Flamenco, a Concept of Obsession
“Andalusia and flamenco are two concepts which cannot be separated, and neither one can be fully understood apart from the other.” This statement from Escuela Flamenca Juan Polvillo, one of Seville’s leading flamenco schools, perhaps best explains why so many aficionados from all over the world come to the city to study flamenco.
“If you want to dance you have to come to Seville. The teachers are here. The atmosphere is here,” says Lola Elmoznino, a Canadian student on the school’s two week intensive course. “We went to a bar a few nights ago and there were three guys. One of them had a guitar and they just started playing and people began dancing. You only get that in Seville.”
Anna Mendak, a Polish student on the same intensive course, agrees. “It’s very difficult to make it in Poland as a dancer because there is no flamenco and there are not many schools. The only schools we have are for beginners. If you want to advance you have to come to Seville.”
Anna was emphatic as to why she had chosen to study with Juan Polvillo. “I chose Juan after I’d seen him at a festival in Bratislava in Slovakia and it was great. I think he’s a great teacher.”
As a teacher, Juan Polvillo’s credentials are certainly impeccable. Born in Seville, the acknowledged cradle of flamenco, in 1968, Juan studied with the famous Manolo Marín, the late Farruco, and the great Matilde Coral. Over the years he honed his remarkable dancing skills in the best flamenco tablaos in Seville, performing with many great artists, including Antonio Canales, and Milagros Mengíbar, before devoting time to teaching in 1996.
Juan has performed for kings, presidents and even the Pope, and in July 2000 was choreographer and director of the performance, “Contigo Tierra de Andalucía” in the National Theatre of Costa Rica. In August 2001 he was awarded the first prize in the Primer Festival Internacional de Flamenco de Costa Rica.
Conducting workshops in numerous countries, Juan has inspired many foreign students to follow him back to Seville. One such student is Margery Taylor, from Wimbledon, London.
“I first met Juan in Chester when he was giving a workshop there about two years ago. The first time you do a class with Juan you’re hooked. He’s got such charisma and he’s a very good teacher. He’s also very patient and has a great sense of humour.”
Affectionately dubbed Margarita by the many Spanish friends she has made during her five visits to Seville, Margery has no doubts about why she studies there. “You can have very good teachers in London, but for me the icing on the cake is to learn flamenco in the home of flamenco with someone who’s been brought up with flamenco.”
Margery has been impressed enough by Juan’s talents as both dancer and teacher that she has organised some of his visits to the UK. “I’ve brought Juan over to London twice now, and he’s coming back in February.”
An important deciding factor for students who study with Juan is the class sizes. Juan prefers to limit the number of students in each class to avoid overcrowding. “I haven’t been dancing that long and I’m not that good,” says Margery. “So I need some space. I’ve heard from other students that many schools get as many students as they can into their studios and you can have thirty people in a small room all working hard. My last class, on the other hand, was quite small with just nine students, while the advanced class had fourteen.”
Margery continues this concern for the student’s best interests when she organises Juan’s workshops in London. “We normally use the Dance Attic in Fulham and we limit the number of students in the classes in consultation with Juan. Many of the students say it’s nice that the classes aren’t overcrowded.”
Juan’s current studio is in the Sevilla Dance Centre. A large, traditional Seville town house with sunny patio in the heart of the city. With two large, well equipped dance studios, it provides an ideal setting in which to study flamenco.
“The facilities at the school are very good, and the school runs three levels of classes,” explains Margery. “There are the absolute beginners, then there’s the principiante, beginners with a few year’s experience. Finally there’s the advanced level.”
“My typical day was spent studying choreography for an hour and a half with Juan, followed by one and a half hours of technique with Araceli de Alcala, one of the other teachers at the school.”
The school offers courses in the technique and choreography of all flamenco forms including the Tango, Bulería, Alegría, Garrotín, Guajira, Tango de Málaga, Solea por Bulería, Caña, Seguiryia, Tiento, Sevillanas, and the Rondeña. The dance courses teach the complete choreography of each dance form, including a thorough study of the various parts of each dance such as the letra, the escobilla and the silencio. Technique lessons allow students to master the use of the arms, the practice of footwork, and turns.
The school also teaches the techniques of the Bata de cola, the traditional skirt, and the Mantón de Manila, or shawl, in forms such as the Solea, Alegría, and Solea por Bulería. To complement dances such as the Guajiras, Alegrías and Caracoles, students also learn traditional fan techniques. The compás, or rhythm, is integral to each form and students learn to distinguish the different types of compás from the simpler rhythms of tangos to the more complicated rhythms of the bulerías. Many classes are accompanied by the school’s resident flamenco guitarist, Morenito de Triana.
Margery’s course was typical. “The courses with Juan and Araceli last two weeks and cost three hundred euro. The price includes three hours tuition every day, Monday to Friday, with two classes of compás y palmas, the handclapping, for one hour twice a week. I think it’s extremely good value for anyone coming from England.”
In addition to the cost of the course, and the necessary airfare to Seville, students must find suitable accommodation for their arrival. For the majority of students who have no contacts in the city Margery recommends the Internet as being the easiest way to find a place to stay. “I found my first accommodation through a very good website, Sevilla5.com. The amount that you pay for accommodation depends on what specifications you want. During my last stay I had a one bedroom apartment, but it’s obviously cheaper to share a flat or to stay with a family.”
A typical private room in shared accommodation near the school will cost around two hundred and fifty euros a month, which compares very favourably with even the cheapest hotel accommodation in one of the city’s many pensions. Prices rise considerably during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in April, and during the city’s spectacular Feria in May, when thousands of extra visitors descend on the city.
“Flamenco is a lovely way of making friends and meeting some really nice people from all over the world with a common interest,” says Margery. “In our class we had students from Slovakia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Switzerland, Germany, and France. The Japanese are also very interested in flamenco and most courses have some Japanese students.”
“With so many nationalities, language is not essential, though for taking the classes it does help if you speak some Spanish. I’d advise people to relax, listen, look and learn. Don’t worry about it too much and just enjoy the experience. If you’ve got the energy and the obsession then go to Seville and you’ll have a great time.”
Obsession is a word that seems to be as synonymous with flamenco as are Seville and Andalusia. Margery agrees. “For me flamenco has become a little bit of an obsession. It’s like drugs. It gets in your system. It comes from the soul. Great dancers have an extra, almost indescribable something called duende. It translates roughly as soul or spirit and it’s been described as the artist becoming the dance, instead of the artist doing the dance.”
“Flamenco is just something which is near my soul,” echoes Anna Mendak. “It’s a kind of passion. You have to have it in your soul. It’s difficult for me to say in English, but it’s like drugs; you see it once and you just have to do it. You can’t not do it. You can’t stop it. I hope to always be dancing.”
When Lola Elmoznino began dancing she danced once a week. “But for the past two years it’s been like an obsession. It gets to you; it gets deep inside your skin. It’s the music; it searches for everything, all your weaknesses, all your strengths. It brings it up to the surface. It’s wonderful.”
Flamenco and Andalusia may be inseparable concepts and obsession certainly plays a part, yet something almost as indefinable as duende, and perhaps rarer still, allows Juan Polvillo to command such a loyal international following. Regina Richter, a mature student from Germany, perhaps expressed it most eloquently when she said of Juan, “We just love him.”