What is a “tablao”?

© Photo by Eva Blanch – www.evablanch.com

The RAE defines it simply as “tablado,” a stage dedicated to flamenco singing and dancing. However, tablaos transcend this basic definition. They are sanctuaries of profound artistry, scattered not only throughout Spain but also abroad. Tablaos emerged in the 1920s, evolving from the café cantantes, known as the “cathedrals of duende,” which were the first venues where flamenco was brought to the public after leaving the courtyards and homes of flamenco families. Named after the wooden planks that form their stages, tablaos quickly became renowned as places where one could be assured of experiencing quality flamenco.

That period, during the first half of the 20th century, is known as the era of “flamenco opera.” According to one popular theory, this term arose because promoters registered flamenco shows as opera to benefit from a lower tax rate—3% for opera compared to 10% for variety shows, which would typically include flamenco.

During these years, dance took center stage, and guitar accompaniment became indispensable. The 1960s, marked the golden age of tablaos,, with their peak occurring in Madrid. During that era in the capital, the main tablaos became hubs where singers who left an indelible mark on the history of 20th-century flamenco converged: “You went to Torres Bermejas and there was Camarón, you went to Café de Chinitas and there was Enrique Morente, you went to Corral de la Morería and there was Porrina de Badajoz. I have lived through the best time of flamenco, and all of that gathered here,” Aurora Carbonell, a dancer from the Los Montoyita family and widow of Enrique Morente, recounts those years in the documentary “Rastro flamenco”. Decades later, tablaos persist as venues where the elusive flamenco duende as described by Lorca, thrives— a space for the curious to discover flamenco and for enthusiasts to revel in its artistry. Yet, what truly defines a tablao as a tablao?

Dance as the Focal Point with Singing in the Background

Dance is the soul of tablaos. Of the three jondo disciplines (singing, dance, and guitar playing), dance is undoubtedly the main protagonist on stage. In flamenco peñas, singing takes the lead: ‘cante alante’, as it’s known in flamenco slang when the focus is on the voice. In a tablao, the show showcases a flamenco ensemble with at least three dancers, accompanied by guitarists and singers who provide singing “in the background”. Zapateado takes center stage in a tablao performance, setting it apart from peñas and other flamenco events like concerts or festivals. One distinguishing feature is the slightly elevated stages, almost resembling an altar. This positioning ensures that the dancers are above eye level, allowing their movements to be fully appreciated by the audience.

“It’s a meeting place where fans can see flamenco in its most natural state,” Mimo Agüero, director of Tablao de Carmen, defines it. . It’s also a starting point for young beginners. Onstage, they learn one of the main reasons for flamenco’s existence: improvisation and personal expression. Additionally, it’s a place where the essence of being a joyful meeting spot is kept alive, with flamenco and artists always in focus, drawing a diverse audience.

Once the flamenco performance begins, the ensemble has only settled on the style to be played; the remainder unfolds in the moment. “Until you step onto a tablao, you don’t truly learn, because I haven’t learned anywhere else but here,” reflects Tere Salazar, a dancer in her twenties from Tablao de Carmen.

Many artists who performed here in their youth over our 35-year history have become seasoned performers, including Sara Baras, Eva Yerbabuena, El Yiyo, and even Rosalía. And every night, we continue to bring promising young talents. But the magic of a tablao is very difficult to explain in writing… come to Tablao de Carmen and see it with your own eyes.