Review of Flamenco and Bullfighting

Landborn, Adair. Flamenco and Bullfighting: Movement, Passion and Risk in Two Spanish Traditions. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. Pp. ix + 260. Appendices, glossary, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 paperback.

Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke

“What makes something a sport?” This is a question that vexes both casual fans and academics alike, and one which offers no easy resolution. One can go to any number of dictionaries to pluck out the standard definition that links physical exertion with some form of competition. But in modern contexts, sport has come to define many activities that often fail to meet conditions of either physicality or competitiveness.

Activities such as chess and video gaming are usually classified as sports due to the direct confrontation in which they place two participants. The same goes for darts and billiards, both of which have clear rules of competition. These pastimes all, by and large, require little if any physical activity. Yet in their own way they fit within the definition of how we have chosen to define of our modern conception of sport.

On the other end of the spectrum are activities such as rock climbing, which demand peak physical condition and an innate understanding of body movement, but that have no clear element of contestation. In these contexts, the rock face substitutes for a human opponent. Yet, while they lack a clear means of determining victory or defeat, few would assert that these sorts of endeavors fall completely outside the scope of sport.

Flamenco.jpg

McFarland, 2015

Given this diverse interpretation of sport that has evolved over time, it is interesting that Adair Landborn argues against such a definition for a pair of interlinked forms of physical activity native to Spain. In her book Flamenco and Bullfighting: Movement, Passion and Risk in Two Spanish Traditions, Landborn instead posits that these two pastimes are forms of cultural expression rather than competitive release. Yet at the same time, there are elements in which she clearly speaks to the life-and-death stakes of the bullring and the tension that mimics competitive energy between flamenco dancer and audience. While the book alludes to the ways in which flamenco and bullfighting could be perceived as sport, the main contention of Landborn’s book is focused on demonstrating the links between the movements within the two cultural forms.

This is largely a result of Landborn’s training and what drove her initial interest in the two practices. Landborn in no way is attempting to write a history of flamenco and bullfighting, nor is this a book detailing their historical connections. Instead, the author is a performance dancer and choreographer whose serves as a clinical assistant professor of ethnochoreology at Arizona State. Her personal interest in flamenco began upon first visiting Spain in the 1990s, and upon immersing herself in flamenco studies, Landborn became increasingly aware of the cultural and physical connections between dance and the art of tauromachy (the practice of raising and fighting bulls) that remains popular if contentious within Spain.

It was this conflict that was effectively missing from the book. Landborn pays short notice to the back-and-forth legal struggles around bullfighting’s continued existence, a major loss for better understanding of how the practice fits sometimes uneasily into modern Spanish culture. Though its publication date prevented Landborn from discussing last year’s constitutional battles between Catalonia and the Spanish government regarding the province’s bullfighting ban, the fact that the initial provincial ban was implemented back in 2010 could have helped situate how bullfighting remains contested as a cultural marker, especially in the context of regional identities.

Without the historical background, Landborn’s treatment of flamenco and bullfighting situates itself almost entirely within the realm of movement studies. Drawing upon both secondary scholarship as well as interviews and personal experience training in both forms, Landborn deftly illustrates that the movements of the matador in the bullring often mimic those of the flamenco dancer, and that conversely flamenco incorporates elements of tauromachy in its own movements. The two traditions are depicted as symbiotic forms that developed concurrently and which draw upon much of the same basic kinesthetic roots.

As this is not a historical work in any sense, it will likely be of limited interest to those hoping to learn about the evolutions within the two practices. However, there are certain parts of this book that do offer value to those scholars who wish to gain a perspective that is at once scholastic as well as driven by a personal narrative. Because of her firsthand experience in both tauromachy and flamenco and her academic background, Landborn possesses the ability to speak expertly about both and to articulate the correlative relationship of body movement in the bullring and on stage. The ability to break down these conceptual movement studies for the lay reader is one of Landborn’s strengths throughout the book.

Where the book offers the greatest benefit to other scholars, though, are in the discussions of other research that provides a gateway to further information on both flamenco and bullfighting. The first chapter offers something of an annotated bibliography that details Spanish- and English-language research not only on flamencology (the study of flamenco) and tauromachy but also subjects such as Gitano (Gypsy) culture, cultural anthropology, pedagogy, the anthropology of dance, ethnographic narratives, videography, and the theory of Laban movement analysis that underpins much of the book’s comparative framework. Combined with an extensive bibliography of resources in the additional content at the back of the book, Landborn has provided a coherent roadmap for additional treatments of the subject from historical perspectives.

Ultimately, though, the question remains as to whether bullfighting or flamenco could be classified as sports. Landborn contends throughout her analysis to position these Spanish traditions as performative practices rather than contests of any sort. Yet in so clearly articulating the intensive training, physical exertion, and the interplay between matador and bull or between dancer and audience that both offer a competitive energy, Flamenco and Bullfighting in its own way helps validate the two interconnected pastimes within the expanded modern framework of sport.

Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at bigalkez@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.

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