Feel Aura of Flamenco in Seville, Birthplace of Traditional Spanish Dance
Experiencing flamenco in Seville is the most direct way to connect with one of the world's iconic expressions of culture. While the dance is closely associated with the country as a whole, its birthplace is Seville. The flamenco dance of Spain embodies a diverse cultural heritage that is alluring, hypnotic and deeply moving. We'll share the history of flamenco in Seville through the voices of its artists and aficionados.
Perhaps to the tinkling of mules’ bells or the steady clip-clop of horses’ hooves or the rhythmic rolling of wagon wheels, all roads led to Seville for an eclectic mix of future Andalusians. Those wanderers who found a home here included Semitic traders of silver, ivory and apes at the time of Solomon, North African Arabs seeking to spread the fledgling Muslim faith in the 8th century, and nomadic gypsies arriving in caravans from India in the early 15th century. These cultural ambassadors converged in Andalusia carrying with them the music of their homelands–Jewish psalmodic melodies, Byzantine and Muslim chants, and ancient Hindu chords.
An Introduction to Traditional Spanish Dance, Flamenco in Seville
Allow me to share my immersion in flamenco, a beloved traditional Spanish dance, and evidence of the flamenco connection with all corners of Seville. Let me introduce some of Seville’s flamenco standard-bearers, and give you a sense of their creativity, expression and passion. Let me share my encounter with duende, the spirit of flamenco, and an introduction to its guiding principle of sello propio, or “personal stamp” of individuality.
I met a new friend, Judy Cotter, a university professor originally from California who has made Seville home for more than two decades. We set off for the Museum of Flamenco Dance, winding our way through the eccentric labyrinth that is Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz. Without my resident guide, I would have been hopeless — although probably quite happily — lost in the neighborhood’s maze of colorful and quirky cobblestone lanes.
Crumbling white-washed buildings leaned in over narrow streets, their walls like stretched canvases daubed in the corners with radiant shrines to favored saints. The Plaza Alfaro here is said to have inspired the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet;” most buildings were adorned with these artful appendages, crafted by artisans who took care to tile even their undersides with brightly-patterned tiles, the better for voyeurs like me to take in with tilted heads. Behind the elaborate scrollwork of wrought-iron gates, scores of leafy ferns and ficus trees were symmetrically spaced in secret courtyards, like botanic pieces on a giant chessboard.
Despite the votive offerings in niches embedded in walls along each block, the Barrio Santa Cruz in fact is the city’s old judería or Jewish quarter. When Ferdinand III of Castile conquered the city from Muslim rule, he concentrated the city’s Jewish population — second in the Iberian Peninsula only to that of Toledo — in this single neighborhood. After the Alhambra Decree of 1492 expelled the Jews from Spain, the neighborhood declined, eventually undergoing urban renewal in the 18th century.
Museum of Flamenco Dance
The Museum of Flamenco Dance is housed in a building from this era known as a Casa de Palacio and showcases the art form with a dramatic flair befitting its flamboyant style. The renowned flamenco dancer Cristina Hoyos was the mastermind behind the museum, which opened in 2006. Cristina, one of the most important and respected dancers of late, grew up in the very same streets where the museum is now located. She has worked with many of the legends of flamenco dance, and different areas of the museum are dedicated to her teachers and associates, including Antonio Gades, Enrique el Cojo and Pilar Lopez.
According to anthropologist and flamenco dancer Clara Chinoy, in an earlier era, artists of flamenco frequently stayed in their pueblo, and if someone wanted to hear or see them, they had to go there. Chinoy noted these performers didn’t have recordings or television or video, as they do today, and thus they didn’t see a lot of other dance or music styles, and so the variety of influences on their art was kept to a minimum. At the same time, the pool of artists was smaller and from a more homogeneous community, meaning that the aesthetic and canons of the art form were more generally taken for granted than they might be now.
Manuel Macias, Director of Seville Congress & Convention Bureau, explained to me that today flamenco in Seville encompasses a range of diverse styles — with some 73 distinct genres. There is a base, which is the rhythm and from that, there are many variations. For instance, one style is the Fandango — of which there are more than 60 different types.
A Modern Flamenco Star
Chinoy pointed to Belen Maya as a flamenco artist of the modern generation. She said that Belen, who grew up in part in the United States, has had extensive training in flamenco, and has also been strongly influenced by other dance styles. Chinoy believes Belen’s process of finding her personal style has been characteristic of her generation and very influential for those dancing today.
“Belen says that personal stamp in flamenco is different, because in other types of dance it is very difficult to stand out from a mass of people, you must be very brilliant, or have a great deal of talent,” Chinoy told me. “In flamenco the personality of each person comes out easily, right away, and in fact, that helps you. Belen also commented that in the current day, there are so many influences and such extensive training in flamenco that it has been harder for young artists to find their own style.”
