The Feeling Behind Flamenco

I held my breath as I weaved my way through the densely packed Calle Betis bar in Seville. I was late to the flamenco show, but I had just spied an empty space on the floor in front of the stage.

I made my way up to the front and nestled into my spot, eager to see flamenco dancing. I knew that no amount of YouTube video clips could compare to an actual real-live show and, from what I’ve heard, the Andalucian style of flamenco was not one to be forgotten.

The bar was buzzing with people; eating tapas, drinking, chatting with friends. The waiters continually had to re-make pathways between tables as they passed through the restaurant. I sat at the front of the stage and let the sounds of the humming crowd flow over me.

Soon, the guitarist, singer and dancers all approached the stage and the buzzing died down. A soft, flowing, haunting ballad began on the guitar and the last rumbles of the crowd grew quiet. There was a breath of silence and then the singer began belting a song, feeling every note and every word throughout his body, his face twisting with expression.

After a few moments, a flamenco dancer came out in the middle of the small stage. Her movements were strong, slow and somber, her back arched as she captivated the audience. An intense emotion stung her like an electric shock and she flung her arms above her head, where they twirled slowly and gracefully for a few moments. It was as though she was dancing in molasses- each movement deliberate and driven with intensity.

The guitar started playing a louder, faster beat and the singer cried even louder. Her fellow performers started clapping and stomping (their feet and hands keeping two different rhythms) to the raucous beat as her movements grew quicker and more gracefully wild.

The beat grew stronger, louder and the crowd started shouting and clapping along. It was as though the entire bar- performers and audience together- had been possessed with this passionate and lively rhythm. Her routine ended with lightning fast footwork, the intensity reaching its highest peak. The bar filled with cheers and clapping as she twirled back to the side of the stage.

I’ve been dancing for 18 years and I have never heard something quite like the flamenco beat before. There is a passion and emotion throughout that is not seen in other dance forms. The culture of flamenco dancing goes far deeper than its sometimes stereotyped image…it’s actually quite fascinating and mysterious.

Flamenco is comprised of four elements: cante (voice), baile (dance), toque (guitar) and jaleo, which more or less translates to “hell raising.” This last element, with its passionate freedom, includes clapping, stomping and shouting from the crowd and fellow performers. The palmas, or handclapping, is made up of intricate rhythms accompanied by an equally intricate set of stomping and footwork.

I’m no stranger to musical beats and rhythms, but after a few minutes of trying to figure out the flamenco beat during the performance, I gave up, worried that my head might explode if I tried any longer.

One of the most alluring elements of flamenco dancing, beyond the rich, passionate taste of Andalucian culture, is duende. This element can be described simply as “the soul force that inspires flamenco art.” For  many years writers, such as Federico Garcia Lorca, have given duende a spiritual and mysterious significance, something that can’t easily be understood or felt by the average person.

It is said that duende can only be experienced in certain intimate flamenco settings. During these performances, “a singer will be possessed by the dark tones of the song and the spirit will enter the mind and soul of anyone who opens up to it.” The artists are seized by this supernatural inspiration and it creates an intense expressiveness felt in the performers and the crowds watching.

Flamenco is not something to be missed when experiencing Andalucia. But it is best seen in a more traditional setting: a crowded bar, full of locals eating tapas, drinking and socializing. And having to squeeze your way to the front of the stage where you experience an unforgettable display of passion, creativity and a little bit of duende.


This was originally posted on Andalucia Inside.









Dancing with Death

“Living without bullfighting is not living.”

This may be a simple quote, but it expresses the weight and significance of bullfighting to one of Spain’s top matadors, Jose Tomas. In a tradition where one wrong step can lead to a deadly consequence, Tomas lives for the moments when he is dancing with death. He is known for his daring bullfighting style, in which he draws the bull dangerously close to his body with his cape.

Although the bullfighting tradition is surrounded by controversy and has recently been banned in the region of Catalonia, one thing can be agreed upon: The passion and the dedication the matadors have for this ancient art.

This past July marked Tomas’s return to the bullring after being nearly fatally gored in Mexico one year ago. Despite his near-death experience and months long recovery, Tomas knew he would return. The line he walks during a bullfight, between life and death, causes him to feel more “alive” than at any other moment.

