Body Image & Madrid Dances

John Singer Sargent, 1880

BACKWORDS Blog does not always reach from recent memory, or follow current affairs, but the art of dance and music is timeless and does not need to be fresh to be memorable. I didn’t realize it then, but spending a day winding through the streets of Spain at 18, and the later events of that night, helped to start me on a path of self-acceptance.

I had been in Europe almost a month when I found myself on that day of exploration in Madrid. My friends and I had opted out of the group (paid) activities, and instead decided to walk to a Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. Thinking that a Hard Rock Cafe has exciting food is kind of like thinking Applebee’s has good steak, but it was a name comfortable to us and we were looking for something familiar. After walking for what turned out to be several miles, we ate our comfort food late in the afternoon, and shopped in the Hard Rock Cafe’s gift store for mementos back home (the irony of shopping for trinkets that you can buy anywhere in the world while you’re in a foreign country is not lost on me). I, however, impulsively decided to buy a black and dark gray striped shirt for myself.

After being away all day, we realized it was getting late and needed to get back to the hotel to join the rest of our group. After struggling to use the alien Metro station, we arrived with just enough time to freshen up for dinner and race back out the door for the night’s entertainment. Putting on my new shirt, I noticed something - it was a size too small.

At least a size smaller than I would normally buy. At the time, I was around 50 pounds heavier than I am today – and three inches shorter. Oversized clothing was a common fixture of my fat-kid syndrome. We were leaving the next day and there was no time to return it before or after our dinner and the show we planned to attend that evening. I decided to wear the shirt anyways, uncomfortably, at the behest of some new friends I’d made in my tour group. Like friends do, they told me it looked good on me. And I tried to believe them.

The evening’s venue was small and intimate. The exterior was a yellowing brick and stone mixture, while the interior was darkly lit, filled with old wood tables and chairs, thick oddly placed wood beams, and a peculiarly small square stage towards the front. It felt like stepping back in time, watching the performances in a cave rather than a major metropolitan city.The dinner was simple and the show unique. It was a form of dance and song that Spain is known for – Flamenco.

Flamenco Dancer

Flamenco evolved from an Indian Hindu religious dance (surprising that what Spain is so famous for, originated in India), and is traced back as early as 500 BC. As people migrated, these new minorities in European culture became persecuted.

Because of this, groups such as the Moors, Jews, and gypsies, and other fringe cultures began to meld traditions, resulting in the type of Flamenco that we see today. Today, in a flamenco performance:

the dancer - or bailaor(a) - will often stand motionless for the first moments absorbing the strums of the guitar, the clapping, and the singing until the inspiration hits him/her. Then he or she will launch into a flamenco dance every bit as passionate as the song being belted out by the cantaor- you can even see the explosion of emotions in the dancer's facial expressions throughout the performance.

While witnessing this in the capital of Spain, the cantaor drawing breath and expressing his song, the bailaor reacting and molding herself to the song, I forgot how I looked in my tight shirt.