According to Chinoy, when she asked Belen how she would describe her own personal style, she cited her use of theatrical elements, in the sense that her dances always have a story, a beginning and an end, as if she were a character. Belen suggested to Chinoy that this theatricality is in part a heritage from her mother, Carmen Mora, and particularly her father, Mario Maya, saying she received from her mother a certain theatrical presence and from her father, the way of understanding the structure of a dance, something a little more cerebral.
Read: Learn about one of the most famous dancers of Flamenco in Seville, Victor Bravo!
Rasgueado, The Base of the Flamenco Guitar Vocabulary
Chinoy noted that a major impetus in flamenco’s ongoing evolution is the process of creating out of one’s own idiosyncrasies — be they advantages or shortcomings. She singled out Juan Maya Marote, who invented a kind of rasgueado — a percussive strumming technique–which has become a basic part of the Flamenco guitar vocabulary.
“Marote told me that because his little finger is missing a joint, it’s shorter than everyone’s, so he started to play the guitar with three fingers, when everyone else was using four,” Chinoy explained. “He did rasgueado with three fingers and it came out cojo — literally, ‘lame.’ But, with a great deal of hard work, that rasgueado eventually came out so round and even, that today it is a basic ingredient of flamenco guitar technique.”
“Marote didn’t decide that he couldn’t be a flamenco guitarist because he had a short little finger and therefore would never play a perfect four-fingered rasgueado, nor did he try to hide the defect — either of which would be likely to happen in the world of classical music,” Chinoy said. “Rather, he took that idiosyncrasy and struggled with it, until he actually created something new that worked within the canons of flamenco sound. And in spite of the increasing technicality and perfectionism of modern flamenco in Seville, this personal idiosyncrasy generally is still an important ingredient in what makes a great flamenco artist.”
Savage, Pure, and a Constant Explosion
As I toured the Museum, the sounds of flamenco reverberated throughout its interior, where a monument to an unheralded feature of flamenco holds a place of prominence. Suspended from the ceiling of the four-story building’s atrium is a mobile-type sculpture of the high-backed Andalusian chairs commonly used by flamenco guitarists. These symbols of Andalusia float above the courtyard and are visible from throughout the building.
The Museum hosts performances after closing and I was privileged to be among an intentionally small audience enjoying the artistry from close proximity to the dramatically-lit stage. In the intimate setting and over the span of an hour, I felt the depth and spectrum of human emotion from soaring joy to profound sadness, through the expressiveness of the artists baring their souls on the stage.
The evening’s finale featured a young Asian bailaora, who somewhat timidly joined the professionals onstage. Any hint of insecurity vanished when she began to move to — and channel — the music. Her zapateo, or footwork, and duende culminated in enthusiastic cries of “Ole,” “Arsa” and “Za, za, za” from her fellow artists on the tablao and those of us in the audience.
“Flamenco is savage, pure, a constant explosion of feelings that doesn’t lose its energy,” he declared. “Everything is channeled to create the magic — the ambience, the air, the walls, the public, the lights. There is an energetic communion of the artist and the audience and it creates a world.”
Respect for Cultural Diversity
That assessment of flamenco as a “world” was echoed by Ms. Maria Angeles Albert de Leon, Spain’s Director of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets.
“Flamenco reflects that respect for cultural diversity, for creativity and for other communities because it has turned into an element of cultural dialogue where there is room for everyone: from students and foreigner artists who fall in love with this art and leave everything to live it, know it and enjoy it in first person to the new generation of artists who experiment and mix with other cultural forms,” she said, “It has always been this way: from the beginning of the exchange between Gypsies and Andalusia until today, when the dialogue is between different countries where the actors are Japanese, Mexican or Canadian.”
“In every spot of Andalusia you can feel and live flamenco in an authentic way–both the most orthodox singing recitals or the most avant-garde performances are equally genuine,” she continued. “Today it has turned into a stronger link which has made a deep impression in the Andalusian society and which arouses the international community’s interest. Flamenco does not only entertain with shows and it is not only a research and study subject: it’s is also an intercultural bridge bringing peoples closer.”
Enjoying An Average Day in Seville
On my second day in Seville, as I stepped out onto the sunlit cobblestones of the narrow street, I heard the unmistakable sound of a glorious day being heralded. Trumpets blared, drums rolled and cymbals clashed — literally. I recognized the brassy strains of a parade in progress and kicked up my heels, hurriedly heading to face the music. I sometimes have a knack for stumbling upon unexpected celebrations when traveling and Seville was smiling upon me.
