Dance until you shatter yourself.
December 2021-May 2022
When you finally make it to Andalusia, go take Flamenco lessons with Maestro Juan Parra, Ev, a fellow Canadian solo woman traveller, told me over a delicious Bedouin dinner of couscous and mint tea. Serendipity had it that we crossed paths deep in the Sahara in the Fall of 2020 at the beginning of my grand voyage. So after fifteen months and an intrepid African tour, I arrive in Jerez de la Frontera, the cradle of Flamenco, not knowing what my new adventure would entail, trusting only that as I learn the steps, the steps reveal themselves to me.
Strolling in the city centre, I see a big poster of Maestro for his upcoming homage show. My first few calls to the school go unanswered until someone finally says,There’s a death in the family. Ven mañana a las 7! I knock on the door of 5 Calle Castellanos, not knowing if Maestro is still among us, only to see the legend himself open the door through which I leap into the Flamenco universe…
What would you like to learn? Maestro always asks each beginner.
Flamenco! My one and only desire.
Solea, buleria, tango, fandango, alegria, siguiriya… or, farruca?
Ummm…! Obviously I did not know until Maestro shows me a dogeared copy of the roots and tributaries of Flamenco.
How long are you staying?
No sé/I don’t know, until at least the Flamenco Festival.
Vale/OK. Let’s begin with sevillanas!
Sevillanas are a fun, fast Flamenco-influenced folk dance from Seville, commonly danced by families and friends in extravagant fairs. Each sevillana is made up of 4 parts x 3 coplas x 6 movements each. Only 72 steps to go! Knowing that the bigger challenges lie ahead, I learn fast my sevillanas steps, set to the scratchy record music of Los Amigos de Gines. In a week, I am done with the careos and giro, paseíllo and pasada, and plenty of zapateado until Juan adds the arms and the castanets! It is like patting the head and rubbing the tummy simultaneously, and you realize you ain’t quite ready yet! And so you turn and turn until you see the stars of Jerez, laughing at you like a total fool…
In a Flamenco class, there is no such thing called sitting in the back when the advanced students sweat through their tango-fandango-buleria-solea-alegria-farruka steps. Each piece is an invitation – and challenge – to absorb the impenetrable compás of various Flamenco palos until your feet and the beats are one. If tango and fandango have a more recognizable 4/4 time, like a Bach aria, the 3/4 time signature of solea, buleria, and alegria feels like music from Jupiter!
How do you tell the difference between them? I ask Juan.
By listening, listening, and listening… and clapping along! He says.
After an illustrious career of 65 years, Maestro still listens to Flamenco cante every night. If Paco de Lucia died learning, so will we. But you won’t learn Spanish from cante, that I assure you! he adds with a grin.
It did not take long for me to realize, in addition to the steps and the castanets, I need to do two more things to survive in my new cosmos: take a deep dive into Flamenco cante and learn to conjugate beyond the three essential Spanish verbs: hablar, vivir, and comer!
The Soul of Flamenco: El Cante con Duende
Serene cry at the edge of the wound,
and this hurts
I’m going to split my shirt with you today
What more can you ask for in life
than to love and who loves you
How rich the shadow.
– Flamenco cante.
Singing cafes appeared in Seville in as early as 1840s, but Flamenco really spread in Spain and other major cities in the world around 1920 when promoters marketed Opera Flamenca in theatres and bullrings. The generation of ’27 poets helped recognize Flamenco as a distinct art form, immortalized by Federico Garcia Lorca who wrote Poem of the Deep Song (1921). The wind with the dust amidst orange blossoms and olive groves, the toasted earth in the long red roads, the labyrinth of crosses where the singing trembles, among the bullfighters and the horsemen, the basil and mint, the hundred lovers who forever sleep, in the night of the orchard through the alleys with deep cisterns, many dead on the street, dagger in the chest in the horizon without light, follow the rhythms with the head, to the river, to the sea…
Ayyayayay! The world is small but the heart is huge, so much love, and more sorrow still. Death goes in and out, and out and in. When I die, bury me with my guitar, under the sand… To be able to sing Flamenco with duende – a special state of grace – is the ultimate praise. The days that I sing and I have it there is no one who can be with me, El Lebrijano, the Legendary cantaor, says, for cante comes not from the throat, but from deep within your soul…
A Jerezana Christmas muy Flamenca
For three weeks, the school is closed and I get to celebrate a typical Jerezana Christmas with full blown music and Flamenco. Villancico Christmas carols are sung while bulerías are stomped by the young and the old in festive street corners, sun-lit courtyards, and jam-packed tablaos. Families dig out their zambombas, an old folk instrument made up of a stretched skin over a jug with a rod gliding in and out, for having a party is what it is all about!
On Christmas eve, I drift naturally to Gonzalez Byass, the oldest bodega in town to taste “the blood of kings,” 350-year-old XO sherry. What better way to end another adventurous year with a glass of Pedro Ximenez that has the color of oil, the texture of syrup, and the taste of jam!
A New Year Begins with Bulerias
After watching my classmates for a whole month – clapping along – finally I have to face the beast. There is something very intimidating about bulerías, one of the fastest, most technical, and dramatic Flamenco palos/forms, upbeat ending to soleares or alegrias danced in joyous celebrations. A typical buleria ranges about 260 beats per minute, mortally unhealthy for the heart but intoxicating for the dancer, for great agility and strength are required to deliver – and balance – the intricate tapping with the toe, heel and ball of the foot, all within an interminable short minute. If Seville is known for her sevillanas and Cadiz her alegrias, Jerez is the mecca for lightning-speed bulerias that many are more than happy to show you.
