Recently, I came across a wonderful reminder of past projects in the form of magic shared on Facebook: some television footage from 1965 or so of the magnificent flamenco dancer Antonia (also sometimes listed as Antonita) Singla Contreras, known to the lovers of her art as “La Singla.”  She was a gitana (one of the Romani people of Spain, vitally important to the growth of flamenco in Andalusia) born in Barcelona in 1948. Her story is sometimes characterized as a sort of miracle — she was apparently afflicted with what doctors said was a case of meningitis as a baby, and neither heard nor spoke until she was about eight years old. While she did eventually recover much of her hearing and speech, it was in her dancing — in the tablaos (dance spaces, cafes, cantinas) of Barcelona and Madrid — that she most powerfully communicated with her world. At least some of the older video footage of her dancing available online comes either from a series of performances she did on tour in Germany in the early 1960s or from a later tour (1968-ish) of France, the UK, and Austria. Take a moment to savor this German television performance, which also includes other flamenco greats like guitarist Paco de Lucia:
La Singla made her film debut in Los Tarantos (1963), which was the final film starring that other great bailaora of Barcelona, the amazing Carmen Amaya (1918-1963). I’ve written about Carmen Amaya before — she was, among other things, known as both an excellent exemplar of flamenco dance, rhythm, and song and an innovator in the practice of her art. Among her innovations was her frequent employment of a very masculine style of dance (wearing pants rather than the bata de cola , emphasizing more energetic footwork, etc.), which she mastered to awesome effect while still deploying the postures and beautiful hand work more common to women’s dancing. She brought the thunder, every time, in a fiercely controlled and absolutely irresistible storm of sound and movement.
If watching Carmen Amaya is like seeing a controlled storm in action, I think watching La Singla (who shared Amaya’s “pants dancing” style, as you can see in the video above) is perhaps more like what happens when the water is about to go over the dam. She, too, is fiercely controlled, but gives the impression of only barely holding back the violent energy that Amaya firmly masters and uses — it is as if even the dancing isn’t quite enough for what she wants to say, and is driven before it. Every now and then, hair flying around her, it’s as if there’s a monster about to get loose, and it is glorious.
It is also — and I think this is important for understanding flamenco in La Singla’s particular style and time period — absolutely necessary to see how perfectly all of that energy and ferocity and barely-restrained feeling sits within the music, contributing to the sound one hears. La Singla has (from my very limited non-expert understanding of the concept) brilliant compas (see the glossary in note 2 below). This makes it possible to take a moment to think about how much the bailaor or bailaora is necessarily a part of the music in flamenco — as much so as the singer or guitarist — rather than being accompanied by it. One excellent way to catch this is to listen to a performance without being able to see the dancer:
Listen to the work of hands and feet, in addition to voice and guitar, and remember that the very oldest flamenco forms were entirely vocal — cante jondo. Listen carefully to the bit starting around 2:02 and see if you can still keep the core beat in your head when all you hear are the dancer’s feet — because you know she feels it and keeps it. Listen to what happens when other hands and feet come back in around 3:01, building in complexity through variations and improvisations while still holding the compas of the song so that when the singer and guitars and other hands and feet start again around 5:35, the transition is seamless. Now go back to the video of La Singla dancing, earlier in this post, and watch the other people on stage with her, too. This is a musical ensemble piece, not a dance performed with accompaniment, and seeing it otherwise, I suspect, is a serious misunderstanding.
- There’s not a whole lot written about her in English, and there’s relatively little of any depth that’s easy to find online in Spanish for an English speaker muddling through the search. I couldn’t find her in my editions of D.E. Pohren’s books on the subject, or much in Totten’s introductory survey, but there’s a mention of her in passing in Leblon’s Gypsies and Flamenco: The Emergence of the Art of Flamenco in Andalusia (2003), and a nod to her here and there on blogs and assorted web sites devoted to flamenco like this one and this one. I will not pretend to have done truly comprehensive research for this blog post, of course.
- Don’t know what that is? Here’s a glossary of flamenco terms. You’re welcome. :)