“Flamenco is the means through which man reaches God without the intervention of saints or angels.”
-Luis Antonio de Vega
Flamenco is one of the most dramatic forms of expression I’ve ever seen. While I was in Seville, I saw two flamenco shows, and they couldn’t have been more different…
I saw them both in one night.
[Flamenco is a genre of Spanish music, song, and dance from Andalusia, in southern Spain, that includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance) and palmas (handclaps).]
My evening began at the famous Tablao El Arenal show, where, for the past thirty years, a group of the best flamenco dancers have performed. It’s a formal show, where you have the option of “show and dinner”, “show and tapas”, or “show and drink.”
I handed over my ticket, was accompanied to a table by a man in a black suit and bow tie, and, as I had chosen the “show and drink” option, a glass of sangria was placed in front of me.
I was excited, but then I saw the notice on the table: “No photos allowed.”
A no photo event is endlessly frustrating for me, so the following photos are the result of sneakily, and quickly snapping, what I could get away with…thus the bad quality.
The show was fascinating. Flamenco was born out of a need to express a collective feeling of anguish, and protest against oppression, and these performers sang, clapped, and danced as if they were fighting for their lives. They clapped with such fervor, their hands must have been throbbing with pain when they were finished.
A tall, dark, and handsome Spaniard with Peter Frampton hair, stomped onto the stage dressed in black, his feet moving at such a breakneck speed that they looked like they were separated from his legs. The expression on his face was one of determined rage, and even during the applause at the end of his dance, he never broke character.
With each new song, a different performer stamped and clapped their way onto the stage. My favorites were the women, kicking the trains of their frilly, flouncy dresses with each spin of the dance. Their graceful hands twirled rapidly in the air, punctuated with the rhythmic sounds of their castanets.
The musicians on stage played fervently, and a toothless old man sang with such despair, he was often brought to tears. This was the flamenco of the persecuted, and the powerful performance was at once raging and mournful.
The show ended at 10:00, just when restaurants were opening up for dinner. I went around the corner to a fabulous tapas restaurant called El Bulla.
It was good I got there early, because when I left at 11 p.m., there was a queue outside to get in.
I walked past the famous bullfighting ring, the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla.
Bullfighting posters lined the Paseo de Cristóbal Colon.
Then I crossed the river to the neighborhood of Triana. The streets were filled with people that seemed to have no intention of going home anytime soon.
I am filled with anticipation, because this is where I will go to the secret flamenco show that only the locals know about.
I find the building. The street is deserted, and the corrugated metal gates are pulled down over the doors.
It’s okay, though, because it doesn’t open until midnight.
I was assured that at exactly 12:00, Anselma, the proprietor of the establishment that is known only as “La Anselma,” will open the door.
I had no idea what to expect.
As told, the gates went up and the door opened at midnight.
The crowd outside filed in and took seats on wooden chairs, in a high-ceilinged room where every inch of the walls were covered with paraphernalia from the history of Sevilla…there were bullfighting costumes in glass cases, brightly-colored paper fans in fan-shaped frames, ceramic plates hung every which way, copper molds, posters and paintings and photographs, even the head of a bull.
Friends greeted each other with waves and kisses. Drink orders were taken by a pretty waitress, while Anselma herself held court.
Dressed in leopard print leggings, a gray tunic, and a ruffled organza scarf, Anselma regaled the crowd with stories that alternately had them rapt with fascination and roaring with laughter.
If only I understood Spanish.
The atmosphere was one of friendly conviviality.
Musicians, joking amongst themselves, took their seats behind Anselma. The guitarist clipped his fingernails as he told a story to the drummer.
Then Anselma sat down next to them, they picked up their instruments, and all at once began singing and clapping and tapping their feet.
It can only be described in one word.
It was, well, it was JOYOUS!
This was not the tortured flamenco of El Arenal. This is happy flamenco.
This was, indeed, a very different kind of flamenco. Raucous and jovial, the audience clapped and sang along, each song ending with shouts of “OLÉ!”
All eyes were on Anselma when she stood up to sing.
And then people, in their street clothes, got up to dance. At first I was slightly unsettled – was this okay with Anselma?
Then I saw her laughing and clapping. This was a big old dance party!
Even the waitress got up to dance. (She is also in the photo at the top of the post.)
Anselma danced, too.
I loved watching these girls – their movements were so fluid and coordinated, yet it was completely improvised.
When one of them got up to sing, the crowd applauded their support.
By 2:00 a.m., Anselma’s was standing room only.
At 2:30, the lights went out, except for the electric candles in front of the Madonna figurine.
A chorus of “Ave Maria” rang out through the darkness. My heart soared. In that moment, I fully understood what Luis Antonio de Vega meant in his quote.
Flamenco really is the means through which man reaches God, and this is the celebration of that truth.