Cervantes said that there was never born a Spanish woman but she was made to dance; and he might have added that in the South, at all events, most men share the enviable faculty. The dance is one of the most characteristic features of Andalusia, and as an amusement rivals in popularity even the bull-fight. The Sevillans dance on every possible occasion, and nothing pleases them more than the dexterity of professionals. Before a company has been assembled half an hour some one is bound to suggest that a couple should show their skill; room is quickly made, the table pushed against the wall, the chairs drawn back, and they begin. Even when men are alone in a tavern, drinking wine, two of them will often enough stand up to tread a seguidilla. On a rainy day it is the entertainment that naturally recommends itself.
Riding through the villages round Seville on Sundays it delighted me to see little groups making a circle about the house doors, in the middle of which were dancing two girls in bright-coloured clothes, with roses in their hair. A man seated on a broken chair was twanging a guitar, the surrounders beat their hands in time and the dancers made music with their castanets. Sometimes on a feast-day I came across a little band, arrayed in all its best, that had come into the country for an afternoon's diversion, and sat on the grass in the shade of summer or in the wintry sun. Whenever Andalusians mean to make merry some one will certainly bring a guitar, or if not the girls have their castanets; and though even these are wanting and no one can be induced to sing, a rhythmical clapping of hands will be sufficient accompaniment, and the performers will snap their fingers in lieu of castanets.
It is charming then to see the girls urge one another to dance; each vows with much dramatic gesture that she cannot, calling the Blessed Virgin to witness that she has strained her ankle and has a shocking cold. But some youth springs up and volunteers, inviting a particular damsel to join him. She is pushed forward, and the couple take their places. The man carefully puts down his cigarette, jams his broad-brimmed hat on his head, buttons his short coat and arches his back! The spectators cry: 'Ole!' The girl passes an arranging hand over her hair. The measure begins. The pair stand opposite one another, a yard or so distant, and foot it in accordance with one another's motions. It is not a thing of complicated steps, but, as one might expect from its Moorish origin, of movements of the body. With much graceful swaying from side to side the executants approach and retire, and at the middle of the dance change positions. It finishes with a great clapping of hands, the maiden sinks down among her friends and begins violently to fan herself, while her partner, with a great affectation of nonchalance, takes a seat and relights his cigarette.
And in the music-halls the national dances are, with the national songs, the principal attraction. Seville possesses but one of these establishments; it is a queer place, merely the patio of a private house, with a stage at one end, in which chairs and tables have been placed. On holiday nights it is crammed with students, with countrymen and artisans, with the general riff-raff of the town, and with women of no particular reputation. Now and then appears a gang of soldiers, giving a peculiar note with the uniformity of their brown holland suits; and occasionally a couple of British sailors come sauntering in with fine self-assurance, their fair hair and red cheeks contrasting with the general swartness. You pay no entrance money, but your refreshment costs a real--which is twopence ha'penny; and for that you may enjoy not only a cup of coffee or a glass of manzanilla, but an evening's entertainment. As the night wears on the heat is oven-like, and the air is thick and grey with the smoke of countless cigarettes.
The performance consists of three 'turns' only, and these are repeated every hour. The company boasts generally of a male singer, a female singer, and of the corps de ballet, which is made up of six persons. Spain is the stronghold of the out-of-date, and I suppose it alone preserves the stiff muslin ballet-skirts which delighted our fathers. To see half-a-dozen dancers thus attired in a remote Andalusian music-hall is so entirely unexpected that it quite takes the breath away. But by the time the traveller reaches Seville he must be used to disillusion, and he must be ingenuous indeed if he expects the Spaniards to have preserved their national costume for the most national of their pastimes. Yet the dances are still Spanish; and even if the pianoforte has ousted the guitar, the castanets give, notwithstanding, a characteristic note which the aggressive muslin and the pink, ill-fitting tights cannot entirely destroy.
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But I remember one dancer who was really a great artist. She was ill-favoured, of middle age, thin; but every part of her was imbued with grace, expressive, from the tips of her toes to the tips of her fingers. The demands of the public sometimes forced upon her odious ballet-skirts, sometimes she wasted her talent on the futilities of skirt-dancing; but chiefly she loved the national measures, and her phenomenal leanness made her only comfortable in the national dress. She travelled from place to place in Spain with another woman whom she had taught to dance, and whose beauty she used cleverly as a foil to her own uncomeliness; and so wasted herself in these low resorts, earning hardly sufficient to keep body and soul together. I wish I could remember her name.
When she began to dance you forgot her ugliness; her gaunt arms gained shape, her face was transfigured, her dark eyes flashed, and her mouth and smile said a thousand eloquent things. Even the nape of her neck, which in most women has no significance, with her was expressive. A consummate actress, she exhibited all her skill in the bolero, which represents a courtship; she threw aside the castanets and wrapped herself in a mantilla, while her companion, dressed as a man, was hidden in a capa. The two passed one another, he trying to see the lady's face, which she averted, but not too strenuously; he pursued, she fled, but not too rapidly. Dropping his cloak, the lover attacked with greater warmth, while alternately she repelled and lured him on. At last she too cast away the mantilla. They seized the castanets and danced round one another with all manner of graceful and complicated evolutions, making love, quarrelling, pouting, exhibiting every variety of emotion. The dance grew more passionate, the steps flew faster, till at last, with the music, both stopped suddenly dead still. This abrupt cessation is one of the points most appreciated by a Spanish audience. 'Ole!' they cry,'bien parado!'
But when, unhampered by a partner, this nameless, exquisite dancer gave full play to her imagination, there was no end to the wildness of her fancy, to the intricacy and elaboration of her measures, to the gay audacity of her movements. She performed a hundred feats, each more difficult than the other--and all impossible to describe.
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Then, between Christmas and Lent, at midnight on Saturdays and Sundays, the tables and the chairs are cleared away for the masked ball; and you will see the latest mode of Spanish dance. The women are of the lowest possible class; some, with a kind of savage irony, disguised as nuns, others in grotesque dominos of their own devising; but most wear every-day clothes with great shawls draped about them. The men are of a corresponding station, and through the evening wear their broad-brimmed hats. On the stage is a brass band, which plays one single tune till day-break, and to that one single measure is danced--the habanera.
In this alone may people take part as in any round dance. The couples hold one another in the very tightest embrace, the lady clasping her arms round her partner's neck, while he places both his about her waist. They go round the room very slowly, immediately behind one another; it is a kind of straight polka, with a peculiar, rhythmic swaying of the body; the feet are not lifted off the floor, and you do not turn at all. The highest gravity is preserved throughout, and the whole performance is--well, very oriental.
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