One morning during lockdown, when the world seemed speeded up and slowed down at the same time, I found myself rummaging through a box of belongings in search of my little, wooden toy chair. I needed it visible at a time when so many Spanish things I identify with were not. It was a gift from my mother when I was nothing more than a toddler during my first trip to Spain to the Costa Brava. We were visiting the town nearby and I remember walking through a square and seeing some women dressed in typical Andalusian flamenco dresses. They must have been doing some impromptu steps to attract the tourists to a hotel show as the Costa Brava is not the obvious place to see flamenco.
This was not a problem to the untrained eye of a three year old. I didn’t know what they were but I liked their dresses, the frills, the colours and most of all their spirit. That day, my mother bought me a hair band made of silk fuchsia rose petals, also kept safe in my memory box and the little wooden chair which still smells of Spain. It is modelled on a typical Andalusian wooden chair that a flamenco dancer might rise from as they start to dance.
What is it about some objects that they can become prompts for our future life? For me they must have played some part in my quest to discover Spain. I suppose they represented otherness, pulling me towards another culture which different yet felt like home.
Years later, as a fresh-faced graduate without a plan or a Spanish vocabulary book to my name, I headed to Granada, home to the great Alhambra Palace and a plethora of bars and cafés ready to welcome the autumn arrival of Spanish language students. I climbed down from the bus at the busy Granada station and felt a strong sense of homecoming. So this is where everyone had been hiding out…
I learned Spanish in a little college in the Albaycín, just yards from the Mirador de San Nicolas, below the Sacromonte. As I stumbled over my irregular verbs, I would look across to the Alhambra Palace with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada behind it in search of inspiration. At the end of each school day, I would make my way down to the “new town”, weaving down the narrow cobbled streets and would always peak in at the flamenco classes at the legendary La Mariquilla’s flamenco studio which used to be just off the Plaza Nueva, with a frequent stop at Café Ysla with the best little pionono cakes I can remember.
Cafe Ysla’s Piononos
I started a flamenco class for beginners in a studio off the Calle San Pedro. The first class did not sit well with me. I towered above my granaina class-mates and felt clumsy next to them as we applied the common visualisation technique for beginners, stretching up to grab the apple from the tree and putting it in the basket – the classic first step when learning flamenco – go ahead, try it! But I didn’t want to stand tall and considered ditching the class until I realised I would have to step down the fake it til you make it road. It worked and by opening up the door, I let flamenco in, and was on the next stage of my journey. Once a week I offered intercambio exchange English lessons with Carmen who cleaned at the school, together with her twin sons and her mother. We would sit around their kitchen table warming ourselves on the brasero heater underneath the tablecloth and practice the difference in pronunciation between “cheese” and “ship” before moving onto actual sentences. In return, Carmen taught me how to play the castanets – we would start with finger exercises and then finish the class by dancing the sevillanas with castanets in hand and Grannie and the two boys clapping palmas at the kitchen table.
Painting of woman holding castanets
It was decades later that I came back to Spain, this time to Madrid to work for the Spanish lifestyle channel, Canal Estilo. A dream job for someone eager to soak up the culture. Flamenco was never farway and I was lucky to interview some of my flamenco heroes for our programming, the late, great Enrique Morente, José Mercé, Estrella Morente, Susana Heredia, Miguel Poveda, Agujetas, Diego el Cigala, Farruquito… the list goes on. This heavenly period was married with lunchtime dance classes Monday to Friday with Isabel Quintero in the street next to the production office and drop-in classes at the legendary Amor de Dios school. As Isabel marked out the palo the rhythm with her stick in the corner of the room, my classmates were on their way to becoming professionals. Some went on to dance with the likes of Joaquin Cortés and the Spanish national ballet. As I practiced my taconeo flamenco footwork behind them, I learned so much. Yes I was going to stick to the day job but that intoxicating rhythm was now part of my soundtrack. It wasn’t about the end goal, it was the process that made me feel so connected.
Flamenco singer (cantaor) José Mercé in Madrid’s beautiful Salesas neighborhood
I had to feel uncomfortable to open the door to this otherness, it’s what took me closer to feeling flamenco music and my love for Spain stemming from that first holiday as a three year old and the little chair. As I write, my little chair is propping up my mobile phone ready for another day in the lock-down virtual office with Heather as we talk about our next virtual experience…
If you like to start your own flamenco journey, there is no time like the present. Try our Flamenco Dance Class or simply begin by learning about the art form in our Flamenco Uncovered session – both are virtual, both are led by a professional flamenco dancer and teacher, and both will provide a world to dance into.