The guitarist dragged his fingers across the strings. Around the circle, men in high-backed wooden chairs started clapping against hollow palms. A girl with tight jeans and a fringed shawl sang the high opening notes of an alegria, a song that denotes joy and spontaneity. I thought for a long time. And then I stood up.
My sandals clang to the sticky stone floor as I made my way to the middle of the circle. After a period of time that felt roughly as long as the last ice age, I got there. I trained my ear for the rhythm, and then began. STEP, step STEP, step STEP... STEP... STEP STEP. With a sickly surge of adrenaline, I realized that I – a self-conscious Brit with lanky limbs and a desk slave’s posture – was in Spain, dancing flamenco with the gypsies of Jerez.
Well, dancing may have been overstating it. I shuffled a bit to the right, then a bit to the left, then sat back down, overcome. I may have been taking evening classes for years, and I may have loved flamenco with the intensity of an Inca priest regarding the rising sun, but I was under no illusions. I sucked.
When you are a child, you like to be good at things. When you are an adult, you like to be good at things too, but you have a more complex relationship with failure. Any big setbacks in my juvenile attempts to ride a horse or swim front crawl would have persuaded me to go do something else instead. As an adult, however, I continue to attend a flamenco class given by a teacher who has said the following:
You dance like an articulated lorry struggling up a mountain road.
You remind me of a soldier who has been shot and who is trying to escape, dragging his injured leg behind him.
You have all the fluidity of a fridge.
You look like an arthritic old man dancing on boiling tarmac.
You look like you are stranded on a desert island, waving at a passing ship.
Luckily, he is even better at flamenco than he is at invective. Short, bald, wearing shiny, heeled boots, a cropped I heart NY T-shirt, and tracksuit bottoms with one of the legs rolled up, he still manages to capture something heart-breaking with the tilt of his neck or flick of his fingers. It’s this strength of feeling, this unembarrassed immersion in the moment, that’s even harder for outsiders like me to get than counting to twelve while moving your arms in one direction and your legs in another.
Don’t be fooled by those souvenir Spanish dolls, devoured by their flouncy dresses: Flamenco is all about intense and angry emotion. Originating among the impoverished gypsies of rural Andalusia in southern Spain, it is the song of the outcasts, the cry of the oppressed, which poses certain challenges for a night school group including a few media types, a doctor, and a financial advisor. True flamenco, as Lorca wrote, means finding duende, a spirit that lifts you out of yourself.
Personally, I doubt I will ever manage to put as much feeling into my dancing as I have seen in one exasperated gesture from a woman selling vegetables at an Andalusian market, but I’ve picked up some steps. To start with, these were simple rhythms, stamped out like Morse code. Now, after four years, they’re complicated combinations of strikes with the toe, the heel, or the flat of my foot, the sequences lodged into my brain so that I tap them out every time I’m waiting at a bus stop.
Even without any demonstrable natural flair for dance, there is a satisfaction to improving over time, to realizing that I can spin around without stumbling, or master a tricky bit of footwork. As I've nudged out of the beginner classes and upwards, it has felt a little like that old chestnut about economic growth: A rising tide lifts all boats, even if, in my case, the boat leans a bit to the side and has a dodgy rudder. In any case, I get much more out of flamenco than a shaky sense of achievement: It thrills my soul, banishes stress, and allows me to get good, regular exercise without having to wear Lycra or go to a gym.
Such is my obsession that when friends ask if I’m off to salsa tonight, or how my tango class went, I am reduced to disproportionate and incoherent rage. Sometimes I send them a YouTube clip, maybe of Sara Baras, one of the greatest modern dancers, kicking up a hurricane in her metal-plated shoes, and say, with a wounded flourish, “This is flamenco.”.
My own attempt to get to the heart of flamenco involved a trip to Jerez in the hot, dry south of Spain a couple of years after I took my first class. I signed up for a Spanish course, stayed with a retired couple who spoke no English because foreign languages weren’t taught under Franco, and visited a flamenco peña, or club, in the gypsy quarter. After a show there, some people stayed on in the bar to drink and sing. Everyone was indulgent towards my brief attempt at dancing. I did it because I would have regretted not doing it; and also because I’d drunk a lot of beer.
Since that trip, I’ve made do with a tamer version of flamenco, the kind learned by rote in a dance studio near my home in Geneva. Every Tuesday night after work, I fasten the buckles of my shoes and try to step into someone else’s skin.