The inspiration for this paper was my experience as a participant/observer at a gypsy wedding, a boda gitana, in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain in the fall of 1999. The wedding I attended was being celebrated by a well-known gypsy family, the tribe of the famous flamenco singer, Fernando Fernández Monje (1934-1981), known as El Terremoto (in English, “The Earthquake”) (Vega 1990, 746). This gypsy family has produced many highly noted flamenco artists, such as the dancer and singer, Tía Juana la del Pipa (1905-1987), a great interpreter of the bulerías de Jerez and the mother of singer Juana Fernandez and dancer Antonio El Pipa, winner of the 1995 Premio Juana la Macarrona (Vega 1990, 607) (Caballero 1998, 321-2, 380). A highlight of my experience was the opportunity to witness the social practices pertaining to the bulerías, a traditional flamenco dance/song form best known for its improvisational nature. At that time, I knew the bulerías primarily through my flamenco dance studio training, an academic context that emphasizes replication of form through the practices of imitation and repetition, and I was less familiar with the improvisational structures that guide the bulerías in its more authentic contexts, such as intimate gatherings of family or friends. Thus, I had the rare and precious opportunity to answer some of my many unanswered questions by observing the authentic practice of the bulerías in the intimate context of a gypsy wedding in the family of El Terremoto, perhaps the greatest interpreter of the bulerías de Jerez (Schreiner 1998, 86).
The gypsies in the Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera, the Gitanos de Jerez, take great pride of ownership in the bulerías por fiesta or bulerías de Jerez. The bulerías is a relatively modern musical development and Jerez de la Frontera is considered the epicenter of its development and practice. Flamencologists and historians assert that the bulerías came into being in the Jerez neighborhood of Santiago near the middle of the 19th Century. José Blas Vega specifically identifies the location as barrio Santiaguerro, giving credit for its creation to the inhabitants of the streets of Nueva and Cantarería. Credit for first singing this innovative form is given to the Jerezano Mateo El Loco. Within the flamenco musical lexicon, the niche of the bulerías is unique. It developed in response to the estribillo, the refrain that was sung to close (rematar) a slower and more somber flamenco song and dance, the Soleares (Vega 1990, 118-20). Rhythmically compatible with many other 12-count musical phrasings (compás), the bulerías provides a formal means through which the emotional palette in flamenco music can be shifted from bleak to festive. Over time, in the context of flamenco parties (fiestas and juergas), the bulerías developed to become a lively form in its own right. But the bulerías is also prevalent in theatrical or commercial contexts where it often serves as an artistic transition, one that can be relied upon to provide an upbeat ending to virtually any song or dance.
Some background information is useful if one is to appreciate the important role that the bulerías plays in the flamenco arts. Flamenco songs are divided into categories based on their various rhythmic structures, but also based on the emotional palette they express. The term cante jondo or cante grande pertains to songs or dances expressing the most serious emotions; cante chico or cante festero refers to those songs or dances that express the lighter or festive emotions (Vega 1990, 146-48). The bulerías belongs to the cante festero category; its name comes from the Spanish verb, burlar, meaning to joke or make fun of and is similarly related to the noun, burla, meaning mockery, joke, trick or jest. The lyrics (letras) of the bulerías express situaciones cotidianas, meaning that they deal with events of daily life, both the good and bad. Although the letras of the bulerías are not always directly funny, some element of irony is usually present. The dance offers improvisational opportunities for virtuosic display, and often plays with the comedic contrast between personal dignity and surprising moments of subtle slapstick humor.
The basic rhythmic structure is that of the hemiola in a fast 6/8 tempo, so that the musical accents of the bulerías are distributed with six beats alternately divided into two sets of three beats followed by three sets of two beats. This provides an uneven syncopated phrasing. An example of the hemiola familiar to many is the basic rhythm of the song “I want to live in America” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. While the rhythm of the bulerías is rooted in the hemiola, which provides it with a playful instability. The rhythm may sometimes maintain accents on beats of two or three, or may, in a syncopated manner, skip an emphasis where expected and add accents later to catch up to itself. This rhythmic fluidity of form and accent provides the basis for the genius of the bulerías as an improvisational artistic practice. The dance form of the bulerías both generates and responds to these rhythms, but also has a close relationship to the structure of the letras. In particular the dancer may perform what is known as a desplante, a type of movement signal, a “call” to the musicians (llamada), indicating that a phrase is closing (remate), or that a shift or change (cambio), is about to take place. The desplante is one of many subtle movement-signaling conventions that are enacted within the traditional bulerías circle.
