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El Manton De Manila (The Manila Silk Shawl)

Giving wings to bailaoras
Silvia Calado Olivo

María Pagés

When a bailaora's swirling dance causes the layers of her skirt to rise as if she is about to take flight, a delicate piece of silk covered with floral embroidery takes the place of her wings. The women of Seville made the Manila silk shawl their own from the very moment this Chinese complement was first imported in the 16th century via the Phillipines, then a Spanish colony. And in the same way it was also adopted by the cantaora as an essential part of her costume as she stepped on stage to sing, and by the bailaora, taking on a key role in her performance, especially for dancers who formed part of the escuela sevillana. A true follower of Pastora Imperio, Matilde Coral has established herself as the principal proponent of this garment, the movement of which, while leaving room for creativity, requires a certain technique. There's a continuity in the use of the shawl across generations of dancers, from reputed veterans such as Blanca del Rey or Milagros Menjíbar, through to younger gems like María Pagés or Belén Maya.

Manila, capital of the Philippines, gave its name to one of the complements with which the women of Seville, and hence the escuela sevillana school of flamenco dance, identifies most. The island, colonised by Spain in the 16th century, was an obligatory port of call for galleons loaded with precious cargoes of oriental products, which came via Mexico to dock at Seville's port. The daintiness and bright embroidery of the Chinese-made shawls captivated the imagination of Sevillians from all walks of life, to the point where the Manila silk shawl gave protection from the cold to both workers at the tobacco factory (the legendary Carmen among them) and ladies of the aristocracy alike.

The original Chinese shawl swapped its pagodas and dragons for flowers and birds, adapting to Andalusian tastes, and at the same time creating different styles: traditional, Isabelino, de cigarreras (tobacco workers), adorned with birds, with roses... There's even a corner of the province of Seville, the village of Villamanrique de la Condesa, which became famous for the making of these shawls, a now traditional activity which together with harness-making characterises the small town, tucked away in the Doñana National Park. Although the tradition is kept up in the area, some of the Seville companies specialised in producing the most prestigious brands of shawls boast age-old collections of designs which have survived to the present day on shawls which they commission from China. Today, though, they aren't sent to Seville by sea, and they certainly don't make a stopover in Manila and Acapulco...

Take a glance at any photo or any print from that era, and you'll soon realise that the Manila silk shawl has been intrinsically linked with flamenco for as far back as we can trace the history of the artform. Bailaoras and cantaoras like La Macarrona, La Malena, La Argentina, Pastora Imperio, La Niña de los Peines... all of them appear in portraits wrapped in lavishly embroidered silk shawls. But this garment really came into its own in flamenco dance, associated especially with the escuela sevillana - ask Matilde Coral, for example, who considers the silk shawl "one of the most beautiful components of flamenco dance, an essential complement used by the greats, like Pastora". The dancer, instructress and choreographer affirms that "it's worthwhile embellishing those movements with a mantón, it's really beautiful, even if it does need training and a certain knack," although it leaves room for personal creativity: "I have a really simple, plain one, but the shawl never misses a beat - it dances in time, and I never move it off beat. It dances with you. I don't like to throw it down, it's lending me its prestige on stage, and I see it as an insult to throw it. I always lay it carefully over a chair." And keeping with this tradition, some dancers are famous today for their skilful control of this garment, bailaoras like Milagros Menjíbar or Blanca del Rey, who have made the soleá del mantón their trademark... It's no surprise either to see the shawl in shows by the Compañía Andaluza de Danza, Belén Maya or María Pagés.

Flamenco dance fans and professionals alike can find all they need at to help them with this artform. The website's commercial department has carefully selected a range of Manila silk shawls, all embroidered by hand - an essential complement used by legendary dancers from the escuela sevillana like Matilde Coral. Soleá, Bulería and Debla are the names of the three models selected, each one hand-crafted from silk following the traditional methods borrowed from China by the Seville craftsmen. This new line adds to our existing range of hand-crafted shoes, castanets, ladies' fans, dance skirts and Lina top-of-the-range accessories. seeks to find a balance between quality and price to ensure that these fine dance products are accessible to bailaores and bailaoras all over the world.

"Manton De Manila" by Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa

Show performed by the Orchestra and soloists from the Opera Workshop Julián Aguirre Conservatory at the Teatro Coliseo de Lomas de Zamora, Argentina, on September 13, 2007.

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