Once I start getting to know my fellow students, flamenco's true riches begin spilling out. In rapid succession, I meet a former concert guitarist, a probation and parole officer working with sex offenders, several high school kids who worship heavy metal, an English teacher from New Hampshire, a 69-year-old Argentinean, an army research psychologist, and Karen Richmond, who drives in every day from Gallup, New Mexico, where she is the business manager at a facility for the indigent elderly run by Little Sisters of the Poor.
I ask Karen what compels her to make that dusty 270-mile round-trip every day. "Pride," Karen answers without hesitation. "You don't have to be good to get that feeling of pride, and at 51 I want that for myself."
This is more addictive than the Frontier's rolls. Holding out my reporter's notebook like a passport, I quiz everyone who crosses my path.
"In flamenco, your dark side can come out," Fenny Kuo—who teaches trapeze and aerial dance to kids in San Francisco—says. "No other dance form lets you express anger, sorrow, very strong emotions."
"The only emotion you don't talk about in flamenco is timidity," says Heléna Melone, from New Hampshire, as she ices a bunion. "Western dance is a lot of smiling and being sexy for the audience. When I dance flamenco, it is for me, the singer, and the guitar player. The audience is secondary."
Local maestra Lili del Castillo sums up the essence of flamenco in two words, Yo soy—"I am." Lili stands tall and proud as she repeats the words, underscoring the profound importance of a form of self-expression that, like our own Delta blues, was given to us by outcast people whose only other possession might have been the clothes they stood in.
Then I encounter two students—a family-practice physician and a prep school student—who have each lost 30 pounds since taking up flamenco. They both emphasize that weight loss is a pleasant yet secondary by-product of their passion. This reminds me of my initial silliness in believing flamenco might be little more than the latest route to cardiovascular fitness.
For the rest of the weekend I hear the compás everywhere: in a car's transmission, in debris tossed around by a windstorm. Bit by bit, I begin to see the fiend compás as the most beneficent of forms, like haiku. Instead of 17 syllables, the artist—dancer, singer, guitarist—is given 12 beats to express what is in her heart and to create beauty.
By Monday my muscles and brain have had two days to encode all these strange new signals, and I trample over fewer children. Tuesday is even a bit better.
On Wednesday, the last day of class, I manage to get my white doves twining heavenward while my feet move in rough time. As if applauding my tiny triumph, a mighty counter-rhythm pounds down. "It's hailing!" someone yells, and we all rush to the window, clacking in time to the staccato hammering that strips trees down to bare branches, their leaves mulch on the ground. And then, too soon, it is over. The class gives a radiant Ramona roses, and we have a hard time saying goodbye—so we settle on hasta la vista, already making plans for next year.
I march off to a new beat, inhaling the glorious fragrance of desperately needed rain and battered greenery—cottonwood, piñon, spruce. And in just those moments, while I create my own 12-beat haiku, the world seems as wondrously fresh and new-made as it did when I was a coed so long ago.
P.S. Even though it has come to seem incidental, in the interest of full disclosure I must note that, in spite of a diet heavy on the Frontier's cinnamon rolls, carne adovada burritos, and green chile enchiladas, I lost three pounds during the festival.
To learn more about flamenco, check out www.flamenco-world.com.
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