Andalucían culture features prominently in my recent novels, Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, especially in relation to music and dance, which is characterised by a single emotion: passion. As Salvador tells Alexandra in Indiscretion:
‘Spanish flamenco is the embodiment of passion. Some people say that music is at its best when wild and unleashed. Flamenco is often like that, heels stamping, castanets clicking, skirts of the dancers whirling.’
He goes on to explain that not all flamenco music is performed in this way – it can be still and poignant – but of course Salvador has described here the vision of flamenco that most people conjure up, of which castanets is an integral part.
In fact, while castanets are used in some flamenco dances, they are not traditional to all flamenco. They are more commonly played as part of other folkloric dances, like the Sevillana and the balletic Escuela Bolera. Here is an example from my novel Masquerade; a raw, spirited performance by my character Marujita:
‘The older gitana took up her castanets and stalked into the space, twirling her hands like proud birds. Now the true queen had taken the stage for all to see. With mesmerizing nobility the gypsy danced, her head held high, hands and arms moving with a power and beauty that were breathtaking. Every movement, while exaggerated in its twists and turns, was fluidly graceful; then she dipped and twirled aggressively like an Amazon warrior, her castanets clattering like gunfire. Marujita’s black eyes shone like some terrifying goddess as her arms swooped up like wings about to take flight.’
‘Castanets’ is derived from the Spanish word for chestnut (castana), but in Andalucía the instrument is known as palillos, which translates to saucers. The instrument isn’t, in fact, Spanish in origin. In various forms, it can be traced back more than 10,000 years, beginning with the Phoenicians and then being taken up by the Iberians, who brought it to Spain.
The simplicity of the instrument and the ease with which it can be played to create a rhythmic percussive sound has helped it to stand the test of time. Modern castanets are formed from two shell-shaped clackers held together by a string or leather tie. Hardwood produces the best sound: granadillo, rosewood, ebony, pomegranate or oak.
Don’t let the simplicity of castanets fool you, though, that they are easy to play! It takes years of practice to play with speed and mastery. Remember, the castanets player is not merely a dancer or musician, but must be both at once. Accomplished players can coax from the castanets a range of sounds. The right hand holds the hembra (the higher-pitched ‘female’ of the pair) while the left holds the macho (the lower-pitched ‘male’ set). This video shows a skilled castanets player in action, accompanying the Berlin Opera Chamber Orchestra as they play Georges Bizet’s Carmen:
When it comes to castanets playing, the most important artist is Antonia Mercé y Luque. Born in 1890 to professional Spanish dancers, she was destined for the stage, but she grew up to have strong opinions on what she performed there. Essentially, she developed her own dance style, based on Spanish folkloric dancing, which would prove hugely influential, and castanets playing was an important element of that. La Argentina, as she came to be known, laid the foundations of all modern castanets playing: her way of playing become the definitive way of playing.
La Argentina took castanets beyond the borders of Spain, notably to the US, which she toured six times, and to France, where she was especially popular in Paris. There, Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted a work he considered one of his most important, called ‘Dancing Girl with Castanets’ (1909). I will leave you with this artwork, which I think perfectly encapsulates the emotion and intensity of the castanets player.
Flamenco – the dance, the music, the culture, the artistic duende spirit – is at the heart of my novels Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, which are set in Andalucía, home of flamenco.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘flamenco’? The rousing, rhythmic, raw music, perhaps – the guitars and the hand-clapping and the singer’s cry. Maybe it is the sinuous, sensual movements of the dancers that come to mind. Or perhaps you associate the word with concepts that are inherent in the flamenco art: passion, sexuality, vibrancy, expressiveness…
These concepts are perfectly encapsulated in the costumes that flamenco dancers wear. The dancer’s dress dramatically hugs the silhouette, before giving way to ruffles that cascade romantically down. The more ruffles, the better! The dress is the red of blood or the black of night, and often has polka-dots – in fact, polka-dots originated in flamenco attire.
Until 1929, the traje de flamenco (flamenco dress) was worn solely by women in the south of Spain, who devised their dresses themselves and sewed them at home; but then, in that year, women from the upper echelons of society trialled the new style at the Seville Ibero-American Exposition, where it was well received by Spaniards and foreigners alike. Since then, fashion designers have returned to flamenco time and time again in search of inspiration, and this season is no different.