Maestro is famous for his complex buleria choreography – in eight segments, with increasing technicality – perfected over 65 years! The beginning is always a challenge: it starts on the strong down beat of 12 with four claps within 6 beats and a rapid fire entrance before the rest goes downhill: the first marking, the first call, a little flourish, followed by a second marking and a call again before exiting. Missing a buleria beginning can be the end of you, never mind the speed! It takes me a month – and a lot of stress – to nail down my first buleria and then some more to bring it up to speed, add the arms, move the skirt, tilt the head while simultaneously picking up the steps of tango, Fandango, and alegria that Maestro generously shares with me! I begin to dread Fridays when guitarists come to play, for when bulerias come live, there’s no place to hide but to hit the floor, even if your heart is on the verge of a cardiac arrest out of mortal fear. If sevillanas are a week-long affair, bulerias are lifelong knots. Through the best and worst of what is to come, and as long as we live, I will try my best!
What is (Good) Flamenco?
I start going out with Maestro to Flamenco tablaos/bars after class. What’s this? What’s that? Is this good and is that bad? It is like sitting next to Dave Brubeck at the Village Vanguard in New York City, learning Jazz’s ABCs. Ole! Agua! Toma que toma! Venga! Azucar! In between outpouring jaleos, cheering the dancer, singer and guitarist, I begin to notice subtle differences between good and not so good Flamenco dancing. It is not necessarily the rapid-fire footwork or virtuoso turns and taps that mark craftsmanship, but rather a delicate balance between clean footwork, original choreography, arm movements, and overall coordination and elegance. Con arte/With art! Juan always says, putting his hand to the heart. This no one can teach you; it comes from within.
Finally, the much awaited Flamenco Festival comes back to town. The National Ballet of Spain and the Ballet Flamenco of Andalucia perform to a sold-out audience, the former with the repertoire of the legendary Antonio Ruiz and the latter interpreting The Curse of the Butterfly by Federico Garcia Lorca. Nothing beats ballet training and Flamenco techniques for breath and depth of movements and dazzling elegance. The talk of the town is Manuel Linan who woos a large audience with his audacious performances. It takes courage to be unapologetic about one’s sexual identity on stage, regardless if his provocative style is to everyone’s taste. Like the Dao, Flamenco art is a thousand things…
To top it all, a solo homage show honouring Maestro. Juan has been tightlipped about the program and the suit for the occasion. Surprise surprise, he wears his traje from 50 years ago! If not for anything else, keeping fit is an excellent excuse to learn Flamenco! No doubt Maestro is well loved and respected. At the age of 76, he taps like a twenty-six-year-old. Dancers don’t age, or at least we don’t count the same way!
Jerez is famous for her traditions. After the unique Christmas Zambambas, I experience my first authentic Andalucian Semana Santa, photographing scary-looking penitents who wear capirote/pointy hats in drawn-out processions from the Saturday of Passion to Easter Sunday of Resurrection. All week long Jerezanas praise their God in Saeta, old religious songs in flamenco palos!
Time to Dance: La Feria!
Finally, the moment that all Jerezanas have been waiting for has come: la Feria! Once a cattle market, the gigantic annual fair where locals eat, drink, and dance for a week 24/7 is a euphoric experience. It is unimaginable to live without it for two years in a row since the pandemic began. The health authority had the insensitivity to organize the mass Covid vaccine drives in the same sprawling park where so many Andalucians have their best Feria memories. Let’s dance to revenge!
After six months of practice, it is time to test my skills in the biggest party and dance floor I have ever been. On Mother’s Day, I don on my first traje, a gypsy dress that feels like a chiffon cake, arriving at a scene straight out of a movie set: hundreds of horse-drawn carriages and handsome coach men and women crisscrossing visitors in their Feria best. What class and elegance, these Andalucians!
I spend hours in a pavilion listening to Sevillana songs in full blast, photographing and dancing, watching the soft setting sun cast exquisite shadows on elegant movements. What an unforgettable experience!
For over four decades, Maestro has been bringing his class to la Feria every year like a ritual. We meet at the caseta of Fundador, one of the oldest sherry bodegas, for a 3pm lunch of a sandwich with Iberian ham, followed by deep fried calamari, Spanish tortilla, and some more pork again. Oh, this dance floor is empty. Vamosnos/let’s go! Between coffee and cakes, we all swirl a few first sevillanas before moving to a flamenco peña for a first round of Fino. Pepe, my octogenarian classmate, keeps filling my glass. Vive Espana! No vino, no sevillana! The night is young even if everyone is already drunk. Con la primavera/a mí me entra la alegría/me levanto cada día con cara de felicidad/que ya nos vamos camino de las arenas pa’ver tu cara morena/y estar contigo un año más… We spin and spin until Pepe asks, Don’t you feel a little hungry? Let’s have another round of sandwich with Iberian ham and fine Fino sherry!
life goes by
life moves on
and you have not noticed that you have lived when
life moves on
life moves on
your illusions and your beautiful dreams
everything is forgotten…
years go by
just like the current
from the river when looking for the sea
and I walk indifferent
wherever they want to take me.
– Pasa la vida, sevillana song.
Winter, spring, and then summer come. I discover Jerez – this charming medieval city with a generous spirit and outsized passion for all things beautiful – like a match made in heaven. For six months, I listen to the compás and dance as the seasons change. Gradually, I change as well, as I re-anchor myself in dance, my first love and eternal flame. As for my Spanish, I hope the day will come when this beautiful language unveils its secrets to me! Ojalá que…
To Maestro Juan Parra who generously takes me under his wings and imparts more than the palos and pasos of Flamenco:
Maestro de maestros
con elegancia y arte
en el baile como en la vida.
I was a stone and lost my centre
and was thrown into the sea
and after a very long time
I came to find my centre again.
– Flamenco solea.
Next: Balearic Islands, Spain.