La Sorda of Seville

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La Sorda of Seville  (1920) 
by Will Irwin

From Harper's Magazine, 1920

The Gitanos of Spain are gipsies no longer. They live among us in towns. They marry with us. They work at trades. Only one remains—from her I took lessons.
"She is an old, old woman," continued Tortola (afterward, I say here, I met the old, old woman. She was, according to her own confession, thirty-eight and looked thirty-five, showing that age is mostly a question of latitude)—"an old, old woman, and stone deaf from her birth. She either dances by her sense of vibration from the guitars, or she makes the guitars follow her steps—I never could be sure which. That is why they call her La Sorda—the deaf woman.



TORTOLA VALENCIA sat on deck, just off the Azores, and held court. Tortola is a star, perhaps the brightest star, of interpretive dancing in Spain, although of English birth. Midnight were dawn compared to her straight, abundant hair and her great, appealing eyes. She is supple of figure yet amply voluptuous. She carries with pride a little head cut like a cameo, and her sloping shoulders, as she sits or walks, have a hint of a saucy shrug native to no other city in this world than Seville. She dresses in picture costume, sprinkled with great emeralds no deeper green than the shadows thrown in the hollows of her olive skin; and on the stage or off she holds always the spotlight.

A cotton salesman from Barcelona, a Parisian art-dealer, the Third Officer—when he was not on watch for submarines—and a phonograph agent from Madrid formed the nucleus of her court; about them was always a fascinated fringe, male and female, listening to Tortola, who, according to the prevailing tongue in her audience, held forth indifferently in Spanish, French, or English. Her monologue ranged from cooking in all lands to high politics. When she spoke on politics and international diplomacy, she got the respectful attention which Latin people always give to the artist. That is one of their engaging little ways which we shall never quite understand. With us, and equally with the English, the eminent poet who advocates low tariff or the noted actor who bursts forth on the Irish question gets but scanty attention. With the Latins it is different. If you paint or write or dance or sing supremely well, then have you weight in politics—hence the extraordinary influence of D'Annunzio in Italy.

Mostly, however, Tortola talked about her art; that was when the Anglo-Saxons among us, and especially the women, drew closer and listened. She spoke of the native Spanish dance and its changes throughout the ages, of the Greek dance, the Hindu dance, the Hawaiian interpretive dancing. In quick phrases she gave her opinion—usually generous—of Isadora Duncan, of Maud Allen, of La Argentinita, of Loie Fuller, who, as a pioneer, she admired most of all.

"What about the gipsy dance?" asked one of our women on this particular afternoon. "Have you ever tried that?"

"I have tried it, madame," said La Tortola, "and failed miserably. The gipsy dance is for the strange gipsy heart. Look. I went from Madrid to Seville once to take lessons—I had a project to introduce a gipsy suite at the Royal Theater. I tried. Long days I rehearsed. But I could no more do it than"—La Tortola cast about for a simile—"than one could run an automobile without petrol. The gipsy dance is locked in the gipsy heart. And the Gitanos of Spain are gipsies no longer. They live among us in towns. They marry with us. They work at trades. Only one remains—from her I took lessons.

"She is an old, old woman," continued Tortola (afterward, I say here, I met the old, old woman. She was, according to her own confession, thirty-eight and looked thirty-five, showing that age is mostly a question of latitude)—"an old, old woman, and stone deaf from her birth. She either dances by her sense of vibration from the guitars, or she makes the guitars follow her steps—I never could be sure which. That is why they call her La Sorda—the deaf woman. The gipsy heart lives in her. She dances in a cheap den at Seville, where working-men and soldiers go to drink their wine on Saturday nights. Yes"—in answer to a glance from one of our women—"it is a place where a foreign lady can go if she has an escort, though few Spanish ladies would. Everything is allowed to the tourist. I suppose that few tourists have ever seen La Sorda. They go to see the Spanish dance—just pretty—so. La Sorda dances for Seville. If you wish to see her—Here—" and Tortola wrote in the fly-leaf of my guide-book an address. "Go," she added, "late at night."