Visit any fashion store and you’re bound to find ruffles and polka-dots aplenty in the summer range, but this season you’ll also come across a new design: the so-called flamenco flares. Here’s a look at some currently on offer from Spanish high-street brand Zara:
Here are some available from another popular Spanish high-street store, Mango:
When The Times reported on the flamenco flares recently, there was an unmistakable tone of unease in the article, a concern that this style is ‘outlandish’ – ‘comic’, even – and that it ‘may sound alarm bells’.
Of course, everyone has a unique opinion when it comes to fashion, and understated simplicity is always the safest option. But personally, I don’t find fashion inspired by flamenco to be outlandish – I think it’s fabulous. Flamenco is all about authentic expression, about duende, which, as Federico García Lorca, put it, is a question of ‘true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation…’.
The word ‘flamenco’ is thought to derive from ‘fire’ or ‘flame’, which conveys the fury and fervour at the heart of the art. To wear a flamenco-inspired design, then, is to embrace that inner flame. ‘Erupt into style’ begins the Times article; that is exactly what flamenco is all about – erupting, conveying with stark honesty emotion and truth and sexuality.
What do you think of fashion inspired by flamenco? Do you admire a person who wears bold, statement pieces like the flamenco flares? I would love to hear your thoughts.
And if you’d like to explore true flamenco fashion further, the website for the 2017 We Love Flamenco show in Seville is an excellent resource: http://www.weloveflamenco.es. It showcases some spectacular designs that make flamenco flares look extremely tame and conventional in comparison; designs that may just inspire you to be colourful, vibrant and bold in your fashion choices this summer.
‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas… without The Nutcracker’: so begins this trailer for the Royal Ballet’s production of the classic ballet, showing now at the Royal Opera House in London.
I love The Nutcracker. It was one of the first ballets my parents took my sister and me to see at the theatre when we were children. It not only inspired in me a love of ballet that endured through many years of lessons and many more subsequent years of theatre-going, but it also fuelled the vivid imagination of a little girl and reinforced that essential message for the time of year: magic is real!
In case you are not familiar with the story, here is an outline (from the Royal Opera House):
The young Clara creeps downstairs on Christmas Eve to play with her favourite present – a Nutcracker. But the mysterious magician Drosselmeyer is waiting to sweep her off on a magical adventure.
After defeating the Mouse King, the Nutcracker and Clara travel through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy treats them to an amazing display of dances. Back home, Clara thinks she must have been dreaming – but doesn’t she recognize Drosselmeyer’s nephew?
The ballet is based on nineteenth-century Prussian Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The French writer Alexandre Dumas revised Hoffmann’s story in The Nutcracker, published in 1844, and this version captured the interest of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
In 1890, Tchaikovsky’s composition for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty proved so popular that he was commissioned by the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres to compose another. Choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov reshaped Dumas’s story to fit and choreographed the dance, giving Tchaikovsky explicit instructions on what was required musically for each number. The result is music that is famous to this day:
When The Nutcracker premiered, in 1892 in St Petersburg, the reception was lukewarm if not frosty. Criticism centred on the prominence of children in the ballet, and in 1919 the choreographer Alexander Gorsky took it upon himself to take a different angle, and he cast adult dancers as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. Now, with experienced, expert dancers under the lights, audiences warmed up.
It was in 1934 that the ballet was first performed in England, and during the war it was opened up to American audiences by the San Francisco Ballet, which began the trend of performing the show each Christmas.
This season, The Royal Ballet is performing Peter Wright’s classic production, which is all about theatrical spectacle. The set alone is something to behold, with a Christmas tree that grows to 40 feet in height. It is so colourful, vibrant and magical that it has inspired the historic department store Liberty, which has dedicated its iconic window displays to The Nutcracker this year.
The Peter Wright production is my favourite; it really encapsulates the magic of The Nutcracker, and of this time of year. Tickets are sold out for the Royal Opera House shows, but audiences all over the world can enjoy the production transmitted live to cinemas this Thursday (8 December). To find a venue near you, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/showings/the-nutcracker-live-2016.
