Slow, hot, steamy, gradually building in intensity, insistent, turning and turning again, as though flying in circles, until at last it bowls you over, or you are bolted by Cupid’s bow and arrow… Ravel ravels and you are unravelled; it is unrivalled…
Oh, Boléro, the now-archetypal classical music of sex, with its repeating phrases and steady 3/4 rhythm with 16th-note triplets: dum, dadada dum, dadada dum, dum; dum, dadada dum, dadada dadada dadada… On and on and on… (There’s a story that at the premiere, a woman shouted that Ravel was mad, and Ravel, hearing of this, smiled and remarked that she had understood the piece.)
Ravel’s piece is not the only or the original bolero, of course. The dance had been around more than a century before Ravel wrote his version. It came about as a cross between a contradanza and a sevillana (there is a Cuban dance of the same name that has no relation). The origin of the word bolero may have to do with balls (I mean the kind you throw or swing – the word itself seems decorated with them, o e o plus the one on the b), but it’s not certain – nor is it entirely sure how that relates to the short jacket also called bolero. But when you follow the bouncing ball, the rhythm is the same one as Ravel used, those two bars with their eighth-note/triplet-sixteenth rhythms.
It’s a rhythm quite similar to that of a fandango, as it happens. And in fact when Ravel was first writing his piece on commission from the Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, he called it Fandango. Well, that might have turned it a whiter shade of pale – or it might have been just fine and dandy. But bolero is a more bullish word, and Spanish speakers may hear echoes of volar “fly” and volver “turn” (the v is said the same as b).
And English speakers may hear echoes of Bo Derek. In fact, anyone who was around in 1979, even if they never saw the movie 10, probably has an image of her cornrow braids, utterly iconic. The movie thrust her to stardom, made a sex anthem of the song… and did quite well for Dudley Moore, too, who, for some reason, is not so often thought of in this context even though it was he who was getting it on to Ravel’s dirty dance. (And who, besides Bo, did he do it with in the movie? Julie Andrews. The hills are alive indeed…)
Five years after 10, the tune’s vigour was still fresh and further freshened by the highest-scoring ice dance routine in Olympic history (6.0s across the board for artistic interpretation), Nottingham’s Torvill and Dean skating an erotic adventure in flowing purple culminating in collapse (if they had skated for the full quarter hour of Ravel’s music, they surely would have collapsed for real!). Needless to say, other skaters have used the music, but there was only one Torvill and Dean Boléro (just as there was only one Katarina Witt Carmen).
Not that everyone is a figure skating fan, of course. But most people who now think of Boléro as the erotic classical piece probably haven’t seen 10, either, and many of them may not have heard of it. (Even fewer will know of the 1984 movie Bo Derek produced and starred in, Bolero, a film that was released unrated because it was too explicit but still won six Golden Raspberry awards.) Boléro = sex is just part of the common currency of culture now… at least for those who don’t find it boring and repetitive (find which boring and repetitive, Boléro or sex? um, either).