Flamenco: Fashion & Sello Proprio

This is the third in a four-part series on flamenco, an art form that was named to UNESCO’s Representative List of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010, while I was traveling through Spain. The criteria for that designation requires that the practice must be transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity. It is something traditional that is passed on from the past but is also alive and constantly evolving.

This series is intended to share my experience of flamenco as embodying Andalusia’s heart and soul, with its people as a prism, offering glimmers of the art’s history and future. This installment in the series focuses on the fashion aspect of flamenco, the art form’s accoutrements, such as castanets and cajons, and the concept of sello proprio. —MP

DSC_0160_04webThe taxi driver inserted a cd into the player on his dashboard and the car flooded with the evocative sounds of flamenco guitar. The music offered a fitting score for our drive toward the studio of bailaor Antoñete in La Macarena. As I watched the barrio’s street lamps begin to twinkle in the dusk, the husky voice of a singer rose in a melancholy melody to the chords.

I asked the name of the singer. “Pansequito,” said the taxi driver with a smile. He explained that the nickname means “Dried Bread,” an affectionate reference to the singer’s rough voice, perfectly suited for conveying the raw emotion of flamenco’s many moods.

Virgen de la MacarenaThis barrio’s name comes from the Arabic meaning “gate,” and the medieval wall that runs through it is punctuated by several major arches. The neighborhood is best known as being home to the Virgen de la Macarena, a wooden statue of which dates from the 17th century and can be found in the Basilica.

I was told that during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, the revered figure is outfitted in new, specially-designed robes and transported from the church on a solid silver platform in a procession attended by thousands of the faithful.  In fact, it is one of many processions made throughout the week, when the streets of Sevilla teem with parades of penitents following elaborate floats adorned with icons.

After reaching Antoñete’s flamenco studio, inside I found a half-dozen women following in his footsteps, mimicking his movements as he counted off beats, “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro!”  With the last syllables uttered, all heels slammed on the floor, hitting it hard.   He invited them to repeat the footwork again and again, moving from one woman to the next to adjust their posture, their arms, their hands, their waists.

“A teacher needs to be able to transmit his tranquility,” Antoñete said later. “If he is too demanding, the students become demoralized.  A person doesn’t need to learn quickly; some have more faculty than others.  The principal thing is to like it.”

Maite Sedarra, a woman in her thirties, had been taking lessons for 1 ½ months.

“I have been unemployed since August and I’ve always wanted to study flamenco,” she said.  “Now seemed like the time to do for myself what I have always wanted.  It’s very difficult for me, but I love it — it’s the only kind of exercise I enjoy.”

Antoñete has operated his studio for two years. He accepts a maximum of 14 people for the beginner’s class, which  starts in September and goes until June.  For prívate lessons, held twice a week for a month, the cost is fifty-five euro.

Antoñete was raised in Cadiz ; he is the only person in his family involved with flamenco.  He said it was “complicated” for any young man who liked ballet or dancing. When he was nine years old and in grammar school, he would watch a class through a window.  Looking longingly through its iron bars, he learned to dance the Sevillanas.  One day the teacher saw him and invited him in.  He began dancing with a girl who became his partner for many years.

DSC_0154_04webAntoñete became a professional at age 15 and has been in Sevilla now for 16 years, 12 as an El Arenal artist. One of the pieces I saw him perform had been with a partner of another sort — a pair of castanets.  I had marveled at his concentration and ability to focus on creating one beat with his footwork and another with these hand-held instruments.

“The history of castanets comes from the early times of Andalucia’s history,” explained Manuel Macias, Director of Sevilla Congress & Convention Bureau.  “In Roman times, the writer Pliny the Elder wrote about Cádiz female dancers, who went to Rome to dance with crotalos, or a kind of castanets made of clamshells. Later, there were castanets crafted of special wood and ebony.  Now most of them are made of fiberglass.  The only castanet factories are located in Sevilla.”

“It’s a percussión instrument and there was a period in which it was used by almost all dancers, male and female,” he continued.  “Later, use of castanets declined and now they are used again and accepted as a virtuose musical instrument. In fact, there are some castanets concertists, such as Lucero Tena, and currently, one of the producers of castanets in Sevilla, Pepe Vela is very good performer.”

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2 thoughts on “Flamenco: Fashion & Sello Proprio”

  1. This is fascinating….I want one of those dresses, and I want to go to Sevilla..thanks for capturing, once again, the magic of that place and tradition.

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