Flamenco is an outstanding combination of foot work, rhythm, and grace, says the mesmerised writer
The atmosphere in the hall was electric. Cries of “Ola”, “Ola” ricocheted round the walls, and had the adrenaline pumping in one and all. The hall seated a good three hundred people, and every seat was taken. It was a motley gathering of young and old, out on the town, for an evening of undiluted entertainment.
We were visiting the city of Seville in southern Spain in the spring of 2019. A visit to southern Spain is not complete until you have taken in a recital of its famed Flamenco dance. The popularity of the dance is such that tickets to an event have to be booked months in advance and meticulously this had been taken care of by our tour operator. When in Rome do as the Romans do, and so in the spirit of things, we did exactly that and plunged into the evening ahead. Going to a performance is treated like a formal affair and everyone dresses up for it, especially the women, and I did the same. My outfit consisted of a long flowing flowered skirt, teamed with a chiffon blouse with a deep frill of the gossamer fabric forming an attractive neckline. Stockings and heels completed the ensemble. My husband too was attired in blazer and trousers. When we reached the Lobby of the hotel, our guide presented the ladies with a fresh bloom each, which we were requested to pin on the side of our hair. The beautiful flower added an exotic touch and did wonders for our looks and made us feel very native, and attractive and intent on enjoying the evening ahead.
Ushered into the van, we settled down in our comfortable seats to enjoy the drive to the venue from the hotel. This encompassed weaving in and out through parts of the city, where the evening lights were just beginning to beckon. Looking out of the windows we saw the avenues ablaze with psychedelic lights in all kinds of shades, blinking at us and bathing the evening with a lively, magical quality. The sidewalks were overflowing with walkers, jostling one another, alive with infectious exuberance. Seville in the month of March is a delight. Winter has been left behind, and spring is in the offing. The evening air is nippy and crisp. The sidewalks are lined with rows of small orange trees, their lush dark green branches already laden with bright oranges shining like beacons from the green foliage. People go about their business without disturbing the fruit in any way.
After meandering through the city and taking in the sights we finally reached the imposing building which is the designated venue for traditional cultural events. Originally flamenco was performed as a cabaret in cafes but now, to encourage tourism, it has been given a more formal format. People can enjoy the genuine traditional flamenco, which has been prevalent in the Andalusian area down the ages, in designated theatres. For this most of the towns in southern Spain have theatres where audiences can take in a show. Most of the theatres were constructed in Spain in the sixties with the influx of tourists. We entered the imposing entrance lobby, and were immediately engulfed by the energy and vibrancy of the place. The ushers took over and escorted us to our seats in the large auditorium. There was a stage in the front draped in heavy curtains, and a bevy of arc lights were focussed on it. To my delight I found we were seated quite advantageously, almost at the front of the hall. The seats had a narrow table in front of it, and we soon got to know the purpose of that. The hall was ablaze with lights, and lively music was playing in the background. The room was abuzz with loud chatter. Since everyone was out to enjoy the evening no one seemed to mind. After we were seated, and were busy taking in the scene, someone came and put a tall jug of sangria along with glasses on the table in front of us and with the admonition ‘’enjoy ‘’, continued with his dispensing to the other viewers. Looking around we found that the entire audience was enjoying their glass of Sangria. Apparently, the drink was included in the ticket, and though we are not much of drinkers, we certainly had no objection to the occasional glass.
Sangria is perhaps a national drink in Spain. It is like a staple and may accompany practically every meal. It is a punch laced with wine, normally red, and is doctored with herbs and diced fruit. The alcoholic content is not very high, though that is eclectic, depending on the drinker and the occasion. It is usually served cold or chilled. We helped ourselves generously to the contents of the jug and sipped it slowly to savour the sweet yet pungent taste and found it very enjoyable. Thus, everyone was comfortably ensconced in their seats, flush with their glasses of Sangria, and eagerly awaiting the curtain on the stage to rise. We didn’t have long to wait, and with a clash of cymbals and a roll of drums, the curtain rose with a loud fanfare. In the centre stood a man in formal clothes, who welcomed us graciously and gave us a small introductory speech on Flamenco, and its deep tradition in Spain. A hush had fallen over the audience and all eyes were expectantly focussed on the stage. He assured us that we would be feast on an exotic selection of dance and music which would make the evening a memorable one. Holding him to his promise and with bated breath, we gave ourselves up to the evening ahead.
Flamenco is a lively and passionate dance form which involves intricate footwork and energetic stamping of the feet, along with staccato hand clapping. It is accompanied all along by guitar music, singing and percussion instruments, which form an integral part of the dance. It is usually performed solo. UNESCO recently recognised it as part of the world’s indelible cultural heritage and declared it a complex art form. The dance entails two important aspects, the singing known as ‘cante’, and the dancing termed as ‘Baile. No one really knows where the term ‘Flamenco’ originated but accept it as being native to the south of Spain, particularly to the provinces of Andalusia and Murcia. Each province lends its own unique flavour to the dance. Mostly it is classical and rich in folklore style, as it was initiated by the Romas or gypsies, from whom the dance originated. Some endow it with ballet like moves, to make it artistic. But the format is the same. The stance of the performer is always proud and upright and provocative. Interestingly one theory believes that the Romas or Romanies migrated from India and many of the dance steps are akin to the Indian dance form of ‘Kathak’. On gaining popularity the dance later fanned out to parts of Europe and the Latin Americas, particularly in the mid nineteenth century. By then it had spread quickly as a popular entertainment form to all parts of Spain. The introduction of trade fairs in the nineteenth century also contributed to the encouragement of the dance, because a ready audience was available to appreciate it. The influx of tourism gave it impetus and it soon became an intrinsic part of the Spanish culture as is showcased as a Spanish dance form.
