Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3982 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

¡Ole, the Rhythms of Sevilla!

Jennifer Arin

Loosen your hips, the teacher commands us in every flamenco class: move them! Not only are we as stiff as the hard floor we dance on, but someone else has to teach us how to be sensual. Pretty embarrassing. If this prudishness stems from our Puritan culture (what else?), why do Spanish women, with their country’s fiercely Catholic past, have no problem shaking it up? I remember watching a shapely woman in her fifties take the dance floor at a club in Sevilla and launch into a low rumba. Bent forward at the waist, rump out, she pulled her skirt tight, clutching any loose fabric so that each swish of her hips had full impact. The men went crazy. The women laughed and clapped.

I’d never planned to study this kind of dance—nor any kind. But who among us can predict where our lives will lead? And who can tell what will become home? I’d never planned to move to Paris, either—the place where, in a twist of fate, I first heard the music of Sevilla. But from the first day of a three-week summer vacation in Paris, the city had been irresistible: its grand esplanades; its river which reflected the light differently each day; its language which I’d studied and loved becoming fluent in, even though my mouth ached, at first, from days on end of those puckered vowels. I interviewed for numerous jobs, a process that always went well until the interviewer asked if I had working papers. At last, an international agency hired me to enter computer data. Dull work, but the perks were grand: long lunches, eight weeks of vacation per year, a health plan that justified the pharmacie on each block, and a salary increase for every language employees proved competent in. I passed the company’s French test, and liked anyway the idea of learning another tongue, so I began lessons with Nora, a teacher who held classes on the premises, and who introduced nine colleagues and me to Spanish language and culture. One day, she played for us a sevillanas tape:

Fiesta, Feria, Juerga y Vino,
Duende y Ole, Ole y Ole
Las sevillanas, y Ole y Ola

So many vigorous ¡oles! It was a welcome contrast from the hushed manner of the French; I was always the one laughing and talking loudest, until Spaniards, Italians, or drunken tourists from any country turned up. But what made the Spanish singer so passionate? Was it the vino? Or the duende, that deep expression of the soul? Either way, the song made it seem that each fiesta, each juerga or gathering, and even each city fair was a non-stop dance party.

This was well worth seeing! From Paris, the flight to Sevilla was quick and easy. Guidebook in hand, I checked into a pensión in the center of the city, then headed off to a tablao—a club where people dance sevillanas—following Nora’s suggestion and a map: cross the River Guadalquivir, veer left, head a couple of blocks east, and voilà! La Candela appeared.

The moment I walked into the club, the music I recognized as sevillanas—melodious, fast, upbeat—enveloped me. Once my eyes adjusted to the soft light, I could discern the band: four middle-aged men with dark, slicked-back hair, and stomachs that hung over their belts. People of all ages and shapes were dancing, too. The place was packed not only with couples, but with whole families, many of whom were seated at large tables spread around the dance area. Mothers, daughters and sons; aunts, nephews, nieces: a strikingly cross-generational crowd.

Couples moved vigorously to the beat, and in perfect sync with one another, steps matched, arms rising in unison. The partners never touched, but they circled each other closely, hands nearly on each other’s waist. Sometimes women danced together, their comfort reflecting the deep bond of friendship, or kinship. When men and women danced together, their bodies radiated the heat of desire barely withheld. At one point in the dance, a flash of footwork by all the couples made the floor resound like a drum.

The music thumped on, beckoning. I squeezed past a crowd of people to make my way to the dance floor’s edge, where a handful of sevillanos were clapping to the beat and waiting to take the floor next. I would have loved to dance, too—the music and scene were compelling—but the fast footwork baffled me. Surely, there was a pattern. I could see some steps repeated, but what exactly those steps were eluded me. The rhythm was just as confusing. Each sevillana’s beginning varied in length, the lead singer stretching out his vowels according to emotion and lung power. Equally puzzling, every song had a last note that seemed one too many. How on earth could anyone born elsewhere know when to take that first step, or the last? The couples started and stopped on a dime, hitting that final note with their arms up high, an expression of triumph and joy. I’d feel the same if I could figure out the beginning and end—or middle, for that matter.

¡Ole! everyone called out together, during a pause in the music, to praise the band. It was little wonder they all were so enthusiastic; I was catching sevillanas fever myself. Each night for a week I went back to the tablao, even dancing when men would ask, as they inevitably did since I was always by the dance floor, standing alone—no mothers and aunts whose approval was needed!—intently watching the couples. Each time I joined in, the amused smile of every last observer made it clear I wasn’t fooling anyone. No surprise there! It took all my effort just to avoid bumping into my partner or the other dancers, with all those place-swapping turns. Still, I figured it was the only way to learn, and it was fun—exhilarating!—to move to those songs, even if I barely caught the words being sung, or what my partners said.