In 1987 a new American film studio released a movie shot on a low budget and with no major stars. Expectations were not high. And yet that movie would prove to be a sensational box office hit, and would become one of the most enduring and iconic romance movies of all time.
Why the staggering success? Simply put: the sensuality of dance.
The movie, of course, is Dirty Dancing. No movie better exemplifies how powerful dance can be in stirring and cementing attraction.
I have always adored dance. I remember my parents taking me to the theatre to see world-class ballet companies like the Bolshoi and Leningrad perform, and I was completely enchanted. I took ballet classes for many years and was quite serious in my ambition to be a ballerina. Then once I reached my teens I discovered, through romance novels and movies, dance as the language of love. The passion, the intimacy… I knew that the romance books I dreamed of writing someday must include dance. And so they do!
Often, that means writing scenes in which my protagonists dance together, creating a moment in which time stops, in which barriers melt, and the two connect in a deeper, more meaningful, more primal way, as in this scene from my most recent novel Masquerade:
They moved into the seething mass on the dancefloor and he took her in his arms, holding her tight, so she was aware of the thundering beat of his heart against her breast. His thigh brushed against hers. The surge of arousal that ran through them both as their bodies met was like an electric shock. Her nipples stiffened; a rush of blood went to her head. She didn’t want to feel this way but her will had been sapped. The music was plaintive, tearing at her, and she closed her eyes, shutting out all sight and sound from her world. … She relaxed, melting, as undeniable warmth flooded her loins. Sensitive to her need, Andrés drew her ever closer into his embrace, clasping her to him, feverish and possessive. A yearning sensation filled her but she was not sure where it came from now; she only knew that she was surrendering to it, and to the man holding her in his arms. He had the most sensual touch and she savoured it with wanton abandonment. His jaw was brushing against her temple and she could just make out the spicy aroma of his aftershave mingling with the familiar scent of him. It felt good; it felt right. Time stood still. Above them the stars twinkled like diamonds and the moon was warm and glowing. She wanted this moment never to end.
But dance can be just as important in the story when experienced as the spectator. In Burning Embers, Indiscretion and Masquerade, the heroines are placed in the position of seeing beautiful women dance boldly and sexily for the heroes. Take this scene in Burning Embers:
Morgana had also noticed Rafe. She slowly danced her way toward him, but her professionalism ensured that her movements betrayed no emotion. Her face alone burned with passion, and her eyes, steadily fixed upon the man she apparently loved, were afire.
Morgana began quite obviously to dance for him alone. Coral remembered Dale telling her about this kind of thing happening in nightclubs in North Africa, where belly dancers chose a particular man for the evening and showered him with attention. She had wondered at the time if Dale himself had ever experienced one of these private dances. Coral watched as Morgana leaned over Rafe, brushing him with her black mane, jingling the silver bracelets on her wrists with her feline gestures. The Frenchman watched her, a slight smile on his face…
How can any man resist such sensuality? Coral must wonder. How can she hope to compete with this older, worldlier, more experienced and more provocative woman? Here, dance is means by which Morgana stakes a claim on her lover, Rafe, leaving Coral on the sidelines.
My heroines are in new, strange worlds – they do not know the dances. What they need is to be led to the dancefloor and guided, and that is where the heroes step in. In Indiscretion, Alexandra is enjoying watching Andalusians dance when Salvador insists that she dance the flamenco with him. She protests that she cannot, she does not know how to, but he draws her into his arms and tells her all she must do is follow him and trust her instincts. And then:
She could see the surprise and pleasure reflected on Salvador’s face when she began to move in perfect accord with him. With proud stamping steps they surrendered themselves to the mounting urgency of the rhythm and the precise evolution of the dance that were like a thin veil suspended above smouldering fires, threatening to erupt into flames at any moment.
To dance together, in step and in time: it forms a powerful and lasting connection. As dancer Martha Graham said, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.’ Dance and all illusions fall away, leaving the beautiful, sensual truth.
There’s romance, and then there’s romance that incorporates dance and makes you feel like Baby in Dirty Dancing.
There’s a good reason why most good romance films incorporate a dance between the lovers at some point – there is no clearer, more evocative way to convey passion and vulnerability than through dance.
