to worry about learning flamenco, but by the time I left I was spending around four hours per day on flamenco – about two hours on dance and two hours practicing the guitar.
I’m not the only foreigner who goes to Spain to study flamenco. In fact, I was interviewed for an article about the many Americans who go to Spain for the flamenco. Although the article unfortunately falsified several aspects of my experience with Flamenco and Spain, it is true that a fair number (I’m thinking in the low hundreds, not more) of people come to Spain to study flamenco intensively. A large number of serious flamenco students are Japanese, but among the foreigners in my Flamenco school there were several Mexicans, a Chilean woman, other Europeans and, obviously, a number of Spaniards.
So you want to study flamenco?
The first question you’ll want to ask yourself is: where? There is some debate about this, even among those in Spain. In many ways, Sevilla is the capital of Flamenco. I don’t have a huge amount of experience in Sevilla, but from what I’ve heard from others who’ve studied Flamenco there, it is really expensive and a lot of the teachers seem to be just trying to take advantage of Sevilla’s fame rather than to actually teach people about Flamenco.
Perhaps second in terms of Flamenco fame is Jerez, further to the south. I’ve never actually been to Jerez, so I can’t speak to it directly, but from my conversations with other people in the Flamenco world, most foreigners who are really serious about Flamenco spend at least some time in Jerez. It’s cheaper, a bit less developed and Flamenco is part of the “native” culture in the area.
The third place you should consider if you’re moving to Spain for the Flamenco is Madrid. There are some downsides to Madrid, notably that some argue – correctly – that the Andalusian culture that Flamenco is a part of is out of place in Spain’s capital. Madrid is not Andalusia. On the other hand, several Flamenco instructors I had argued convincingly that the best Flamenco dancers, singers and guitarists live in Madrid, just as other capital cities tend to attract top talent. In Madrid, you’re not likely to see spontaneous flamenco dancing in the streets or at parties with young people, but there are plenty of opportunities to see the best performers in the world.
I would say there are two other important advantages to studying in Madrid: It is easier to find work as an English teacher, and there is one major, one-stop-shop school for great flamenco instruction: Amor de Dios.
Amor de Dios is a whole center where exceptional flamenco teachers rent space and teach classes, most of them daily. It’s located on the top floor of a building that holds a grocery neighborhood market, in central Madrid, at about the place where slightly run-down Lavapies merges with the more well-to-do neighborhood near Puerta del Sol. When I started going to Amor de Dios in 2007, smoking in the studios had already been technically forbidden, but teachers – especially the older ones – still snuck cigarettes between classes. There was no air conditioning, and the neighbors complained so much about the sound of nail-heeled flamenco shoes pounding the floor that the windows had to stay closed during classes, even in the sweltering summer. Most of the classes are dance classes, but there’s also guitar and singing. When I fantasize about going back to Spain, Amor de Dios is the only the first thing I think about.
I’m not going to say that understanding flamenco is extremely important to understanding Spanish culture, although you should know some of the big names, like Paco de Lucia. In Andulusia, flamenco is mainstream, but it is a subculture in the rest of Spain, including in Madrid. But it is Spain’s most significant cultural export. Even if you’re not remotely interested in being a professional dancer or musician (as a lot of the people who study at Amor de Dios are), taking a more casual class on flamenco is something I’d recommend that anyone living in Spain consider doing.
Thinking about going to Spain for the Flamenco, but have more questions? Ask in the comments or contact me!
Photo: That’s me practicing the guitar in our apartment in Madrid. I’m embarressed to admit that I don’t play often anymore.