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A Dancer’s Disruption of Conservative Flamenco Culture

When I was six and my sister was four, our parents, on holiday in Andalusia, bought us postcards of flamenco dancers. Mine had a yellow dress, and came wearing a real skirt made of lace-edged satin that you could lift up to see the printed version underneath—a talisman of exotic femininity, to the mind of a six-year old boy. When the journalist and filmmaker Ana González was growing up near Madrid, in the nineteen-nineties, flamenco seemed both ubiquitous and retrograde. For González, this exuberant style of dance and music, which emerged in southern Spain, represented a cloying brand of nationalism. “I used to reject the conventional flamenco story, because I associated it with a very conservative tradition,” she said.

It took Manuel Liñán, the subject of “Flamenco Queer,” to change her mind. The film, which González made with her partner, Frederick Bernas, follows Liñán, a seasoned flamenco dancer and choreographer, as he prepares for a big show in the Andalusian city of Granada. In the opening scene, Liñán and five fellow-dancers sit in a horseshoe, clapping and stamping as another dancer storms and twirls in the center. They’re dressed for the stage, with flouncing dresses in gorgeous hues, high-heeled shoes, and lacquered hair. All of them are men, and their performance is revolutionary. “In the world of flamenco, there is a conservative faction, like with society in general,” Liñán explains. “Just for being a man, you’re not allowed to dance in a particular way.” In another scene, we see Liñán, wearing a long polka-dot skirt over Adidas sweatpants, teaching a class of five girls and one boy how to form the sultry hand gestures that are characteristic of the genre. “When I was learning to dance, they told me that I should only move two fingers,” he says, didactically. “That was really boring for me. I preferred the whole hand. I thought it was nicer. But you can choose.” The kids mimic their teacher, holding their hands high above their heads and turning them in graceful, halting circles.

“Art should change with society,” González told me. Bernas agreed. “If you don’t adapt, you become irrelevant,” he said. But art cannot change itself—that requires artists. Liñán began his training while still in kindergarten, and he was performing professionally by the age of thirteen. A clip, preserved on V.H.S., shows him appearing on a children’s television show, dressed in a man’s outfit of a white shirt and black waistcoat, but with the same concentrated pout he wears decades later. The rules of how boys could dance, or what they could wear, were constricting, and at home, in private, Liñán began to experiment with women’s clothing. (His father, a bullfighter, disapproved, but his mother didn’t mind.) As an adult, Liñán’s expertise in the flamenco form gives him the authority to make it his own. On the night of the show, at a theatre in the gardens of the ancient Alhambra palace, he dances solo on a huge stage backed by cypress trees. His dress is geranium red, his movements fluid and entrancing. “In flamenco, I found the most honest way to communicate,” he says, in voice-over. “I transform a private act into a public spectacle.” It’s how artists make change, one by one.


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