If flamenco did not exist, I would not be a dancer. Yes, I would dance at parties and in nightclubs because I love to dance. But loving to dance does not a dancer make.
For 20 years I was a painter. While painting, I listened only to classical music. When my energy exceeded the physical demands of painting, I’d leap around the studio like a frenzied fairy. In my mind’s eye, I was dancing ballet.
I had taken my first ballet class at the age of 6 and found it boring. I decided to take my second ballet class at the age of 30, three days after my first try at “not smoking.” At best, I hoped ballet would replace cigarettes and help me appreciate my improving lung capacity. And at the least, I hoped my fairy moves would look less frenzied.
But ballet wasn’t “it” for me. I loved the music—I felt it to the tips of my toenails! But the ability to “take the ball and run” wasn’t built into a form where all but the greatest dancers (which was certainly not MY destiny) are in service to the choreography. Coming to the dance studio from a painter’s studio, I couldn’t embrace a dance form that allowed me less freedom of expression and creative decision-making than I’d exercised in painting. I felt constrained by a tradition that I whole-heartedly respected.
Flamenco also comes from a tradition for which I have the utmost respect. But what drew me to flamenco, aside from the raw beauty of the music and the dance, was the high value placed on the emotional integrity of each performance.
After taking my first flamenco class, I jumped headlong into what I knew would be years of study. I eagerly anticipated the day in the far-distant future when I’d finally have the skill to instantly give exquisite form to an impulse. This was the same goal I’d pursued in my painting.
What nearly killed me about flamenco was not all the time and effort required to learn its complex rhythmic and musical vocabulary, nor mastering the intricate and exhausting demands of the dance style. These were all means to an end—that end being succinct and poignant self-expression, which is then an expression of all things human, from time-was to time-will-be. The work required was not really work at all. It was, and it still is, an invigorating, humbling, and fascinating exploration of new territory.
What nearly killed me about flamenco was its collaborative aspect. A first-born, I was 8 when my parents coyly announced the arrival of what turned out to be my sister. Eight years of occupying center stage makes one an “only child,” even if siblings do eventually arrive. “Only children” have the mistaken notion that they call all the shots. (My dear sister would agree with this. . .) Well, it turns out that flamenco, like everything else in life, requires co-operation and collaboration. A painter, isolated and insulated in the studio, can spend a lifetime denying this truth.
At any given moment onstage, each flamenco performer—singer, guitarist, or dancer—is hoping to be visited and inspired by the illusive and revered “duende,” the essence and core of the flamenco spirit as defined by Frederico García Lorca. Nonetheless, each performer must respect, support, and live the others’ moments. This is true collaboration. This is true flamenco.
True collaboration is a rare event in life. In flamenco, truth be told, our best collaborations happen most frequently in rehearsal. We improvise, we mess up, we laugh long and loudly, and we are our most brilliant in that warm creative envelope that’s filled with our love for flamenco and for each other. Onstage, our envelope is opened by the audience. The purely human desire to be adored by that audience can easily fracture the group synergy.
When this happens, we all know it, though our audience may not. What do we do? We take that ball and run together, hoping that the magic will reappear, buoying us up and making us one collaborative being again.
I have learned to love the true collaboration that is flamenco. There are amazing moments onstage, when the group impulse suddenly transcends the sum of its parts and becomes an expression of such breathtaking beauty that all present are both stunned and invigorated. Though the amazing moments are few and far between, my thirst for them is unquenchable. It keeps me passionately and deeply involved in the seemingly narrow, but truly limitless, world of flamenco.
I guess, after all, I really did exchange cigarettes for dance. . .