In the bulerías, the details of the non-verbal signaling that occurs between musicians, dancers, and those encircling the dance may remain mysterious to cultural outsiders, yet they are clearly an essential aspect of the practice. Likewise, in more intimate contexts, the subtle social rules of participation, especially as they are affected by the age, gender, or familial relationships of those participating, may be invisible or confusing to outsiders. The practice of the bulerías contains seemingly ambiguous, yet sometimes strict, demarcations that determine when formal rules are to be followed and when they may be played with more freely in the spirit of improvisation.
The spatial form of the circle itself deserves recognition as a near-primordial, near-universal indicator of a human community gathered to enact dance as a social practice. All community members, regardless of their age or sex or ability, appear to be welcome to show off their dancing and participate through handclapping (palmas) and vocal shouts of encouragement (jaleo). The bulerías often serves as an opportunity for an individual to come to the center of the circle and claim the attention and admiration of their social group while performing their best dance steps or rhythmic tricks. In this instance of solo performance, some of the underlying purposes of the bulerías are roughly comparable to those that drive the urban break dance forms and street dance practices. Both include the potential for the expression of a competitive spirit, the negotiation or establishing of rank within a social group hierarchy based on performance skills or personal charisma, and the actual innovation of new movement vocabulary through both spontaneous improvisation and deliberately planned development of choreographed dance movements. Likewise, there is the potential in both cultural practices that commercialized use may be made of the performance, i.e. that professionalization may occur.
There are additional aspects of social life, most notably courtship, which may be negotiated within the circular form of the bulerías. The bulerías is often danced as a solo, but may also be danced by two people, usually a heterosexual duo, who engage in a give and take of energy. In this case, one often sees the ending of the dance (remate) resolve with a sense that the female has been dominated, herded, corralled, or otherwise brought under the control of the male dancer enough so that she can be removed from the circle’s center. This control of female energy or sexuality appears to be negotiated by the male on the behalf of the social gathering. Another of my research interests involves study of the parallels between the cultural practices of the Spanish bullfight and flamenco, and the type of dance interaction I have just described reminds me very much of dynamic events I’ve witnessed as part of what are called tientas. These public events are an important part of the agricultural management of the bullfighting industry in which year-old female cows (vaquillas) are brought into a small arena and teased, under bloodless bullfight-like conditions, in order to test their courage, fierceness, and staying power. This is done for breeding purposes, on the assumption that a fierce and brave cow will produce the best fighting qualities in her progeny. However, a cow thus harassed, ends up very angry and the final and very difficult, though sometimes humorous, challenge for the “bullfighter” (often a student torero) is to then get the furious cow to leave the arena without causing damage. This can end up requiring a number people to wrestle with the cow. Herding and bringing under control the wild, loosed female energy of a dancer is less dangerous in the context of the bulerías; nevertheless, some consciousness or acknowledgement of female power, and danger averted, is often present at the close of her dance as a female dancer is ushered outside of the circle by a male.
My notes of the boda gitana I attended in 1999 (with some clarifying additions) are as follows:
The wedding party included the old and the young, a full, family-style spectrum. We [this included Antonio, a gypsy friend who brought us and was related to the family, a Canadian flamenco guitarist, Gerardo Alcalá, Francine Sweet, a flamenco dancer from New Zealand and myself] arrived about 12:30 midnight, stayed for about 5 hours, and then left to spend time at a local flamenco club until 6 AM.
We arrived at the boda [the wedding] as they began to clear tables after the banquet. [Gypsy weddings can last from three days to a week and we had arrived for the fiesta portion of the event.] The celebration was taking place in an industrial zone of Jerez. The family had rented a big, open, warehouse space specifically designed to handle parties, with a bar on one side, restrooms, nice overhead decorations, and a huge, blow-up plastic figure outdoors for the children to play on. As the tables were dismantled and cleared away by hired waiters, the women began to pull chairs around into a circle and despite ongoing, remarkably high decibel levels (that were occasionally, but ineffectively shushed) a man began to sing the bulerías within the circle of seated women [older women] who were providing palmas [flamenco handclapping]. As visitors, we stood a bit behind the crowd, but could still see and enjoy the activities.
The first singer was very funny and engaging as he spoofed and enjoyed himself, calling out and singing to various people, inviting them come into the circle and dance with him. There were trade offs as different people came into the circle to dance or sing, various men, with only two of the older women, Juana Fernandez and a blind woman (a singer who my friends knew well, though I was not familiar with her name). It was especially inspiring to see the more mature women dance, very clarifying to see how much of the dance can be made up of very refined gestures, serving as signals or signs, indicators of what, in an academy-type training, might be performed using a fuller range of motion. This was not just due to any age-related debility, but was due to experience and dignity as respected indicators of age. Lots of individuality was expressed in the performances of the older women and men as they personalized and interpreted the dance form. The young women seemed much less expressive, except for the tiniest star of the show, whose mother I heard call her “Eva”.