With my ears as my guide, I trotted through maze-like lanes until I caught up with the tail end of a long line of marching band clubs at the broad boulevard of Paseo de Colon on the banks of the river Guadalquivir. The troop, a cross-section of Sevillenos, took a breather in front of Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza and enjoyed a few moments of camaraderie, many of them lighting up cigarettes. Their crisp navy uniforms stood in contrast to the golden hues of the bullring’s Neoclassical façade looming behind them.
Whatever one might think about the Spanish bullfighting ritual, the elegant architecture of these plazas feels inspired. Seville’s bullring dates from 1762 -1881 and was immortalized in Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” which centers on a fiery gypsy whose free-spirited ways hasten her end.
Read: Meet Blanca Espigares Rooney, an architect at the University of Seville, to learn the secrets of the Alhambra of Granada.
Flamenco in Seville Survived by Gypsy Community
The gypsy community is alive and well in Seville today, an important part of the city’s cultural fabric and history. Indeed, the gitanos are credited with being the catalytic force behind the creation of flamenco, of which Seville has long been considered the epicenter.
“The gypsies left India in the 6th century and were wanderers through Africa and Europe,” Manuel Macías, Director of Seville Congress & Convention Bureau told me. “It is said that gypsies travelled in one huge caravan to Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq, where they split into two routes. There is evidence one group came through the east, and Hungary, Romania and Central Europe, then crossed through France and the Pyrenees into Spain.”
“While there is no proven history on this, it is said that a second branch of this caravan came through Egypt, where they worked in the mines,” he continued. “The reference of the gypsies working in Egyptian mines is very weak and comes from some flamenco lyrics. Nowadays it is said by experts that current gypsies coming from this flow have blonde hair and blue or green eyes. These were known as the gitanos béticos–Baetica was the name of Andalucia in Roman times.”
During my own wanderings in Seville and other parts of Andalusia, I got glimpses of the lore behind the renowned gypsy roaming. These stories were often shared with cautionary caveats that many were without evidence and could just as easily be manufactured myth. Yet the people passing on these legends did so with obvious delight. I was only too pleased to receive the tales in the same spirit. There is no denying the appeal for the romantic rebel in all of us of a mysterious, eternal existence in exile, one with few responsibilities–and perhaps royal roots.
The Cultural Legacy of 15th Century Gypsies
One story I heard claimed the gypsies descend from the Egyptian pharaohs; the term gitano is said to derive from “egipciano” or “egiptano.” Another explained that their nomadic lifestyle resulted from refusing to help Mary and Joseph. Yet another legend tells of a gypsy blacksmith being asked to fashion four nails. While forging the fourth, he was told they were to be used for Christ’s crucifixion. The flaming-hot nail was dropped and has ever since pursued and haunted the gypsies.
According to Macias, the gitanos béticos are well-integrated among Andalucian natives, many with jobs in agriculture or related to animals, mainly horses–where they are regarded as highly-skilled.
“The important point is that gypsies are all over the world–but only in Andalucía did they perform flamenco!” Macias exclaimed. “When they arrived in Spain in 1475 a special mixture occurred, with the gypsy rhythms combining with the influences of many civilizations that had left their seal on Andalucía — Greeks, from ancient Crete, Romans, Phoenicians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.”
Throughout my travels, it was easy to see how Andalucía had enticed all these cultures, even the wandering gitanos béticos, to call this region home. Most believe like Macias that it was the gypsies who stirred the cultural pot, adding more than a dash of their own spices, to create the artistic gazpacho of flamenco, today consider as the quintessential emblem of Andalucia.
“Flamenco music is Andalusian history,” declared Judy, the professor of Spanish culture and art history. “When the gypsies arrived from their ancestral home of India in 1477, they encountered almost eight centuries of Arabic musical tradition and over 10 centuries of Jewish musical elements. Both the Arabic muecin who called the faithful to prayer and the Jewish cantor intoned the “Oriental scale” based upon quarter-tones and eighth-tones, which still today give the flamenco song its “wailing” quality. It also lends flamenco cante, or song, its great emotive and creative quality.”
“The notes sung cannot be written down in Western sheet music,” she added. “Hence practicing and rehearsing in the traditional sense are not part of the flamenco repertoire. The singing is an explosion of a particular emotion that is unique and unrepeatable.”
Fitting of an art form that exudes mystery, sensuality and the exotic, the very origins of the name “flamenco” is uncertain. Consensus is that its origins come from the Arabic Felah-Mengu which means “wandering country person.”
