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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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!

The Giralda: Seeing Seville from the tallest building in the city

Check out these pictures from the beautiful Giralda Cathedral in Seville! Looking out over the entire city from the bell tower was my favorite part of this excursion. Enjoy!

Click to see more pictures from the Giralda Cathedral!

Reflections on a warm Granada night

I sat on the patio ledge near the side of La Alhambra and watched my feet dangle off the edge. I was mentally planning a retrieval route in case one of my shoes fell off into the garden below when my mother came up next to me.

“We kinda dropped the ball on this one didn’t we?”

I looked past her, squinting in the 11 p.m. darkness, to the jumbled mess of people waiting in a long line outside the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra.

“Yeah, we really did. What’s wrong with us?”

My mother and I are usually very studious travelers. We don’t over-plan our adventures, but we certainly find out all the details and activities of the area before we get there. But Granada was different. We just sort of showed up, not realizing how much of a destination point it was at the beginning of September. Needless to say, when we moseyed down to the Alhambra from our hotel that morning we found ourselves face-to-face with a long line to purchase tickets just to get in. By the time we got up to the ticket booth, the Nasrid Palaces, which require a designated entry and exit time, were sold out for the afternoon. So instead we bought tickets for the special nighttime viewing of the Palaces and thought (again) that it shouldn’t be too crowded.

Fast-forward another 10 hours and we came upon another long line waiting to get into the Nasrid Palaces at 11 p.m. Neither of us being the wait-in-a-crowded-noisy-line kind of people, we shrugged our shoulders in defeat and wandered over to an upper patio that looked toward the Sierra Nevada moutains of Granada (something that didn’t require a ticket.)

As we sat there with a mild “I am a failed tourist” feeling sinking in, I began to really look out into the dark hills of Granada…It looked like I was in front of a green screen. The view was unreal, like something out of a movie or a desktop picture, not something I accidentally happened upon on a late summer night.

A warm breeze danced through the patio and over my body. I was completely entranced. The shadowy hills were filled with golden balls of light that were shining from the distinctive square European windows…it was something I’d never seen before. The hills were alive with a magical, silent presence, that made me want to cry, laugh and sigh. I sat there, not caring anymore if one of my shoes fell off, thinking about…thinking? It was a rare moment in my life when I really wasn´t thinking about anything. At least nothing on the laundry list of to-do’s that I carried around with me. I became philosophical; impressive, grand thoughts filtering through my mind, but I let them go… This was a time to enjoy a feeling, not a thought.

My mother and I sat there for almost an hour, not really saying much to each other, a rarity in itself, simply looking out at the scene before us. Life slowed to a snails pace, nothing seemed to matter because I was fully in that moment.

We eventually got up and passed by the still-long line into the Nasrid Palaces, joking at how we had been so clueless. As we walked away and I turned back one last time to seal the image in my mind, I realized we had a more spectacular 60 minutes than if we had toured though the ancient palace. As magnificent as the Alhambra is, I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will stay with me forever. And it was more than just looking- it was feeling the moment.

I didn’t learn about Moorish architecture that night, but I did learn this: leave time for the unexpected. Don’t plan every second of a trip. We had a list of activities we wanted to see and accomplish in Granada and that certainly wasn’t one of them. But it stands out as the brightest, sharpest picture in my mind. You never know what you’ll discover or feel when you simply let yourself live.