In 1998 I traveled to Spain to study flamenco. My plan was simple (and not very well thought out): Travel around, settle somewhere in Andalucía, find flamenco classes, find work. I had no contacts in Spain, no leads on where to study or work. I didn’t even know what city I was going to live in.
I just knew that if I wanted to learn flamenco I needed to go to Spain.
Today I'll tell you about finding flamenco in Sevilla, what it taught me about perseverance, and how it can help you.
I didn't plan much before I left for Spain. In part because I wanted to get a feel for the different cities before choosing where to settle. In part because thinking it through felt too overwhelming, and the more I thought about the details, the more I thought about changing my mind and staying put. I spoke Spanish, I had a strong desire to learn, I had saved enough money to hold me over for awhile, I felt ready for an adventure, and I knew I could figure things out once I arrived.
My sister decided to join me for the first month. We met up in Barcelona and traveled around exploring Spain and doing our best to scope out the flamenco scene until she had to head back home.
As soon as she left it hit me, I was all alone in a foreign country, no friends, no contacts, no idea where to study, and completely full of fear. What had I been thinking? Why was I here all alone? I wasn’t even a dancer. Would they even have beginning classes for adults? How would I find them? Why hadn’t I done some research?
I yearned to go home.
But I couldn't admit defeat that quickly. I continued traveling by myself for a bit longer, avoiding the start of my flamenco studies. Less than two weeks later I headed to Sevilla where I would live for the next several months.
I’d found my city. Now I had to find flamenco.
So I went to the dance conservatory. It was a huge old building with marble floors and high ceilings. I didn't feel like I belonged in this place where dancers went, but I walked in and inquired about flamenco classes. The woman told me they did not offer flamenco. She suggested I to go to Matilde Coral’s academy in Triana.
Off I went to the Calle Castilla in search of the academy.
As I approached the school the fear set in. I arrived at the front door. This was really going to happen. I could hear music, people laughing and talking, dancers dancing. At this point I should have felt excited. I had come all this way to study flamenco, and here I was, moments away from living out my dream, yet I was overcome with fear. I wanted to turn around, maybe try again the next day, but I forced myself to go in.
Right there in the lobby stood Matilde. She was a big woman with an even bigger presence. Something felt familiar about her though I wasn't sure what it was. (I didn’t realize it then but just a few months before I had seen her in Carlos Saura's Flamenco and Sevillanas.)
“I’m looking for information about flamenco classes,” I told her.
“We have flamenco classes, escuela bolera, castañuelas…” I really didn’t know what she was talking about.
“I’m looking for beginning flamenco classes.” I explained.
“We have a beginning class starting right now, You’re just in time,” she told me, expecting me to take it.
“No, I don’t think you understand. I don’t know anything. I’m not a dancer, and I’ve only taken a couple of flamenco classes in my life, and I don’t remember a thing.” I told her.
“That’s ok, it’s a beginning* class,” she encouraged me.
“But I don’t have any shoes. I don’t have a skirt. I can’t possibly take the class right now,” Matilde could see I wasn't budging, and finally she allowed me to observe.
I slipped in the door of the dance studio and took a seat on the floor. I saw fast footwork, arms and hands moving in unison, students in black skirts full of intensity. Clearly this class was not for me. What in the world had I been thinking? Why had I come here?
Why had I thought I had it in me to learn to dance flamenco?
“¿Qué tal?” asked Matilde after class. “What do you think?” I shook my head.
She invited me into her office. I explained to her that there was NO POSSIBLE WAY I could take the class that I had just watched. All of those girls already knew so much. I would hold everyone back. I wouldn't be able to follow.
She sensed my fear. And felt my stubbornness.
She offered an idea, a solution to my distress.
“Take this number,” She gave me the name and number of one of her advanced students, Ana. (You can see both her and Matilde dancing in the movie Flamenco here.) Ana had her own flamenco school for little kids. “She can give you private classes,” Matilde told me.
Big. sigh. of. relief.
A class just for me. That felt like something I could handle.
So I began taking classes with Ana, twice a week, one hour a day. Just after she finished teaching her children’s sevillanas class. The kids were about six years old. I distinctly remember one little girl, Pilar, blonde hair, always full of questions, “Who is she?” “What does she dance?” "How old is she?" "Why is she the only student in her class?" she would ask Ana.
I felt like a big, awkward weirdo.
