I never took formal dance lessons or music lessons. Other little girls took their dancing shoes and leotards with them to school in their backpacks for lessons right after school. I merely tried to keep up with their tap routines on the blacktop at the playground when we played “dance class.”
When I went home, I got my scarves—two or three gauzy little things that needed a good wash—from under my bed and skipped down to the living room. I put on my favorite record, a 101 Strings Orchestra 33 from my parents’ record collection, entitled The Soul of Spain. My mom, who is from the north of Spain, from Barcelona, and doesn’t care very much for southern flamenco music, laughed and watched me dance. The thrilling melodies, the sheer drama of classics like Malaguena, La Paloma, and El Relicario enthralled me. I danced my own flamenco all the way through elementary school.
In college, I studied Spanish literature. I learned to read (very slowly and with a dictionary under my hand) Old Castilian and Golden Age Spanish, and I immersed myself in the rich and prolific mix of Arabic and Jewish and Christian folklore and songs, the texts that inform modern Andalusian culture. In a later class I read parts of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero gitano, a book of poetry capturing the essence of nineteenth and early twentieth century gypsy culture. The romantic verses electrified my imagination. My favorite movie at the time was Carlos Saura’s documentary Flamenco, a series of performances of different categories—or palos—of flamenco music, song, and dance, of which there are over fifty.
I spent my last semester of college at the University of Granada in southern Spain. I took a flamenco dance class and every opportunity to explore gypsy culture. Gypsies—Roma people—face a difficult problem in Spain. They are both reviled and revered—reviled for what many consider to be the unscrupulous lifestyle of swindlers, and revered for their artistic endeavors and accomplishments as musicians and dancers, practicing and renewing an ancient musical form.
Early on, my friend Melissa and I went to a tablao de flamenco, a cabaret performance in a dark, humid little bar in Seville. The singers and dancers and guitar players sat facing us on folding chairs in a semicircle, forming a miniature stage in front of them. The women wore traditional polka-dotted red and green dresses with sturdy-heeled shoes, heavily kohled eyes, and fringed shawls. The men all wore loose, double-breasted suits and had long, shaggy hair. The guitarists began to play, setting the rhythm by alternately tapping the soundboard and plucking the strings. The singers clapped in a series of complicated syncopations with the guitar, and a man stood up to perform the song.
The cante flamenco is the saddest, most mournful sound I have ever heard. The voice of the Gitano is one of despair and longing, of lost love and brokenness leading to death. The songs are lyrically simple, but the interpretation is not. In fact, a singer is freed by the power of his own interpretation. And when that happens, his fellow musicians cheer and cry out because the pain of his song radiates outward and pierces them.
Melissa turned to me and asked, “Why are they shouting and clapping? That’s so weird and interruptive for another performer to do. They’re literally cutting him off in the middle of his song.”
“Yeah,” I said. I did not know how to deal with the ache in my own heart as I watched the singer. I resorted to a sort of xenophobic explanation: “I think it’s ok, because it’s part of their culture to do that.”
Melissa looked unconvinced.
In the months afterward, I walked through the public parks of Granada, where there were performers in abundance. I looked for groups of Roma practicing palmas, the rhythmic clapping so essential to flamenco. Five, ten, or fifteen of them would set up a complex clapping rhythm and keep it up for a half hour at a time. One would lift his voice and sing about aloneness or a dead sweetheart. I sat nearby with a book, pretending to read but soaking up every bit of the energy of the performance.
When I was little, the dance was my favorite. Now it has become the song—the poetry. I listen to The Soul of Spain for sentimental reasons, but it no longer holds the same resonance. It is too polished, too symphonic. I prefer the harsh, energetic vocalizations of the singers who enter through song into the passion and pain of the Gypsy who is at the center—but always at the margins of Spanish culture.
I close my eyes and open my ears to a fandango de Huelva:
Mis lágrimas voy echando
En un vaso de cristal
Ahora las hecho en el suelo
Porque de tanto llora
el vaso lo tengo lleno
My tears were falling
Into a glass
But now my tears fall to the floor
Because I’ve cried so much
The glass is full