Eva was one of two gorgeous little girls running around (like flower girls) in orange knit flamenco style dresses, probably 4 years old. Eva was like an unstoppable, miniature Ann Margaret - at her hottest - a flamenco-style energizer bunny - really remarkable. And when eventually the adult participation in the bulerías circle died down, Eva took over, within the circle of older women, the matrons tirelessly giving her palmas and encouragement. She sang, she danced - very flamenco, very natural - she did palmas, and threw candy-coated almonds [forcefully] at the audience from a basket that she carried. She fiercely defended that basket and her stash of candied almonds from other interested children and was totally overbearing to her younger sister (the other little girl child wearing a matching orange dress) whose energy and personality paled compared to the manic energy of Eva who wanted and demanded absolute attention for a very, very long time-non-stop. At one point someone had a video camera and Eva, galvanized into a second (third or fourth?) wind, sang and danced directly for the camera. She gave an exagerated performance, flipping her hair over her head ‘a la Ann Margaret’ and dropping her shoulder straps down, etc. All so “sexy” it seemed 100% clear that although she was only about four years old, little Eva knew how to take on all of the facial expressions and attitudes, all of the social and performance signals, that signify “hot babe”.
It looked like it would be awful to be her little sister; yet how wonderful to be encouraged like that with the full attention of all the older women in one’s family. I wish I could have stayed long enough to see how little Eva culminated her evening. I was quite curious to know whether this would end with a crying fit, a tantrum, or a sudden drop off to sleep. Or maybe she just kept on until who-knows-when the next day!
Events tended to overlap in this large warehouse space; earlier, the women as a group had danced with the groom. They had crowded around pulling at his pants, or pinching him, and had lifted him up on their shoulders. The bride had danced also, with people showering her with candied almonds as she danced. I was given a shred of the groom’s tie that had apparently been cut up at some point. As we began to leave I saw that splinter groups had formed spontaneously and a bulerías circle had formed outside. A young boy with a quiet voice was singing with all the circle’s attention and people were encouraging him to sing louder and shushing (again ineffectively) the noise coming from outside that intimate circle.
So end my notes.
In preparing to present and discuss my personal experiences, [This paper was presented in 2003 at the Gypsy Lore Society, Annual Meeting and Conference on Romani Studies. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.] I began by researching the bulerías in the flamencology literature and found fascinating descriptions and discussions of gendered roles in flamenco practice, notably in articles, Fashioning Masculinity in Flamenco Dance by William Washabaugh and Gendering the Authentic in Spanish Flamenco by Timothy deWaal Malefyt, from The Passion of Music and Dance - Body, Gender, and Sexuality (Washabaugh 1998, 39-50 and 51-62) and in the three chapters that deal respectively with Gypsies, The Body, and Women in William Washabaugh’s Flamenco – Passion, Politics and Popular Culture (Washabaugh 1996,73-87, 88-102, and 103-117). However, I also discovered an interesting anomaly. Especially in writings by Spanish flamencologists (a predominantly male group), I noticed that descriptions of the bulerías tended to celebrate it as a masculine experience of freedom of expression, focusing on its qualities of flexibility, plasticity, and virile risk taking. Argentinian flamencologist Anselmo González Climént describes the bulerías song as “elastic and infinitely habitable” and praises the bulerías as the form in which flamenco reaches its greatest heights as an improvisational practice (Climént 1961, 3). Many writings romanticize and idealize the bulerías, rapturously extolling the freedoms of the form. These published descriptions, despite their fulsome nature, may in some ways accurately describe the male experience. In them, the bulerías is described as consistently offering a venue for male expression of masculinity and personality, virility and individuality, as well as male camaraderie.
However, based on my observations, I believe that the experiences of female participants actively engaged in the bulerías as a social practice are distinctly different from the male experience of freedom and that in fact, through their participation in the bulerías, females negotiate a complex terrain of social controls not described in the literature. Let me read to you again from my journal notes what I have decided is a key statement. Hidden away, between my description of the freedom of expression I witnessed in the performances of the older women and men and my appreciation of the dynamic little four-year-old Eva, was the innocuous comment, “The young women seemed much less expressive.”