Ana told me I needed to get flamenco shoes. I completely disregarded her. I couldn’t see why this was so important. My character shoes looked almost exactly the same as her flamenco shoes, except for the nails. She told me to get a fan. This I did. She told me the name of the song we were dancing to; Maestranza from Manolo Sanlúcar’s Tauromagia. I bought the CD.
Ana was about my age. Nice though not very warm and seemingly uninterested in teaching me. The classes were a struggle. I felt constantly nervous that I wasn’t getting things fast enough for Ana’s liking. But I loved the way we moved our bodies. I loved the fan. I loved the footwork combinations. I loved the hands. I loved the challenge and the satisfaction when I would get something. And I loved the pace. Even though I felt like I was boring Ana, I felt relieved not to be holding anyone back.
In the beginning I couldn't even practice outside of class,
Everything felt so foreign that by the time I got home I could no longer access it. I didn't have a video camera, but I did have a note pad. I began writing down the steps. Ana had never seen anything like it. I could feel her impatience every time I stopped to write down a step. But she got used to it, probably noticing how it helped me. “¿Te lo apuntas?” “Do you want to write it down?” she began asking me after showing me something new.
I soon got to the point where I could actually practice at home. I was finally retaining stuff, finally getting better! I would get smiles from Ana. This felt good.
After a couple of months I began taking more classes from another teacher and renting studio space to practice in. I added in palmas classes and practices with a guitar student I had met. I got my first metronome. I started listening to flamenco music. Pretty soon Ana told me I was ready to take classes at Matilde’s academy. (More on that later. In the meantime, you can see some pictures below.)
I felt myself improving, but the more I learned the more I realized how little I knew and how much more I had yet to learn...
I ended up staying in Spain for almost a year. I spent the first three to four months longing to go home. I really had no idea what I had signed up for. I wanted to leave so badly; I wanted to give up on flamenco, but pride kept me there. I wasn't willing to go home and admit that it had been too hard. I needed to stick with it, I needed to feel I had accomplished something.
Had I known then what I know now perhaps I would have approached things differently. Maybe I would have studied the dance and listened to more flamenco music before heading to Spain. Maybe I would have thrown myself into more classes from the start even though I felt afraid. Maybe I would have gone with a group. I'm not sure. But I did it the way I did it, and I learned some important lessons in the process.
Perhaps the biggest lesson was to persevere.
When you want to give up, keep going.
Sooner or later it will get better, and it's probably worth the wait.
Had I given up and come home who knows what I would be doing today. More importantly, who knows how I would have felt about myself. And who knows what kind of pattern that would have set for my life going forward. I learned the value of perseverance. With it comes growth. With it comes discovery. With it comes strength. I've been able to reference that time during many other instances in my life when I felt like giving up. I've been able to use it as evidence that I can do things I don't feel I'm capable of doing. I've been able to use it as a reminder that if I just stick with it, satisfaction (and often times something wonderful) awaits me on the other side.
Stay tuned ~ Later on I'll dissect some of the mistakes I made during that first trip and explain what I learned from them.
What About You?
What was your first flamenco learning experience like? How did it make you feel? What have you learned about perseverance through flamenco? Can you remember a time you wanted to give up but you kept going? How did that serve you? Please share in the comments below.
A Note on Beginning Classes in Spain
*It wasn’t until almost ten years later when I met Ricardo and he gave the first round of workshops in Portland that I learned that beginning doesn’t mean the same thing in Spanish as it does in English, at least not when referring to dance. Principiante (beginning level) means you have some background at least, Iniciación, (introductory level) is what I should have been asking for.
Dancing with Abanico
Dancing with the flamenco fan is one of my favorite things to do. Perhaps it’s because this first dance I learned was with a fan. (Or perhaps it runs in the family because my nieces always want to dance with abanico too.)
You would think it would be daunting, one more thing to do! Don't we already have enough to focus on? But, I find, that somehow using the fan can make the moves seem easier. In the beginning you don’t have to worry about how your hands look because one is holding the fan and one is holding the skirt. Later on you want to learn to move the other hand but at first it can safely be held at the waist. This is comforting as a beginner.
Do You Want to Study Flamenco in Spain?
Join me for the Flamenco Tour to Jerez for a small group flamenco vacation in España!
A NOTE: The top photo was taken during summer classes at Matilde Coral's academy. There I met lots of friends. I wish I had more photos to share with you. I couldn't find any of Ana, my first teacher. I'll keep looking and include some if I find any.