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Seeking Duende*

I walked into the High School of the Arts, unsure where I was headed. In the past when I had come to the school, it was to watch a friend of my son’s perform. This time I was there for myself. I was entering as a student—an adult student, and I was going to take a flamenco dance class. I had learned about the class from the teacher, Maria, whom I had met at a four-week introductory class through the local Free University. It had been decades since I had undergone knee surgery and put away my ballet shoes, along with all my youthful dreams of becoming a professional dancer.

Entering the building, I recognized the feeling of butterflies in my stomach, just as I had when I walked into my own high school as a freshman more than 30 years earlier. Yet the smells, sounds and sights were different in this school. Fresh paint, a melodious saxophone, and girls walking down the hall in leotards reminded me that I had entered a sacred space for creativity.

“Excuse me, could you please tell me where the dance studio is?” I asked a student.

“Ballet or modern?” he said.

“I have no idea…”

After a few minutes, another student appeared and motioned toward a flight of stairs. As I slowly descended the stairs, I took a deep breath and opened the door into a large, mirror-lined studio. The smell of varnish from the floors and the polished mirrors dissected by the ballet bar, reminded me of my youth when we would line up to practice pliés and relevés.

As I entered the room, I saw a group of six women between the ages of about 30 and 50. A few wore tight-fitting warm up pants and tops, but most were outfitted in the bright skirts of flamenco, punctuated with large polka dots and deep ruffles. They were conversing brightly and loudly in Spanish. I could make out some of the words, but my Spanish was limited. I was both petrified and thrilled.

I have experienced my share of being the newbie in a dance class, and that first day can be extremely stressful. There is the sizing up of the new person by the regulars and the staking of a spot on the dance floor in order to get attention from the teacher. But this was different.

“Buenas Noches! Como esta?” a friendly voice welcomed me.

I looked up to see a beaming face. “Hola,” I said. “My Spanish is not very good.”

“Oh! We are happy to have you here! My name is Luiza!”

I learned Luiza was originally from Brazil, which helped explain the tight-fitting t-shirt and bright pink skirt with ruffles framing her curvy figure. Such attire would have caused quite a stir had she worn this in a ballet class, and I admired her easy ability to be flamboyant.

Luiza proceeded to introduce me around to the others, including Gina from Mexico, Maria Eugenia from Bolivia, and Michele from the state of Georgia. Each was warm and welcoming. Later I learned that Luiza was a fitness instructor, Gina ran a preschool, Maria Eugenia was an administrator in an inner-city charter high school, and Michele was a child psychologist. I loved that each had such different lives and that it was the passion and discipline of flamenco that brought everyone together.

The teacher, Maria, arrived. Because I had met her earlier, she seemed both surprised and delighted to see me. Having only recently emigrated from Spain, her English was still halting. She grew up in Sevilla and had been dancing flamenco since she was a child. I learned that she had moved to the U.S. about three years earlier with her new husband, an American who grew up in the U.S.

I had chosen to wear a leotard and warm up pants as I was unsure of the attire for the class. I slipped on my new black shoes with the two-inch sturdy heels. On the tip of the sole were tiny nail heads. These were also covering the heel. I had walked around in them at home, to get used to the feel of the shoes, but I had no idea how the footwork would engage these metal points.

Maria assumed her position at the front of the class. The studio was large, so we had plenty of room to spread out. The others placed themselves around the room in front of her. I was most comfortable behind the others, where I was able to watch them and try to stay inconspicuous.

“Ocho, neuve, diez,” said Maria as the class got underway, clapping the rhythm. The clapping is referred to as “palmas” and it was clearly integral for marking time and tempo.

We did a series of exercises to warm up our feet, then began the intense “footwork,” in which the toe strikes the floor, followed by a similar striking with the heel. A series of Spanish words that meant nothing to me at the time, “golpe” and “planta,” related to whether you were to strike the floor with the ball of your foot or the whole foot.

Unintelligible words, but ones that resembled sounds, were used by Maria to accentuate the footwork, “Taka, taka, tika, taka, taka tika…,” she continued while clapping in an unusually accented rhythm that we followed as we executed turns from one side of the room to the other, the skirts of the women swirling as they moved across the floor.