As MarthaGraham said, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.’ The limits of language fall away. Distance diminishes. Conventions are cast off. Touch is permitted, and sensual. The rhythm of the heart is deafening. The world falls away, and all that exists is two people, dancing.
Dance is the medium through which lovers may explore, define and develop their relationship. Take this scene from my novel The Echoes of Love:
And then – then Paolo was before her. The crowd seemed to melt away and all she saw were those burning sapphire eyes that never left her face as he moved intently towards her. Venetia caught her breath as a curious lifting sensation blossomed inside her at the sight of him. He gave as formal a bow as if she was a great lady and this a ceremonial occasion.
‘You’re going to dance,’ he almost whispered in his low baritone voice as he took her hand and drew her firmly towards him.
Whatever might be happening inside her, in her rational mind Venetia knew she must never allow him, or any other person, to establish this sort of ascendancy over her. … So although she allowed his pull on her hand to draw her slightly forwards, she looked him straight in the eye and smiled.
‘Yes, I probably am going to dance – if someone asks me.’
‘But that, divina, is exactly what I’m doing.’
Her head went up as a rebellious flame lit the amber irises. ‘It’s exactly what you are not doing. You’re telling me, which I thought we’d established I’m allergic to.’
Paolo’s eyes still held hers; devilish, amused eyes, showing he was entertained rather than offended by Venetia’s remonstrations.
‘One does have to be precise with you, I see.’
She was pleased that she had been able to assert her feelings, despite his unnerving effect on her; but also found herself relieved that he hadn’t taken umbrage.
‘It’s advisable, as a rule, to be precise, don’t you think?’
He laughed and almost swung her off her feet into his arms, and she surrendered to him, letting him draw her away. He held her close, with his head bent so that his lean, brown cheek was lightly touching hers. Like a knowing reprise, the familiar sound of Mina’s ‘Il Cielo in una Stanza’ floated around them once more, as it had done the first night they met in the San Marco café. Their steps in perfect accord, moving together as one, they gave themselves up to the nostalgic love song. They danced in silence, their eyes never meeting, lulled by Mina’s warm voice, the gently pulsating rhythm and its soaring violins, like two people in a dream. Only Paolo’s arms spoke, clasping Venetia closer and closer, and her body responded, yielding to him. His hand hardly brushed against her bare shoulders, but his feathery touch scorched her to the core and her whole being came alive. Pressing herself against the tautly muscled length of him, Venetia felt his need for her and the heat of desire flooded her. An involuntary sigh floated from her lips and so, slowly, he drew her even further into his embrace. She felt as if she was slowly spinning and falling, and he with her, as if they were both being pulled by a current they could not resist, even if they had tried.
In romantic dance, so many customs apply – the most interesting of which, I find, is the dominance of the man. The man asks, the lady accepts. The man leads, the lady follows. But here, Paolo goes beyond asking – ‘You’re going to dance,’ he tells Venetia. And while deep down Venetia may find such alpha-male behavior rather attractive, she can’t possibly allow him to take the upper hand so easily, and nor will the romantic in her accept his deviation from the rules. So she makes it clear that he should ask, not tell. And then… well, and then somehow before she knows it they’re dancing – he’s gone beyond telling and simply swung her off her feet, and she’s surrendered. Because who can resist a man who wants to dance?
Like two animals engaged in a mating ritual, the time for making a show and fighting a corner is over – now, they have entered into the spell cast by the dance. A quietness, a calm descends; the thin sheen of the bubble surrounds them. For Venetia, especially, ‘surrender’ is the key word. All her struggle for independence, all her insistence on being respected as a strong equal, all the fear of feeling for Paolo, the dance cannot contain that. All it can contain is two people dancing with hearts beating as one; with souls connecting and melding.
But what happens when the music ends? There is a moment of entranced silence, and then the spell is broken. Paolo leaves. Venetia is alone. But the change that was been wrought through a single dance is immeasurable in its impact. There is no taking back a dance,and both lovers will always wish they could go back to that moment and live in it.
So there you have it, the romance of dance. The magic of that moment you’re dancing, and then the way it makes you feel every time you drift into memories. We may not let our feelings out like her, but deep down we’re all like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – when the partner is right, we could dance all night.