I was introduced to flamenco by a blood-letting, like a tailored and sharply-cut red dress whipping out from the back of my head. I was introduced by a woman who had my name, who called herself La Tania, who marked the end of the time when the purity of ballet was enough to contain my six years of age. I watched her dance in Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium, my head wrapped in a turban of white bandages. Wearing my ballet tights and leotard, I had cracked my head open earlier that afternoon on a cold, metallic bathtub rim. La Tania’s resounding footwork helped stem the flow of the hysteria and screams and transform them into echoing syllables.
That night, the steps of the woman who shared my name told me that I would learn their art – that I would learn to channel emotion into distinctive patterns on a wood floor, into the positioning of my hands, my expressions, my voice. Her steps told me that my passion would not be uncontrolled and explosive, that it would be both ambiguous and exact. Her steps told me that I would have to wait to learn, and I did. For years, a La Tania poster that my mother salvaged from that night hung on my wall, while life accumulated in my body. Gradually, I gathered wells of experiences I would later draw upon for the development of my own style in flamenco.
Few people in this college town know what flamenco is, and even fewer understand it. It is exotic, an eccentricity, and the mouths and brows of the people I meet pucker slightly when I tell them I am a flamenco dancer. More often than not, all they know is a TV special they saw once on PBS, voluptuous women wearing flamboyant dresses and using those clapper things belly dancers use – what are they called? Oh yes, castanets.
I want them to understand. Flamenco is intensity; concentrated solos when even the guitarist’s dexterous fingers cannot keep up and instead mark time on the guitar’s belly, when it seems that the singer’s haunting melodies, rising up and expanding from the breastbone, cannot hold enough within them. Sometimes the intensity of the steps is harsh and unforgiving. Other times, it is hurt and wounded, playful and caressing, questioning and answering, or wondering and softly loving. The steps speak of unarticulated longing. As flamenco is defiance and pride, it is also vulnerability.
When I was 12 years old, I began studying with Flamenco Andaluz, a small local dance troupe. Mónica, my teacher, has almond-shaped eyes, a small nose, a small mouth, modest and restless red lips, and curly red-blond hair. When she is not dancing, she is talking – telling a funny story in which there is hidden some profound truth, singing me a song, or asking me probing questions. But when she is dancing, there is a distinct intensity, a hard stare in her eyes that does not see anything in the room, anything that I can see. She is suddenly fierce, a warrior not of this world. Her rapid footwork grows louder and faster, drowning out and flirting with the guitar. Our guitarist, Richard, stares at her feet, waiting for the signal to resume playing, and suddenly, with Monica’s familiar “Y…” and inflection of the ankle, he begins la llamada, the call to return, the beginning and middle and end of the dance.
When I joined Flamenco Andaluz, there were three experienced dancers in the group, all grown women who had been studying flamenco for three years or more with Mónica and Richard. Mónica would give me a 30-minute private lesson before the other dancers came for class, but I was nearly always following along behind them. Frustrated by my inability to keep up, there were nights when I left class in tears, and once or twice, I took a break of a few months, but I always returned.
In my third year, I began learning las bulerías, one of the fastest dances in flamenco. It is based on a 12-beat cycle with emphasis on certain beats, and so Mónica and Richard began by teaching me the rhythm through palmas, the hand claps that form an integral part of flamenco, with golpes, foot stomps, on the accented beats. As I practiced it, they refused to let me count out loud, and if they thought I was counting in my head, they would ask, “Are you counting? Are you counting? You shouldn’t be counting. Just feel it.”
But for almost a year, as much as I tried, I couldn’t feel it. My bulerías were off because I couldn’t grasp the rhythm, much less match my steps to it. I lacked compás, one of the worst faults in a flamenco dancer.
One afternoon, after another unsuccessful attempt at the solo I had been assigned in las bulerías, I sat in a chair against the back wall, watching the other dancers and concentrating on the guitar. Someone performed the familiar steps to the llamada I had seen countless times before, and I had an epiphany. Instinctively and intellectually, I understood the compás. Outwardly, there was no instantaneous result. But over the course of the next few months, my steps gradually fell into the right places.
Feeling las bulerías was a breakthrough. When I began to feel the compás, the steps began to come naturally. When the steps began to come naturally, I began to feel the underlying emotion in the dance. And when I began to feel the underlying emotion, I began to develop my own style in flamenco, a process that now, at the age of 18, I know will be lifelong.
Flamenco Andaluz has evolved, and it’s just Mónica, Richard and me now. Beginning students come for a few weeks, give up, stop coming. At first, Mónica didn’t understand why no one ever stayed. But then, she realized that they don’t understand that passion is layered, that it is precise, that expressing it in flexible hands and ready feet is not any easier than expressing it in words. Now, when beginning students come, we try to explain. You will not learn this by next week, or by next month, or even by next year, we say. In flamenco, you need patience. You need endurance. It seems to help, but they stop coming anyway.
We want them to understand: flamenco is disciplined passion, marked precision, impossible to feign. The compás is not counted, but felt. The emotion is not defined, but open to the dancer’s interpretation. We want to tell them: flamenco is difficult; to have it, one must want it, and to want it, one must communicate with it. It is demanding. It speaks in the imperative. It took a long, long time, years, to trust me enough to live inside of me. But when it did, I began to feel it all the time and then had to learn to dominate it. It wells up from my center of gravity, runs wildly through my thighs, illuminates my power.
We want to tell them: flamenco is a paradox, it is about unrestrained control. We want them to realize: passion, as defined by flamenco, is not what you think it is. It is not what this culture says it is. It is not always loud noises and forceful motions and lots of stomping. Often, passion, as manifested through flamenco, is subtlety. It is theatrical in that it can be a facial expression. It is geometrical in that it can be the angle made by an arm. It is the way a shawl looks, tossed on the ground.
Two years ago, Mónica and Richard performed at Chico’s largest annual dance event, Keeping Dance Alive. They performed a piece called las peteneras, a solo about a woman named Petenera. It is a subtle dance, alternately enraged and sorrowful, commanding and seductive. It is a dance that relents to tragedy. As I watched from the balcony, the boy sitting next to me, 10 or so years old, colored during their entire performance, looking up occasionally to return immediately to his drawing.
Halfway through the dance, he said to his father, “I don’t get it.” There was a pause. Then his father said, “Yeah, I don’t really either.”
In the most widely-read review of the event, the author commented that she expected “a fiery interlude from Monica Taboada…but her movements were too slow.” Mónica was more upset and disillusioned than I’d ever seen her. Las peteneras is heavily emotional, and the writer’s criticism came as an insult, even to me, though I had not danced. Sentiment, not speed, is at the very heart of flamenco, and the writer did not understand that.
It was then that both of us understood that in such a small town, flamenco could not easily be accepted. Popular culture condenses emotion, compartmentalizes it, in contrast with flamenco’s amplification and ambiguity of emotion. Popular culture hunts down emotion, seeks to carve out what is negative and pursue only what is positive, but flamenco wraps its limbs around every scrap of emotion it can find while never getting carried away with it. Popular culture seeks perfection, but flamenco requires imperfection. Popular culture favors choreography for synchronicity, but above all, flamenco favors improvisation for authenticity.
I know that for these reasons, people will continue to say that I dance “flamingo” and will continue to ask me what it is, why I do it. I will continue to hesitate, wishing to explain beyond recalling the TV specials, but also knowing that my only explanation is my ever-imperfect dance. My only explanation is that once, when I was six, I claimed flamenco, found it in my blood, my feet, my hands, my name.