Barefoot Flamenco Por Favor: A Belly Dancer Studying Flamenco in Seville
“One hour of the flamenco class costs 60 Euros,” the nice at the hotel desk reports. The Seville Flamenco Museum brochure has a photo of students with lazy hands and awkward arms. They are not dancers.
“The other classes are for long-term students,” she says. Tomorrow is Monday, and we leave Seville on Tuesday.
Just one weekend before in my hometown of Ithaca NY, the bartenders in our Mexican restaurant told me that the man sitting a couple seats down at the bar was a flamenco singer from Seville. What a world. His name was Cristian de Moret, and he looked so young. He told me that his troupe from Seville was performing in Ithaca the next night. I wanted to know them, but was running out of time.
I bought tickets to the performance. One of the dancers entered the stage slowly in a long white skirt. She danced beautifully with her hands. And then she just barely lifted her skirt and exposed her bare feet, free of flamenco shoes. It struck me. I want to dance flamenco, but the shoes have always kept me away.
The three singers paced the stage slowly, eventually turning inward to each other. Their voices collided harmonically like the call of prayer flying out of the minarets of three mosques at prayer time. Arabe. Arabs once ruled Southern Spain. The skilled guitarist sat casually on the steps of the simple set. The lead male dancer was creative and powerful.
The performers acknowledge a woman in the front row of the theater with red flowers in her hair. Her name is Laurel Sonne, and she was one of the people who brought these performers to our small city in upstate New York.
Standing in the hotel lobby in Seville I realize that Laurel Sonne was the person to ask all along. Luckily Laurel responds quickly to my message.
“ is teaching at Juan studio on Calle Sol. Victor, if he is in town, is teaching at Cristina Hoyos Museo in the Santa Cruz area. And Angel Atienza in Triana.” Finally! I ask the right person in the right language and get the right information. Go figure.
The requests and questions I sent previously to a few flamenco schools were in English. Silly. Who has time for that? I use google translate and resend the messages in Spanish and receive responses quickly.
Tomorrow I will dance flamenco.
I wake up saying the same thing every morning when my feet touch the floor. “I love my life. I love my life.” My black lace skirt slips on easy and head to Juan studio for class with and Juan at 10am and 11am. It is a beautiful Monday morning. I am singing the Ladino song “” to myself dancing through the narrow maze of a city, feeling its grace rise up to meet the soles of my feet from beneath the stone streets.
Not having flamenco shoes will not be a problem, I decide. I sprained my ankle 5 times and dislocated a kneecap, so high heel shoes just don’t work for me. It’s not a big deal, right?
For a moment I think about the flamenco show my mother and I saw at the museum a couple nights before, glasses of red wine in hand.
Our eyes were at stage level. The musicians entered the stage.
Flecks of black paint jumped off of the stage as the dancers stomped. They shimmy with their feet. One dancer was wearing an apron over her tiered skirt. Her turns were strong, like she was throwing open the door to the muses. She endearingly had danced her apron sideways by the end of her song.
A yellow flower flew like a rocket into the audience from another dancer’s hair. She looked at the person sitting where it landed like she demanded thanks. And each of them shimmied with her feet. They were musicians as well as dancers. Sometimes they snap with their fingers pointing toward the earth, as if castanets were dangling.
The male dancer could make the loudest sound with just his thumb and middle finger. And he reminded me of Prince, skinny pants zipped up past his belly button. Perfect posture. When he turned a shower of something flew from his hair. It was a rainbow of wet, too early in the performance for sweat. Dramatic pauses came when least expected, followed by bursts of rhythm and eyes of piercing passion. The performance was stunning.
Later that night we went to La to see more. It looked 100 years old inside. A glass of red wine and sangria cost less than 5 Euros. We sat on a bench behind the performers. Hushes passed through the crowd as the guitarist played. The dancer stomped on a 4’x4’ black square of wood. The night air came into the old bar, mixing with wine and music. Everything was illuminated through repurposed aluminum can light fixtures, suspended between usefulness and garbage. What poetry.
There is something precious about performers who are not professionals. The lone male dancer in the bar was quite different than the one on the Flamenco Museum stage. His motivation to perform felt different. Unpolished. Commoner. Relatable rather than untouchable. His hands were impressive, but not perfect.
It is the hands of a flamenco dancer that I seek. The turns. The percussive stomping is beautiful, so how will I take these flamenco classes without the shoes? The studio is getting closer.
The streets of Seville are so soft, made of irregular stones muffling this age of industry and incessant noise. The compass points to Calle Sol. Reading a map is almost useless with all of these short winding streets. My lace skirt tickles my ankles. A few old men walk with me through the morning.
There’s a bit of in European men walking the streets, hat cocked to one side. A cup of something on their mind.
This must be what it feels like to walk in heaven.
The sign for the Juan studio on Calle Sol makes me pause. This marks an important moment in my life. This is really happening. Another one of my dreams of marrying the world one dance at a time is coming into fruition. My family united by the language of movement and music is growing. How blessed. I open the door.