Nothing, at the moment, seemed less likely than that I should visit Seville on that trip, for the western front and the spring offensive of 1917 were calling. But when I had finished the business which led me to Madrid, I found the French border closed for a week. So I traveled south to Andalusia in order to look into German influences. I had forgotten all about La Sorda until one morning when I came across that note on the fly-leaf of my guide-book; and, as always when in doubt, I consulted José. He is a useful person of many trades, this José. At the moment, he was acting mainly as courier for the Allied consulates—a document dropped into the ordinary mail during this period might as well have been despatched to the German Embassy. On the side, he was guide, interpreter, and friend to all Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Americans visiting Seville that year on official and semi-official business; still farther on the side, he would, if encouraged, do a little business with antiques whose genuineness he positively guaranteed. When he looked at you with his soft, guileless black eyes and his engaging smile you had to believe the guaranty. To José I showed that entry in my guide-book.

"Ah yes, La Sorda," said José. "I well know La Sorda. My wife, señor, is a Gitano. She is what you Call relate distant to La Sorda. Tortola speak trut'. She alone dance the gipsy dance. It is gone. My wife saw it twenty times, a hundred times, when she was a little girl. They dance it in camps, in the caves by Granada—but they are all dead, gone, except La Sorda. You go with me—the señora may come too if I am there—" José beamed with fatherly patronage on my wife. "And if you go to-night, I will bring La Sorda from the stage—I will what you call eentroduce her. No?"

That Saturday night at nine o'clock José guided us by narrow streets, under mysterious overhanging balconies, through the pleasant chatter of the merriest little city on this planet, to a quarter of small shops and wide-open, poor cafés where drivers, farmers, and embryo bull-fighters sipped cordial and coffee. By a brilliantly lighted doorway he led us along a narrow passage and through a plain pine door whose opening let in not only light, but the hoarse, male babble of a crowd. We were in the upper box-tier of a very small, very intimate, and very smoky theater. The floor below was aligned so thickly with little, round tables that the overworked waiters were hard put to force a passage between them; and every table was rimmed with lolling, chattering young Spanish men, their clothing soiled with country mud, their dark faces looking as though they had been hacked out of mahogany with a jack-knife. The gray-blue uniforms of Spanish soldiers slashed with color the dark mass of the floor. They were all young, very young; most of them mere boys, getting their first taste of life.

Above this floor was a row of boxes, or rather stalls, like the one we now occupied; and opposite the entrance was a very little stage, its handkerchief of an advertising curtain now lowered. In a stall across from us sat some town sport and his girl. At a corner table near the stage were four or five young women, white or saffron-colored shawls with gaudy brocaded embroidery drawn about their sloping shoulders. These were performers, waiting for their turns, and meantime talking with favored patrons. Otherwise, except for the lady in our box, there was no woman in this man's audience.

An orchestra of guitars, whose players sat at a table before the stage, began a strumming rhythm, and the little curtain rose laboriously to show a pretty young girl in a fringed shawl, one rose lightening her midnight hair. To the guitars she danced the conventional Spanish step with its shrug of the shoulders, its stampings, its castanets, and its free, full, striding step. The curtain had not yet fallen on this turn when José, who had been out exploring, returned to our box and ushered in La Sorda.

She seemed, at first, almost commonplace. She was, indeed, rather dumpy of figure; though her step, as she came into the box, was light, she had about her no suggestion of the lithe dancer. She was dressed in her working-clothes—a plain foulard evening gown of black with a little white figure, a skimpy, fringed, white Spanish shawl about her shoulders, a pair of red-satin slippers, adorned with pompons, on her small feet. All these garments looked old and a little faded, as though they had been cleansed and re-cleansed. In her black hair, bound tightly about her head, was a single carnation, faded with the heat and smoke of that den.

She was dark of countenance, even more than is common in Spain, and, at first glance, her face was not striking at all, which is also uncommon among the Spanish and their adopted brethren, the gipsies. Her nose, small, straight, fine, topped a broad, expressive mouth. Her eyes were jetty black, but they had neither the languor nor the occasional flashing boldness of the regular Spanish eye. Rather were they veiled with the mystery of her race. The expression, as I read it then, had a kind of good-humored serenity. You liked the woman on first glance; but equally, you would never have picked her for an unusual personage.

"You must speak to her through me," said José, in English, as he introduced her and set for her a chair. "She reads the lips, and Spanish must be perfect in order that she understan'. I suggest also that you order the drinks. It is here customar'."