¿Como te llamas? each man would begin, his mouth pressed against my ear, a sensual and, amidst the music, necessary gesture. Then each would give up trying to converse when I couldn’t say much more than my name and where I was from, answering most questions with ¿Qué? and No entiendo. How awful to be fluent in neither the language nor the dance! The steps felt as unnatural as the rolling Spanish “r” that always stuck on my tongue, no matter how often I practiced aloud words like carro, perro, and ferrocarril, my “r” in those words for car, dog, railroad sounding like an engine that couldn’t turn over.

To grasp the dance and its vocabulary, I wandered into a music store a few doors down from the club and asked, in a wonderfully “r”-less phrase, ¿Dónde hay discos de sevillanas? I bought a couple of CDs, grateful to find printed lyrics stuffed into each clear case. Remarkably, whatever the song’s topic—most often, love—the lyrics also praised some prized aspect of Sevilla: its flowered balconies, whitewashed houses, lively festivals, gorgeous women, and even the joy of sevillanas themselves. Sevilla, each song concluded, is beyond compare. One chorus proclaimed enthusiastically, ¡Sevilla, no hay más que una! Never mind that there’s no more than one of any city: there’s only one Sevilla, the refrain goes, and every sevillano seems to agree. No wonder the singer I’d first heard ole-ing back in Paris had been so enthusiastic! Sevillanas may be the happiest music on earth; it’s certainly the proudest.

Each day I listened, in my hotel room, to those CDs. The cheery, fast-paced music was irresistible, especially once I began to crack its rhythmic code by singing along with the lyrics. Even singing, though, I was always behind the beat. Over and over, I chanted along to get the words and rhythm down, and did sweeps across the floor as grandly as I could, short of knocking into the table or bed. Between the alluring half notes the singers intoned, and the unabashed enthusiasm of it all—¡ole! ¡vamos! ¡eso! the musicians cried out—I couldn’t get enough.

But I would be leaving soon to go back to Paris. The dance would be gone, and the music a handful of recordings, nothing more. France was still home, but now, like most any home, it would feel incomplete. I loved the language and beauty of Paris, the bookstands along the Seine, the late-night outings with friends, and the rich history found everywhere—not only in grand places like the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned, or Henry IV’s majestic brick pavilions at the Place des Vosges, but even underfoot. Most evenings, as the setting sun colored the sky and Seine, I lingered on the Pont au Change. Sculpted into that bridge’s side are laurel wreaths encircling a big letter “N”: the imperial insignia of Louis Napoleon. In Paris, the past is everywhere.

Absent from its midst, though, is that open display of joy Andalusians so willingly engage in. Most Parisians are introverted, even indifferent, except when they’re annoyed. Back in Paris, I took my beloved sevillanas to the office one day and, when everyone went to lunch, put on a song and began to dance. Apparently, not everyone had left. A colleague from the adjoining office burst through the door and shouted, “Arrête cette musique de merde!” How anyone could hear that music and cry ‘Turn that shit off!’ was beyond me—but clearly, not everyone was enamored with sevillanas. Still, maybe I could find others in Paris who were.

Heading home that evening, I stopped by a dance studio near my neighborhood. I’d never paid much attention to it before, but now I followed a long, cobbled alley to an office where brochures lined the counter. Allez-y, a bearded fellow behind the counter said without looking up, take one. The brochure touted how the Centre de Danse du Marais had classes in toutes les disciplines: afro-cubain, danse classique, danse orientale. The list went on… salsa, samba—sevillanas! Astonishingly, the débutant level was offered several times a week. The instructor, Patricio Martín, was surely a Spaniard, and probably, I figured, from Andalucía. Who else would be teaching sevillanas?

But the teacher turned out to be a flamboyant Frenchman named Patrick Martin, as in PaTREEK MarTAN—no rolling “r” to be found. This, rather than the dance, was my first lesson: all non-Spanish flamencos give themselves Spanish names. Another teacher, Monique, was listed as Monica; a dancer named Phoebe rose again as La Fibi; and since my Anglo name wasn’t easily converted, I was simply dubbed La Flama, the Flame, after pounding out some steps so passionately I broke a floor tile. Sadly for French floor tiles but happily for me, the culture of Spain was becoming integral to my life. The body, too, is a kind of home, and mine was delighted to be dancing sevillanas.

And yet, after four years in Paris, I began to consider a return to the States. Over time, my job felt more and more dull and dead-end. And my family was halfway across the globe, in California.

Une autre américaine déracinée, a friend remarked, enthralled with her observation that I was a typically “rootless” American in Paris. I wanted to strangle her. As if I had anything in common with the parade of Americans and assorted Anglos who arrived each tourist-crammed summer, and spent their days and nights eating baguettes and downing bottles of cheap wine by the Seine. For me the city, no matter what the season or scene, was home. Still, the time finally came when I packed boxes and peeled posters off the walls of my apartment, wretchedly unsure if I was making the right choice. The last item to join the other boxed ones was the painting a Parisian friend made for me. In his condensed version of the city, the two of us dance beneath a twilight sky, near an illuminated Eiffel Tower and fiery Moulin Rouge.

