On the first day, almost 200 students from England, Canada, China, Mexico, Argentina, Ukraine, and states from New Hampshire to Texas crowd the main hallway, changing into practice skirts, putting on makeup, and taping their gnarled, wrecked feet. I hurry to my beginners' class, expecting it to be filled with other goofball novices like myself. Instead I find an ominously large number of the two dozen students hooking pointed feet over the barre and folding themselves into the sort of stretches favored by Hindu yogis and professional dancers. I comfort myself by noting two young girls who can't be much out of grade school. How much experience could they have?
Our instructor, renowned Santa Fe performer Ramona Garduño, sweeps in and, after a brief warm-up, introduces us to la postura, flamenco's powerful, chest-high, shoulders-back posture that conveys boundless female strength and speaks of the art's deep roots in the Gypsy culture. Next is brazeo, arm work. We start with a basic move, la paloma, the white dove. Imitating Ramona's sinuous hands, my doves twine heavenward. As my fingers cut delicate arabesques, floreos, I feel like an odalisque performing for a sultan, like a temple dancer in Bali.
Then on to the footwork. Golpe, golpe, tacón. Stamp, stamp, heel. Planta, tacón, tacón, planta. Ball, heel, heel, ball. My wondrous new flamenco skirt bounces and sways to my stomping, and I exalt in being part of this tribe of wild, clacking girls. Even if my moves leave something to be desired, the ballet swans have nothing on me. I was born to dance flamenco.
This delightful illusion lasts for, oh, 15 more seconds, at which point, Ramona gives a diabolical directive: Add the hands. Hands and feet? Together? The instant I attempt to move my hands, my white doves fly the coop. I execute a series of jerky movements that look as if I'm being electrocuted. The rest of the class stamps and twines fluidly. I position myself strategically behind one of the ballet swans and attempt to imitate her. It's a lost cause.
The next day, Ramona throws increasingly difficult combinations at us. Again, my white doves take wing—until they crash and burn at that crucial moment when hands and feet are politely requested to work together. With a wild, feral grace that I covet deeply, Ramona demonstrates some steps set to a puzzling 12-count beat called the compás. "The most important thing is to start hearing this rhythm," she says. In the crowded class, I turn the wrong way and smash into a girl who is executing combinations in perfect time to a beat I can't hear, much less dance to.
I am far and away the worst student in the class. I cement this position definitively two days later when my new best friend, Leah Powell, an archeologist working for the university, sidles over and whispers, "Do you mean to have your skirt tucked up like that?" All the cool students tuck their long skirts into their waistbands in snazzy ways—on the sides, wrapped over in front, with the ruffles cascading down in back—that each have a Spanish name. The name of my special tuck is "Showing Your Big Fat White Butt." Yes, I turn and see that I have accidentally caught the entire back of my skirt in my waistband.
I slink out of class and head to my old friend, the Frontier. Over one of those catcher-mitt-size cinnamon rolls, I toy with the idea of spending the rest of the festival right here, in this booth, setting a record for most rolls of dough and fat consumed and created. Instead I remind myself: Guess what, self? You're not—never were—planning a career onstage. You're doing this entirely for yourself. I get a grip and do what I always do when I'm confused and demoralized: talk to great women and a few great men.
Next: Meeting her fellow students
We Hear You!