The first thing you will notice will be her eyes, black beneath furrowed brows, staring intently as she barks orders in Spanish. Next you will see her arms, lean and tan, cutting circles in the air with quick, fluid movements. Last will be her feet, pounding the grey mylar floor — ticka ticka ticka ta!–as she shouts without missing a beat, ” Hacer los pasos no es bailando -neccesitas sentirlo!” Doing the steps is not dancing — you must feel it.
Ursula Lopez has travelled from Seville, Spain, to this basement studio in downtown Toronto, where for the next week she’ll be teaching a small group of Canadian women the art of flamenco.
For the uninitiated, the word flamenco conjures images of flowing ruffled skirts, stomping feet, clicking castanets and the strum of a Spanish guitar. The art form does have its origins deep in Andalusia, and for those intent on learning to dance, sing or play flamenco, nothing compares with spending a month or two in a small Spanish town, hanging out in the caves of Granada or the bars and cafes of Jerez with the descendants of the Amaya or Farruco families, flamenco’s living legends.
But for those who don’t have the time or money for an annual jaunt to the south of Spain, each summer, many of the Spanish flamenco masters travel to Canada to share their gifts with unlikely northern flamenco junkies like me.
Today’s class has six participants, all advanced students that have been studying for years. At 28 and with six years of flamenco under my belt, I am probably one of the youngest and least experienced dancers here, for unlike ballet, flamenco does not exclude based on age or body type. Instead, as a dancer grows older, her style evolves to match her maturing physique. I’ve been in classes with women in their seventies, and some of the most respected purveyors of the art form are portly grandmothers, or, as my Vancouver teacher Oscar Nieto calls them, “flamenco mamas.”
“It’s easy to become a flamenco junkie because you can’t get enough: You feel so good when you’re doing or watching it,” says Esmeralda Enrique, the director of the Esmeralda Enrique Academy of Spanish Dance where this one-week workshop with its Spanish guest teacher is taking place.
Maria Litman, one of my fellow students, is one of these flamenco addicts: “I didn’t think that it would really affect my life, but once I started I couldn’t take just one class –it just feels good. It’s the interaction between my body and my mind that really makes me feel alive.”
I moved to Spain in search of that feeling. It had taken less than a year for flamenco to completely consume me. School, relationships and jobs all seemed bland and irrelevant when compared with the raw vitality of flamenco music and dancing. I dropped everything and bought a flight to Granada, where for six months I studied dance in a small, whitewashed cave buried in the hillside of the small city in southern Spain. In places the room was so small that I couldn’t raise my arms above my head. Each day for five hours 11 students and I would cram into the tiny, sweaty space and perform drills and choreographies as my teacher banged the 12-beat rhythm out with a long wooden cane, shouting unintelligibly in Spanish. It was heaven.
And now, for this one week with Ms. Lopez, I feel like I’m back in that cave, with nothing to think about or know but flamenco.
She begins the class, running through some simple arm exercises and making corrections to our individual technique. “Siempre delantero,” she says to me, reaching up to pull my raised arms forward.
Ms. Lopez speaks no English, and though most of us understand little to no Spanish, her instructions rarely need translation. “There are always foreigners in my classes in Seville,” she later explains in Spanish. “If they speak even a little, it’s no problem. Everyone understands.”
She moves into a footwork exercise and I am quickly breathless. “Levante los pieds!” Lift your feet. My calves are burning and the beads of sweat roll down my forehead and cheeks, collecting in droplets at the tip of my chin and nose. I shake them off and feel my wet ponytail slap against my neck as my feet continue to pound the floor in a steady, rolling rhythm. I glance up and Ms. Lopez is looking back at me, smiling. “La alta,” she says. The tall one.
As a 6′ 1” ex-basketball player, I am an unlikely flamenco dancer: The best are generally small and compact. But seven years ago in a Vancouver restaurant called the Kino Cafe, I saw my first performance. The dancer’s name was Kasandra, and she silenced the boisterous audience with a choreography that left several jaws, including mine, on the floor. Kasandra pounded the shaking stage as though she wanted to break through it, a look of pure rage on her face, only to burst into an exuberant smile as she passed the fitful climax of the her performance.
The emotional abandon I witnessed that night is an essential characteristic of flamenco, and something Ms. Lopez constantly halted our five-day workshop in Toronto to discuss.
Though she meticulously led us through a carefully planned choreography, she always emphasized that the steps don’t matter; it is the feeling, the emotion of the performance that will connect the dancer with the musicians and the audience. “Los pasos no son importantes.” The steps are not important.
Of course in the beginning the steps are important — a dancer needs to have at least a basic understanding of the movements before she can perform with any real force.
It was during my first year that I learned about the basic elements of flamenco — song, guitar, dance and palmas (hand clapping) — and the essential interplay between these parts that creates that rare moment when everything harmonizes, a moment the Spanish call duende.
I also observed a tightly woven and fiercely loyal community of women and men bound together by their love of the “arte” of flamenco.
“This is my students’ second home,” says Ms. Enrique of her studio. “They feel comfortable here, and they have friends, lifelong friends … There are so many people that will go to anything flamenco.”
Many who go to Spain to study dance or guitar never come back. I did, and now that I’m here in Toronto, I depend on teachers like Ms. Enrique to bring the masters like Ursula Lopez to me. And Ms. Lopez depends on us, on the strength of small tight-knit communities like this one, full of women and men who covet her skills and passion enough to bring her halfway around the world to spend a week with them, dancing.