Tablao El Arenal Explains Mysterious Spirit of Duende
If Seville is flamenco’s mecca, then the Tablao El Arenal is where aficionados come to pay homage to some of the art’s brightest stars.
El Arenal means “the sandy area” from the word arena, meaning “sand.” For about 300 years, from the discovery of the Americas to the end of the 17th century, Seville was one of the most important ports in the world, referred to as “The Port and Portal” to America. The entire riverbank is referred to as El Arenal; it is one of Seville’s many barrios, vying with Triana across the river, El Centro, and La Macarena for being one of the city’s most historic and emblematic neighborhoods.
Fran Velez manages the renowned Tablao El Arenal, which was opened in 1975 by his father and mother, Curro and Antonia. The couple were famous flamenco dancers who bridged the world between gypsies and non-gypsies through their continent-hopping performances.
The Essence of a Gypsy Soul
Fran’s father grew up in la Cava de los Gitanos in Triana and began dancing when he was 12. His mother was not a gypsy and was already dancing when they met. Curro was described to me variously as gorgeous in a rough-hewn way, swashbuckling, and mysterious-looking. I was told that he and Antonia were profoundly connected both artistically and emotionally, and that Curro was devastated when she died. While Antonia’s DNA may not have been gypsy, it was said to me that she was the very essence of gypsy soul.
Curro collected antiques, as well as Spanish and taurine art and many of these pieces contribute to the rich atmosphere of El Arenal. Works by the early 20th-century Spanish impressionist painter Sorolla adorned the walls, and beautiful bronze sculptures of bull-fighters and flamenco dancers graced niches and pedestals.
While gypsies are very much a part of Andalucia’s broader community, Curro was one of the first gypsy impresarios, parlaying his performance career into a successful business enterprise and integrating into the payo, or non-gypsy, community through his ambition. He and Antonia were known for their active management of the tablao, attending every single performance, fussing over details and quick to rebuke any member of the audience not paying sufficient attention with a pointed “Shhhhh.”
The Importance of Duende
I joined Fran at his corner table, where he had a bird’s eye view of the room. A dapper man in a crisp white shirt set off with gleaming cuff links and an ascot, we spoke through an interpreter. I recognized Fran’s command of English couldn’t have been too bad as he often began answering my questions in Spanish before they had been translated.
Fran told me that most of the artists he hires come to him seeking an audition, although sometimes he will seek them out. He mentioned a new performer who would be dancing, a gypsy named Moises. With an admiring grin, Fran described how the newcomer had just shown up one day and wanted to try out. There are now more than 15 artists with the tablao–more than half of the dancers are gypsies; the singers are almost always gypsies.
I asked Fran about duende, a term I had heard used to describe certain performers.
“For duende to appear, the artists have to be in the right place, connected with themselves and each other,” Velez said. “If the public is receptive, they transmit that interior force. The environment has to be intimate, being close is important.”
“Some of the flamenco evolution is good, and some is screwing it up,” he continued. “Flamenco in Seville has its roots–you can evolve but you should never forget your roots. When people make a spectacle out of it, go for it, but don’t call it flamenco. Clubs in Malaga and along the coast have bastardized it.”
While no doubt Fran had a vested interest in his chosen style of presentation, he felt a great conviction that Tablao El Arenal’s intimate approach to the art was the correct one. I was about to experience the palpable force made possible by that kind of proximity, the phenomenon of duende, defined by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “a mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher can explain.”
Palmas, Pitos & Bailaor
As I took my seat at a banquette that abutted the small stage, the house lights lowered. At the back of the stage against the wall were five men in black. Three were seated at high-backed chairs, flanked by two men who stood. The men sitting began playing their guitars, weaving together meandering rhythms, as the two men standing began laying down a syncopated percussion beat that at first I found awkward and irregular, but within moments had me mesmerized.
The flamenco clapping is known as palmas and the finger-snapping is called pitos. Many flamenco elements are onomatopoeic: the sound of the blacksmith’s anvil created the martinete; rhythms of different gaits of horse hoof-beats inspired the intricate footwork.
The first dancer, or bailaor, to take the stage was the newly-hired Moises, wearing a fitted jumpsuit, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. One of the men standing uttered an earthy cry that lowered into a chant and then soared into a righteous proclamation, lowering again into what sounded like an insistent warning. The singer segued from one mood to another, and the bailaor went with him, as did each performer on stage.
The call and response became fiercer and wilder, whipping into a crescendo. I was transported by the savage grace and proud bearing of the dancer, the alternately tender finger work and fierce strumming by the guitarists and the lilt and keen of the cantaor’s voice.