I obeyed. When the waiter, having apparently prepared himself for heavy tourist trade from our box, entered with a bottle of cheap sherry and four glasses, La Sorda rose as one accustomed to serve, and poured our drinks. I had forgotten both stage and audience up to this moment. But when La Sorda raised her glass, a babble erupted on the floor below. "Eh-eh-eh-e-eh!" cried the crowd in concert, the shout ending in a long-drawn, hoarse male cry as La Sorda touched the rim with her lips. She stood at the edge of the box, laughing the frank, unaffected laughter of a child as she waved her glass toward the audience. Babble broke out again; not in concert this time, but confused—a hundred men shouting independently. Suddenly, La Sorda's laughter rippled down to a smile and her eyes fixed themselves intently on a far corner of the floor below. So she stood for an instant; then her lips began to move, though she made no sound. Again she fixed her eyes; and now she was laughing that same merry, contagious laugh.

"She reads their lips," said José. "So far away that you and I could not hear at all, she reads lips. And the old patrons have learn' to read her lips. So she talks across the place in all this noise."

La Sorda, still laughing, turned to us and spoke in Andalusian slang, with the even, unaccented voice of the stone deaf.

"The señora is dark of the complexion," said José. "The señora wears a broad hat. Of consequence they think she is Spanish and an artiste, and they ask La Sorda if she is a new dancer and will dance for us to-night. Because of which La Sorda makes a joke for them to laugh."

The guitars strummed again, and the curtain rose to another lithe young girl and another Spanish dance. I leave La Sorda for a moment to comment on the strangeness of Spain and Spaniards. I sat in that place from nine until two, watching crowds of young mechanics, drivers, private soldiers, clerks, go into storms of enthusiastic applause over a program of eighteen turns which, with one exception, consisted solely of dancing. The exception was a girl in a plain linen suit who sang to her own guitar the wailing folk-songs of Seville, of Granada, and of Algeciras. Nor—again with one exception—was any of the dancing in the slightest degree improper. This exception was mild, and it was the least successful turn of the evening. You could not imagine this in any other white man's land. Like their universal rage for the bull-fight, like their way of doing business, like their politics, it illustrates the mysterious difference of the Spanish, which is sometimes an irritation and always a charm.

Tortola Valencia, in her discourses on international politics, used again and again the phrase "Europe—and Spain."

Meantime, La Sorda had discovered my army field-glasses, which I had brought along in case we might be seated far back in the house. To her they were a new object, and a miracle. A little, bubbling laugh broke the habitual good-humored serenity of her expression. She tried them on the opposite box, and gave the wondering "Oh!" of a child at seeing faces come so very near.

"She say it is the first time such objec' was ever in this place," said José, translating, "and she say the house is now quite fashionable—no?"

The curtain was drawn now, and the audience caught this bit of by-play. La Sorda turned the glasses on this face and that, picked up the remarks from their lips, laughed her tinkling, childish laugh, and returned the jokes with voiceless movements of her own lips. Roars of merriment surged over the house. A soldier took up two empty glasses, put them to his eyes, and returned the stare. There followed a scramble for glasses; in a moment the house below was a pool of great frogs' eyes all staring at us. Then the leader of the guitar orchestra pounded vigorously for order, the guitars strummed, and the curtain rose for another turn.

"Watch this one," said La Sorda, her face resuming its deep serenity. "She is a pupil of mine in the Spanish dance. If she does well, she goes to Granada for a regular engagement."

She did well, this slip of a blonde seventeen-year-old, with her childish awkwardness but pointing her litheness of young movement; and when the applause was done La Sorda excused herself.

"I am next," she said, "and there are things to do before the curtain rises." She descended to the floor; we watched her thread her way past the tables to the door beside the stage. From every table they called to her or held out detaining hands, which she evaded, smiling. Twice she stopped and chatted a moment with old patrons. Plainly, she was queen of this place. It revolved about La Sorda, had its being because of her.

She vanished through the door. The audience faced the stage and settled to something like quiet for the Big Turn.

I don't know how to describe it. To do it justice, both the reader and I should have to understand the technique of dancing, which, being Americans, neither of us does. Even then it would be like explaining to an Occidental painter, who had never seen a Japanese print, just how or why a Japanese print may be beautiful.