For many, bullfighting consists of the matador waving his red cape in front an angry bull…and that’s about it. But the history and tradition behind bullfighting make it much more than its stereotypical image.

The spectacle of bullfighting has been in existence since ancient Rome, but the bullfight we know and see today started in the mid-1700s. Before this time, men on horseback were the main focus as well as the ones killing the bulls. But as bullfighting developed, the men on foot, who aided the horsemen by positioning the bulls with their colorful capes, began to attract more attention from the crowds. This began the modern form of bullfighting we see today.

A usual corrida consists of three matadors, each of them killing two bulls. The first phase of the bullfight is what many people think of when they think of bullfighting: the bull comes rushing out into the arena and the matador swiftly goes through a series of movements and passes with a large cape. A matador is met with applause depending on how close he is to the bull, his calm manner and the graceful maneuvers he accomplishes with his cape.

During the second phase, men on horseback come into the bullring and throw lances, or banderillas, into the back and shoulders of the bull. This is done to lower the bull’s head for the eventual kill.

The third phase of the bullfight is usually the most dangerous. The bull has become weaker during the fight, but it also begins to sense that its enemy may be behind the matador’s cape. This causes the bull to become more aggressive as it charges the matador’s cape. Through a series of ballet-like passes during this final stage, the matador increases tension and anticipation in the audience as he continues to decrease the space between himself and the bull. When the moment is right, the matador strikes the bull between the shoulder blades with his sword and the bullfight is over.

Bullfights are characterized by an entrancing, mysterious silence. The matador becomes lost in his art as he dances closer and closer with death.

Another one of Spain’s famous bullfighters, Francisco Rivera Ordonez, said in a 60 Minutes interview, “We create this real personal connection and feeling between us [the bull and matador]. You kind of have a connection, a conversation with gestures, with time, with movement…you kind of lose reality.”


This was originally published on Andalucia Inside.

The Mystery of the Real Don Juan

Don Juan. After 21 years of hearing this name being referenced and joked about, I’m embarrassed to say I really didn’t know too much about this devilishly charming character. Was he fiction? Was he a real person? What was his story? I felt that if I wanted to consider myself a cultured citizen, I should probably find out…

The legend of Don Juan was first brought to life by Spanish writer Tirso de Molina in the 1630s. In this version, the libertine and rogue Don Juan has killed Gonzalo, the father of one of the women he has seduced. Later in the story, Don Juan passes Gonzalo’s tomb and mockingly invites his statue to dinner. The statue accepts and arrives at Don Juan’s home for dinner in the form of Gonzalo’s ghost. He then invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. Once there, the statue of Gonzalo grabs Don Juan by the arm and drags him all the way to Hell.

This character was known for his seductive nature and countless affairs with young Spanish women, which is why today we refer to a womanizer as a “Don Juan.” Other artists have found this fictional libertine man to be of inspiration as well; Mozart’s famous opera Don Giovanni and Lord Byron’s narrative poem Don Juan are based on the Don Juan legend.

I next looked to see if there was a “real” Don Juan, someone who inspired this bigger-than-life character.

Enter real-life Spaniard Don Miguel Mañara, who was born in 1627 to a wealthy family in Seville. After inheriting large sums of family money at a young age, Mañara is said to have led an extravagant, public and very indulgent lifestyle. He was also something of a womanizer during this time. But when his wife died years later, Mañara was struck with such grief that he turned to God and began leading the Brotherhood of the Holy Charity and founded the Hospital of Charity, which still looks after the poor and disabled today.

After a little more detective work, I came to find out that this real-life character, who is so often connected with the legend, was actually only 3-years-old at the time the original story of Don Juan was written by Tirso de Molina in 1630. So how did he become the “inspiration” for a story that was written before he could even ride a horse? Some theories say that during the 19th century there was an interest to make Don Miguel Mañara a saint. But those who were against this movement attempted to taint his image by exaggerating the stories of his rogue behavior and connecting him with the character of Don Juan.

