Royal wedding paraphernalia

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If I'd have known their faces were done in mushrooms, I wouldn't have ordered the royal couple special!

I’m not the first one to point out that royal wedding fever has risen to a dangerous high, much higher than spring fever and just under fatal Scarlet fever. I’m all for rooting on the future King and Queen of England–the couple seems clear-headed and committed and Kate Middleton is unfailingly graceful and lovely–but some people are going a little overboard. Like the plumber who got the royal couple tattooed on his two front teeth (what happens if, God forbid, they break up? Will the plumber incite a bar fight to knock out the offending partner?)

A spitting image...just don't spit it out or Kate will end you

I found the site Kate Middleton For The Win last night and snorted out my tea laughing at the pictures. While I assume that Ms. Middleton is a charitable, warm-hearted person, the captions of her imagined thoughts are hilarious (all of which have something to do with her being better than the rest of us commoners–the commoners who will remain commoners, that is). My friend told me her favorite picture on the site is a caption where Kate is thinking “Shouldn’t my face be on all the jellybeans?” This friend, who lives in London, thought it was funny because there are, in fact, jelly beans with Kate Middleton’s face on them. Besides eating the royal couple in small, sugary bites you can also drink out of them, send your letters with them, keep your hands warm with them, and even pick your nose with them.

Hopefully neither partner will get cold feet, what with two billion tuning in tomorrow morning to see their nuptial celebration. If they do, though, I’m sure there are Royal Couple socks for that.

Kate Middleton has a different perspective on life now

Who’s your favorite princess?

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Kate hopes you'll pick her as your favorite

It’s princess week at The Gloss, just as it is here at DIY dilettante (I guess I wasn’t too original in my theme selection this week). In honor of the royal wedding, they’ve featured slideshows of the the most awesome royal mistresses throughout history and the similar fashion sense of Princess Di and Kate Middleton. They also created a slideshow of their favorite princesses, from Cleopatra to The Lion King’s Nala to Princess Leia of Star Wars. Who would you choose?

Disney’s dead mothers

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Disney loves the evil stepmother

When Snow White enters the Dwarves’ house she is shocked by the messiness.  Saddened, she utters, “Maybe they have no mothers.”  This being the case, the Dwarves are in good company at Disney. Snow White herself does not have a mother (only an evil step-mother), and neither do the princesses Cinderella, Ariel of “The Little Mermaid,” Belle of “Beauty and the Beast,” Jasmine of “Aladdin,” or Pocahontas.

I started looking into this topic for a Women and Gender Studies course in college and found some interesting research. In 2003, researchers coded twenty-six classic Disney films for their portrayal of families. They found that mothers are often marginalized and that love at first sight is a very prevalent theme. Love at first sight occurs in eighteen of the twenty-six films, and Mulan is the only “princess” who develops a friendly relationship first with the man she later falls in love with (and that only happens because she disguises herself as a man–heterosexuality is the unquestioned norm in Disney). Only five of the twenty-six films showed mothers as both primary caregivers and protectors, these films being “Dumbo,” “Bambi,” “101 Dalmatians,” “The Lion King,” and “Tarzan.” Interestingly, or perhaps startlingly, this means that only animal mothers are depicted as being strong influences in their children’s lives while human mothers, when they are present, are somehow flawed.

Tiana, the first Disney princess who's...black?

Disney seemed to take note of these and other criticisms when it came out with 2009′s “The Princess and the Frog.” Tiana, the eponymous princess, garnered excitement for being the first black Disney princess, but she is also the first princess with a living mother and a dead father. But how far has Disney really come? Tiana spends much of the movie as a green frog, a fact that was widely lambasted, and her dream of opening a restaurant is based on her dead father’s dream–thus, even though he’s deceased, her father is arguably a stronger influence on Tiana’s future than her living mother.

As I mentioned yesterday, Disney princesses are the primary idols for young girls in American society. These princesses, though, are forever inscribed within the male hierarchy, as they lack female role models themselves and are only saved from their often pitiable conditions by kisses from princes. What does it do to our daughters to continually expose them to the themes of impotent motherhood and male saviors?

