Flamenco Dancing In Spain
by Wendy King
All eyes were on the voluptuous female flamenco dancer in a white dress speckled with large red flowers. As she glided slowly around the stage, hips swaying, she caressed the air with her hands. Then she stopped and attacked the floor with her heels in a roar. Graceful, sultry, confident, Manuela Carrasco showed us that night how one dances flamenco in Seville.
After studying flamenco dance for three years and daydreaming of seeing flamenco performed where it originated, I joined eight flamenco aficionados on Flamenco Tour's 14-day guided flamenco journey through southern Spain. By day, we explored the historical sites of Andalusia where flamenco was born, and by night we haunted the flamenco venues.
"The goal of the tour was to expose people to the different varieties of flamenco in its native environment and to increase public knowledge and appreciation of this unique art form," said Daniela Mundt, the then tour organizer and leader.
In 1999, Daniela, who studied Spanish, graphic design and flamenco in Spain, started Flamenco Tour with her partner, Eric Schnell, who grew up in Spain. Eric now leads the tours and Daniela serves as a consultant.
The tour began in Madrid, and our first flamenco excursion was to the modest two-room shop of master craftsman Victor Galliano, who has been making castanets for 50 years. Photos of flamenco icons Jose Greco and Antonio Gades as well as castanet samples lined the walls of the tiny front room.
Galliano's castanets are in demand by professional dancers for their deep rich sound, as factory-made castanets create a high-pitched, less desirable tone. He described the hours-long process of carving a pair of castanets from fiberboard and testing the resonance. No wonder Galliano is considered the best castanet maker.
A two-hour ride on the AVE train transported us south to Cordoba, which from 700 to 1200 a.d. was the capital of Al-Andalus - the name given to Southern Spain by the Muslims who ruled the region for 400 years. It is known today as Andalusia.
We rambled along the centuries-old narrow streets in the former Jewish and Muslim quarters of the city, peering through tiled door entries of houses and catching glimpses of fountains in courtyards. It was as if time had stood still.
We visited one of Cordoba's jewels, the Mezquita, a mosque built between the 8th and 10th centuries which later became a Christian cathedral. Throughout the structure,
Islamic and Christian architecture intertwined. Walking amongst the pillars and under the red and white striped arches, I imagined the sanctuary packed with worshippers of both faiths. In the late afternoon, we relaxed in the refreshingly cool gardens of the Alcazar, a royal palace built by the Moors.
At Le Cardenal, we saw our first flamenco show, or tablao, where Antonio and Victoria Palacios and company danced as we sipped Spanish wine. My favorite dance was the romantic guiyaras, in which three women danced with fans.
Hopping on the AVE train again, we traveled to Seville to attend the Bienal de Flamenco, the month-long flamenco festival held every two years in September and where the best flamenco dancers, singers and musicians are invited to perform. First held in 1980, the Bienal is considered to be the world's most important flamenco event.
The Bienal had it all, taking us on a journey through traditional and contemporary flamenco dance, song, and music. We saw the legendary dance companies of the Galvan family, Manuela Carrasco, and Antonio El Pipa. I especially enjoyed watching an army of male flamenco dancers thunder onto the stage, and female dancers adorned in the traditional, tiered ruffled dress, bata de cola.
A very memorable outdoor midnight concert took place in Triana, the heart and soul of Seville's flamenco world. The sounds of cante chico (light songs) and cante jondo (deep soulful songs) filtered in the autumn night behind the Hotel Triana, fringed shawls cascading down its balconies.
One evening, we visited
La Carboneria at the Tamboril in Plaza Santa Cruz, a neighborhood club packed with young Sevillanos socializing and dancing the sevillanas, the signature dance of the city. Some of us joined them. At midnight, patrons held a brief mass for the Virgin of Rocio, who is greatly loved by the city.
Seville is a shopping paradise for flamenco admirers, with shops filled with flamenco attire - shoes, skirts and dresses, fans, shawls, hair combs, gaucho hats, pins, castanets, and earrings. At Maria Rosa's shop, I chose to have a black skirt made with red ruffles peeking underneath. Although I could never match the artistry of my new idol Carrasco, at least I would look and feel like a flamenco diva as I practiced footwork in class back home.
In Jerez de la Frontera, considered the birthplace of flamenco, we visited the Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, a school, library and museum dedicated to the art of flamenco. In the library, I opted to see video clips of legendary dancer Cristina Hoyos, singer El Camaron, and my new
favorite Carrasco. The center was flamenco heaven.
Scholars and followers debate the origin of flamenco. Most agree that the Moorish and gypsy cultures forged the dance. The Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century, and the gypsies migrated from northwest India, arriving in Andalusia in the 15th century. Spaniards first used "flamenco" to describe the songs and dances performed by
Andalusian soldiers returning from Flanders, unaware of its Andalusian roots. The consensus is that flamenco mirrors the passion and suffering of the gypsies.
That evening we took taxis to El Laga de Tio Parrilla to see flamenco students perform the bulerias, the wild, frenzied dance of the city. I envied their high level of artistry. Flamenco seemed second nature to them. How I wished I had grown up in Andalusia, soaking up the movements and rhythms.
We next ventured to Granada, once the capital of Al-Andalus, visiting the Alhambra and its gardens. Later on a walk in the Albayzin, the old Muslim quarter of the
city, we found sanctuary from a downpour in an Arab teahouse, where we ate almond cakes and sipped teas of orange, jasmine, cinnamon, cardamom and bergamot. As I drank from my cup, I imagined the mighty sultans of the Moorish Empire drinking the same brew on similar rainy evenings.
A mini-bus whisked us up that evening to Los Tarantos, a small club located in a cave in the Albayzin hills. Our front row seats enabled us to see the footwork, or taconeo, at close range. A young girl, flamenco's future, danced fearlessly. The raw technique of an adult female soloist, her heel askew, was just as alluring as the professionals we saw in Seville. Dancing the people's flamenco, she could have been Bizet's inspiration for Carmen.
At Madrid's intimate Casa Patas, considered by many to be the best place to see flamenco in Spain's capital, we savored our final flamenco tablao at midnight. With the audience's verbal encouragement, the singers, guitarists, and the dancers, sweat trickling down their faces, abandoned themselves to duende, the soulful trance-like state to which they aspire.
With its intermingling of the Moorish and gypsy cultures, flamenco shows how different worlds can come together to generate enduring beauty. Not only did I see the royal court of flamenco on that trip, I also gained insight into Andalusia's past and pre-sent: its pulse, spirit and essence. When I resumed my flamenco lessons back home, I noticed I danced better, with more emotion. Perhaps a bit of duende returned with me.
For information on Flamenco Tour (formerly Andalus Tours), contact Eric Schnell: Phone: 408-504-6017; Website: www.flamenco-tour.com; E-mail:www.flamenco-tour.com.