As I was wandering though the beautiful and charming Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville the other day, I came across the statue of the infamous Don Juan in Plaza de los Refinadores. I stood there for a moment, trying to imagine him gallivanting about the winding, mysterious cobblestone streets during the 17th century. I stood close to the statue, wanting to get a better view of the confident, all-knowing smirk he was wearing…I just made sure I didn’t let his statue shake my hand.

This was originally posted on Andalucia Inside.

References: Origins of Don Juan/Time FliesTrip Advisor

The Palace of Alcázar

Click to see more pictures from the Palace of Alcazar!

Alcázar is the Alhambra of Seville. It may not have an exquisite view of Granada below, but Alcázar certainly does not lack beauty and personality. Founded in 913 as a fort, subsequent monarchs have built their own additions to the palace throughout the years. Intricate architectural designs, water filled patios and tile work are throughout the main palace areas. The gardens, when they’re not full of loud tourists, are peaceful, full of fountains and overall enchanting. The elevated walkway in the middle of the gardens offers a beautiful view and the surreal feeling that you’re no longer in the 21st century. Try to go early or late- the enchanting vibe is somewhat dimmed when you’re having to dodge between large groups of people!

Spain Inspires

With a flamenco beat just around the corner, wine abundant during late night dinners and laughter being heard in the streets, it’s hard not to feel inspired by Spain. Whether you’re in a small town or busy city, there is a line of rich culture and tradition that winds its way throughout the county. Spain has long been a place of inspiration for artists, writers, musicians and actors alike, both foreign and native, who each share their experience in the way they know

Gwyneth Paltrow

When she was 15-years-old, actress Gwyneth Paltrow stayed a small town near Talavera de la Reina in the region of Castilla La Mancha. She’s been back to Spain every year since.

“They seem to enjoy life a little bit more. They aren’t running around as much as in New York. They enjoy time with the family. They don’t always have their Blackberries on.”

A more recent inspiration for the actress has been Spanish cuisine. Paltrow along with Chef Mario Batali, writer Mark Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols completed a TV series on Spanish cuisine called “Spain…On The Road Again.” The foursome take off on a road trip throughout the different regions of Spain to experience the country’s culinary traditions and history. Paltrow also helped write “Spain…A Culinary Road Trip,” the companion cookbook to the TV series.

Paltrow’s love for Spain and it’s varied gastronomy wasn’t very well known until “Spain…On The Road Again” was broadcast. (She is also fluent in Spanish!) The show’s mouthwatering foods and beautiful scenes are enough to inspire anyone to try the delicious dishes of both new and traditional Spanish cuisine.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway once wrote in a letter that Spain was “the last good country left.” The American writer spent manyyears of his life here and the Spanish influence is evident in his novels. Hemingway first traveled to Spain as a young reporter during the Civil War and the experience inspired his famous novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

He also had a passion for bullfighting and wrote two nonfiction books on the topic, “The Dangerous Summer” and “Death in the Afternoon.” The fictional matador in “The Sun Also Rises,” was actually named after a real 18th-century torero from Ronda, Spain named Pedro Romero. But the character on one of Hemingway’s contemporaries, another bullfighter from Ronda known as Niño de Palma.

John Lennon

The Beatles hit, “Strawberry Fields Forever” was inspired by John Lennon’s time in Almería, Spain while he was filming the movie “How I Won The War.” During his stay he lived in a small apartment in the beach city of El Zapillo in Almería where he was photographed sitting on a the bed with a guitar and a cassette recorder writing the song. The first demo recording was actually done in Almería, although it was just one verse at the time.

No matter what your profession, you always leave Spain with more than what you originally came with. And I’m not talking about souvenirs and pictures. An unidentifiable inspiration, like a spark being lit inside you, stays with you for years after.

This was originally posted on Andalucia Inside.

References: Spain…On The Road AgainThe Washington PostPRLOGLet Me Take You Down To Almería

Siesta, A Necessary Luxury

SiestaAhhh, the siesta. That romantic, pastoral image associated with long ago and the ultimate example of a laid back culture. Surely in today’s modern, fast-paced society, full of Blackberry calendars, such a glorious time designated for relaxation couldn’t exist.