Duende an Intangible Part of Flamenco in Seville
Drenched in sweat, his wet hair flying, Moises seemed to have been elevated to another realm, his eyes wide with rapture, when his neck scarf fell to the floor. In a fluid motion he kicked it toward my ringside seat, where it landed on the tablecloth. I realized I had been holding my breath and exhaled deeply, joining the rest of the audience in heartfelt applause.
“Duende is something you are born with or not,” Maria Angeles Carrasco of Agencia Andaluza para el Desarrollo del Flamenco later told me. “It’s an intangible part of flamenco that can’t be explained, that either happens or it doesn’t. You have it, or you don’t have it. In some performances, the magic of duende may appear, or not, depending on the venue, the atmosphere, the people, the small details.”
“But duende is not only a moment, or improvisation,” she continued. “Flamenco is a very defined art. You must train for many years to develop the skills–singing, dancing or playing the guitar. And once you have mastered these facets, you can improvise. The duende may appear. But if you don’t have the skills, if you don’t have the technique, duende is not possible.”
Moises most certainly had it, as did the other performers I came to know that night.
Conveying Intense Emotion Through Flamenco in Seville
In the next set, an older woman named Carmen took the stage, walking toward the audience with the saunter of a seasoned veteran, her legs surprisingly shapely for her years. She issued a few emphatic claps, as if a mother claiming our respect. Looking out, she spoke to the audience in a matter-of-fact way, appearing to be conversing with us. All while, she paced across the stage, snapping her fingers and sizing us up with a shrewd eye.
Adjusting the shawl or manton around her shoulders, she sat down in a small chair center stage and began to shake her finger at the audience as she sang in a weary, hoarse voice. The beat of the song seemed tailor-made for someone of her stature, and she seemed to be saying “I am going to tell you something important about life, and you better listen.” Behind her, each of the men periodically shouted out, as if underscoring a vital point.
According to flamencologist Mariano Baguena, flamenco does not depend so much upon vocal perfection as on the ability of the singer to convey an intense emotion – and on the receptivity of the listener as well. The flamenco perfomer expresses in his tone, in the harsh quality of his voice, all the suffering of his life and of his people.
"Singing of Sorrow, Sorrow is Forgotten"
“You can be short, crippled, fat, homely and ancient, and still have duende,” observed Judy Cotter. “Carmen’s got it. She is, in fact, the matriarch of one of the most important gypsy flamenco families in Spain – the Montoya’s. The famous guitarist Carlos Montoya was a member of this family. Carmen is now in her mid-to-late seventies. When she moves and emotes, the duende is released. Everyone is her captive and can see glimpses of a beautiful, sexy and passionate female, a true inner beauty.”
“Carmen’s son died several years ago” Judy told me. “I didn’t see her perform for several weeks afterwards, but on the night she returned, I was moved beyond words by her heartfelt, heart-wrenching performance. She sang like I had never heard her sing before; she keened on the stage; her heart was rent asunder and it was not just a performance.”
“After the show, I approached her to give her my condolences on the death of her son and my congratulations and admiration for her performance,” she continued. “She told me that her son was the energy behind the performance and that she was singing and moving for him, releasing her demons in a cathartic explosion over which she had no control. A Spanish line describes a degree of this same feeling: Cantando la Pena, la Pena se Olvida, or ‘Singing of sorrow, sorrow is forgotten.’”
The next bailaor to take the stage goes by the nick-name of “Antoñete.” I learned that most performers use one-name monikers and was told that only Fran’s accountant at El Arenal likely knew the last names of the tablao’s artists.
A sleek man with not an ounce of body fat, his motions were both electric and fluid, with no wasted movements. His performance was a high voltage from his first step through what must have been his millionth; Antoñete struck me as likely the fastest human being on the planet. At the dramatic conclusion of his piece, he displayed a long sequence of rapid-fire leg motions, in which his legs seemed to vibrate.
This leg-work is called zapateado, with taconeo referring specifically toheel-work. In order to perform the technique properly, the dancer has to “sit” – meaning to bend his or her legs slightly so the knees don’t lock. This releases them to perform the rapid leg-work, which is enhanced by the shoes and the platform. The wooden platform is called a “tabletop” or tablao in Andalucian slang–also the name for the flamenco clubs. The dancing is always performed on a wooden surface in order for the golpes, or “blows,” of the shoes to resonate.
All flamenco dancers’ shoes have a corrugated rubber sole on the ball of the foot, for traction. The tips of the shoes and the heels have had tiny nails hammered in–the point, of course, is cut off. In this way the striking of the nails on the wooden platform creates a sound akin to the tap, but the flamenco dancer’s shoe is not a solid piece of metal, so the sound produced is different and unique.
