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Stamp Duty: How I Learned to Dance Sevillanas for Seville’s April Fair

Neil Bennion


I’d heard that Seville’s April Fair consisted of two main activities – drinking and dancing. And given that I’d quit alcohol some years ago, this didn’t leave me with many options for having fun – it was dancing Sevillanas or nothing. With time running out, I turned to the internet for help with this unfamiliar genre. But is it really possible to learn to dance from YouTube?

Sevillanas, which is synonymous with the fair, is a flamenco-like dance performed to folk music of the same name. It is done in a line and features set moves executed in a prescribed order, making it a very different proposition to many other partner dances.

Back in my flat, the man on the computer screen was undoubtedly engaged in some very accomplished dancing. He had no partner, however, and there were no instructions to accompany the action. There was just him on his own, dancing, and me watching intently, trying to make some kind of sense of it. I’ve since checked back, and there are now better examples online to learn from, but at the time, his was the best I could find.

At first I tried to copy him in real time, but this failed because I simply couldn’t keep up. Also because, short of waltzing around with the laptop in your hands, it’s actually nigh-on impossible to dance and watch a video at the same time. So I switched to a more analytical approach, breaking the dance down into manageable chunks and scribbling them down on a notepad using my own invented lexicon of terms. This included some admittedly less-than-technical language, like ‘BANG’ to represent the flamenco like stamp of the foot (actually known as a zapateo). Having deconstructed it, I repeated the individual moves again and again, drumming them into muscle memory.

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The problems I faced were manifold. Trying to work out exactly what each of the man’s limbs were doing was tough because of the reduced sense of depth you get from a screen. And the fact that he was dancing it alone led to the game of “guess what your partner is doing at this point.” Finally, when I was recreating his moves, I had to remember to look at the pair of eyes that I’d drawn in blue pen and pinned to the wall. Spending the whole time gazing down at your own mis-stepping feet is not an option here.

It was mentally very challenging; I just hoped it would all be worth it.

On arriving at the site of the Feria for the first time, I was glad I’d made the effort. This was clearly a big occasion, and there was a sense of pomp in the air. Couples strolled about with an air of refinement, men in hats and short jackets and women in flamboyant flamenco dresses, while horse-drawn carriages clattered up and down the avenues.

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Seville’s April Fair takes place on a large plot of land set aside purely for this purpose. For the duration of the festival, the temporary streets are lined with casetas – tent-like structures which are often luxuriously decorated. It’s inside the casetas that the real fun happens. Like drinking rebujito, a sherry cocktail. And dancing Sevillanas.

I sat at a table with friends, listening to the strum of live guitar as the action unfolded on stage. A captivating splash of colour and frills was accompanied by artful flourishes of the hands and wrists. The ground juddered as a dozen couples all stamped their feet simultaneously.

My friends were bemused when I told them how I’d learnt the dance, especially when I took the scrawled notes from my back pocket.

“¿Vas a bailar así?” one of them joked, and play-acted dancing with the notes held up in front of her. Are you going to dance like this?

I might as well have done just that: my first attempt was terrible. I just couldn’t seem to fit what I’d learnt to the music, and coupling up with a partner for the first time gave my brain far too much to do. Things did improve over the next couple of dances, but it was still very mechanical.

What kept me encouraged was the fact that there were so few other men dancing. In fact, many women were having to partner each other. Many of the obliging men only seemed to know the most basic rudiments: when to start, when to turn and when to slam their foot down and yell “¡Ole!” The latter is the call that marks the end of each segment, and it quickly became my favourite part. The tension built up during the technical execution of the dance is suddenly expelled in a single rambunctious moment. “¡Ole!” And then everyone can breathe normally again.

As the night went on, I actually felt like I was getting worse, my frail memory of the moves trodden underfoot as I tried to incorporate all the new things I was learning. My friends, however, disagreed. They told me I was now more in tune with the rhythm and the feel of the dance. As word spread, friends of friends came up to me, wanting to see my famous scraps of paper, and, if they were foolhardy enough, to share a dance.

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Regardless of any shortcomings, once I was in the swing of it there was simply no going back. The wooden stage reverberated with zapateos, the air buzzed with castanets and the scent of sherry insinuated itself into every corner of the caseta. I was hooked on the atmosphere alone. I danced until the early hours and came back for all the remaining nights of the fair, unable to get enough of a really good thing.

Learning to dance from a YouTube video didn’t make me an expert, and there were plenty of things I couldn’t have grasped without physically getting out there. But it was a whole lot of fun, and gave me an entry point to a cultural experience that’ll be hard to forget.

"Stamp Duty" was originally published by Dance Today under the title "How I Learned to Dance from YouTube."

More dancing at www.Gwepa.com, Best Latin Dance Videos.


Neil Bennion is a writer from Lancashire, England. His first book, about overcoming his dance-floor failings by dancing his way round Colombia, is available nowDancing Feat: One Man’s Mission to Dance Like a Colombian He blogs about writing, travelling and general mucking about at wanderingdesk.com.

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