When the curtain rose, seven people sat on two benches behind the footlights. To the left, dressed in Spanish dancing costume of fringed shawl, skirts flaring like a petal, tight bodices, were two young girls who had danced before. Next them, seeming by contrast a rather shabby figure in her old black evening dress and her skimpy white shawl, sat La Sorda. Next were two squat men, in ordinary day clothes and checked, cravatless flannel shirts, holding guitars. Finally came two old women, dumpy of figure and gray of hair. That was all; no scenery, and, except for the two young girls at the end, no costuming nor make-up. The two guitarists struck up a staccato rhythm in a minor key. Suddenly the whole company, their legs going like pistons, began a stamping which sounded like the roll of a bass drum. Into this rhythm burst a hard clapping of their hands—a sound like that of castanets or snare-drums. This drum-beating became faster and more continuous, and the wailing of the guitars rose louder. One of the young girls sprang to her feet, then the other; and they danced wildly. The steps seemed to me those of the Spanish dance, and I saw nothing unusual in the performance except that it was faster, a little more abandoned than any of the performances which I had seen in Madrid; also there were curious attitudes of the hands and the body.

The two girls, with a final pirouette, sank to a bow; the applause, which had been going on by bursts, grew to a roar as La Sorda rose, beamed a serene smile which had, somehow, nothing of the stage about it, advanced to the footlights.

And La Sorda danced the gipsy dance. Watching her after the others was like watching Hal Chase play first base after witnessing a high-school game, like watching Sothern act "Hamlet" after hearing it recited by a village elocutionist. Crouched in the posture of an Indian on the trail, she began with a rolling stamping of her feet. Straightening up as she went on, she threw head and torso back and whirled in a wild step. There was beauty in every pose and movement. It was mounting toward beauty inexpressible when arms, hands, and torso began to fall into poses almost grotesque, like those of the Japanese stage. Now her mysterious eyes shot fire, now they grew soft; but always, they projected across the footlights a current of personality. Had you seen but her head, you must have watched, just for the play of her expression. "The gipsy heart!" You began to see and understand now what Tortola Valencia meant; why none but a gipsy could express it. With the music and the motion you felt long, free nights under the stars, the beating of wild wings of the soul—and then—snap!—she had slid into a series of grotesque poses and you were the gipsy trickster, selling doctored horses, whispering gross flatteries over a lady's palm, and doing it not so much for the money as to satisfy your own untamed, whimsical sense of humor. Then it beat wilder and wilder, to a crescendo of stamping, clapping, beats of the guitars, and you were the gipsy with his soul free, all his pagan longings fulfilled. You were the soaring birds, the winds, the air—a sudden roll of clapping, and La Sorda had stopped, panting a little, bowing. . . . They encored her again and again, until she had to refuse with a gesture, to signal for the curtain.

During the entre'acte, she came into the audience on the way to our stall. Her appearance brought another ovation. Men rose from their seats and clapped their hands in her very face. Then she came back among us, panting a little, wearing again that expression of good-humored serenity. So, presently, while the house partly cleared and partly refilled, while the program began again with the purely Spanish dancers, La Sorda talked to us of many things. José, seated just across the little table from her, took the conversation from her, and translated; she, leaning on her elbows, spelled our answers rom his lips. Occasionally, when she wished to be emphatic, she would shift her gaze from his mouth to our faces and smile or nod or drive in her point with a slow, dignified Spanish gesture. It is La Sorda speaking now, though in the voice of José, and I shall smooth out his struggles with English.

"I was born deaf," said La Sorda. "They say I could distinguish some sound before I was five. I think so myself, because I seem to remember what hearing is like. But it all went finally, and I learned the deaf-and-dumb alphabet. Then my mother showed me how to speak and to read the lips. Mother learned it from a teacher of the deaf. I had spoken a little, already, before I was five, so that was not hard. It was many years before I could read the lips."

"And when did you begin to dance?"

"I don't know. My mother loved dancing—she danced gipsy fashion. When I was little I danced with her. There were others who taught me—when I was a child many old women were still doing the real gipsy dance. I learned from them in Gitano camps when they came to Seville, and over by the caves at Granada. When I began really to dance, my cousin played the guitar for me. By and by I could catch the vibration of the guitar a little—feel it in my fingers. I don't know why, but the guitars are always with me and I with the guitars."

"Tortola told me that the gipsy dance cannot be taught—to any one but an old-fashioned gipsy."