Antoñete’s artistry and stamina were astounding and clearly deeply respected by his peers. Throughout his performance, the guitarists and cantaors smiled and cried out with sounds of support — either Olé!” or Eso e, meaning “Way to go!” At the zenith of the dance, Antoñete’s hair was dripping, his nostrils flared, and lips moving. One of the singers who had been watching with awe, moved out toward him, and put his arm round him, shouting exuberantly. It seemed the entire audience sat back, happily depleted, when Antoñete took his bows.
A Robe With a Tail
If Antoñete was motion personified, the next performer put a human face on the quality of balance. The women’s name was Maria, and she wore a dress with a long train–I later learned this costume is called a bata de cola – a “robe with a tail.” The “tail” is enormously heavy–8-10 pounds–and no doubt it had to be extremely difficult and physically taxing to maneuver gracefully while, at the same time, concentrating on leg work and arm work. The precision and style of Maria’s braceo, or arm motion, in and of itself seemed like an entire language.
If one observes the hands of a female flamenco dancer, the motions very much simulate the sensual movement of the snake. The motions are begun by leading with the middle finger, “the “heart finger” and forming a circle with the thumb. According to Cotter, in the Andalucian city of Cadiz, 1,500-year-old frescoes were found on the walls of an ancient temple depicting earth goddesses. The women’s hands held writhing snakes, a symbol of fertility.
Like Antoñete, Maria enthralled both the audience and her fellow artists. She reeled about the very small stage, engaging in repeated bouts of intense spinning that would have challenged someone without a 10-pound appendage. The performance required supernatural balance, as well as an acute awareness of the physical space around her. Breathing heavily and clenching her jaw , she spun like a top, twirling the tail dexterously this way and that, moving dangerously close to the musicians and then backing away.
Flamenco in Seville Takes Superhuman Powers
There was a strong element of suspense in the air — would she be able to exercise the seemingly inhuman focus and concentration necessary to bring the performance to its conclusión? She herself exuded utter confidence as to where the tail would land in relation to her fellow performers and even the audience– a miscalculation could have meant her “tail” ending up in my tapas!
Just like those of us in the audience, the performers on stage with Maria couldn’t take their eyes off her, their countenances lit with amazement and joy. As her spinning reached its apex, the guitarists and cantaors each called out her name, punctuated with a cry of Vámonos! or Guapa! When the dance was done, the audience stood and cheered, as if for a champion matador who had impressively wielded a magnificent cape.
I ended my day as it had begun, mesmerized by music on the banks of Seville’s Guadalquivir. In this city, a visiting payo can cheer a parade in the morning and bailaors at midnight, and, in between, enjoy roaming its charming streets. With a little luck, chances are some duende will be discovered along the way.
Private Lessons Transmit Tranquility
The taxi driver inserted a cd into the player on his dashboard and the car flooded with the evocative sounds of flamenco guitar. The music offered a fitting score for our drive toward the studio of renowned flamenco dancer, or bailaor, known simply as Antoñete, located in the neighborhood of La Macarena. As I watched the barrio’s street lamps begin to twinkle in the dusk, the husky voice of a singer rose in a melancholy melody to the chords.
I asked the name of the singer. “Pansequito,” said the taxi driver with a smile. He explained that the nickname means “Dried Bread,” an affectionate reference to the singer’s rough voice, perfectly suited for conveying the raw emotion of flamenco’s many moods.
This barrio’s name comes from the Arabic meaning “gate,” and the medieval wall that runs through it is punctuated by several major arches. The neighborhood is best known as being home to the Virgen de la Macarena, a wooden statue of which dates from the 17th century and can be found in the Basilica.
Flamenco in Seville A Way to Enjoy Exercise
Flamenco in Seville is not limited to performances in tablaos--it is a part of everyday life for many aficionados. After reaching Antoñete’s flamenco studio, inside I found a half-dozen women following in his footsteps, mimicking his movements as he counted off beats, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro!” With the last syllables uttered, all heels slammed on the floor, hitting it hard. He invited them to repeat the footwork again and again, moving from one woman to the next to adjust their posture, their arms, their hands, their waists.
“A teacher needs to be able to transmit his tranquility,” Antoñete said later. “If he is too demanding, the students become demoralized. A person doesn’t need to learn quickly; some have more faculty than others. The principal thing is to like it.”
Maite Sedarra, a woman in her thirties, had been taking lessons for 1 ½ months.
“I have been unemployed since August and I’ve always wanted to study flamenco,” she said. “Now seemed like the time to do for myself what I have always wanted. It’s very difficult for me, but I love it — it’s the only kind of exercise I enjoy.”
