Seville's fine art of flamenco

Seville’s flamenco roots run deep. If you don’t feel its rhythms singing through the winding streets and among the orange trees, or notice its bright colours dancing in the windows of countless stores, the city’s souvenir stands will leave you in no doubt as they market Seville’s heritage to the hilt.

What is flamenco?

Many are familiar with the flounced, polka-dotted dresses of its dancers (mimicked by countless frilly flamenco kitchen aprons that hang in souvenir shop doorways) and the fiery strumming of its guitar rhythms (popularised most of all by the Gypsy Kings), but the heart of flamenco is the duende - a strange, dark, passionate idea that Andalucía’s great poet, Federíco García Lorca, described as 'a struggle, not a thought', and related to the spirits of death and creation. Easier to recognise than define, you can hear it in the plaintive, desperate songs of flamenco and in the wild yet tightly controlled pounding of the bailaora’s nail-capped shoes.

Despite the hard sell, flamenco is no tourist-driven cliché but a real, living culture that is part folk tradition, part high art. It mixes the gypsy music of the Romani people with the rhythms of North Africa, brought to Andalucía by the Moors - a rich blend that makes flamenco a unique form of artistic expression, whose irrepressible rhythm and anguished melodies lend Seville its passionate soundtrack.

Flamenco tips

Many people travel to Seville to learn flamenco from the best, while others decide to try and pick some up after falling for its charms. Be warned, though: flamenco is infernally difficult, and whether you want to sing, play guitar or dance, you’re looking at years of hard practice. Its rhythms are strange and complex (it’s made up of a great number of palos, or rhythms, all counted in a 12-beat phrase and involving tricky syncopation) and its technical demands are arduous.

While many traditional social dances, like salsa or tango, can be difficult to master but easy enough to get the hang of and enjoy at a club, flamenco is not really a social dance - it’s performance art. A salsa lesson might see you learning a simple basic three-step rhythm before being twirled about the room from one handsome Cuban to the next, but flamenco involves hours of hands-on-hips, foot-pounding technical drill that will leave your toes, legs and back all aching. Flamenco’s most accomplished practitioners have mastered both the complex technique it requires, and are fully steeped in the mysterious duende.

Where to dance

The best place to try your flamenco on is at the newish Museo de Flamenco (www.flamencomuseum.com). Although the museum’s displays are weirdly uninformative, it’s definitely worth heading to one of their nightly shows where you’ll see excellent dancers and musicians in an intimate, elegant space. If you get there early, you can take a half-hour class, which, if nothing else, should give you a sense of how challenging the dance can be. If you’re hooked, you might want to enrol in a lengthy course at one of the city’s many schools - try the famous Fundación Cristina Heeren (www.flamencoheeren.com).

Where to watch

In order to really enjoy a true flamenco show, it’s better to head to a peña than sit down and watch one of the stuffier (though often high-quality) performances at a tablao. A peña is more like a party, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see very fine dancers and musicians in flamenco’s natural habitat, amid the spontaneity of a bar (try La Carbonería or Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus).

Where to shop

Sometimes, no matter how you try, the duende eludes you. If you can’t manage the moves, at least you can still wear the outfit. The streets of old Seville are dotted with flamenco boutiques selling elaborately colourful outfits for adults and children, along with all the accoutrements - fans, mantillas and shoes (María Rosa on Calle de la Cuna is especially good, while for one of the best online stores, try www.flamenco-world.com).