How to be a princess

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What you’ll need: royal bloodline and/or royal boyfriend, tiara

Songlist: I Wanna Be Your Lover by Prince, ABBA’s Dancing Queen

Further reading: Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries

The American Dream, as marketed to little girls

Ah, the irony of American girlhood. We are born into a capitalist democracy without need for actual princesses, yet our only role models are fictional Disney princesses. Cinderella and Belle, a maid and a bookish daughter of a poor inventor, respectively, are our paragons of upward mobility. The American Dream is strong in the hearts of young girls: we believe in the possibility of wild prosperity and success, just so long as the right prince falls in love with us.

I had a princess birthday party when I turned 6. My friends wore their princess dresses (we all had them), we watched “Sleeping Beauty,” and we played the board game Pretty Pretty Princess. The princess impulse continued through junior high: at 13 I wore my mother’s lovely, poofy-shouldered bridesmaid’s dress for Halloween and had a raging crush on Prince William.

When I confessed this crush to a friend, she sneered. You’re a commoner, she told me. And you’re American. Prince William has to marry a royal British girl (she was almost right). I was devastated at this news, but kept up hope: didn’t Disney movies teach me that love could overcome obstacles? A kinder friend of mine assured me that if things didn’t work out with Wills he would propose marriage: his family is from Palau and he is something like tenth in line for the Palauan throne.

My future Prince Charming

That friend and I have fallen out of touch (and Facebook tells me he’s got a seven-year-old daughter), Prince William is getting married on Friday, and Prince Harry is a royal cad, but maybe all hope is not yet lost. The Gloss has a helpful guide to still-eligible princes of the world and I must say that Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum looks like a real catch. He’s the next Emir of Dubai and he’s a poet. Now that I think about it, Jasmine is the only Disney princess with a tiger for a best friend. So long American Dream, hello Arabian Dream.

Hallelujah, it’s running men

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A poster for Arcos de la Frontera's running of the bulls

As I mentioned on Friday, the town in southern Spain that I lived in for a year, Arcos de la Frontera, has an unusual way of celebrating Resurrection Sunday. The event is called Aleluya del Toro, or the Hallelujah Bull. Townspeople get quite drunk and await the arrival of the two bulls that are let loose into a long gated corridor on the main street. If you feel particularly cocky (I use this word deliberately, as all of the people inside the bulls’ corridor are men) you may slide through the human-sized openings in the gates or jump over the top to challenge the bulls head-on. Dozens of ambulances and medical responders are on hand to deal with the inevitable bloody aftermath.

Facing off against the bull from the safety of the guardrail

Two years ago I wandered downhill from my apartment with friends to see the spectacle for ourselves. Thousands of people lined the red guardrails, and we heard the whoops of those nearing the bull that had already been let loose. We soon spotted the bull, who was near the end of the guardrail, its black hide gleaming with sweat, its sides heaving. The bull was obviously exhausted from running. Men ran in front of it, waving bright pink matador capes, but the bull was uninterested. Finally, a man pulled the rope tied to one of the bull’s horns until the bull was annoyed enough to give chase. Delighted screams went up into the bright day as men fled and spectators cheered.

One man narrowly escapes, while the rest keep chase

The first bull disappeared from view, but we stayed in our position until the second bull was released. A truck pulled up with a large wooden crate marked 2 (I thought of Dr. Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two). This bull was angry with captivity, and we heard its thrashing inside. One of its horns splintered through the wood. A crane hoisted the bull’s box into the gated corridor and a man on top of the box lifted the trap door. The bull came out in a rage and, instead of charging down into the open area in front of the box, it wheeled around and charged directly at the end of the guardrail where we were standing. Spectators who were sitting on top of the rail threw themselves backward to avoid the bull’s horns, and all narrowly missed being gored. The bull then took off in the opposite direction, leaving those who’d been in the most danger standing with shocked expressions.