Earlier it was frowned upon by the elite because it was associated with the Romas or gypsies and was performed in unobtrusive and clandestine locales. Bull rings and local fairs were often the venues. The upper classes did not like the association of this raw and rustic dance form with the Spanish identity and did not want it to represent them and frowned upon it as an unworthy dance form. Even the church played a role in denigrating it and stated that it represented the economic and cultural ills of society. They felt it was immodest and would break down family values. They argued that it detracted from nation building. They went as far as to state that all the political corruption was due to Flamenco. Thus, all kinds of groups perceived Flamenco as something to vent their frustration and express their dissatisfaction. Most ideological and structural changes were happening after the French and Industrial Revolutions. What they were really opposing was the mass modernisation in the lives of ordinary citizens which they felt was represented by this dance form. But the happening of Trade fairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave a boost to the dance form, and slowly and steadily it started getting the blessing of the Avant Garde and started acquiring the stature of high culture. With the acceptance of the dance form and popularity many stars emerged in the field like Carmen Amaya, one of the most legendary flamenco dancers and Joaquin Cortes, Cecilia Gomez, Jose Greco to name a few.
The atmosphere of the dance is created by the colourful and rich costumes of the dancers, which are mainly inspired by the costumes of the gypsies. The women dancers wear flamboyant layered gowns in vibrant colours and richly embellished fabrics. The men wear black leather trousers with matching jackets and formal white shirts, with frilled fronts and loose puffy sleeves. The dress is such that apart from being appealing, it facilitates and showcases foot movement. The male dancers have long hair, which is tied at the back in a ponytail, whereas the women have elaborate coiffures, decorated with shiny clips and combs, and flowers. Some of them carry fans which become a prop for the dance. Makeup is rich and heavy to give the performer an attractive visual appeal. Performers are of all ages and sizes. There are the stars and the novices, and everyone knows how to give their utmost. The slightly older performers make up for their lack of physical dexterity by the depth of their facial expressions, and experience of the nuances of the dance. Deep emotions are reflected on the face. The stage is set with elaborate colourful screens, curtains, partitions and strategic lighting, forming a lively and intriguing back drop, to showcase the dancer. The musicians sit on the side or the back of the stage, depending on the requirement of the dancer, and are visible to the audience.
Flamenco as a dance form is highly energetic, expressive and passionate. The dancer has to convey the ‘duendo’ or soul of the dance, which are reflected in the facial expressions. This is achieved by years of practice. The viewer is involuntarily drawn into the atmosphere that is created, almost wishing that he was a part of it. Because intricate foot work is involved the shoes of the dancer are fitted with iron taps at both ends, which give loud taps on the stage, and provide a wonderful staccato beat, which resonates with the music. The foot work is accompanied with graceful hand and body movements and loud clapping. Often the dancer has castanets in his hands. The end result is wildly exuberant and exotic, sensual and exhorting. There is mystery and innuendo in the dance which is matched with volatile facial expressions. Dances are mostly based on folklore and is accompanied with soulful music. The singing transgresses you to another level. The atmosphere created is such that you are caught in its web and feel a virtual uplifting of the soul. The singer is accompanied with guitar music and exotic percussion instruments. The singing establishes the beats which the dancer meticulously matches. The performer becomes immersed in deep emotion and attains trance like qualities, willing the viewer to accompany him in his quest. So intent is he in this purpose, and so often has he done it in the span of his career, that I noticed that most of the dancers have deep set sunken eyes, marking the level of concentration required in the dance. It is an outstanding combination of foot work, rhythm, and grace.
The evening entailed a vast repertoire of song and dance, with dollops of breath-taking showmanship. The intensity of the music and amazing choreography left us breathless and enraptured. In the end the music reached a crescendo and the provocative pelvic movement of the male dancer left us astounded. With the clash of cymbals, the curtain came down to loud whistles, catcalls and ecstatic clapping. There were many curtain calls after that and the entire ensemble took the bow to loud cheering and enthusiastic appreciation. On a satiated note, you realise that the evening has come to an end. But your cup is full. It was the most wonderful two hours of entertainment, where the viewer transcends the world of the hum drum and is elevated to a magical world of dance and music, to rhythm, grace and romance. What more could one want.
Chitra Singh has a wide repertoire of writing. She writes stories and creative non-fiction pieces with equal panache. Chitra has a Master’s degree in English Literature and a Post Graduate degree in Mass Communication. She has free lanced with many English Dailies and magazines, writing mostly human interest features, travelogues, and stories about forest life which she greatly loved. Her forte is writing Middles. She has varied interests like gardening, cooking, fine embroidery and dabbling in the share market. One of her favourite pastimes is regaling her grandchildren with tales of yore.