Saturday night: even with my maps app open, our route to the flamenco bar is confused. We cross the Guadalquivir river, moving away from the Alcazar and the souvenir shops, down a boulevard lined with bars and then left, taking a dusty side street in near-darkness.
When we arrive it’s a quarter to midnight and the nondescript bar is less than half full. A middle-aged woman with dangling earrings, perfectly coiffured blonde hair, and a sleeveless black and white dress hemmed just below the knee escorts us to our table.
Wooden furniture is clustered around a small empty space in the bar’s centre. As midnight approaches and our drinks arrive, the bar fills up. Ours is the only English I hear spoken. There’s one long table of 15 or 20 people, but everyone else is in small groups.
The hum of conversation dissipates quickly when the woman who greeted us sits at a bench on the edge of the empty space and starts a chorus of “sssssss” through her teeth, signalling a need for silence. To her left are two other women and a man with a guitar.
Silence established, the first song begins. There’s no dancing — just the guitarist, the singer next to him, her clapping hands, and a sporadic shout of “ole!” from an admiring audience member or fellow performer.
After a few songs, choreography is introduced. Each woman moves differently as she sings: one has a fluid, twisting style, while another takes smaller steps back and forth across the space. The lyrics they sing are, to me, indecipherable, but body language gives clues as to the songs’ content: heartbreak, wrongdoing, revenge imagined. At particularly dramatic moments words are half-shouted, half-sung. (Without fail, these climaxes elicit “ole!” from multiple corners of the room.)
Next to our table are two couples. The men wear lots of hair product and suits without ties. The women are also dressed up: one wears a halterneck LBD, the other trousers and a large yellow shawl, her hair pulled into a high ponytail. The women’s black stilettos are impossibly high — a wardrobe choice that becomes all the more impressive when they take on dancing duties for one song. They circle around one another, rotating their wrists and curving their arms. Despite the presumably morose subject matter of the song, they flash grins at one another throughout.
Later in the set, the oldest of the three singers greets another regular with a kiss on each cheek and an invitation to dance. As the next song starts said regular arches his back, raising his arms as the singer does the same. His un-tailored suit jacket hangs off his slight frame, but he moves with an ease and grace that bely his apparent age.
Between songs the audience breaks into conversation, with greeting kisses exchanged between friends at different tables. A “sssssss” is employed to re-establish silence before the music resumes, but the convivial atmosphere remains. During one refrain the audience bursts into collective song. We seem to be the only patrons who don’t know the words or melody, but we clap along.
Monday night: three or four beers in, we make our way to a bar near the hostel. We take up residence at a long wooden table, and order the first of several jugs of sangria.
A station at the far end of the room sells hot dogs and plates of cheese and cured meat. The flamenco dancer at this bar is backlit by the food preparation area; customers dart across the floor to fetch their food between songs.
The dancer wears a chemise the colour of an Aperol spritz, and a purple skirt. She stamps loudly as she moves. Her hair, adorned with flowers, is subdivided into segments that form a tight ponytail.
Vocal duties are assumed by a man who occasionally stands as he sings, revealing a bald spot when he turns in a circle. The guitarist remains seated. Costume changes are dotted throughout the set; the swathes of fabric that form billowing shirtsleeves, floral cuffs and ankle-length skirts are sent into motion when the dancer swivels.
An artist at the edge of the room paints flamenco scenes in the same vivid colours as the dancer’s costumes, selling them to patrons. There’s no “sssssss”-ing here, but we do muster the occasional “ole!”.