As a woman, you almost always want to dance more than the men around you do. At a certain age, those few men who might have danced with you have all achieved the only dance objective they ever had—acquisition of a steady sex partner. You might even be that partner. You might even have a child, a mortgage, a dog, two—God help you, two!—Volvos. In any case, the man in your life doesn't want to dance anymore. And why should he? You have no desire to scream at television sets broadcasting football games. We must all answer to our own passions.
Desperate, you turn to partnerless dance mutations—Salsacize, sweating to oldies, Cardio Hip-Hop, Yo! Yo! Yoga!, and the saddest of all the substitutes, tap. You even consider belly dancing, but immediately think better of it.
And then you discover "it," you discover flamenco.
What a revelation this passionate, fiery, aerobically enriching dance form is! You don't need a partner, and it absolutely doesn't matter how young or old or fat or thin you are. In fact you learn, to your immense delight, some of the biggest stars of flamenco are extremely well-upholstered and very suitably seasoned. You feel this could be your last chance to grab at a life-changing soul-body experience.
Well, okay, maybe you don't, but I did—which is why I was delirious to discover that my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, hosts the International Flamenco Festival every summer. For those glorious dozen or so days, the cream of el mundo flamenco descends on Albuquerque to perform and teach complete novices like myself in marathon workshops that compress years of weekly classes.
Is it possible in that amount of time for a middle-aged woman to cut loose, shake off inhibitions and a potentially atrophied sense of rhythm, and get her flamenco groove on? I'm not sure, but I'm encouraged to learn that much emphasis is placed on hand movements and that several all-time legends went by the nickname El Cojo—"the Cripple." Still the doubts descend. I try to recall if I own anything with polka dots. And then, with a go-to-hell shrug that might be the first stirrings of my very own personal flamenco soul, I decide I have to do it. Husband and son will just have to boil their own hot dogs for 12 days. Adiós, muchachos, mamacita is going to dance!
Let us pretend now that there are no husbands to convince, no boy child to pack off to camp, no dog to board, mail to stop, bags to pack, panic attacks to medicate about this utterly insane thing I am doing. Let me be transported magically to the sun-drenched campus where I was a hip-shaking, totally happening coed.
The heart of the festival is Carlisle Gym, an adobe-brown building where I once fumbled through my one class in modern dance. I rush in, intoxicated by breathing once again the weightless, piñon-scented desert air of my youth and by being so close to the Frontier Restaurant, home of that staple of my undergraduate diet—cinnamon rolls the size of a catcher's mitt. We are greeted by flamenco goddess Eva Encinias-Sandoval, program director and a radiant, unpretentious advertisement for her art.
Next: The first day of class
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
I start with my classmates the next day and am deeply comforted to learn that at least one of the "beginning" students teaches flamenco back home in Laredo, and that everyone except me has had at least enough dance training to know their plantas from their tacóns.
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.