Flamenco begins in the hands. Quietly, at first. Softly.
My instructor, Juan Ramirez, and I stood in front of a wall of mirrors in a studio below the stage at Tablao Flamenco Cafetín La Quimera in Madrid, where he would be dancing in a little more than an hour. After he showed me a video that explained the origins and styles of flamenco and introduced the masters of the form, we entered the dance. Or at least “a” dance.
The outer expression begins in the wrists and fingers. Don’t use the whole arm, he said; it’s too tiring. Roll the wrists and fan the fingers, from the pinkies to the thumbs. Then, while expressing the hands, add the arms ~ take them out to the sides, overhead and back down; then do the same in front of the body.
The inner dance also begins in the hands, with clapping. From the performances I’ve seen, it isn’t clear who initiates the dance ~ the dancer, singer or guitarist ~ but the dancer holds the rhythm in her hands. There are two basic kinds of clapping, Juan explained. In soft clapping, the palms meet and embrace each other while leaving a little space between them, moving in a caress. As I learned a little bit later, soft clapping is matched in the feet with toe taps. Hard clapping is like a sharp applause and is matched by heel digs.
From there, Juan showed me basic foot positions and steps that are, I imagine, not unlike techniques in tap dancing and the clogging that I watched while growing up in the North Carolina mountains. He added music from his phone plugged in on a nearby shelf, and we started to put it all together: intention, sound, movement. Before we had started the lesson, he asked me what I knew about flamenco. Very little, I answered, apart from the fact that I love it and want to learn more about it ~ the passion, the pride in the lines of the body, the apparent spontaneity. This felt anything but spontaneous.
He led me through a basic tango rhythm, which has a four-count “accent.” Through his layered teaching, he helped me put it all together: wrists, fingers, arms; feet, legs, hips. Clap, move. Oh, if only it were that simple. He made it look so smooth and effortless.
Then we added props, oh my. First we played with shawls, which added an element of seduction and, for me, yet more awkwardness. We made vertical figure 8s and turned them sideways for an infinity sign or “fantasy,” as he called it. I’ve always thought that flamenco and bullfighting had a lot in common, and the shawls absolutely mimic matadors’ flags. (Although flamenco, I hope, typically doesn’t end in a death.) Next, Juan introduced me to the fan. He snapped his open like the pro that he is, while I struggled with mine like Julia Roberts in the opera scene from “Pretty Woman.” (For a short clip, click here.)
It really is all in the wrist.
The last prop: castanets. I remember having a pair of red ones as a little girl, along with a small flamenco doll in a purple dress. Juan helped me slip them on to each thumb and showed me where the two parts of the thick black string need to be securely in place. Playing the castanets, or attempting to, is like playing scales on a piano or stretching your fingers to find a chord on the neck of a guitar. The right hand strums the castanet one finger at a time, while the left adds bass notes. Brrrrrrrrump (right) ump-ump (left). Each hand tells its own story.
Somehow, dancing is still supposed to happen with each of these props. Thankfully we used only one at a time. As with anything, once you master the basics, you can improvise and add in aspects of your personality to make the dance your own.
(Click on the link below for a very amateur, dark and at times blurry one-minute iPhone video of Juan dancing during the show.)
But the dance begins in the hands, the outermost feathers of the arms ~ which are the wings of the heart, as my yoga teacher Catharine Eberhart says. The parts of us that give and receive, release and hold. The parts of us that reach out and embrace others and let go when it’s time. The parts of us that seek connection, whether through physical touch or the kind of touch that can be established through the things we can create with our hands, in what we offer from our hearts.
My one-hour lesson seemed to stretch the boundaries of time. I was grateful for the private class and Juan’s patience and clear guidance, in English. I’ve wanted to take flamenco classes for ages but have not been able to find any at home. It was a miracle to be able to get such special treatment while on vacation in the home of the form.
I now have a better understanding of flamenco but still don’t know what it’s all about. I speak a tiny bit of Spanish, but I can never understand the singers. And mystery is okay. It’s essential in any art form. A natural dancer, I am not, but there is something about flamenco that stirs unnamed places in me. When an artist’s body, heart and spirit unite, it’s transcendent, and that can be conveyed only in feeling, not words. As flashy as flamenco can be, it’s not about what’s on the outside.
“This dance emerges from the soul, from the depths of the inner being, from the place where passion, emotion and creation breathe. Chakras must be opened, like budhists say. We must surrender to the force of mastery, refine our taste, sharpen our perception, awaken our curiosity. Everyone of us hides a poet’s dream inside. … We must paint canvases with castanets, fans, drum boxes, shawls, guitars and feet.” ~ Tablao Flamenco Cafetín La Quimera
Thank you, Juan, and thank you, Jennifer Yglesias of Letango Tours, for setting up the lesson.