Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Flamenco Dancer is Born

One of my goals when coming to Spain was to learn to dance flamenco.  Not that I knew anything about it aside from my short stint years ago as a backup singer in my sister’s Gypsy-Kings-Wannabes flamenco group that played in a café every Saturday evening.  My great-great grandmother was a gypsy, albeit from Germany, and I felt it in my blood. When I heard that the mother of Spain’s leading flamenco dancer was offering a flamenco class, I jumped at the chance.
The Captain and the Flamenco Dancers
Concha Baras is a small, slight, graceful, well-preserved owner of a flamenco studio.  Mother of the famous flamenco bailadora Sara Baras, she taught her daughters how to dance at an early age.  With her strong Andalusian accent and the temperament of a ballet maestra, Concha is a little intimidating.  Two other women started with me in October, and we began with a simple buleria, a traditional dance for the holidays.  I saw immediately that she expected a lot and didn’t suffer fools; I kept my mouth shut and my eyes wide, videotaping her in order to practice at home.  By early November, she asked if we’d like to dance in a zambomba.  Not knowing what that was, I said “Sure.”
Concha and me      Click link to see Sara Baras dance!

A zambomba originated as a traditional spontaneous fiesta de las calles among the gypsies of Spain.  Dancing and singing around a fire in the street or plaza, the crowd would spontaneously circle, some entering the circle, tapping out intricate moves to the song.  If you know anything about flamenco, you know it involves a lot of fancy footwork.  In its more stylized form, a zambomba now includes a singer and guitarist, as well as percussion from a box-like instrument called the ­­­­­cajón.  Concha’s zambomba was more choreographed: a benefit for a charity group, Las Hermanitas de los Pobres, the 25 Euro ticket required a bit more planning.
A traditional zambomba in the streets
Suddenly I had entered the world of dance, singing, guitar, and a group of women, Concha’s other students, who fascinated me.  All shapes, sizes, and ages, the one thing these women have in common is their incredible grace in movement.  Each has her individual style wrapped around the traditional flamenco steps, and each shows a confidence and panache in dancing that intrigued and delighted me.  Our part of the zambomba consisted of four parts:  a sevillana, the traditional dance of the ferias (in which I did NOT dance--I haven’t learned it yet!); a rumba to a recorded song, Los Buenos Momentos; a medley of songs taken from various villancicos,  traditional Spanish Christmas songs; and finally, as the grand finale, a series of bulerias, each dancer entering the circle to show her stuff. 

Click here to hear Los Buenos Momentos:

Practice was intense.  I had to learn both words and melody to five villancicos, the steps to my little buleria, the group’s steps to the rumba (no solo for me here, too new), and the compás or rhythmic clapping integral to flamenco music.  Little did I know that clapping was so intricate!  Aside from numerous syncopated rhythms, there are at least two different ways to hold your hands, and there is often a foot tap or stamp integrated into the clapping.  At practice, every time I danced my little 30-second piece, the others nearly fell over laughing.  “Why?”  I asked.  “It’s because even though you don’t have the movements right, you have the spirit, the attitude, the compás, the soul!”  Todd got mad as the practice sessions accelerated from once to twice a week in the evening, then to every night before the big performance on Friday, but even my sister’s arrival in Spain for the holidays didn’t keep me from the practices:  I had found something that I loved, that was beautiful and challenging and graceful and fun, and I wanted IN!
Getting ready
The evening of the performance I arrived on time, only to find the bodega Caballero, the sherry winery down the street from us where the performance was being held, locked up tight. Standing outside in my sheer black skirt, hair long and in heavier-than-usual makeup, I felt conspicuous and a little awkward.  When I was finally let in, I discovered the practice before the performance had been set at 6:30, not 6 pm.  (This has been a problem for me as my Spanish-speaking ability evolves; I often miss key pieces of information!)  But the excitement of the other women, their always-warm welcome into the group, and their last-minute practice as the sherry bottle was passed around in the dressing room kept me focused and included.  My sister came back with her camera to capture some of this excitement and was immediately embraced by these women. 
Performers, pre-performance
It is difficult to put into words what the performance was like.  Up on stage, a part of the group sitting in a circle, I was awed and proud of my fellow dancers.  One of them, Begoña, sang a sevillana for Concha and professional dancer Danny to dance to, a melody so beautiful and haunting that it brought tears to my eyes; I had danced with her for two months, and didn’t know she could sing like this.  During my own tiny part, the bright stage lights and the shouts of the audience were both encouraging and distracting, and I faltered a little at the end, but the shaky flip video of my performance doesn’t show it.  Danny, the professional, danced a 10-minute piece so intricate, so quick and showy, his wet hair spraying a fine mist as he twirled and stamped, that I struggled to understand how he could move so quickly.  Sara Baras, prima flamenco ballerina, and her sister came up in a cameo and danced the sweetest, tenderest moment of the show, ending on one knee looking up at their mother, and then embracing her.  At the end of the show, Concha called up the two old, wizened monjas (nuns) from Hermanitas de los Pobres and presented them with the proceeds of the show, over 3000 Euros.  It brought home the meaning of Christmas in Spain:  a time of celebration, fiestas, and giving back to the community.
A dancer is born...
As we left, the kids exhausted and begging to go home, I stopped to thank Concha:  “I want to say thank you for this experience, an unforgettable experience.  I never expected to get all of this from a flamenco class.  Thank you.  I don’t have words to explain.  Muchissimo gracias.”  She smiled and kissed me, Spanish-style, once on each cheek.  Dance, song, music, compás, gypsy, friendship, flamenco;  I had entered a whole new world. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So well written, I feel as if I was reading a piece written by a "Best Selling" author! Very enjoyable! What a great experience you are having!


Feel free to add your comments here!