Seville – The birthplace of Flamenco
The dancer’s foot starts to tap, slowly at first, from toe to heel – ta-tac. Its pair joins in – ta-tac, ta-tac. Then the speed builds up, taca-taca taca-taca, until the flamenco dancer shakes her head wildly, her expression a picture of intense emotion, lifting her long frilled skirt to show her legs as they pound the stage at lightning pace, building up to a crescendo of ear-splitting intensity. The guitarist strums his instrument frantically to keep up with the dancer.
Suddenly, the singer bursts forth, a desperate, plaintive wail, unfamiliar to many ears with its middle-eastern tones.
If you’ve never been to a flamenco show, this is what you’ll experience – a mind-blowing whirr of movement and sound, feet and voice. Passionate and soul-stirring.
This intriguing and beautiful art form, so closely linked to Spain, and especially Andalucía and its sultry capital Seville, is about communicating a message. The guitarist (tocaor), singer (cantaor/a) and dancer (bailaor/a) are telling a story. A story of sadness or joy, loneliness or seduction. Each story, or palo(style), has its own rhythm and name – seguiriya, alegría, soleá, bulería.
Although no one knows for sure when flamenco started, as there is no written history, what is known is that it is an extraordinary mixture of elements from different cultures – Arabic (Spain was ruled by Islamic dynasties from North Africa for seven centuries), Sephardic (there was a Spanish-Jewish population from early medieval times), African, Andalusian/Castillian and gypsy.
Groups of gypsy musicians lived outside the walls of Spanish cities from around the 16th century, along with other marginalized people – in the Ronda mountains, in the caves of Sacromonte, Granada, and in the Triana district of Seville, which in those days, was home to humble sailors and workers in tobacco and pottery factories
The street now called Pages del Corro, which runs parallel to the river several blocks back, was the limit between the gypsy area and the rest of Triana. In those days it was known as the “Cava de los Gitanos,” and behind that boundary lived families of gypsies in shared houses arranged around a central patio, called corrales de vecinos.
By the 19th century, wealthy people across the river in the walled part of the city were paying gypsies to play at private parties in their mansions and palaces, drawn by the charged atmosphere and sense of excitement their music brought. But the gypsies didn’t put on performances in public.
All this changed with the arrival of the café cantantes from the 1840s, the Golden Age of flamenco. These bars offered cabaret-type entertainment, with a flamenco spot to finish the show – the first time that artistes had been paid to perform before a general audience.
The flamenco was well received, and more performances were added until one café cantante opened which only showed flamenco artistes – a group consisting of singer, guitarist and dancer, the cuadro flamenco structure which you can see in flamenco tablaos around the world today.
Nowadays, flamenco is global, performed from London to New York to Tokyo, but the purest form is still found in its birthplace, Andalucía. And the legendary barrio of Triana in Seville, the cradle of flamenco, has been home to, and inspiration for, many famous artistes, such as Antonio Mairena, Raimundo Amador, Farruco and Manuela Carrasco. Walk the streets of the riverside barrio, especially at night, and you may well stumble upon spontaneous flamenco in a bar – the art form at its most authentic.
To get an insider’s view on flamenco in Seville, we asked a highly-rated professional teacher to tell us what this mystical musical world means to her.
Eva Izquierdo, an exuberant trianera (woman from Triana), has been teaching flamenco for five years. She specializes in beginners, explaining the history and the different styles and their rhythms, so that students properly understand the context. After all, flamenco is about much more than music.
For her, the attraction of flamenco is emotional as much as artistic or aesthetic, she says. “Flamenco is my balance in life. It’s a way of being connected with my feelings, and a way of enjoying the different styles, or palos – there are many connections, so I can choose one to suit the way I’m feeling, listening to one style, or dancing in one style.”
It’s also a powerful uplifting force for positivity, as well as a way of switching off from other distractions, says Izquierdo.
“Dancing flamenco changes my mood. When I start a lesson, I might be happy or sad – but when I finish, I end satisfied and with a smile. These days, we’re surrounded by so much information – I receive much more than I want. So flamenco, for me, is a way of cleansing myself from all that information. I disconnect from all my thoughts and I’m 100% focused on an activity that I love, and which makes me breathe. It’s like oxygen.”
Flamenco is all about expressing yourself and being in touch with both your masculine and feminine sides, adds Izquierdo,
“You can watch the tenderness and femininity in a man dancing flamenco, and you can watch the power and strength in a woman dancing flamenco.”
While she agrees that flamenco footwork is undeniably mesmerizing, especially to visitors seeing their first show, Izquierdo stresses the importance of a dancer’s expression. He or she is telling a story through emotion in their dancing, with their face and their arms and upper body.
“The feet are physical, about good training and hours and hours of practice. You need discipline and a good ear, and very strong abdominal muscles too, but that’s all technical,” she explains.
Watch a dancer’s hands and face though. How they lift an arm elegantly, curling the hand, splaying fingers as if plucking an orange from a tree, or drawing an arm across their face in sheer misery, features creased in torment. The twin extremes of suffering and delight can be clearly seen in these intense gestures.
“The upper part is about expression,” says Izquierdo, emphatically. “If you only watch the feet, where is the story? If you don’t connect with your feelings, what are you telling me?”
Flamenco is about feeling the full gamut of life’s emotions, whether you’re watching or performing. Don’t miss out!
Published: January 14, 2020