The studio is busy with cheek kissing and shoe strapping, purses being hurled in various directions. Skirts sweeping the smooth floor. These are not quick-stop tourists like me taking one class. These are dancers.
I introduce myself to Jesus at the front desk ask if it is ok to dance without shoes. Shit. He says there are extra shoes in the box in the dressing room. I nod and duck into the dressing room. I pull out a couple pairs of shoes, looking at them as if they were a death sentence for my ankles. They fit, and I can walk mindfully in them until the class starts. Jesus and Juan said it would be safer for me to wear the shoes. I’m sure they are right in terms of being stepped on and protecting the bottom of my feet. But I am more worried about my ankle. I will stand in the back corner to escape the eyes of the instructor and remove the shoes ASAP. That’s my plan.
Monday turns out to be the perfect day to drop in to these classes. The other dancers are studying for at least a week, and this choreography instruction begins today.
The dancers line up facing the mirror in the windowless studio. I look down at my borrowed shoes, torn to bits inside. These shoes look adorable, so old school and blocky. And tough as well. Like one could walk fearlessly on top of a broken wine glasses.
The technique teacher enters the room barefoot. I rejoice inside. She puts music on and warms us up starting with our fingers and wrists. We repeat subtle variations of and wrist circles stroking the hair of the invisible grandmothers around us. Our arms extend and arch like flying buttresses of the ancient Cathedral of Seville. Our eyes look beyond our reflections in the mirror as we all become the body of the teacher.
changes the music and puts her shoes on, and I retreat into the back corner to take mine off. The shoes are there if she insists, but hopefully she will not interrupt the class. Then I can focus on the movements instead of trying not to hurt myself.
Together we step forward firmly, strike the floor as we rock back, sweep our foot around in front to turn, and turn again with our foot swinging behind on one heel and one toe. So nice. notices my bare feet and keeps teaching.
And in the next class, Juan begins by clapping a unique rhythm. We join him. And then he starts to sing. I’ve never heard a dance instructor sing to a class. He sounds like gypsy to me. It is just the sound of our hands, his voice, and our feet. We are the instruments. We accompany ourselves.
The choreography starts slow with in and out, arms like giant jaws closing and opening around our heads. We throw our hand out to the side, both hands hit our thighs and we plunge our arms above our heads as if to be saved from drowning. Open palms turn to fists. We walk sideways, hips just barely rolling down one at a time. We draw our arms down to embrace our invisible partner, chest raised on one side, and turn. Slap both hands on our chest, thighs and raise our arms high again with serious attention.
And then Juan asks the people in the back row to come up front. He looks at my feet. Shit. I quickly ask for forgiveness and get right next to him in the mirror.
His passion is contagious. My facial expression shifts with his. I feel a glimpse of what a Spanish flamenco dancer might feel like. We all move together in the intimate studio, almost touching the front mirror. It is as if we are one.
The class ends and we file out of the studio. Everyone looks pleased. A rack of skirts and scarves awaits us. Jesus shows me the skirt that Laurel Sonne bought from him on one of her trips to Seville. I am tracing her footsteps. A long fringe scarf my eye, and in the studio mirror Jesus shows me five ways to wear it on my hips, shoulders and chest. I buy it to add to my collection of cherished costumes back home. Jesus kisses on my cheeks as I leave. It’s as if I am leaving a place I have been many times before. Less than three hours passed, and so much changed.
A cloud carries me away from the studio. The colors outside are richer. My smile is inescapable. Everything is music. I go to have lunch in a vegan restaurant called Gaia and then drink wine in Triana with my mother.
And soon it is time for another flamenco class. Angel’s studio in Triana feels different. It looks like the students have been here longer than one week, and the turn class will probably be the last one of their day. The studio is full of students finishing another class.
Bruna welcomes me in the sunny office. I thank her and Angel for allowing me to drop in and take a photo to send to Laurel. I apologized in advance for dancing barefoot. Bruna suggests dancing in my sandals, but I know they will not stay on while turning. I just say “Ok” and bring the sandals into the back row of the studio.
We jump right in to the turns. Angel raises himself up on one toe and does a quarter turn, then a half turn, and then a full turn. His form was angelic, so straight and perfect. And then he adds footwork.
Toe heel, toe heel, step back in preparation, and turn.
And then we add the arms. We change directions, switching between half and full and quarter turns. We are starting to get it, and then he stops the class. He wants us to do the step for him one by one and give us personal feedback. Inside my head I refuse to get nervous, and trust my body. Angel claps and counts the rhythm out for each of us. His claps are so powerful and encouraging that we cannot hear any other rhythm but his.
It is my turn. Angel tells me to stay forward. I did not realize that I was leaning back. He says it again in English. Stay forward.
And the footwork gets harder. Again, I refuse to feel inferior. I focus on replicating the teacher even when losing my balance and the steps.
Bruna brings a chair into the studio so my mother can watch. She glows.
The one-hour class ends with applause, and quickly shake off the feeling that I was not good enough to be in the class. When we did the new step for Angel one by one, it was clear that we were all as good as we could be at that moment, and we were on our way to getting better and better.
My legs are tired. My feet feel strange. My heart is happy.