You got rhythm? Try Flamenco

14 Apr

It may look easy, but flamenco is one of the hardest Latin dances to master. Undaunted, freelance reporter Patrick Smith journeys to London’s East End to test the theory.

It is raining. I am soaking and out of breath as I finally arrive after 20 minutes of cycling up and down Commercial Road looking for the studio. I had been looking for a bright, shiny building with fresh faced people wearing lycra. When I eventually find it at the back of an old warehouse it is marked with a laminated A4 paper sign flapping in the wind, Cable Street Studios.

After ringing the bell I sheepishly step into the small space, dripping. Two diminutive Spaniards, arms crossed, are not happy that I’m so late. As I mutter my excuses to one, the other, Titi, shaven headed with deep set blue eyes pivots elegantly and shuffles off firing a rapid burst of stomping and tapping.

This is my first flamenco class. I have always wanted to strut my stuff since, as a child I saw the majesty of the mulleted gypsies’ angry dance on the streets of Granada. In the privacy of my room I have, with brooding expression, thrown a hand high and cocked a leg in imitation. I have a lingering feeling that, despite my less than dignified entrance, I’m going to be good at this.

I quickly throw my bag in the corner and ready myself for the lesson. Jorge introduces himself.  With broad shoulders and small waist, dressed in Cuban heels,  tight black trousers and shirt he fits my image of a flamenco master well, if a little shorter.

On the phone he had told me to bring some shoes that would make a noise when stamped on the boards. He points at my feet and says, “What are those?”

He’s looking disapprovingly at my cycling shoes. Rigid soled, with metal plates and Velcro straps they are not ideal, but they were the best I could find. Rolling his eyes, he mumbles, “vale” and ushers me in front of the intimidating wall of mirror.

When it is done right flamenco is very masculine. The dancer struts proudly. Powerful slow movements break into sudden sweeping dashes. The dancer is dominant and knows it. This is what I am aiming for.

How its done

We start off slowly moving weight from one foot to the other, dropping one shoulder, throwing a hand out wide. I feel as though I am holding myself well. Posture is everything in flamenco. Shoulders back, chest out. I’m imitating Jorge. But when my eyes leave my feet and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror I see that I am all jutting angles. A collapsed deck chair. And we’ve not even started moving our feet.

“It is like you are trying to grab all of the energy in the room and pull it in to yourself. ” As Jorge utters these words he is fanning his arms out and up to meet above his head. His wrists twist, fingers curling down to his chest, stripping all of the energy out of the room and leaving none for me.

I was supposed to be good at this, but my arms are gangly and out of time. The twisting of my hands looks camp and ineffectual rather than elegant as I fumble fruitlessly with the room’s energy.

Titi watches from the side, eyes on me the whole time as we start with the footwork. I wonder if he is here just to intimidate me, he still hasn’t said a word. Jorge strides across the floor, sweeps a hand across the body and stamps. A most satisfying sound.

I manage this, but then we’re heading back the other way and I’m a few steps behind and lost. Jorge is more understanding when it comes to my failures on the dance floor than he was with my time keeping. He slows down to let me catch up. We progress along this vein for a while. Just when I think I’ve got something I put one foot wrong and I’m lost again.

But it is time for the second half of the lesson, tackling a whole dance. The Savillanas is a folk dance that is part of any flamenco fiesta and the first dance any aspiring dancer must learn.

Titi steps forward, adjusting his unreasonably high waisted trousers to reveal his patent boots. He will lead this. Hands on hips, we face each other and I am surprised when he smiles and his eyes soften. It is not a complicated dance and I can manage each part of it individually, but all together it’s a mess.

I am always looking at my feet. “You are supposed to be making love to your partner” says Jorge. I raise my eyebrows at Titi opposite me. Before I can get anywhere near completing the dance it is the end of the lesson.

Was much progress made? I’m not sure. Perhaps I had too high expectations. But as I leave, Titi grips my hand in both of his and looks at me with those piercing eyes. He enthuses in scant English.

“Very good, very good, for first time, very good.”

I felt clumsy and foolish in the class, but when I get home I dance through the door, startling the cat, and sweep the energy from the room. At least without the mirror in front of me I can believe I am doing it with all the grace and power of the greats.

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist and postgrad student of Newspaper Journalism at City University. 

Image 1: Turton Wines Image 2: silive

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