Flamenco in Cadiz

Rarely, the first flushed encounter with a new city can leave you lovestruck. This is akin to the lightning bolt of love at first sight of a person. Something in the eyes, or how their body moves, the sound of their voice, how they occupy their space and seem to radiate a connection to you. For a city, the architecture, the quality of the light, the way the air smells and feels, the sounds of people laughing, an old woman sitting quietly in a sunlit park, or the quirky head tilt of a dog on the street – all these can contribute to that almost giddy feeling that you are in for something extraordinary. The initial walk through Cadiz from the train station to our hotel was enough to convince me I was smitten, and the following days assured this place would be unforgettable.

It isn’t that there is any one defining characteristic of Cadiz except for its small size and bone-deep history. All the elements of a place combined craft an intoxicating city I want to get to know well. I saw us vacationing together, buying a house, and waking up each morning to the smell of bacon in the kitchen and a fresh cup of coffee on my nightstand. I would someday get to know every street, every quaint little café. We would laugh when we told people about the time we first met. That was Cadiz and me. Rose + Cadiz 4 Eva!
But did Cadize like me? Like, really, really like me? In a word, no. Cadiz was just the same old Cadiz it had been for almost 3500 years. I was nothing to the city but a dumb tourist who showed up at a flamenco show with my castanets in a sack, only to leave them under a table.

I wanted those castanets as a memory of my time in Cadiz, where famous flamenco dancers were born and bred. I demanded them as a birthday gift from my husband. While walking, we found a music shop, and I leaned over the glass counter and picked out cheap, oval drops of plastic held together by a leather cord. The man running the shop showed me how to dangle it from my thumb and beat out a rhythm.

“I’m going to play the shit out of these,” I said to my husband, picturing myself sashaying around the house accompanied by the relentless staccato of my feelings. Ole!

We wandered through the narrow streets until we found the address for our flamenco show. The Cadiz region gave birth to flamenco and boasts the most famous dancers. Even if it reeks of a tourist trap, you owe it to yourself to go. The doors were closed, so we stopped at a small grocery for beer across the way. Leaning against the warm stone walls in the street, sipping our cold beer, we watched people walking past for holy week. The corner of the building was braced by a canon reimagined as a cornerstone and protector from damage. You can find many canons from the old forts used in the corners of buildings. With holy week, the streets were filled with families to see the processions and the penitent in unsettling tall, pointy hats concealing their faces. Occasionally you could see an eyeball peering out from beneath their hoods as they carried large candles and glittering statues of the Virgin Mary. I am from Arkansas, home of the current head of the KKK, and when I see pointy hoods and people carrying flames and religious icons, I cannot help but experience an involuntary shudder.

At the flamenco show, a small event of about a dozen people seated in an old and intimate basement, soft, golden light under curved stone ceilings, we sat with our complimentary sherry and Iberian ham with slices of Manchego. A woman with jet-black hair and a sinewy man, both wearing heavy eyeliner, were introduced by the musicians. The music had the woeful intensity of a call to prayer, the singer’s voice rising and falling in despair, clapping his hands for percussion. When the woman danced, she banged out the rhythm with her feet on a slightly raised wooden platform, her heels striking the floor with precision and energy. At the same time, the expressions shifted on her face like light on water. She went from happy, to hopeful, to inflamed with desire, to dashed to the darkest pit of woe and longing within each dance. She danced with such ferocity and grace as if she was sadly fucking the floor to death with her feet. I love you, her body said as she moved, I hate you. Oh, you make me so sad.

She seemed to be looking inward, staring into an abyss only she could see, alone except when she made eye contact with the male dancer. Then, she turned away as if she could not gaze too long into his face. He moved with cat-like grace, his dance just as ferocious as hers, but he alternated between looking at her and stealing glances around the room. With such a small crowd, he managed to make direct, lengthy, and longing eye contact with every person in the room, so intense that you felt like you had to turn away and cram appetizers in your mouth, break the impact, only to look up while gnawing a jaw full of ham and still see him eye-banging you. “Oh, yes,” his eyes said. “You cannot escape my heat.” Then he would smile slightly, having won the staring war, and go back to banging the beat on the floor with his nimble little feet. When he danced alone, the woman clapped in time and shouted a half-hearted “Ole!”

After we left the dance, my husband and I discussed the eye-fucking we just received and how amazing the dancers were. I thought I would enjoy it, but I did not realize how impressed I would be. This is something tourists do. How cool can it be? They were mesmerizing, so sad, so beautiful. Artists. It was half an hour before I remembered my castanets.

“They will find those under a table and think I’m a gigantic dork! Like I thought I was going to join the show!” I said.

In a way, though, I did want to. I wanted to feel what it was like to dance like that. To own a floor and a room with just the click of my heel on oak and the elegant flourish of my wrist. Oh yes, I’d think, as I glanced at the audience, you cannot escape my heat.

General Tips:

  • Beware of holy week in any Spanish city. Interesting to see but very crowded.
  • Leave your castanets at the hotel room.
  • Don’t use ham as a defense against intense eye contact from a flamenco dancer. It won’t work.