About 30 minutes into our warm-up segment, we moved on to choreography. The door to the studio opened and two young men, one of them holding a guitar, along with a young woman, entered the room together, laughing at something one said to the others. They seemed to be about the same age as many of the students I saw in the hallway. The young men looked to be Latino, but the young woman had long flowing red hair, pale white skin and looked Northern European.

They nodded to the rest of the group and assumed positions on one side of the room. The shorter of the two men, the guitarist, and the woman with the beautiful hair, who turned out to be the singer, sat in chairs. The taller man sat atop a sturdy wooden rectangular box, which I learned was a cajón, a percussion instrument that is beat rhythmically to accompany the other musicians and dancers. The guitarist warmed up on the guitar while the other man began gently to hit the cajón. The woman began clapping with the synchronous sounds of the instruments. After a few minutes, she began singing, though to my untrained ear the music was harsh, almost as if she were screaming her lyrics. Then came a melodic section of the music and the sound emanating from her diaphragm was melodious and beautiful. As my ears became accustomed to flamenco singing over the years, I understood this was the historic music of the Spanish gypsies, who brought up this lamentation from deep within them, expressing their stories of repression, pain, suffering, survival and ultimately joy.

The choreography portion of the class was to learn complicated steps to the accompaniment of the student musicians. I learned that flamenco is, at its core, an intimate “conversation” between the guitarist, singer and dancer. The palmas and cajón add percussion. As I watched this interaction between Maria and the others, I was aware of how each regarded the other with a deep respect, knowing that they were all dependent on one another for the whole to succeed.

At this moment, I became completely mesmerized by the sights, the sounds, the passion and the meaning of this entirely new scene. I had stepped tentatively out of my comfort zone into unfamiliar territory, and I could not help but smile in gratitude to myself for taking a chance. I happily struggled through the rest of the class, learning new dance vocabulary and becoming entirely engrossed in this strange, exciting new culture. When the class was over, Luiza and I walked out of the building together, unbeknownst at the time that we would eventually become close friends, confidants, and travel companions.

It struck me pretty early on in my journey, that this introduction to flamenco was a turning point in my life. It had been such a long time since I had done anything for me, and my husband had been encouraging me to develop interests outside our family and son, who was already 14 and growing up quickly. For decades I had attended dance performances of all sorts. Rather than fully enjoying them, I would sit in my seat in the dark theater fighting off a combination of yearning, sadness and sometimes a few tears, regretting that I had given up my passion at an early age. When I finally made the decision to take a chance on this earthy, sensual art form, I recognized my soul was beginning to awaken. But it was not until a few years later, when I began performing with my international friends that I realized I had finally made it to a stage. Today, when I attend a dance performance of any genre, I can enjoy it fully, and not harken back to that time of regret and sadness.

It has now been over twelve years since I began my love affair with flamenco. I take three classes per week and count my international “amigas flamencana” as my family and my community. Though I will never be a professional performer, or even close, my first and only flamenco teacher and now dear friend, Maria, gives me the opportunity two to three times a year to go onto a stage with much younger dancers, and give it my best. I have traveled to Spain with Maria and others, including my first flamenco friend, Luiza, to experience first-hand the heart of the flamenco culture. I have been taking Spanish off and on for years, struggling with the language, but I know well the flamenco vocabulary. I have taken workshops from extraordinary dancers in Spain, in our flamenco studio, and at the International Flamenco Festival in Albuquerque where the top performers from around the world are in residence for a week every summer. And four years ago, Maria formed a non-profit flamenco performing arts organization, and I am the president of the board!

Although I love the confidence and passion I feel with flamenco, the experience is not without its many challenges. Occasionally the frustration and dejection can seep deeply into my bones when I can’t get the choreography or my knees are giving me problems, but I always come back because I know that in the studio in my sturdy black flamenco shoes, I will feel alive again.

Flamenco does not reject older dancers; it celebrates them. With age, we have had the years to develop a repertoire of sadness, loss, joy and rebound that can be expressed in flamenco. And sometimes, I even come close to experiencing my own personal duende.*

*Duende: Having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco.

Ann Irving has been a professional fundraiser for more than 30 years. Her writing experience includes persuasive pieces including grant proposals, mail appeals, and gracious thank you letters. She is currently enrolled in a creative writing MA program at the University of Denver. Her other creative outlet is that she has been dancing flamenco for over 12 years.