My current working thesis is that for a gitana the experience of dancing the bulerías within her intimate social circle or familial group is not consistent over time, but that in fact her experience changes radically over her lifetime in relation to her position within the female life cycle. The freedom of expression that is encouraged in her pre-fertile childhood, is radically constrained in her reproductive years, and is finally regained as a benefit of having passed beyond childbearing age. I found my hypothesis corroborated by Angus Fraser in his book, The Gypsies, in which he discusses gypsy taboos related to the female body. Fraser asserts that the female lower body is considered by gypsies to be marimé, meaning polluted, and “potentially defiling.” He describes the social affects of these taboos as follows: “She [the gypsy woman] is more polluted, and hence subject to greater restrictions and isolation, during her most sexual periods – puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and immediately after childbirth.” He goes on to say, “Before puberty and after menopause, however, the prohibitions are fewer: a young girl may expose her legs by wearing short skirts; older women can associate more freely with men” (Fraser 1998, 245).
Certainly from my own observations at the boda gitana in Jerez, I noticed that the very young gitana was encouraged to dance the bulerías in an uninhibited manner, displaying her “high animal spirits.” Her sexuality was accepted as that of the innocent, the virgin; her wildness was appreciated as a potent, yet chaste, natural resource. She was indulged and encouraged by the older women to give her passionate nature its fullest expression. At a later stage of life, the same gitana may again perform the bulerías, this time providing a careful, public demonstration of her “good girl” qualities, her virtue. She may now dance the bulerías with tremendous restraint, inhibited under the watchful eyes of her father, uncles, or brothers, through her dance demonstrating her compliance with the restrictions and constraints being placed upon the expression of female sexuality. In such a performance what she and her male relatives demonstrate together is her docility, her amenable nature; they show her sexuality to be tameable, a force that can be safely brought under the control of a novio (fiancé) or marido (husband). These demonstrations may be critical to her life relationships, affecting how her spouse, immediate family, and the wider social circle will treat her. Male family members may attend quite closely to the performance of a marriageable-aged female relative to see and monitor that her behavior is appropriately circumspect.
To understand the mechanism by which this social control is put into effect through the dance, one must remember that the sustaining support of palmas, cante, and the focused attention of one’s family circle or friends is essential to the dancer of the bulerías; the enthusiasm of the surrounding group is the lifeblood of the dance. The withdrawal or interruption of this support effects social control through a tremendously powerful non-verbal message of criticism, disapproval, or actual censure. This phenomenon was pointed out to me by a non-gypsy Jerezana, a professional woman and aficionada of flamenco arts, when a friend of hers, a male gitano, withdrew his support of her dancing, cutting her off just as she was most actively expressing her sexuality through the bulerías. Remember too that the bulerías is the party dance of choice in Jerez; its practice is ubiquitous, as are the concomitant opportunities for social control. In the context of a gypsy wedding, a gathering of the larger family group, the practice of endogamy, of kinship ties being strengthened through marriage alliances inside the group, may further heighten the pressures on young, marriageable women to be on their best behavior (Fraser 1998, 43) (Wang 1992, 45-47).
Another means of asserting social control is put into effect through crowding or encroaching on the female performer’s personal space. Within these various contexts, his performance of the bulerías may be a social expression of the important responsibility taken on by a male family member in relation to a niece, daughter, or sister. This is the responsibility of matchmaking or “husbandry,” and is not entirely unrelated to the agricultural task of animal husbandry. Thus, gitanos may experience the bulerías circle as an arena for both an uninhibited demonstration of their own virility and the serious implementing of their skills as the managers of female sexuality and tribal reproduction. Power, consequence and importance within the tribe result from this male marriage-arranging prerogative (Wang 1992, 239).
In this way the bulerías functions as a social art form through which flow the currents of control and release, alternately indulging or criticizing performers based on their sex and age. The critical judgment focused on marriage-age, female dancers may, in the later years of a woman’s life, be curtailed. What a relief it must be for the older women to come full cycle, back into the indulgent favor of their bulerías social circle. There appears to be a clear re-establishing of female freedom for the viudas, the widows, and older matrons. They have acquired social recognition through the maturity of their years; they have paid their reproductive dues. And wearing the power of their years easily, their stint as mothers giving them clout, these matrons participate in the bulerías with renewed energy and uninhibited daring. They appear at times to be the power behind the entire event, the architecture of the circle.
The social power held and wielded by these older women was further demonstrated to me a few weeks after my attendance at the boda gitana when I attended a performance of the famous flamenco singer, María Vargas, at a local peña (flamenco social club) in Jerez: the Peña Tío José de Paula. María Vargas is a woman with an international reputation as a flamenco singer, between 50-60 years old, and from the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda only 20-30 miles away from Jerez. Nevertheless, my journal notes describe that after her performance, “the older women put their chairs in a circle and María Vargas (with a great show of deference for the honor being done her) sat in the circle to partake of the Jerez bulerías… it was as if it was obligatory after her formal performance that she be informally tutored by this group of older Jerezanas.” The professional flamenco artist sat humbly, sitting as witness within the circle to learn the authentic from her elders.
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