Oh wait, it does.

One of my first questions when I came to Spain was, “So, the siesta…is that actually real?” It may have sounded dumb, but for someone who just chugs another cup of coffee mid-day to keep going, I was looking forward to this possible change of pace.

Historically, the siesta was considered a physical necessity and a relaxing way to avoid the hottest part of the day for 2 hours. Today, with a more rapid pace and coffee, the biological need for a short nap in the middle of the day has been turned into a luxury. But as much as we try to fight that afternoon drowsiness, it would be much more effective (and enjoyable) to take a 20-30 minute nap, rather than keep going like the Little Engine That Could.

Humans are bi-phasic (meaning we need two periods of sleep every 24-hours) and research shows that our energy levels drop during the mid-afternoon. It becomes difficult to focus, think clearly and be productive. But with a 20-30 minute nap, your mind and body have been refreshed and the rest of the day is easier and certainly more productive. What do you think I was doing before I sat down to write? Yep, napping. Believe me, it took a while to submit my stubborn, “no-I-need-to-stay-awake” mentality to a nap, but when in Spain… On the days I do take a short nap I’ve noticed a significant difference in my energy levels, my overall mood and productivity. Like olive oil, the siesta experience is something I will incorporate into my routine when I am back home again. images

In Spain, the siesta takes place after lunchtime, in the later afternoon. Even if some Spaniards don’t fall asleep, it is a time for relaxation, family and friends and a general break from work. Shops and offices close for a few hours and restaurants and bars grow to full capacity. If Spaniards eat at home, many of them will doze on the sofa for 20 minutes or so, TV remote control in hand… This healthy disconnect from the more mundane working world is one of the many reasons Spain has such a liveliness and spontaneity. (It also allows for the more late-night tapas culture!) In Spain, sitting down and savoring a lunch with friends or family members, rather than spending it hunched over a computer, tends to be the priority. A café con leche isn’t just used for the caffeine, it’s used to simply put everything else on hold and enjoy a moment to yourself.

Whether you’re at home or traveling in Spain, leave time in the warm afternoons to indulge in this underrated necessity. And some olive oil. And red wine.

References: Siesta Awareness

This post was originally published on Andalucia Inside.

James Bond´s Havana is in Spain

Remember those gorgeous Havana beach scenes in the recent James Bond film Die Anther Day? And where Mr. Bond first sees the flawless Halle Berry walking out of the ocean? Well, those famous “Havana” scenes were actually filmed in the equally famous (and beautiful) Cadíz of Southern Spain.

The Bond movie didn’t have to go too far to make Cadíz look and feel like Havana, Cuba. The similarities of Havana and Cadíz don’t begin and end with those few scenes. In fact, Cadíz is known as “Little Havana.” And as you walk through Havana, there is a strong sense of Andalucian influence in the architecture, style and overall feel of the city. The plazas, the streets and cathedrals all have a hint of Spain, especially the historic cities like Seville and Cadíz.

A beach in Havana

But how did Havana, Cuba end up being a sister city to this quintessential Andalucian town over 4,000 miles away?

Cadíz was an important link between Europe and The New World, with ships of Christopher Columbus and other explorers sailing from there. There became a continuous flow of traffic between the two cities in the 1700s when the Spanish sailed routes between Cadíz, Havana and Puerto Rico. During this time of Cadíz’s “Golden Century” and the growth of overseas trade, the Spanish style and influence was easily transferred to one of their most valuable ports in Havana.

La Caleta beach in Cadíz

Beyond its influence abroad, the city of Cadíz is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in Spain. The buzzing, beautiful plazas are an important part of the old town, but the beaches are what really make this city stand out. La playa de la Caleta and street above, which greatly resemble parts of Havana, was used for some of the Cuban scenes in the Bond movie.

As if the seductive beauty of the beaches wasn’t enough, there is a very palpable laid-back, carefree attitude about the city that makes it even more welcoming. You might even find Mr. Bond lounging around sipping one of those “shaken, not stirred” martinis he prefers…

References: University of Barcelona Language and Culture, Al Andalus Spanish School Photo Credit:

This post was originally published on Andalucia Inside.