Curious Questions: Are flamenco’s finest the fastest dancers in the world?

Spain's national dance, flamenco, is astonishing in its drama, spectacle and sheer speed. But how fast do they really go? Martin Fone, author of 50 Curious Questions, investigates.

Think Spain, think flamenco dancing. But what is it all about and just how fast do they dance? During a recent trip to Seville, I decided to find out.

The Tablao El Arenal, housed in a splendid 17th Andalusian style house, tucked away in a back street between the cathedral and the Guadalquivir river, is one of the most famous flamenco clubs in Sevilla. It caters for around a hundred guests, a mix of flamenco aficionados and neophytes, who are seated around a rather austere wooden stage. The performance is watched in reverential silence and we are close enough to the action to appreciate fully the physical effort and emotional intensity of the performance.

The set, which lasted about an hour, contained all the elements that you would expect to see in a flamenco dance; toque (the guitar), cante (the voice), baile (dance), and jaleo, which can only be described as an informal form of encouragement involving handclapping, foot stomping and shouting. When the performers are in full flow, they create quite a racket as the stage, which has a hollow void underneath, reverberates to good effect.

Bailaoras, as the female dancers are called, wear a full-length dress, the Traje de Flamenca, which fits tightly to the upper body and then flows down into extravagant folds, with extra material at the rear, used by the dancer to accentuate her movements and poses. You can appreciate why it is said to resemble the shape of a guitar. High heeled shoes with special nails inserted into the soles to accentuate the sound made when they stamp completes their ensemble.

Bailaores, their male equivalents, wear a rather raffish costume of tight trousers, waistcoat, cravat, and highly polished shoes, complete, of course, with special nails.

As the music starts, the dancer will stand motionless, as though breathing in and assimilating the sound of the guitar and the rhythms of the hand clapping. Then they will begin to come to life, the tempo builds up, the dancer becomes more energetic and the crescendo is a blur of noise and movement.

Whilst watching, I couldn’t help but reflect how similar flamenco was to the Kathakali dance form I had encountered in Kerala where dancers express their emotions and move the story on simply through facial expressions and specific movements of the body. Flamenco is a very expressive dance form. Facial expressions, graceful movements of the arms, finger clicking, with or without castanets, seductive or defiant poses are all part of the armoury that a top flamenco dancer deploys to portray their deepest emotions.

Although its origins are unclear, it is thought that the Gitanos, Roma people who migrated from north-west India to Spain during the 9th and 14th centuries, brought with them their dance traditions and music to the cultural melting pot that was southern Spain at the time. If you add to the mix a seasoning from the prevailing cultures of the Andalusians, Sephardic Jews and the Moors, hey presto, you have flamenco. It was not until the 19th century that guitars were added to the art form.

Do flamenco dancers have the fastest feet in the world? That’s a debate that has raged for many years, with tap dancers such as dear old Roy Castle and Irish dancers such as Michael Flatley claiming various records – Castle’s 1985 record of one million taps in under 24 hours stands to this day, while Flatley once recorded 35 taps per second – a record broken by his disciple James Devine, who managed 38 in a second in 1998.

It’s flamenco dancers who hold the record for sustained high-speed taps per minute, however – at least according to Guinness World Records. Their record for speedy tap dancing stands at 1,163 taps per minute – impressive, but the number is eclipsed by Spain’s finest. On January 23rd 2009 Rosario Varela set the record for the fastest bailaora, clocking up a phenomenal 1,274 taps in a minute. But she was a relative slowcoach compared with bailaore Israel Vivancos, who recorded 1,317 taps on November 2nd 2012. By anyone’s standards, that’s fast!

Martin Fone is the author of ‘Fifty Curious Questions: Pabulum for the Enquiring Mind’.