Loving Flamenco in Seville From a Young Age
Antoñete has operated his studio for two years. He accepts a maximum of 14 people for the beginner’s class, which starts in September and goes until June. For private lessons, held twice a week for a month, the cost is fifty-five euro.
Antoñete was raised in Cadiz; he is the only person in his family involved with flamenco. He said it was “complicated” for any young man who liked ballet or dancing. When he was nine years old and in grammar school, he would watch a class through a window. Looking longingly through its iron bars, he learned to dance the Sevillenas. One day the teacher saw him and invited him in. He began dancing with a girl who became his partner for many years.
Antoñete became a professional at age 15 and has been in Seville now for 16 years, 12 as an El Arenal artist. One of the pieces I saw him perform had been with a partner of another sort — a pair of castanets. I had marveled at his concentration and ability to focus on creating one beat with his footwork and another with these hand-held instruments.
Keeping the Beat with Castanets & Cajon
“The history of castanets comes from the early times of Andalucia’s history,” explained Manuel Macias, Director of Seville Congress & Convention Bureau. “In Roman times, the writer Pliny the Elder wrote about Cádiz female dancers, who went to Rome to dance with crotalos, or a kind of castanets made of clamshells. Later, there were castanets crafted of special wood and ebony. Now most of them are made of fiberglass. The only castanet factories are located in Seville.”
“It’s a percussion instrument and there was a period in which it was used by almost all dancers, male and female,” he continued. “Later, the use of castanets declined and now they are used again and accepted as a virtuose musical instrument. In fact, there are some castanets concertists, such as Lucero Tena, and currently, one of the producers of castanets in Seville, Pepe Vela is a very good performer.”
“A recent evolution in the music is the Cajon, a wooden percussion box brought to Andalucia in the 1970s by Paco De Lucia who saw it in Lima,” Macias said. “He thought it was a good instrument to stress the rhythm of flamenco. In fact, it was the percussionist Ruben Dantas, who played with Paco de Lucía who realized the use of this instrument as a way to amplify the palmas, or hand clapping.”
“There are flamenco artists that do not like to use the cajon as they say it is not a pure flamenco instrument and the percussion must be performed by just hand-clapping or with the dancer’s shoes,” He continued. “We cannot say that use of the cajon is a significant evolution in flamenco music but we can say that it represents an open door to dialogue with other music and cultures. This is one of the most significant keys about current flamenco: it is still under development thanks to the inclusion and experience with all kind of music and dances. It is truly open art.”
Mother-Daughter Dressmakers Elevate Regional Costume to Art Form
That openness extends beyond the music itself to encompass an entire fashion movement –- one that is based on styles in which Andalucian peasants dressed centuries ago, that today is haute couture created for clients on other continents.
“There is a common factor in women’s style of a long skirt with ruffles,” Macias told me. “It is a big industry, with handcrafted special clothes for big artists but it is also a popular fashion. If you walk along the streets of Seville, you will see the windows of many shops offering flamenco clothes for regular people.”
Indeed, as I wandered through a commercial area not far from Plaza del Triunfo in the heart of Seville’s historic center, my eye was drawn to a storefront named Aurora, festooned with flamenco finery. The garments on display seemed to dare me to walk past without slowing down for a closer look. The colors and cut of the dresses sang out with a gypsy riff that was sassy, boisterous and provocative. Not being able to resist the invitation, I opened the door and met Aurora.
Making Dresses A Way of Life
Or one of them, at least. Aurora Gavino has owned the store for 20 years. While she has been a dressmaker for five decades, the store is filled with creations made by her daughter, also named Aurora.
“My first dress was a Fandango costume, people don’t wear them anymore,” mother Aurora told me. “The costume had little balls sewn on and only two ruffles at the bottom. There were hundreds made at the time, they were all in beige and everyone looked the same.”
“I made my first dress when I was 25 — a lot of women began sewing much sooner,” she continued. “In the olden days, making the dresses was just a part of life, you weren’t elevated to being called a ‘designer.’”
Nonetheless, she was very proud to say her daughter has been a designer for ten years, declaring “It is her passion, she studied another area academically but this is her calling.”
I was reminded of an exchange with anthropologist and flamenco dancer Clara Chinoy, in which she had recounted to me a conversation with Juan Maya Marote, a flamenco guitarist from Granada.
“He said ‘I believe that personal stamp is important in flamenco–and in painting and in anything which is art. Haven’t you heard a guitarist in a room behind a door, and you know who is playing? Sello propio…is something that comes out of the soul, from the heart. It is not the same to play the guitar by studying it without it mattering to you…as it is to play because your heart tells you to and because you are living it.’”
