As a college student, I have a handful of phrases that give me chills: group projects, essay word limits, and the dreaded statement, “this course is required.” Although I managed to evade most of my required general education classes in college thanks to AP college credit, I am not beyond taking a few required classes that have little connection to my college major or minor. This semester as a part of Arcadia in Granada’s study abroad program, I am required to take a Cornerstone Course whose full name I can never remember, but essentially, we study both the history and modern-day influences of various cultures in Spain, and more specifically, in the southern region of Andalucía. Initially, I had little interest in this required course, besides the class trip to Morocco; however, after a few weeks in the class, I am unexpectedly invested in learning about Spain’s history and how it affects contemporary Spanish life and politics. I find myself more curious as I observe the concepts I learn in class throughout my study abroad experience. One reoccurring example of this phenomenon relates to the topic of flamenco. A few weeks ago, we read a chapter titled “The Mean Streets of Flamenco,” and since then I have seen four flamenco shows. Three out of four flamenco shows I saw featured street performers, large crowds, the glaring Spanish sun, and no food or drinks. The most recent flamenco show I attended took place in a cave, on a stage, with seating, tables, dramatic lighting, air conditioning, and both food and drinks. However, with my basic knowledge of flamenco and my first-hand experience of the spectacle, I believe that the best flamenco performances happen in the streets.
The first time I saw a flamenco show, it took place in Plaza de España in Sevilla, Spain during a weekend trip with a few other Arcadia study abroad students. As we walked through this extravagant Spanish plaza, we heard the emphatic strumming of a guitar that demanded our attention. A modest crowd had gathered around a flamenco band featuring a dancing woman, a flamenco guitarist, and a singer. The woman fully captivated my attention. She danced on the makeshift flamenco stage with complete passion, almost as if the music lived inside of her. The mix between rapid and slow steps and her intricate hand movements made the band around her disappear. In fact, I can hardly remember if the band truly had a guitarist or if the flamenco dancer created the emphatic beat I vividly remember. Even without the modern conveniences of air conditioning and comfortable seating, that flamenco show set high standards for any flamenco show I would see afterwards.
The second and third flamenco shows I saw happened unexpectedly too. They both took place in Plaza Nueva, about thirty minutes away from my homestay here in Granada, Spain. The first time I passed a flamenco show in Plaza Nueva, my roommates and I noticed a large circle of people straining their necks to see a street performance. Naturally, we wanted to know the source of this spectacle and we joined the crowd. After squeezing my way past a few tall Spaniards, I managed to see the flamenco band commanding so much attention. This time I made notice of the cajón, a flamenco percussion instrument we learned about in class. I also noticed the singer, the flamenco dancers, and the other band members clapping and stomping to the beat of the flamenco music. Again, the flamenco dancer entranced me. She moved with such passion and at times, her face reflected deep pain. I wanted to hug her and clap for her. Though I didn’t get the chance to hug her, I did clap for her. Amazingly, the following weekend, I walked through Plaza Nueva with a classmate after returning from a hike and we saw the same vibrant flamenco dancer with a new set of flamenco players. This now marked my third flamenco show. I felt like a local as I applauded my new favorite flamenco dancer. I also discovered more talent. For the first time, I saw a man dancing to flamenco and his style of flamenco contrasted with the two women I saw prior. His style didn’t have the same sultry, hip-swinging movements, but his steps remained powerful and strong and the sounds vibrated throughout Plaza Nueva. I also noticed one of the dynamic singers. Her voice echoed throughout the Plaza and it amazed me that she sang live. It seemed like the music traveled through her body and I invaded on a private, intimate moment between the singer and the flamenco music. During both unexpected encounters with flamenco in Plaza Nueva, I felt a deep source of connection to the performers and the flamenco music.
A few disadvantages to street performances revolve around its inconveniences. For example, everyone in the crowd has to stand and short people have to crane their necks to see the spectacle. Also, since the show takes place outside, it makes it impossible to the control the temperature. Though these problems have a solution, and for me, that solution came in the form of an Arcadia excursion trip. Nearly all the students in the Arcadia program signed up for the flamenco show excursion trip. The excursion started in a cave (yes, a cave) in the Albaicín neighborhood of Granada, Spain and would end with food and drinks at a local tapas bar (more about tapas in a later blog post). This scheduled flamenco show solved all problems with street performances. The cave (yes, a cave, but it looked more like a restaurant with cool walls and ceiling patterns) had air conditioning, seating, tables, and the reservation includes one drink. I expected this flamenco show to give me the same, if not similar, enchanting feeling I experienced in Plaza de España and Plaza Nueva. Unfortunately, it did not. The flamenco dancers and band still had extraordinary talent and rhythm that I can only dream of possessing. However, they did not send the same chills down my spine. I did not feel the same pain, power, or deep-rooted passion that I felt during the flamenco street performances. After the performance, I left thinking, “That was nice,” but I rather leave a flamenco showing thinking, “Wow that was powerful,” even if it means standing under the Spanish sun, stretching my neck around a few tall bodies, and wishing I had a tinto de verano to quench my thirst.
I was not a flamenco expert before, and I am not a flamenco expert now. Though, after seeing four different live flamenco performances, I have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the art. My first encounter with flamenco performance set high standards and since then I have realized that my best experiences take place in the “Mean Streets of Flamenco.” Street performers have a dynamic not easily replicated. They reflect raw human emotion which truly speaks to the origins of flamenco music. As a spectator and appreciator of flamenco performance, I much rather sweat, crane my neck, and ignore my aching feet to experience the pain, power, and passion of flamenco.