Variety

Aflame with flamenco

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on: May 24, 2012
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It is a week since I saw a spectacular Flamenco show at the Las Carboneras in Madrid. I don't exaggerate a bit when I say that I can still feel the energy, the vibrancy, the passion, the music and the magic beat of the dancers' feet resonate in my head.

Joanna Wivell, the founder of Insider's Madrid ( www.insidersmadrid.com ), which organises personalised tours of the Spanish capital, including flamenco lessons for beginners, walks us into this very contemporary flamenco bar-cum-restaurant bang in the centre of Madrid and close to the Plaza Mayor.

We troop in an hour ahead of the 9 p.m. show and take in the colourful décor, including numerous posters, pictures and paintings of famous flamenco dancers. Joanna tells us this restaurant is styled on the lines of the old establishments known as café cantantes — intimate venues dedicated to quality flamenco, which can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors. For those passionate about this art form, special lectures on flamenco music, dance and singing are also arranged.

Creative fusion

Originating in the Andalusian region of southern Spain, the flamenco is a creative fusion of dance forms handed down by gypsies, and has evolved as a Spanish-Arabic dance form. As the show began and the audience watched the dancers — three female and a single male — perform the energetic, staccato style of dance, there was pin-drop silence in the restaurant. With wide-eyed wonder and rapt attention we liberally absorbed into our being the magic performance on the stage.

The cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps) are the principal elements of the flamenco, which has now become popular all over the world and is taught in many countries. Apparently, in Japan, the flamenco is so popular that there are more academies in that country than in Spain! In 2010, Unesco declared the flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Many interesting theories abound on the origin of not only the dance but its name itself. One is that flamenco is Spanish for flamingo, and the fluid movements of the dancers tapping their feet elegantly, even though vigorously, resemble those of the beautiful bird.

Our all-women group of six Indian journalists is, of course, most excited by the dance's similarities with Kathak and there is an animated discussion on this how similar the movements of the two dances are at our table! Somebody mentions how between 800 A.D. and 900 A.D. there was a large exodus of people — animal traders, acrobats, musicians, palmists and others — from Punjab. A section of these nomads wandered across North Africa and Andalusia, and the Islamic and Moorish influence on Spain, particularly its southern parts, is only too well-known.

Magic synergy

The magical synergy and chemistry between the four dancers, the two guitarists and the vocalists was only too evident and electrified the room. As soon as the show started it became evident that the performers were getting energised and inspired more by each other than by the response from the enchanted audience. As the stunningly beautiful Anna (with a strong resemblance to Kareena Kapoor), who had lived in Australia till she was 14 before moving to Spain, picked up momentum, the clapping and verbal exclamations from her companions reached a crescendo and seemed to feed her extra doses of energy to continue.

As her staccato movements gathered momentum first, and translated to a higher and higher level of frenzy a few moments later, bits of her hair clasp went flying all over the floor. But totally engrossed in her performance, her face and body bathed in sweat, she was completely oblivious to what was happening around her. The eyes and hands and animated verbal communication from the other two women, who clapped their hands and tapped their feet, seemed to be transmitting energy to the dancer on the floor.

Next came Karen, a Mexican who looked more like an Arab. As her lissome body twirled to the music, hips swaying, arms flying around in liquid movements, skirt twirling, eyes closed and her face engulfed in an expression of intense concentration, it seemed as though she was dancing only for herself. The kind of feeling you get when watching ghazal maestros like Mehdi Hasan or Ghulam Ali or sufi singers during a live performance.

Sangria + Flamenco!

Before the show began we dug into a delicious spread of tapas such as grilled vegetables, croquette de jamón , artichokes with cheese and jamón , manchego cheese, salad with nuts and goat's cheese, tuna empanada, all washed down with even more delicious sangria. Joanna, who does Flamenco Uncovered tours for visitors, enthralled us with interesting stories and her own passion for this dance form. “I like flamenco because you don't have to be a prima ballerina to dance it; whatever your body, it defines your style of dance. It is all about contrast, the last minute, the not doing as much as the doing; the silence as much as the sound. It is visceral, the dancers are baring their souls to us.”

Her first introduction to flamenco was through the Sevillanas dance, a folk dance of the Seville region. “It gives you a good feel for the flamenco posture, how to use your hands and feet,” she says, sending both her arms flying above her head in a graceful, fluid movement.

She said learning the flamenco was almost like learning a new language, and she had learnt it many years ago when she first came to Spain to learn Spanish. “My teacher Carmen gave me classes in return for English classes for her, her mother and two little sons. We would all sit around the table, with the three generations repeating English words and phrases.” Once that was over, one of the family members taught her the dance; “a really family learning experience.” 

As we lap up Joanna's tales, the tourism counsellor from the Spanish embassy in India, Arturo Ortiz, who is accompanying us, has us in splits with an interesting story of how he tried to learn the flamenco when he was posted in Moscow. “But I was too clumsy to learn it.”

Though flamenco originated in Andalusia, Madrid apparently has the best places that teach this dance. Close to our beautiful, historic Westin Palace Hotel was the best flamenco school called Amor de dios (god's love). Tourists from all over the world flock here for lessons.

Ortiz adds that in the 1920s, while attending a royal wedding in Madrid, the Maharaja of Kapurthala fell in love with a flamenco dancer, Anita Delgado, who was performing in a bar. He married her, but later, in India, she fell in love with one of his sons!

Good-looking jeans!

Even today, flamenco is widely practised in Andalusia, particularly among gypsies. “It is very moving to see all family members — from grannies to children — entertaining themselves with the flamenco in their kitchens, living rooms or patios,” says Ortiz.

As we commented on the dashing Spanish men in the room and on the stage, Joanna recalled the time she accompanied a group of “very elegant English fine-art enthusiasts to a flamenco show in Madrid. A very handsome male dancer was performing a very passionate solea por buleria on stage. He was wearing a ruffled red shirt and a pair of jeans.”

Mesmerised, the group had watched the show in silence. “At the end of the show, one of the ladies came up to me and said: ‘My dear, I don't think I've ever seen a pair of jeans look so good.'”

Published on May 24, 2012
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