El Baile Flamenco

Café de Chinitas is located in a back street near the Royal Palace in Madrid. Chinitas apparently means little Chinese girls, which is somewhat at odds with the fact we were hoping to watch some Spanish dancing. As we settled ourselves at a table right in front of the stage, a gentleman was already seated at the back of the stage, playing on his guitar (toque = guitar playing). I once tried to learn classical guitar, but despite my teacher’s best efforts, my fingers inevitably got tangled in the strings.

Our guitar playing Spaniard had no such problems, as his fingers skipped with consummate skill – and at terrifying speed – across the strings. He was joined by two more men with their guitars and the pace got faster still. No one smiled; in fact they all looked rather grim. Our companion explained that this is normal with Flamenco.

Flamenco is a genre of Spanish music, song and dance from Andalusia in southern Spain, a combination of Andalucian and Romani dance styles remarkable for its high energy levels and staccato style. Cante (singing) is at the heart of every performance: a wailing, passionate, somewhat unmelodic, tragedy, usually performed by a soloist. Soap opera at its finest.

Perhaps the most familiar part of flamenco, though, is the dance or baile. El baile flamenco is renowned for its emotional intensity, upright stance, expressive twirling of hands and fierce, rhythmic stamping of the feet. The dancers tonight predominantly danced solos, as is common to ‘flamenco puro,’ the form of flamenco closest to its gypsey origins. Traditionally, this is improvised rather than choreographed.

Modern flamenco is a highly technical dance style that requires years of study to perfect, with an emphasis on precise, lightning-quick footwork. It is flamboyant but highly disciplined, generating immense heat and energy.

The level of fitness required to keep up the pace is astounding, especially as all of tonight’s dancers appear to be over forty, some much older. Apparently this is perfectly normal for flamenco dancers, who are not considered to have the emotional maturity for flamenco until they reach their thirties, and many will continue to perform into their sixties.

Our companion told us that traditionally, flamenco dancers do not smile, although, happily, tonight some do. Otherwise I fear the evening would have become rather grim, after almost three hours of fierce, sneering faces and the furious blur of feet pounding the stage like jackhammers.

Tonight’s tablaos flamenco consists of a company of about twelve performers. Our three guitar players were joined by three clappers (palmas = clapping). ‘Your job?’ ‘I am second clapper,’ has undertones of Monty Python.

The soloists are amazing. One gentleman mounts the stage in toreador hat, black, heeled boots and leather chaps, but performs as if he were both the bull and the bullfighter, butting his head and scraping his boots on the steps, then twirling his cape about the stage.

His performance is followed by a solo from each of the four women seated on the stage, clicking and twirling and balancing on their heels, one flicking and kicking aside a long frilly train with impressive skill. I would undoubtedly have tripped over so much fabric. As the dancers whirled faster and faster and tossed their heads, hair clips, combs and earrings flew across the stage.

While we sipped on a pleasant Rosé and nibbled on tapas (fried calamares, fried pimientos, jamon and cheese), a fifth woman swaggered onto the stage in black trousers, waist coat and boots. I found her passionate but controlled performance the highlight of the evening. Her fierce concentration as her boots beat a seemingly endless, frighteningly fast tattoo on the floor boards had us all frowning in mirror-images of her expression.

A grand finale brought the four women back onto the stage together, the combined clicking of castanets and frantic clapping almost bursting our ear drums! It may have been a tablaos designed for the tourists, but we loved the evening’s enthusiastic entertainment. I will definitely be heading off to dancing classes…

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