Was I leaving home, or returning to it? On the long flight to California, I looked out the window as the plane slowly crossed the Atlantic, casting a steady shadow on the surface. And then, back on the West Coast, I felt as foreign as I had during my first months in France. Whenever I opened my mouth—at the grocery store, post office or bank— everyone asked where I was from. Without realizing it, I’d acquired French gestures and habits of speech, from the high shrugs to an accent born of miming French sounds for so long. Also, having long ago traded my American clothes for French ones, everywhere I went I was now uncomfortably overdressed. How I missed Paris! Not just the soignée way the French dress, and not just the language (though I did grieve the language), but the grand architecture, the convenient métro, the restaurants and clubs open until morning, and of course, I missed my friends— even the one who’d called me an américaine déracinée. What would she say now?

To lessen the ache, I found a dance studio that offered classes in sevillanas. Such a find seemed a miracle—almost. Unlike the Paris studio, in the midst of a cobblestone courtyard and chic quartier, the California studio was in a poverty-stricken area downtown, and required walking past panhandlers and addicts. I took my chances and went to the studio once, then twice a week. The instructor, Miguel, was a sweet-tempered man of Mexican descent, lean and dark with a thin mustache. After a couple of weeks, some of his students invited me to join them after class, to rehearse new steps. Over dinner, they talked about Spain, where most of them had taken flamenco classes.

Much as I loved sevillanas, aspirations to flamenco were foreign to me. Where sevillanas are more of a folk dance, joyful and social, flamenco is gritty, and usually danced solo. A couple of light-hearted flamenco dances do exist—alegrías, whose name means happiness; peteneras, where the dancer often uses a fan or shawl—but most flamenco dances require a deeply furrowed brow and “don’t fuck with me” attitude. When I asked Miguel about the difference between two flamenco dances, soleás and seguiriyas, he explained, “Soleás are when someone’s hurt you badly and you hate them. In seguiriyas, you want to kill them.”

Arriving early to class once, I found Miguel sitting on a bench outside the studio, waiting for an earlier class to end. We chatted about dancing, and even about the flower shop he owned: a fallback, I assumed, for the years when he could no longer teach or perform. Though he looked at least twenty years younger, rumor had it he was in his 70s.

Miguel confided that he’d been considering whether to retire: It’s finally time.

Yes, I said sadly, I understand.

It was a hard decision, but I figure it’s time to sell the flower shop so I can dance full-time.

Apparently, Miguel himself was still in full bloom! He asked about my own plans, then encouraged me to pursue flamenco, offering me a small role in an upcoming performance with his troupe. I was too surprised and flattered to say no. The rehearsals, though, proved daunting. Instead of the casual fun of sevillanas classes, these sessions were filled with intensely ambitious, competitive dancers, many of whom had long trained in ballet before falling in love with flamenco. Some were even teaching their own flamenco classes. No wonder they felt comfortable dancing in the front of the room, up close to the mirror and entranced as they gazed at themselves. How well they moved, doing with ease the vueltas, those turns that made my head spin even more than the new choreography. I decided to do what other students did: study in Spain. Summer would be the perfect opportunity, since a teaching job I’d found at a local university offered that time off. A trip back to Sevilla, then north to Paris, which I still missed dearly, would be the ideal homecoming.

Juana Amaya was one of the teachers in Spain everyone spoke of: a renowned gypsy dancer. In June, I flew to Sevilla, checking into the same pensión as before. It felt almost like home this time. The next day, I set off to the studio where Juana taught. The place was easy to find, with the class’s intense footwork audible half a block away—the unmistakable sound of each nail-soled shoe forcefully hitting the floor. The first sight I caught was not of Juana, but of the women who filled the packed room, all wearing full, colorful skirts: fuschia with three ruffles, black-and-red with two, polka-dotted with a shawl around the waist. I looked with regret at my own skirt, an ordinary, barely flared black one to whose bottom hem a friend had sewn a neon-blue band of fabric, to give the illusion of a ruffle. A real flamenco skirt costs hundreds of dollars, too much on a teacher’s salary—and who knew if I would even keep up the dance?

Juana made you want to, though. I could see her now, talking to the guitarist in the front of the room. Tall, elegant, with thick hair that cascaded past her shoulders, she kept her eyes downcast when she danced, as if our presence was irrelevant. When she “marked” some steps for us, her movements exuded both the intense heat of sharp turns and strikes, and the cool of supreme control. Between each series of steps, Juana switched the rows of students, so we all could watch her easily at some point. But the more aggressive students kept pushing their way into the first and second rows again; I spent most of the class looking at their backs. Afterwards, I approached Juana and, braced for rejection, asked if she would give me a few private lessons, which I figured would cost little more than all the group classes I’d planned to take. The request was, I knew, farfetched. Why would Juana spend time on a beginner when so many advanced students swarmed around her, surely also wanting private sessions? And with her performance schedule, how much free time could she have?

