Like so many other things in this beautiful southern Spanish city, it appears disjointed at first, three distinct parts, none seeming to match the others, but all coming together in an imperfect perfection that just makes sense. It is an experience that matches the spirit of Seville just as jazz does for New Orleans, capturing all that is wonderful about the place in art.
I came to Seville believing that flamenco was a dance. The first notes of guitar, a single musician making his instrument sing as though it were two or three, tell me immediately that I was wrong. This is so much more than dance, and I am transfixed.
The guitarist is just as important as the dancer
Cristina Heeren came to Spain at the age of ten from New York. Her father was a guitarist, and from those early years, she was captured by this distinctly Spanish art form. “Flamenco is unique. It isn’t like any other music. It doesn’t even use a ‘regular’ scale,” she tells me. We are sitting in the lobby of a beautiful building housing her legacy. The Fundacion Cristina Heeren is perhaps the world’s finest flamenco school, with programs for dancers, guitarists, and vocalists. We peak into classrooms and watch students of all levels (the program is three years long) practicing their craft. In a second-year guitar class, an older vocalist and dancer help to make the experience complete for the musicians, just as third-year guitarists in turn help younger singers and dancers.
The guitars strum, plucked by fingers being cultivated to their highest calling. This is so much more than dance.
Flamenco as a modern art form dates back to the 19th century, but its roots – Gypsy, Indian, Arabic, and so many more cultures coming together – are much older. As a vocalist joins in with the guitar, I am transported. The chant sounds almost like a Muslim call to prayer, but Spanish, and full of emotion. He claps, softly and more firmly, adding a rhythm that doesn’t quite match that of the guitar, but rather compliments it in a surprising and wonderful way. Emotion is evident in his face, that of longing, of love, of loss. Cristina tells me that flamenco is an art form for manic depressives, fueling both ends of an emotional spectrum. I can feel that, though I don’t understand the words.
Flamenco at Fundacion Cristina Heeren
The roots of flamenco seem a mismatched cobbling of different cultures, and indeed they are. But what better way to reflect the mismatch of Seville? Flashback: two hours ago. The single most popular tourist attraction here in Seville is the Alcazar, originally a Moorish palace taken over and enlarged after the Spanish conquest of the city in 1248. It exists now as a testament to all that is unique about the city: a central Moorish area complete with carving as intricate as any you’ll find in the world, a more modern Spanish palace sharing a wall with its older cousin and flourishing in romanticism, and gardens of every shape and size with outbuildings to match. Here there is what was the first tennis court in Spain. There, a hedge maze. Over there, low Muslim fountains next to the cascades of Christian founts from after the conquest. It is a hodgepodge that wouldn’t make sense, except that it does.
The Alcazar: different styles smashed together
The singer begins to stomp his foot, and dancers emerge, their shoes with high wooden heels playing a beat that – again – doesn’t seem to match those of either the vocalist or guitarist. They clap, snap fingers, stomp heels and toes, and dance – oh how they dance! It is a mix of tap, jazz, ballet, and more. The tremors of the beats they stomp fill my soul, and I want to close my eyes, feeling their beat in the core of my essence.
There are more than 60 styles of flamenco, and nowhere is better to learn about them than the Museo del Baile Flamenco – the Flamenco Museum. Every exhibit here is a multimedia wonder, exhibits showcasing the history of the art form, the costumes, even the emotions evoked by the different styles. I am shown around by Francisco Fernandez, one of the group liaisons, but the museum is so engaging and draws me in so much that a guide isn’t even necessary. However, he has a special surprise for me, one that any visitor here can arrange ahead of time. I am shown into a side studio – the museum has several – and one of tonight’s dancers spends nearly an hour teaching me a short routine. As can be expected, I am terrible, made more so by the fact that the audience for tonight’s show is filling the room next door, only separated from me by a glass wall, watching me as though I am the opening act. But it is one of the most thoroughly fun experiences I’ve ever had!
One of the exhibits at the Flamenco Museum, a video showing different styles of the art
The dancers whirl, sometimes with a scarf or fan, others simply arms and legs. They never touch, a remnant from Gypsy roots in which a jealous lover might begin a fight. Each dance features the iconic stomps and claps, but each is different both in rhythm and in emotion. I recognize a few of the “moves” I learned, and smile seeing them done to perfection by trained professionals. The singer’s voice rises and falls, the guitar resonates, and – somehow – this conglomerate of sounds and sights becomes a singular soul-touching art. I shake my head in wonder as the different elements meld, as Seville enters my spirit with each beat, chord, word, or movement.
My instructor. She’s a bit better than I am!
For visitors to this amazing city, no experience is more at the heart of what it means to be Sevillan, and no trip here is complete without embracing flamenco in all of its disjointed beauty. Both the Fundacion Cristina Heeren and the Flamenco Museum offer world-class performances, and I can’t more highly recommend both of them. Even more, immerse yourself and see as many as possible, visit the museum, take a class, see the school during its opening hours. Learn how this art mirrors the city.
Art as flamenco. Flamenco as art.
As each of the performances ends, tears well up in my eyes. Emotion has been evoked, memories touched, experiences revisited. I am in love, with flamenco, with Seville, and with the knowledge that three distinct things can come together as one single, incredible, perfect whole.
Note: so many thank yous to those who made this experience possible for me. To my friends at Visita Sevilla who set this all up, to Cristina and the staff at Fundacion Cristina Heeren, and to Francisco and the team at the Flamenco Museum, thank you for giving me one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had since beginning The Royal Tour.
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