I have little more connection to Granada than the dancing flamenco doll that I carried home. And yet, I frequently recall my visit with fondness. The exquisite landscape of gardens and mountains that nurtures an adventure here. The magnificent architecture of the Alhambra. The distinctive cuisine. But the energy that links these disparate experiences and flows like oxygen through this vibrant, culturally rich city is Flamenco. It’s everywhere. Old churches and new museums hand out flyers of upcoming performances. Tapas bars have images of flamenco dancers graffitied on their panels. Store windows display flamenco fans, shoes and castanets.
There are flamenco clubs to suit various tastes, but as the purists say–what better way to experience flamenco than in the white caves of the Sacromonte, where the tradition is firmly-rooted among a community of gypsies (many still live there). Leading me into the cave’s mouth my guide assures me that everyone has the potential to be a flamenco dancer. But nothing prepares you for your first encounter with flamenco. The guitar launches into a melody–a haunting homily of pathos. A plump damsel enters and croons an accompanying lament, calling to mind some archetypal sorrow. Next, the dancers walk to the center, loose-limbed, like animals scent-marking. And yet, we are not prepared for the sweat and passion that’s about to flow.
For the large majority of people who know nothing about flamenco, this colourful performance is just another box checked on a to-see list of exotic performances. Whereas, for those who claim to know something more about flamenco, it is unique music with social ramifications. They would know: that this breed of dancers migrated from India, reached the Bosphorus and divided into two main groups–one entering Eastern Europe, the other the Mediterranean. That the singing has parallels with Gregorian chants. That the pathos of its music arises from the fact that it once acted as catharsis for people on the margins of society. But for those who actually perform it, flamenco is something to live and die for.
As a wise once man told me–to sing or dance flamenco you require passion more than discipline and intensity more than an organized planning of sequences. You dance as if your life is at stake. Flamenco has done many things: crossed social borders, scandalised conservatives... But the moment when the flamenco dancer explodes with energy like an emotional extremist, leaving enthusiasts like a collective organic beast hungry for more, is called ‘duende’. Should watching the sequences of fancy footwork whet one’s appetite for a second or third dinner, there are tapas taverns aplenty. Over mature cheese in olive oil, green beans with ham, an omelette made of eggs and calf’s brain, and white garlic soup made with ground almonds, I discuss flamenco with the locals. They tell me that it’s now being fused with contemporary ballet and jazz to create hybrid forms. Traditions must evolve to stay alive.
Cool off from the intensity of the evening at a Moorish Bath. Here, bathing, like eating, is a communal affair. In pools of varying temperatures, with massage tables in their midst, are the friendliest people. They invite me to dinners, to walks through the historic town… In their relentless energy and passion for life, I see not just new friends; I see the all-pervasive spirit of flamenco.