"It is true. Many people come for lessons. They cannot learn. La Argentinita was here last month." La Argentinita, a slender, appealing, pretty girl from the Argentine, who could make castanets talk, was at this period the newest craze in Madrid.

"Whenever she tried, she was only graceful and Spanish—so." And the hands and arms of La Sorda flowed into a sweeping, billowy gesture. "But another woman does it. She dances in Granada. She is better than I. You see, I am thirty-eight and not so supple as I used to be. And lately I am troubled with the breath. I must be here from nine in the evening until four in the morning, dancing three times every night. The air of this place is smoky, as you see. Then distinguished patrons come, and I must often sit and drink wine with them. I usually pretend I am drinking when I am not"—here La Sorda gave again her tinkling laugh of an amused child—"but sometimes they catch me and I must drink a little. All that is very bad for the breathing and I must have breath to dance my best."

We paid her some compliments then; told her, through José, what we thought of her performance, what Tortola Valencia and others had said. Through all that she merely smiled and maintained her serene expression.

"Did you ever dance outside of Seville?" I asked, in the end. "I should think you would be a furore abroad."

"I have had two offers," said La Sorda. "One, years ago, I nearly accepted. A very rich manager from the Argentine saw me and wanted to take me to Buenos Aires. But I could not leave my mother."

"But they got you to Madrid once," said José.

"Yes, that is true," replied La Sorda, laughing again, "for two weeks. It was a three months' engagement. But after two weeks I found I could not live away from my mother. I told them to keep their money, and came back."

We did not ask the obvious question—why she did not take mother along? Somehow, by these and other references, La Sorda made it plain that mother was an irremovable fixture of Seville. As soon think of moving the cathedral or the Alhambra to Madrid or Buenos Aires as to displace mother!

"So I stay in Seville," concluded La Sorda, "and play here nights, and in the afternoon I give lessons in the Spanish dance—and in the gipsy dance to those who think they can learn."

"I wonder," I said to José in English, "how much money she gets for all this? If she had gone to Madrid or the Argentine she would have earned the salary of a bull-fighter. She might be a rich woman."

"Oh, she won't mind telling you in the least," said José. Her attention was turned from us for a moment; she was holding a smiling exchange of lip-reading with some one on the floor. José touched her arm.

"La Sorda," he asked in Spanish, "what do they pay you here?"

"Four pesetas a night," said La Sorda.

Four pesetas is eighty cents. Spanish incomes are incredibly small.

"And how much for your teaching?" pursued José.

"Two to four pesetas an hour," replied La Sorda. She tossed off these figures in a careless aside; she was laughing now at some joke from a far corner of the audience.

"Sometimes rich patrons give her presents," said José, on his own account. "She has bought with these presents a little house across the river. There she lives with her mother, and her cousin cooks for them. She lives very well, as things go with the Gitanos."

I watched her then, still chatting across the noise to people on the floor; spying, with her art of lip-reading, on a dozen conversations, all of which amused her, and quite oblivious to us. In Madrid, which loves dancing and novelty, she would have been a craze. With a Madrid reputation she might have gone on to the Argentine and to all rich, lavish Latin America. Suites at luxurious hotels, jewels, automobiles, the company of the rich and great in all the Spanish world—this was the prospect open to La Sorda when, years ago, she went to Madrid. If she were of a saving nature, she might have had much money. Her very affliction would have served as a priceless instrument for her press agent.

Yet here she was, with her expression of good-humored serenity and her easy, tinkling laughter of a child, dancing for the boys of Seville in a small, dingy theater, working hard for an income which could not possibly exceed, regularly, fifteen dollars a week. Still—that expression, that laugh—Suddenly I realized that the elusive bluebird of happiness had for a moment brushed us with his wings. She, this deaf woman of Seville, was plying an art in which she was supreme, loving it, confident in it. Every night she gained that instant, generous applause which is the consolation of the actor. No Irving in London, no Booth in New York, got quicker or more hearty appreciation than she in that obscure, drab quarter of a Spanish provincial city. She was queen in her little world; it existed for her, because of her; it loved her, that queer little world, amused her, satisfied her. Above all, she was doing well a job which she loved. Between acts of that gigantic drama of unhappiness being played to the north, I had encountered the happy life.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1948, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 74 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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