In Search of Duende

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From the world of flamenco and southern Spain, from dance and song and theatre, from Lorca and the gypsies, comes the concept of ‘duende‘.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it can be a challenge to find out what it means, everyone has a different explanation. I like Cristobal El Moro’s: duende is ‘the 13th shadow in a room of 12’.  To have duendemeans you have spirit, that you are consumed by whatever it is you are doing in the moment.  It usually has a dark edge – el duende is a mysterious spirit who, according to Lorca, will not appear ‘if he can’t see the possibility of death’.

Sitting here in the drizzle of South London, this sounds rather melodramatic.  Yet we’ve all had moments in our lives which have felt heightened – moments in which we were truly alive and present – whether it was witnessing a performer with duende, mountain biking down a particularly challenging slope, being rolled inside a wave not knowing when you’ll next get to draw breath… I guess this is what they mean when they speak of duende – you feel intensely alive and exhilirated when there is a possibility of dying.  Also, in any moment that you are truly alive you are never safe.

A great performance is not safe, whether flamenco, tango or anything else.  Duende is usually used to describe a performance, often of flamenco, but I think that anything where you are in the moment, where you let go, where you get in touch with that 13th shadow, can be filled with duende.  It can be found in immersing yourself in the present moment, in projecting who you are and what you stand for – even, and especially – if you are scared.  To dance in public for someone who has been told that they lack rhythm is a big way of embracing life and getting in touch with duende.  Who cares – dance!  In Turkey, I organised an impromptu tango and salsa lesson on a deck overlooking the Aegean – 8 of us danced, and sweated, and laughed, and connected, and lived.  It was a brilliant night.

It is my mission to be alive – to live this life awake and aware and alive.  The arts, dance and music are wonderful vehicles for this, and they do not get the recognition they deserve.  Yet we know instinctively that they are the lifeblood of humanity, that they keep us from shrivelling and drying up and – being safe.  Duende for me means connecting with our wildness, our un-tamed part.  This can be dark, it can also be very joyous.

Duende is wild and it is dangerous.  It is related to being in the moment and to being connected, it is a channel and a conduit for energy.  People argue over what it is and over what it isn’t.  Who has it and who hasn’t.  It is divisive, it is uncompromising.  Dramatic.

When you feel deep down that what you are doing is worth doing, when you feel that 13th shadow in the room, when you feel the drive and the compulsion to share your work with the world – when you feel the unstoppable urge to dance – you are chanelling your very own duende.

[Chris Haslam’s piece in the Sunday Times – 17.07.11 – inspired me to think and write about duende – I haven’t been able to track down a link for you, but if anyone finds it, please let me know!]