It's Monday morning, my second dance class of the day. "The floor's not going to break," says Felipe Mato, my teacher. It's one of the many ways he will find to tell me that I'm not stomping hard enough. I already feel like I'm driving the metal surface of my heels through the boards, which are springy in some places and splintery in others from constant pounding, but as he points out, they show no signs of giving way. Hammering with my feet, striving for rhythm, has made my thighs hurt and sent such jarring reverberations through my body that I've developed an ache in my shoulder. So far, though, it has failed to produce the right sound.
This is my idea of a vacation: three hours of flamenco class a day in the birthplace of the art form, Seville, Spain. To the other students at the school, Taller Flamenco, this seems entirely normal; if anything, my intended stay of just one week is bizarrely short. My two classmates this morning, Yang from Taiwan and Pepe from Mexico, are both in Seville for more than a month. They're also both better than me, making clearer, louder sounds with their feet and picking up the steps with alacrity.
At home I'd been making it to about one dance class a week, trudging forth on increasingly dark autumn nights, arriving tired and forgetting much of what I had learned between one class and the next. It was no way to nurture a passion or even the most basic of skills. My hope in Seville is to absorb as much flamenco as possible. I want to kick-start my dancing but also give myself a crash course in the music and the wider flamenco world.
In Andalusia, the region of Spain that kisses the northwestern tip of Africa, it's chilly in the late fall, but the sky is unfailingly blue. I'm staying with Taller Flamenco's office manager, Monica Sanchez, who rents her extra bedrooms to the school's guitar, dance, and Spanish-language students. It's a Spartan flat with signs on the wall asking guests to refrain from using anyone else's olive oil and from practicing guitar during siesta time.
Monica lives in a neighborhood called La Macarena, not far from the Basilica of the Virgin of La Macarena. This particular version of the virgin is heavily worshiped in this most Mary-centric of cities, which has made Macarena a familiar girl's name. The woman who picked me up from the airport pointed out to me, unbidden, that the moniker, the barrio, and the mother of God all came before the dance. That would be the dance the whole world grew to know and loathe in the '90s, as it spread from European nightclub to American sports stadium to Bollywood and beyond. As far as I can tell, macarena-the-dance has nothing to do with flamenco; it's got more in common with the hokey-pokey. But I am indeed at its source: It was written and originally recorded by a couple of Sevillanos, Antonio Romeo Monge and Rafael Ruiz, who make up the duo Los Del Río.
I throw back a steaming café con leche at the counter of a bar where the owner, Fernando, calls the middle-aged patrons by name. Thus fortified, I head for my first class of the day. It's a private lesson with Lourdes Recio, an experienced teacher and performer who has apprenticed with the likes of Eva Yerbabuena, possibly the most celebrated female dancer of our time.
I put on a practice skirt—long, voluminous, and elasticized at the waist—but by the end of the day's classes I decide to dispense with it. At two schools where I took flamenco in Washington, D.C., skirts were de rigueur. Now this strikes me as an American elevation of paraphernalia over substance, the sort of prioritizing that sells yoga-mat carriers. Here, it's immediately apparent to me that I'm not good enough to be messing around with all that fabric. Not until my legs and feet can produce STAMP, HEEL, TOE, HEEL, STAMP, STAMP, HEEL, TOE, HEEL, TOE, HEEL, STAMP, STAMP, STAMP with perfect timing. For the rest of the week I'll stick to wearing leggings.
Flamenco shoes, on the other hand, are essential. I considered mine a worrisomely big commitment when I laid down $120 to get them, but they've served me well for a year and a half. For women, flamenco footwear means a well-reinforced pump with a strong two-inch heel and a strap across the ankle, with small nails driven into the heel and the tip of the toe to make a smooth metal surface. Men wear something similar but in ankle-boot form.
As in most technique-oriented flamenco classes, Lourdes devotes some time to listening to the music and clapping to the rhythm. This isn't at all simple. It's so tricky, in fact, that the school runs entire courses devoted to compás, or rhythm—clapping classes, in effect. As she changes CDs, drilling me on different beats, Lourdes probably wishes I were enrolled in one.
All dancers have to have rhythm, of course, but flamenco demands a musical understanding like no other dance form. For one thing, a flamenco dancer uses her body as a percussive instrument, providing not merely visuals but also accompaniment to the guitarist and singer. Toes and heels pound the floor, while hands clap, slap, or play castanets.
For another, the music is difficult. Many of the most common palos, or types, of flamenco songs are utterly unfamiliar to ears schooled on the three- and four-count rhythms of Western classical music. The traditional soleá, for instance, is based on a repeating pattern of 12 beats.
Lourdes sits down but doesn't ask me to, so I remain standing. She presses "Play" and starts clapping to the soleá, and I join her. TRES, quatro, cinco, seis, SIETE, OCHO, nueve, DIEZ, uno, DOS, uno, dos.
I'm able to follow her, but when she stops and tells me to continue on my own, I fumble. After we try this a few times, I'm able to keep going on my own by counting out loud and concentrating furiously. As soon as I have it, though, Lourdes tells me not to count. "You have to get it from the music," she says. I try to feel the music, but this is too much to ask, and I keep on counting in my head. I try not to let my lips move.
Lourdes changes the music from a soleá to a faster tune she says is an alegría, then to one she says is a bulería. Like the soleá, they both also involve repeating patterns of 12 beats.
"So alegrías and bulerías are types of soleá?" I ask.
"Not types," she says. "Soleá is the mother. Alegrías and bulerías came from it. They are her children." She plays another tune that she says is a "soleá por bulerías," which, I gather, means something like soleá in the manner of bulerías. Which, of course, tells me nothing. As I switch from one mirror-lined studio to another for my second class, I decide I had better sign up for Clapping 101.