Traje de Flamenco Fashion Show
Aurora accompanied me around the shop, tugging on my arm to show me a particular dress, or point out a certain accessory. She explained that her daughter exhibits in an annual flamenco fashion show that has a new theme each year. Two years earlier, it had been Mexico; last year was “Flowers of Bach.”
Manuel Macias had told me about this regular event.
“Traje de flamenco is the only regional costume that each year renovates its designs,” he said. “Every year there is a new collection. In February, Salón Internacional de la moda flamenco is celebrated. This is an international flamenco fashion meeting, where the best designers display their best collections both for individual and private use as well as for flamenco performers. There are also flamenco performances along with the exhibition.”
Aurora told me that her daughter’s collections always revolve around a specific theme. One year it had been “tauro,” or bullfighting, images. Most recently, the line involved images of La Macarena, the venerated Virgin. Young Aurora called the line Alma, meaning “soul;” the inspiration behind the motif was her sister, who had died suddenly three years earlier. The elder Aurora told me that the imagery was represented with a great deal of respect but the concept was so revolutionary and shocking to such a devoutly religious community that her daughter was almost put in jail.
Sello Propio Celebrates Individuality
I was reminded of the concept of sello propio that Clara Chinoy had told me about. She had shared with me that one of the highest forms of praise from one flamenco artist about another is that they are tiene sello propio–that is, that they are very personal, they don’t resemble anyone else, and they have their own personal “stamp.” Conversely, Clara had said, one of the most frequent criticisms heard of young flamenco artists by the old-timers nowadays is that they are all they same, they all look like each other, and they imitate too much.
Clara also spoke of the notion of adversity as a catalyst for creativity.
“I remember hearing la Fernanda de Utrera say that it was her struggle with her voice and her art which made her so flamenca,”Chinoy recalled. “I remember it particularly vividly because it was the first time I had ever heard the term lucha, struggle or fight, used in the context of making art. I had always conceived of the more classical notion of hiding the struggle, making it appear easy.”
Chinoy also related that another flamenco singer, Sebastian Roman, had explained to her that it was seeking recursos or salidas–recourses or “ways out”–that made each singer find his or her individual style.
Aurora told me that despite the drama around the Alma collection, her daughter’s style has continued to grow in popularity. As flamenco fusión has filtered into the fashion world, the young Aurora has branched out into creating evening wear and wedding dresses, for which she has American as well as Spanish clients.
Flamenco in Seville is Always Evolving
“The attire of flamenco is always evolving,” Macias observed. “The dress is changing and is not as stylized, it’s more natural. The clothes and shoes have evolved–there are better boots that are more comfortable for the artists. Men used to wear a short jacket and now it is often just pants, shirt and a vest. There is also an export business–Japan and the U.S. are two main markets for flamenco products.”
Nonetheless, Aurora told me that the busiest time of year is the approach of La Feria de abril de Seville. As this annual extravaganza nears, Aurora’s dresses are in high demand. Her creations range in price from 600 – 1,200 euros, with the more costly dresses using materials such as natural silk, gold thread and hand-painted designs. The most expensive dress she has designed carries a price tag of 8,000 euros.
The Seville Spring Festival starts two weeks following Semana Santa and is set up along the Guadalquivir River. The river bank is always crowded with rows of casetas–tents of varying sizes made of brightly-coloured canvas and decorated with thousands of paper lanterns. These tents are private, belonging to families, groups of friends, clubs, trade associations, or political parties.
"The Truth Speaks"
Everyone is a gypsy during the Feria and los Sevillenos strut their stuff in exquisite flamenco attire, with the women pouring into the curve-hugging dresses and the men sporting the unique wide-brimmed “Cordobés” hats and short-cropped jackets typical of Andalucia. I was told the Fair is a celebration for the senses–the smell of fried fish, the sound of carriages being pulled by grey Jerezano horses, the taste of churros con chocolate, and endless dancing of the Sevillenas to the beat of flamenco music enlivening each caseta.
“Flamenco is present, in its way, in every party and public celebration, either civil or religious, making its own distinction and difference,” said Ms. Maria Angeles Albert de Leon, Spain’s Director of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets. “The art is part of Christmas with its carols and campanilleros, on popular parties and pilgrimages from South Spain with the fandangos and sevillenas, on Holy Week through the saetas sang from the balconies when the parades are passing, on weddings with the alboreás and bulerías.”
In my visit, I learned that just as flamenco is an art form at the core of crowded Andalucian annual events, it is also a cultural tradition passed down from mother to daughter, and teacher to student, with great care and feeling.
Clara Chinoy’s parting words to me perhaps said it best.
“When flamenco is truly authentic, as the flamencos say, la verdad suena. ‘The truth speaks."
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