I like to dance; I don’t mind being a sweaty mess or my fringe sticking to my forehead, because it means I’ve let loose. Like many other people, I dance in the night, in a club, bar, town square (picture Cuba or Brazil) or at a party. The common denominator across cultures and venues is that alcohol is flowing, each dancer has arrived at this point with the people they have chosen to spend their time with and nearly all of us are fleeing responsibility, if only for a few fleeting hours. We dance and escape. We dance and disappear. We dance to appear as something completely different to who we really are. In my humble opinion, we will nearly all recognise this description and feel it rings true for our experiences.
However, Shah Asad Rizvi asserts something quite different, “When a dancer performs, melody transforms into a carriage, expressions turn into fuel and spirit experiences a journey to a world where passion attains fulfilment.” Her description of “passion” seemed quite at odds with my own narrative of dancing. Then, I saw Flamenco…
Ushered into the snug venue you immediately understand the proprietor’s commitment to the art form: no drinks are being served, there’s no bar, there’s no interval. (You are given directions to the closest newsagent if you want to bring your own refreshments in) At the end, nobody collects tips, despite the fact we would have all emptied our pockets in our transcendental state. The Casa Del Arte Flamenco is not about making a quick buck from woozy boozy tourists. It lets the dancing do the talking. How rare.
When you watch Flamenco, there’s no need for a past or future. You cannot help but acquiesce to the possibility that all that really exists is the dancer; their severity is the total sum of everything.
Flamenco in Granada is so highly regarded, and marketable, because of its bizarre historic roots. The Sacromonte, know as the gypsy area of Granada, is one of the best-known cradles of Flamenco in Spain, all because in 1492 Moorish people were pushed out of the city, beyond the walls and forced to settle in the mountains (Sacromonte roughly translates as ‘sacred mountain’) This exile, did not prove catastrophic, for it was in this strange transition they met with the Gypsies and, incredibly, both cultures coexisted, sharing their customs and stories. The affinity between the two groups sprang from both being considered outcasts by the ruling Catholic society of Granada. Never count out the underdogs!
The traditional Grenadian Flamenco, is of a bastard’s lineage and all the more fascinating because of it. Its commonly known name, Zambra, comes from the Arabic zumrã, meaning “party”. The Alhambra would have buzzed with the dance as a wedding ritual and parties all across the city would have showcased the moves in celebration. Prohibition never wins, so when the Grenadian Moorish traditions became illegal by the inquisition, in the 16th century, Flamenco simply became illicit and driven underground. The secretive dance was absorbed and transformed by Sacromonte´s Gypsies, embracing the Zambra as their own dance. Gypsies themselves are the only remains of the entire Moorish musical tradition, they are the only ones that hold the heritage of the Moorish kingdom’s traditions in Granada within their own traditions now.
The cliché image we have of Flamenco dancers in full costume with castanets, bright red lips and sharp clicking heels is from Sacramonte; where the gypsies would attract attention and money from inquisitive strangers who ventured into their domain for the views of the Alhambra. Maya Angelou might declare, “and still I rise”. The Gypsies have become custodians of culture, living outside of the walls the tradition was eradicated from; I revel in the irony that they are now revered. It matters naught that their history was never recorded because of illiteracy, because here they are, living proof of the stories passed down through centuries, dancing in the style of the Nasrid Sultans from the 15th Century.
When the show begins, I suppress the urge to smirk, giggle, or shift uneasily in my seat. The singing is just so alien; a yowling sound pitching up and down without warning. Guttural is, and, at the same time, isn’t the right word for it; but it comes from deep deep within. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the mechanisms of the body. It removes me from myself. I hear something beyond primitive and out of the grasp of articulation. I wonder if it’s melancholy; the human’s own birdsong of longing. It is part of me, us and everyone; in that moment I am certain.
There’s a young Chinese girl, about 5 years old, that has been separated from her family, made to sit alone in an alcove next to two large Americans; one wearing a cowboy hat. Her family forget her. Georgia and I had been keeping an eye on her pityingly; commenting on her feet not touching the ground, the white stuffed teddy she was holding and the indecency of the parents to leave her rather than take the seat themselves. As the dancing began, we too forgot her. She forgot herself. But part way through the second dance, her arms extended outwards, leaning the teddy forward, pushing it towards the performance in an innocence so profound I could have wept. All that mattered was the dance. The music. The teddy should be able to understand that; because Flamenco seemed to dissolve boundaries.
I didn’t expect to see the woman dance alone, the man simply stood with the singer, stamping out a beat in support and then vice versa. I falsely assumed the dance was as fiercely about two people as the Argentine Tango. The opposite was true. Maybe the Flamenco is a display to attract a mate or a moment to mourn lost love. I couldn’t decipher it. I didn’t care to. Each dancer is so absorbed in the communication of the feeling: Brittle arm lines. Stampeding feet. Arched backs and sharp, clap, clap, claps. The woman’s mouth would contort in a tremor with every stomp; her entire body would allow a wave to pass over it, a subtle fluidity of sensuality that could have allowed for her objectification but meant nothing, as all that mattered was drinking in her facial expressions. We gorged on the raw honesty. Translucent conviction. Unfettered by a partner.
The man’s turn seemed almost crude in comparison: all machismo, all arrogance, all front. Then that feeling passed as I read the way in which he was mirroring the moves of the woman’s sequence. I marvelled at the speed of his feet, not encumbered by a sweeping skirt, and admired the way his eyes didn’t once ply us for applause, but raged with intention and precision and control.
As Georgia exclaimed, “I feel like seeing Flamenco would never, EVER, have been on my bucket-list, but now it is and I’ve ticked it off!”