The people of Andalucía have a fascination with that moment before death, referred to as duende. Flamenco strives to express that knife-edge of mortality, but duende is not merely a metaphysical idea. Instead, it is a method of living: there is truth that can only be discovered in that split second before life ends and thus you must continuously seek out experiences which will transport you to that moment. As I watched those people who had almost died by a bull’s horn on Easter Sunday, I saw their shock turn into grins. They gestured to each other–Did you see how close I was? Did you see how he almost got me?–and shared their survivor’s euphoria. Not me, not today, but almost, they seemed to be reasoning. And that almost, that brush with death, reaffirmed the gift of life.

The flamenco trend

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A friend of my parents whom I met recently asked if interest in flamenco was on the rise in the United States. I said I wasn’t sure–enrollment seems fairly steady at my flamenco school (some people have been dancing at this studio for decades and there is no overwhelming influx of new dancers)–but that I wouldn’t be surprised if certain events had increased its prominence around the world, such as Franco’s death in 1975 (he was a staunch opponent to Spain’s unique cultures) and the opening ceremonies for Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics in which famed dancer Cristina Hoyos performed:

This past summer while taking flamenco lessons at Carmen de las Cuevas in Granada, I was astonished by the range of countries represented at the school. The group of people I spent the most time with were from Germany, France, Holland, Finland, Iceland, and Spain, but I also met people from Russia, the Czech Republic, Japan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Norway, and on and on. I was the only American. For an art form that is so closely tied to one very specific region of the world, it was strange to realize how far its influence has spread. So perhaps my parents’ friend was right to believe that flamenco is far more popular now than ever before. It does show up in unexpected places, like in the following music video by Iron and Wine. I never would have joined Iron and Wine’s folksy music with flamenco, but it fits beautifully:

Good Friday in Sevilla

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The penitents of Arcos

Halfway up the main street in the Spanish town of Arcos de la Frontera where I lived for a year stood a foreboding statue of three hooded men carrying a cross. Above them were the words “Semana Santa”–Holy Week.

Holy Week is never far from the minds of Andalucíans, and it is a huge event in many cities in southern Spain, none more so than Sevilla. Parade participants–which include marching bands, men who carry the floats, and
brotherhoods of Catholic penitents who wear tall pointed hoods and long robes (a costume that is an unfortunate reminder to Americans of a far more sinister hooded brotherhood)–prepare year-round.

A brotherhood parading barefoot through Sevilla

The first night I arrived in Sevilla, which was late September, I came across a large circle of brass players practicing their Semana Santa marches by the river Guadalquivir. I heard similar sounds echoing in the night sky in Arcos after my evening choir practices throughout the year. In addition, my apartment in Arcos was on the parade route, and at midnight for weeks leading up to Holy Week we’d hear the whinny of the brotherhoods’ cornets and the slow steps of the sixteen men carrying the float that would soon display Jesus on the cross or Mary holding her son’s body. The street in front of my apartment was only as wide as a car but also the only exit from town, so traffic on these rehearsal nights slowed to a dead stop. No one seemed to mind, though–Holy Week is important enough that it can disturb the patterns of ordinary life without anyone getting upset.

The zeal for Semana Santa was a culture shock for me. I was raised in a midwestern Episcopalian church, for which the week leading up to Easter is a time for quiet contemplation. Easter Sunday is the glorious finale after the privations of Lent, a reaffirmation and celebration of the most important miracle of the faith.

Women in traditional mourning garb are a part of Granada's Semana Santa

In Andalucía, however, Easter itself is an afterthought. Easter Sunday is celebrated with a running of the bulls in Arcos, which seems at odds with the intense religiosity of the preceding week. I realized, though, that in this culture so highly saturated with pain and oppression as to make it into an art form–flamenco–that the torture inflicted upon Jesus and the oppression of his disciples is what resonates the most from the Easter story.

Flamenco appears in Semana Santa parades in the form of saeta singing. Originating from Catholic psalms but quite obviously incorporating Jewish and Moorish influences, a saeta is an expression of extreme pain and profound sadness. The saeta is usually sung by a single person without accompaniment from a balcony along the parade route. Brotherhoods halt their floats in front of the singer, who addresses his or her song directly to Jesus or Mary on the platform. As you will see by watching even a few seconds of the following clip, there is something otherworldly about the saeta; it’s not hard to imagine being intensely moved if you were to hear this in person.

