“Are you Spanish?”

This is a top question after my flamenco performances in New York City and Sevilla. When my answer is no, I either get disappointment and sudden disinterest, as if what I have just performed is no longer ‘authentic’—even if moments before I was complimented on my dancing; or the reaction is surprise and the audience member is even more impressed by my dancing.  Either way, I am not viewed simply as a flamenco dancer, but as an American flamenco dancer.  In many ways I am an immigrant to the art form to which I have so far dedicated my life.

Flamenco, however, would not exist if it weren’t for migration.  Although a flamenco dancer is often the first image that pops into many tourists’ heads when they think of Spain, this art form originated on the fringes of Spanish society by outcasts and gypsy immigrants. The unique mix between Spanish folk music and the cante jondo, or “deep song”, of the gypsies who immigrated to Spain in the 15th century gave rise to what we know today as flamenco.

Flamenco became a familiar symbol of national identity used to lure tourists to Spain during the regime of Francisco Franco from 1930-1975.  However, this caused a period of decline the art form’s evolution, as anything outside the stereotypical image of flamenco was not marketable to tourists and creativity within the art was nearly impossible.  If artists did not fit Franco’s stereotypical flamenco mold, there was no room for them.  In 1975, with the death of Franco, flamenco experienced a renaissance in which foreign influences became one of the main sources of inspiration.   Now for a second time, flamenco was feeding off of both Spanish and non-Spanish music. The integration of the cajón, or percussive musical box of Peruvian origin, was one of the most important results of flamenco’s new openness and is now an essential part of most flamenco performances.

Flamenco would not have come into existence without immigrants and cultural exchanges, but flamenco is still not an independent Spanish art form.   Like many commodities in the 21st century, the chance of flamenco’s survival without immigrants is nearly impossible.  It is a two-way migration: flamenco is being exported to other countries since artists from Spain find little work, and foreigners are flocking to Spain to ‘live’ flamenco and learn the art in its native environment.

In my experience, there is no substitute for studying flamenco in Spain.  Before I left for Sevilla to study abroad two years ago, I asked my mentor in New York with whom she thought I should study.  I was surprised and did not understand her answer at the time, that it did not matter whose class I took, for me it would be more about experiencing the way of life that gave birth to flamenco than studying.  Now on my second extended trip to Spain, I am realizing how right she was.

Flamenco is an orally transmitted folk art, and the only way to gain a profound understanding of its music and codes is by immersing oneself in the flamenco world completely.  It is just like learning any language; there is only so much you can learn in a classroom. Fluency in a language can only be learned when you are forced to communicate in that tongue and when you understand the language from a cultural as well as technical perspective.

I am just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of dancers that make up the ever-changing flamenco community in Sevilla.  Some come for a month at a time, and some stay for years.  To ‘make it’ as a foreigner within flamenco in Spain is not easy; few foreign dancers and musicians rank among the fully employed flamencos in Spain.  There is a multitude of obstacles for these artists.   Many Spaniards and tourists alike believe that a Spaniard must perform flamenco in order to be ‘authentic.’  Ironically, as flamenco has become a worldwide phenomenon, it is repeating the schism that once existed between gypsies and non-gypsies, now with Spaniards and non-Spaniards; decades ago the question was whether or not a non-gypsy could be ‘flamenco’; now the question is, can a non-Spaniard be ‘flamenco’?

I recently performed in a peña, a club for flamenco aficionados, in Sevilla where I felt a blatant tension in my being from abroad.  Several times the announcer emphasized that I was not from Spain.  He went on to mention that flamenco is becoming more and more universal, as if to convince the public that a foreigner can indeed learn flamenco and has a right to do so.  Nevertheless, there were many stares and whispers as I got up to dance.  I felt I had to prove myself in something that a Spaniard automatically gets approval.

But let’s be real, it’s only foreigners that keep flamenco in business.  The students in classes throughout Spain have very few Spaniards; in my experience maybe one or two per class of 10-15 people.  The seats in tablaos are filled with tourists.  Large theater shows and festivals fill the audience with foreigners who come just for the festivals in Spain.  What’s more, because of the crisis few locals have the money to spend on these expensive theater tickets.  And outside of Spain, flamenco is exported for foreign audiences.

In the Barrio 3000 in Sevilla, where many gypsies reside, you would think you would hear flamenco all the time.  Indeed, you hear rumbas, tangos, and bulerías, but rarely do you hear any of the more profound rhythms.  A flamenco artist rarely develops and learns entirely in the home; rather, to be professional, conservatory study or a master of the arts is required, and very few Spaniards have the money for that with the current economic turmoil in Spain.

As for me, I now recognize myself as a migrant to the art form.  In some ways I feel too American in the sense that I miss my homeland too much to move permanently to Spain.  Yet, I recognize that flamenco loses something when it is exported.  I guess that is a question for all immigrants and all commodities in this global world since identity is closely knit with place and time.  I lose a part of me in Spain, but I lose a part of the art when I perform flamenco in the United States.