But she agreed, which only made me more nervous. What on earth was I doing? And what would it be like to dance directly under the gaze of someone so intense? I found out a couple of days later, when I went to her home—a lovely casa whose balcony was dotted with white, red and pink claveles and geranios: just the kind of carnations and geraniums sung about in sevillanas. Juana answered the door herself, but it was clear we weren’t alone. Male and female voices and the happy squeals of children echoed around an upper floor. Juana led me to a blank-walled, windowless room, where I made two unfortunate discoveries: in June, the heat of Sevilla becomes overwhelming, especially in rooms with no windows; and in private lessons, you do a lot more dancing.

Juana demonstrated, two or three times, a pattern of steps, then clapped out the music’s accents while I duplicated her movements again, again, again. It didn’t take long for sweat to start running down the inside of my leotard. When I stopped to take a swig of water, Juana looked impatient.

Otra vez! Again! she demanded. When I left, a sweat-soaked hour later, it took two large bottles of water to quench my thirst. Evening was the only respite, when even the sun couldn’t hold itself up any longer. Only then could I recover from the nearly Saharan heat. The next afternoon, I went to another lesson with Juana, to suffer in the name of flamenco. She was even tougher this time, insisting I do the steps over and over until each was executed to perfection. Her rigor would have been welcome if I hadn’t been on the verge of heat stroke. At least I was getting the requisite furrowed brow.

By the time I returned to my pensión, drained and dehydrated, I couldn’t help longing, just a little, for the happy sevillanas of days past. When the sun dipped toward the horizon, I headed to a tapas bar where a tuna was playing. This is not some highly talented fish, but a Renaissance-style band of college students, who dress like troubadours in colorful tights and cloaks and feathered hats, and who play lutes as well as guitars. I asked the band if they knew any sevillanas tunes.

It didn’t take much prompting. They struck up a song, and the fatigue of the flamenco lesson fell away. Here was a dance I was at home with now, and its quick rhythms and cheery tune stirred me to my feet. The musicians played on while I danced, facing them. I spun around for the final turn—¡ole! the singer shouted—and my legs almost buckled out from under me.

Deeply immersed in the music, I hadn’t noticed the swarm of tourists filming me—for how long now? They must have stumbled upon the scene—a band, a bar, a show—and were eagerly capturing what they thought was a typical sevillana doing her dance. All the windows of the bar had bulky video cameras thrust through them. A horizontal row of the blocky cameras was perched heavily on each ledge, with other video cameras leaning upon those, in vertical stacks that obscured almost all the outside light.

If a friendly group had approached the tucked-away bar, smiling and maybe asking for a picture, how flattering that would have been! But the faces of this group were hidden by the cameras they peered through, making it seem I was under cold scrutiny. And the fast, aggressive surrounding of the place felt like a surprise attack. They had me trapped.

I stopped dancing, but they kept filming. I moved into a corner, trying to hide from those relentless lenses that, incredibly, still swerved toward me. Finally convinced the dancing was over, the tourists put down their cameras and grumbled to each other in a language I didn’t speak, but whose irritated tone was as clear as the annoyed looks on their faces, visible now. I’d spoiled their movies, ruined their fun. They abandoned the scene, one by one, slowly boarding the buses that had brought them. The bar’s windows let in the dusky light again. When the tourist buses departed, motors roaring, I left also.

The night deepened. In the surface of the Guadalquivir River, the lights of the city appeared as pretty neon streaks. Even the reflected Tio Pepe billboard looked beautiful, the river’s currents softening the oversized image of a man holding a huge bottle of liquor. At the bar that night, maybe a little Tio Pepe would have helped.

The air was comfortable now, even slightly cool by the river’s edge. Though no stars were visible in the city-hazed sky, the moon was bright and bold. So many sevillanas mention that moon. Nuestro amor bajo la luna, one refrain goes, singing of love beneath that moonlight, and then, sexily, of a woman dancing: el lucero tiene celos cuando mueves tu cintura, starlight is jealous when you move your hips. I couldn’t help softly singing that refrain, a quiet offering to the river. The lyrics reminded me of the woman I’d seen on the dance floor once, swinging her hips and clutching her skirt tight. She was breathtaking in her boldness, her movements so free.

Maybe it wasn’t terrible, in the end, that I’d attracted those tourists. There are fates far worse than growing from a young woman lost at a tablao, to one discovered in a tapas bar and taken for a Spanish dancer.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury