Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A bit more on flamenco

It is said that modern Filipino martial arts are a blend of various influences from different cultures, including that of Spain. Much of the debate concerns itself with various Spanish schools of fencing, military history, and the effects of the Spanish occupation driving indigenous arts underground where they were sometimes disguised as dances that could be performed in the open without repercussion.

It isn’t always easy to see how historical threads interconnect. Certainly the Chinese influence in S.E. Asian martial arts is evident in styles like Kuntao or the use of certain style of weapons. Spanish influence, however, is more obscured. For one thing, Filipinos were forbidden to practice their martial arts, so it would be unlikely that the Spanish influence was learned directly. More likely the influence would be picked up by observation or through skirmishes.

Nowadays one could take fencing lessons. With some luck, you might have access to a program that included Spanish styles, and with even greater luck one that was interested more in historical combatives rather than modern sport.

One source I recommend to see Spanish fighting skills is “Sevillian Steel” by James Loriega. This is about modern styles of Spanish knife fighting. Some of the techniques in there do closely resemble those of the FMA. To what extent one culture affected the other I won’t speculate, but as has been said, many arts resemble each other, and anything too far from the norm probably got weeded out long ago because it didn’t work (leaving the experimenter dead).

Here’s another avenue to explore: flamenco dance!

Modern flamenco evolved over the past century or so from various sources in Spain. Like many traditional folk dances, the movements include movement from martial arts, particularly in footwork. Dance was one way to practice certain steps, incorporating them into other social rituals such as courtship, storytelling, etc.

Whether one looks at the courtly dances of high society or those of gypsies around a campfire, it is easy to imagine spirited young men showing their mettle and prowess to patrons, paramours and rivals.

Where I see the martial expression in flamenco dance is in the footwork and hand movement. In Serrada we have our papeet or “replacement step.” Sometimes, especially during high-speed performance of lock-and-block (numerado style attacks fed to a defender) or sumbrada style counter-for-counter sparring, there is no clear front or rear foot; instead there is side-by-side quick stepping, allowing the practitioner to quickly transition to either side. It becomes almost a machine gun staccato footwork.

Back around 1990 I was teaching at a dance studio in Albany, California. It was a great location and I had 15-20 students most classes. One night during a class a flamenco teacher and her troupe came in. She insisted we had to stop our class and leave because it was her time slot for a rehearsal (it turned out she was there on the wrong night and was trying to bully us to leave!) She instructed her guitarist to start playing; I suggested to him that he put his $2000 Ramirez away (about $5000 in today’s dollars, with inflation and appreciation of fine guitars) before someone lose a stick from a disarm which could damage such a fine instrument. This he did. The teacher, furious, walked out into the middle of a class of hard-working, sweaty students and started to dance. I went over next to her and began mimicking what she was doing. Much to my surprise, I was able to keep up with most of it!

Of course flamenco is much more intricate than that, and the versatility of its stepping can add to the repertoire of a martial artist. I believe it was Fred Astaire who said that a good dancer doesn’t restrict himself to any style, but that by learning new steps becomes more versatile. The powerful footwork of flamenco can surely find application in martial arts. Once again one can look to the confluence of dance and fighting in the gypsy arts to see this confluence.

The other aspect that seems to link with Filipino arts is the movement of the hands. Just as in various S.E. Asian arts, the movement is referred to as “flowery.” While flamenco dancers might not be familiar with the combative application of technique, I can look at their movement and see disarms and counters. Hands and feet are integrated through powerful and complex rhythms, and the art teaches a powerful projection of presence.

Passionate music, driving rhythms, hot dancers and beautiful costumes; what’s not to like? Find a class or performance in your area and drop in for a peek.