By Tim Ginty
If Buenos Aires means tango, if Havana has salsa, and Vienna the waltz, then Jerez has flamenco.
The streets and back alleys of Jerez are peppered with flamenco bars full of charm, peñas packed with characters, and academies filled with students from all over Spain and the world.
From Malaga, France, Israel, Japan they come to learn in the beating heart of flamenco – Jerez. And one of the maestros of this art is Juan Parra, a true caballero– a gentleman – who with his seventy-something years is still teaching the young the old ways of dancing and living.
His academy is tucked away in a back street of Jerez’s San Mateo barrio, a neighborhood of sleepy plazas and old bodegas collapsing in on themselves.
Pass by Parra’s academy and you will hear stomping feet and clacking castanets throughout the morning and afternoon, and should you be lured in out of curiosity you will only leave out of obligation because Juan has all the time in the world for an idle chat or an introductory dance lesson.
Never in a Rush
Never in a rush, Parra begins his day at the crack of dawn, gives classes through the (Spanish) ‘morning’ (11-2), and after a ‘midday’ break he’ll be back at it through the afternoons (again, a Spanish afternoon is an Anglo evening), teaching sevillanas, tangos, bulerías, alegrías; all different dances that fall under the technically and culturally diverse umbrella term that is flamenco.
Of a night he might pass by a peña – a flamenco club – or hit up atablao – a flamenco restaurant – to have a glass of Sherry wine while watching a show.
He doesn’t go to bed until one or two in the morning, ready to rise and shine in just a few hours, but he assures me that “I have never worked a single day in my life”, because for Parra, dance is not a profession, but a passion: “I am simply doing what I enjoy doing” he told me.
When I was looking for a good dance teacher to train me up in time for Jerez’s Feria – a week-long fair of horse-riding, drinking and dancing – someone said to me “Ahhh! Juan Parra! Yes, you must go see him, he is the best!”, while another declared “Ahh! Si! Juan Parra! There is no other!” And sure enough, the man is exactly what a good teacher ought to be: tireless, patient, and learned.
Donning a Dress
And as a good teacher the man has – in a good sense of the expression – no shame; that’s to say, he has no fear in, for example, donning a dress – tailor-made for his stick-thin figure – to teach his female students how to handle the dress on stage and to teach his male students how to dance without imitating the footwork of their partner, as the dresses cover the feet of the woman.
Juan, then, is an artist, and a lifetime of pursuing this passion has made him wiser than the men who once believed (and some who till believe) that dancing is either for women or for mariquitas, gay men. Age and artistry have made him impervious to ignorance.
Juan’s classes also include generous doses of that great Andalusian gusto for idle chit-chat and intense debate which invariably flare up mid-way through whatever task is at hand, temporarily relegating it to priority number two or three after the important work of, say, figuring out where exactly the Spanish language was born, or what, for instance, is the true cause of and best solution to that patch of moisture seeping into the wall from the roof.
The Andalusians know well that we are, after all, not here on earth or in this academy to make money or to be the best of the best, but simply to make friends, to laugh, to have a good time.
But when the dance gets going all chat ceases and the only words you hear will be the poetry of a Rafael del Estad sevillana; “From the fountain of your mouth I’ve drunk / And I’m a prisoner in the nets of your body / and your kisses are hot coals that burn me from the inside…”
Mastering the Footwork
The first task of the sevillanas dance is to master the footwork of the four songs-within-a-single-song that every sevillana is composed of.
Each of the four parts has its own structure – you must, at least, pass your partner at the same time and fall into her or his arms at the end of the song without haste or delay.
But every dancer is free to add his or her own flair, or arte, to the dance: the old men, for example, move stiff and slow, and the bigger men move the woman more than themselves, while the younger men’s displays of their virtuosity might border on boasting.
Watching the faces of these dancers you also see their character: some men have a look of pure awe at their partner, others grin, some look grim, while most have a laugh and chat throughout the song. Any art is, after all, a mixture of the art itself and the individual artist: know the general recipe, but feel free to add your own flavor.
But to find your own groove you first need to find the song’s rhythm, and to help you do this you have the castanets. The castanets, as far as I understand, have a two-fold role: firstly, they help you keep the rhythm of the song and dance by cracking out every beat and clapping out the louder fourth beat: rac-tacca-tac-tac-tac-RAK…
But the second role they play is to hypnotize: you stop thinking of whatever it is that is distracting you; work, noise, worries, and so you focus solely on the pasos, the steps.
It becomes, in a way, a form of meditation; there is no noise whatsoever bouncing around in your head, only the clapping of the castanets: racka-tac-tac-tacca-rak-rak…
And once you’ve mastered the footwork, then comes the arm-work. The men and women’s arms movements are, basically, the same; the only difference being that the woman moves her hands and fingers while the man remains stiff, like a scorpion standing up on his hind legs ready to strike, fingers clicking above and around the woman to put her in a trance.
The difficult part is not, however, in the movements themselves, but in their coordination: every so often the arms and legs need to go in the opposite direction, making it tricky to get down pat at first.
But once you’ve got the fluidity of both the arms and the legs, the coordinationn between them, the rhythm, the steps, the ear and the art, then you’ll have learnt the sevillanas, and you will be ready to dance in the heat of the day – castanets racka-tac-clacking, fino flowing, sunny smiles glowing – and into the cool of the night.
Tim Ginty is a freelance writer and English teacher originally from Australia and now based in Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia. His blog, Lives and Times, contains a fusion of writing on wine, travel, history, and society. He has written for Roar Magazine, Independent Australia, and The Labor Herald.