What you’ll need: good rhythm, a polka-dotted wardrobe
Songlist: Camarón de la Isla’s Soy Gitano, Paco de Lucía’s Entre Dos Aguas
Further reading: Duende: A Journey Into the Heart of Flamenco by Jason Webster
The flamenco poster that graced my dorm walls all through college
Last Friday evening, the snow predicted for Minnesota began to fall; it was the kind of sloppy, cold night that could convince the most diehard party-goers to stay in. But even the unseasonably gross weather couldn’t keep me from a flamenco show, and thus I ventured out to Minneapolis’s Uptown for “Palabras al Viento,” put on by a wonderful local dancer, Deborah Elias. Once there, I waved to the women in my flamenco dance classes here in Minneapolis and happened to sit next to my teacher, Susana di Palma, director of Zorongo Dance Theatre.
I fell in love with flamenco in a dark, smoky tablao (a traditional flamenco bar) in Madrid when I was sixteen. Three guitarists shared a small stage with a singer, two dancers and two clappers (clapping is the most common percussion in flamenco and immensely difficult to do correctly). In those cramped conditions the effect was intoxicating, the rhythms beat out on the wooden stage mesmerizing.
Worship at El Pipa's fast-moving feet!
It was not until I moved to Spain six years later, though, that I was brave enough to take my first flamenco lesson. I lived in a small town called Arcos de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz (the southwestern-most province in Spain) with another American girl who was interested in learning the dance form. We took one disastrous first class with Antonio “El Pipa” (“The Sunflower Seed”) in the nearby Jerez de la Frontera (an experience I described on my previous blog), having not realized that Antonio is something of a flamenco god, and therefore a little above teaching beginners.
My roommate and I settled instead for a class in an old abbey across from our apartment with the middle-aged ladies of the town who were more interested in drinking and gossiping than in dancing. Halfway through the year we switched to a class taught by Santiago “El Gitano” (“The Gypsy”–perhaps a better nickname than “The Sunflower Seed,” though less unique) which was in a bar. Hence, more drinking, but also more dancing.
When I moved back to Minnesota, I was lucky to find that there is a surprisingly vital flamenco community in the Twin Cities. There are two flamenco schools in Minneapolis and several other individuals who perform frequently at restaurants and theaters around the cities. My classes at Zorongo are much more disciplined than those I took in the bar in Arcos, and I recently joined Zorongo’s company as an apprentice dancer (meaning that I’m actually closer to being a flamenco dancer than most of the other careers I’ve profiled).
For all the technique I’ve learned with Zorongo, though, I am appreciative of that smoky performance in Madrid and the subsequent experiences I’ve had watching and dancing flamenco in bars hollowed out of caves. Flamenco, after all, does not desire to be precise like ballet. It began in southern Spain when Jews and Moors were expelled by the Catholics and were only welcomed by the gypsy camps; flamenco is a hybrid of many traditions and retains a spirit of revolt against oppression. Understanding the attitude and the culture are just as important, if not more important, than knowing the steps. And thus, if you really want to be a flamenco dancer, you will inevitably find yourself in a cave in Granada surrounded by a generations-old flamenco family at three in the morning drinking beer or sherry. And when they tell you to dance, they won’t care if you do any fancy footwork so long as you move, really move, like a gypsy.