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The Independent Culture
A couple dancing the tango are clasped together as one and move with a single snake-like intelligence; a couple dancing flamenco merely occupy the same cage. ''In flamenco you can dance with a man, with a woman or with a guitar,'' says Isabel Munoz whose five-year photographic study of the dance demonstrates that while flamenco may be about passion, it isn't really about sex. People think it is, and it's an easy mistake to make: buxom ladies lifting their skirts in the direction of handsome young bloods in dangerously tight trousers cause the uninitiated to assume that horizontal desires cannot be far away. Not a bit of it. Flamenco at its best is a solo performance, a celebration of the selfish passions of pride and joy and despair. The dancers may occasionally perform in mixed pairs but only so that one monologue may interrupt another. There is no chemistry, no exchange.

The steps themselves are deceptively simple. The alchemy occurs when the dancer takes the basic stamping rhythms and transforms them into an intensely personal expression as the proud arch of the spine, the noble carriage of the head and the demonic growl of the clicking heels combine to work the magic. A slow, almost menacing, beginning will have the dancer measuring the stage with a controlled strut, the pace will quicken then build inexorably as the dancer is goaded by onlookers into a satanic tattoo. Despite the frenzied footwork, much of the power of flamenco lies in moments of stillness: even as the dancer's feet are at their fastest, there will be passages when the body grows eerily calm, the energy focused in the rattle of one trembling heel.

These frozen moments are a gift for the stills photographer. So, too, are the rich textures of the frills and ruffles and the statuesque poses which are both graphic and dramatic. Isabel Munoz deepens this drama by posing the dancers against the crumbling tiles of Seville and Madrid. In conjuring a romantic but plausible context for the dance, she creates something that is both theatre and reportage. Munoz herself doesn't see it that way, however. "It's not really a reportage. I've done my view of what flamenco is. Of the philosophy.'' Yet the decrepit stonework is an essential component. ''I like my images to be as mysterious as possible. I always look for places where the photograph could have been taken 30 years ago.'' Much of the allure lies in such decay, in the tawdriness of its shop-soiled frills. Clean up the act and you risk compromising authenticity and trespassing on tourism. Not only that, a slightly flyblown presentation confirms the pleasurable stereotype of flamenco as a sport practised casually by the gypsies of Andalusia in abject but picturesque poverty.

This romantic view of flamenco, indeed of all native dance traditions, presupposes that the ability to practise it successfully is "in the blood". True, many famous exponents of flamenco were born to it but often only in the sense that their parents were professional flamenco dancers. True, non-Andalusian dancers sometimes perform with less artistry and conviction - you don't have to be Andalusian to dance here, but it helps. However, some of the greatest exponents of the art weren't pure bred. Jose Greco, who enjoyed enormous international success in the Fifties, was half-Italian. And today, a long way from Andalusia, Japanese dancers replicate the steps with astonishing precision. ''Anyone can dance flamenco,'' says Munoz. ''And why not? But you have to feel it. The feelings have no frontiers.'' Louise Levene