Flamenco greats: Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía

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Camarón, the great shrimp

Ask any flamenco aficionado who the greatest singer to ever live was, and they will unanimously and without hesitation say one name: Camarón. Born José Monje Cruz in 1950, he took on the stage name Camarón de la Isla, which means Island Shrimp (he was so nicknamed by an uncle for his fair skin…yeah, yeah, flamenco nicknames are weird). Camarón won a flamenco singing prize when he was sixteen and quickly became famous for his voice, a perfect aural manifestation of anguish. In Madrid he met Paco de Lucía, whose flamenco guitar skills are second to none, and they collaborated on several albums through the late ’60s and ’70s.

It’s not difficult to appreciate Paco de Lucía’s playing. His fingers are dynamic on the guitar strings, his rhythms mesmerizing, his harmonies beautiful. Camarón’s voice, though, is more of an acquired taste. As I noted on Monday, flamenco as an art form rose out of pain and oppression, and flamenco singing is a visceral representation of that pain. Thus, of the three main components of flamenco–guitar, dance, and song–flamenco singing is considered primary. To an initiate, though, the song can be grating and uncomfortable. Even some Andalucíans have told me they hate flamenco singing, as it seems to them no more pleasant than cats screeching.

Paco de Lucía

With shame, I must admit that I didn’t see what was so great about Camarón for a long time. I love flamenco singing, so that wasn’t the problem; I just couldn’t appreciate what set Camarón apart.

This past summer I was in Spain for six weeks, and spent half that time in the gorgeous city of Granada taking flamenco classes. Almost all the friends I made were through my flamenco school, so most of our evening activities consisted of going to flamenco concerts and flamenco bars (our afternoons consisted of drinking sangria while looking up at the Alhambra–I highly recommend this way of living). One evening a friend suggested we do something different and go to a flamenco movie. Though it cut into our sangria drinking, we agreed.

The movie was projected in an outdoor amphitheater in the Sacromonte district–the gypsy district–of Granada, high on a hillside. We climbed past caves cut into the hill, pausing only to turn and admire the Alhambra lit up for the evening (admiring the Alhambra is a past time that never gets old). The documentary was about a single album that Camarón and many of his flamenco friends put together, called La Leyenda del Tiempo. As I watched I was happily surprised that not only did I not find Camarón’s voice unappealing, I actually liked it. When the documentary ended everyone stood around with their cigarettes and beers, lamenting Camarón’s premature death due to smoking and alcohol. I chimed in, Yes, what a loss. He was the greatest who ever lived, and felt like I finally passed as a true aficionado.

The flamenco family tree

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The family tree of flamenco styles

For a college class in Spanish literature and culture, I gave a presentation on flamenco. I still remember my professor’s rebuff when I said that flamenco has widespread roots–dance from India brought by the gypsies, Arabic music from the conquering northern African Muslims, Jewish prayer songs, and influences from other nomadic groups. My professor shook her head; “Flamenco is only Spanish,” she said. Since she was from Spain, I yielded to her assertion. But it turned out she was just as foreign to flamenco as I was at that time. In short, she was wrong.

What’s fascinating about flamenco is the wide range of styles, called palos, that fall under the flamenco heading, as shown in the family tree above; the map below shows the cultural influences that led to each palo. It’s interesting to think back on the many styles I’ve danced in the past three years and how certain steps do indeed correlate with their backgrounds.

For instance, in the gypsy dance of tientos we performed a move distinctly reminiscent of classical Indian dance. When I learned choreography for guajira  two summers ago, I learned that it is an ida y vuelta dance or “there and back again;” that is, flamenco was introduced to Spanish colonies in Cuba and took on a new form, which was brought back to Spain. Guajira is often done with a fan, just as dancers would need to fend off the Caribbean breeze in Cuba. And I was interested to see on this chart that farruca has Celtic origins; the choreography we did last summer for a farruca required us to hold our upper bodies much more rigidly than in other forms. I could imagine Michael Flatley of “Lord of the Dance” doing the same choreography.

