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.

References: Andalucia.com

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.”

References: Spanish-fiesta.comCBSNews.com

This was originally published on Andalucia Inside.

My Newest Discovery in Spain? Olive Oil.

I knew Spain, especially the southern region of Andalucia, was serious about their olive oil. But it wasn’t until I saw huge two-liter bottles being sold at grocery stores and had many of my dinners deliciously drenched in the stuff that I finally said, “Ok ok, I get it.”

Everywhere I turn, there is olive oil. At the store, in restaurants, in kitchen cabinets, on the table next to the bread. Coming from a place where I just grabbed plain ole vegetable oil to sauté or coat the frying pan, this basic ingredient and flavor in Andalucian cuisine seemed to me like a new-found “secret of life.”

Like Spanish wine, olives and olive trees have a long and ancient history of cultivation in the Mediterranean area. The trees are said to have originated in Greece about 6,000 years ago, where stone tablets dating back to 2,500 BC have been found making reference to the plant. The Phoenicians and Greeks brought the olive tree to Spain and cultivation was further expanded under the Romans. The Arabs also continued to improve the technique of olive oil production during their rule. In fact, the Spanish word for oil, aceite, is derived from the Arabic word, al-zeit and “stuffed olive,” aceituna, also comes from the Arabic word al-zeituna.

Andalucia is the largest olive oil producer in the world, which may be why I see it drizzled over everything, from toasted bread in the mornings to tapas at night. Catalonia, Castile-La Mancha and Aragón are also popular oil producing regions in Spain, each with it’s own unique and distinct flavor. Some oils from Andalucia are considered fruity, slightly bitter and peppery or with a touch of sweetness and piquancy from Aragón.

Spanish cuisine follows the Mediterranean Diet, which is known to be incredibly beneficial to your health.Mediterranean meals are comprised of a “generous use of olive oil, for cooking as well as garnishing, lots of healthy legumes and nuts, pasta, bread and rice, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products such as cheese, and plenty of fish.”

Olive oil is a fundamental part of that Spanish diet and it also happens to be one of the healthiest oils in the world (why was I using vegetable oil…). Not only is it full of antioxidants and very easy to digest, it is also known to reduce and keep cholesterol levels in check. Although it is recommended to use virgin or extra virgin olive oil varieties to ensure you are reaping the benefits and getting this oil in its purest form.

Until you can experience fresh, flavorful Spanish cuisine first-hand and savor their famous olive oil in it’s most traditional and purest form, you can always cook a Mediterranean meal at home. Here is a recipe for Salmorejo, a cold soup, very similar to gazpacho, but richer and smoother. Add some fresh rolls drizzled with olive oil along with a glass of Spanish wine and enjoy!

This was originally posted on Andalucia Inside. 

References: Olive Oil from SpainAsolivaAndalucia.com

Where the new meets the old: Seville’s Plaza de la Encarnación

It’s hard to imagine what Plaza de la Encarnación would’ve looked like years ago when there weren’t six giant mushroom shaped parasols rising above the busy plaza, before it became home to the largest wooden structure in the world.

Plaza de la Encarnación was the setting of a food market (the same one there today in fact) but in 1973 when their facilities needed improvement and there was talk of incorporating an underground parking space into the same area, the stalls were knocked down. An above ground parking lot temporarily inhabited the plaza until a clear building plan was made to integrate a new market, underground parking and Roman ruins, which had been discovered in the 1990s. This ancient Roman colony was said to consist of “structures including two Late Antique houses with courtyards, a possible church, and other houses or structures in the vicinity of a later Islamic house.” The structure was designed in 2007 by German architect Jürgen Mayer H and construction began soon after.

It’s easy to tilt your head and imagine you’re seeing a large honeycombed spaceship descending upon Sevilla, but the structure actually includes four useable levels. The first level (below ground) was designed so you can walk around the excavated Roman ruins and the second street-level view includes a large farmer’s market along with a couple cafes. The third level, a raised platform below the structure, is a beautiful open space where you can really take in the massive size of the structure. The fourth level is my favorite. On the very top of the Metropol Parasol they have created a large panoramic deck to see the unforgettable views over the ancient city center.

Although this plaza has been open since March 27, 2011, opinions still remain divided about the structure. As someone who has no roots in Seville, I tend to have a little different perspective.

The Metropol Parasol is a (large) hint of the new in a city that steadfastly and so beautifully preserves the traditional. To some it looks out of place, a towering behemoth of light wood next to the muted Medieval tones of the cathedrals, cobblestone streets and apartment buildings. But to me, this modern structure represents that young, vibrant, you-can’t-quite-place-it feel of Seville.

For a city that has seen the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, the Arabs and all the diverse history since, it easily preserves all that traditional quality and feel, without being, well, boring. There is a deep history here that I can’t fathom having grown up in the U.S. Visions of a 7-year-old me running through Colonial Williamsburg in a mop cap and pinafore thinking I was in really old, ancient times comes to mind…But now I’m walking over Roman ruins every day.

Plaza de la Encarnación is hugged by the old and traditional, but confidently represents that fresh, dynamic feel of Sevilla that you’ll never forget.

This article was originally published on Andalucia Inside.

References:Arup.comsouthampton.ac.ukdesignbuild-network.com, Photo Credit: Overhours.com