In addition, the provinces of Andalucía claim ownership of certain forms. I am proud, though I have no reason to be, that the province of Cádiz where I lived gave rise to the most forms, which are also some of the most popular: the cheerful alegrías and tangos (not at all related to the Argentinian partner dance), the dramatic siguiriyas and my favorite, the party dance of bulerías. As much as I love all the variety that different forms bring, the true soul of flamenco for me will always be in the bulerías I learned with the old ladies of my town and danced at 3 in the morning in a smoky bar. Nothing can beat that.

Map of influences on flamenco (click on it to read the details)

How to be a flamenco dancer

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What you’ll need: good rhythm, a polka-dotted wardrobe

Songlist: Camarón de la Isla’s Soy Gitano, Paco de Lucía’s Entre Dos Aguas

Further reading: Duende: A Journey Into the Heart of Flamenco by Jason Webster

The flamenco poster that graced my dorm walls all through college

Last Friday evening, the snow predicted for Minnesota began to fall; it was the kind of sloppy, cold night that could convince the most diehard party-goers to stay in. But even the unseasonably gross weather couldn’t keep me from a flamenco show, and thus I ventured out to Minneapolis’s Uptown for “Palabras al Viento,” put on by a wonderful local dancer, Deborah Elias. Once there, I waved to the women in my flamenco dance classes here in Minneapolis and happened to sit next to my teacher, Susana di Palma, director of Zorongo Dance Theatre.

I fell in love with flamenco in a dark, smoky tablao (a traditional flamenco bar) in Madrid when I was sixteen. Three guitarists shared a small stage with a singer, two dancers and two clappers (clapping is the most common percussion in flamenco and immensely difficult to do correctly). In those cramped conditions the effect was intoxicating, the rhythms beat out on the wooden stage mesmerizing.

Worship at El Pipa's fast-moving feet!

It was not until I moved to Spain six years later, though, that I was brave enough to take my first flamenco lesson. I lived in a small town called Arcos de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz (the southwestern-most province in Spain) with another American girl who was interested in learning the dance form. We took one disastrous first class with Antonio “El Pipa” (“The Sunflower Seed”) in the nearby Jerez de la Frontera (an experience I described on my previous blog), having not realized that Antonio is something of a flamenco god, and therefore a little above teaching beginners.

My roommate and I settled instead for a class in an old abbey across from our apartment with the middle-aged ladies of the town who were more interested in drinking and gossiping than in dancing. Halfway through the year we switched to a class taught by Santiago “El Gitano” (“The Gypsy”–perhaps a better nickname than “The Sunflower Seed,” though less unique) which was in a bar. Hence, more drinking, but also more dancing.

Zorongo dancers

When I moved back to Minnesota, I was lucky to find that there is a surprisingly vital flamenco community in the Twin Cities. There are two flamenco schools in Minneapolis and several other individuals who perform frequently at restaurants and theaters around the cities. My classes at Zorongo are much more disciplined than those I took in the bar in Arcos, and I recently joined Zorongo’s company as an apprentice dancer (meaning that I’m actually closer to being a flamenco dancer than most of the other careers I’ve profiled).

For all the technique I’ve learned with Zorongo, though, I am appreciative of that smoky performance in Madrid and the subsequent experiences I’ve had watching and dancing flamenco in bars hollowed out of caves. Flamenco, after all, does not desire to be precise like ballet. It began in southern Spain when Jews and Moors were expelled by the Catholics and were only welcomed by the gypsy camps; flamenco is a hybrid of many traditions and retains a spirit of revolt against oppression. Understanding the attitude and the culture are just as important, if not more important, than knowing the steps. And thus, if you really want to be a flamenco dancer, you will inevitably find yourself in a cave in Granada surrounded by a generations-old flamenco family at three in the morning drinking beer or sherry. And when they tell you to dance, they won’t care if you do any fancy footwork so long as you move, really move, like a gypsy.

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