Claudette’s husband, Charles, stomps his way into her dance class and column.
by Sarah Marcus
Claudette: It started with an email to Tumbleweeds from the Institute for Spanish Arts: “Teen Flamenco Class, Scholarships Available!” I don’t have a teen, and I’m not one, but I saved it to announce on the Tumbleweeds Facebook page. A follow-up email arrived a few days later:
“We received many inquiries from adults interested in the class, so by popular demand the class will be open to adults as well!”
A little seed fell onto the ground….
I called the Institute for Spanish Arts and spoke with Mari, the operations manager.
“Yes, we have openings,” she said warmly. She told me what type of clothes to wear (a long skirt or loose pants). If I didn’t have my own flamenco shoes I could borrow a pair from the school. The class would meet twice weekly for 10 weeks.
“It’s a beginner class — I hope you’re okay with that.”
A little rain drizzled on the little seed, and it started to sprout.
Charles: When Claudette came home one day and announced that she was taking a flamenco class, I immediately blurted out, “Can I come too?” I’ve had a lifelong wish to learn how to dance, some kind of structured dance, not just flailing around to disco music. It’s hard to start cold in your 50s, though. I hadn’t necessarily wanted to learn flamenco, though it is beautiful music and dance — and completely new.
Claudette: I adore Spain. I haven’t stopped dreaming of returning there since my “flying sola” trip to Granada last year to study Spanish. I love flamenco — its mysterious movements and singing as obscure as a new language — but never pictured myself learning its exquisite, exotic movements. A beginner class might be just what I wanted — the basics; no experience necessary — to begin to decipher its mysteries.
Charles: I had a lot of trepidation that Claudette might resent me for being part of something she really wanted, or I might cling because I wasn’t sure of myself, or somehow we might ruin it. Because you can get too far into somebody’s space and what they want to do. I was acutely aware that in our new marriage, our “after-child marriage,” having our own separate space is just as important as having our lovey-dovey, we-are-one time; it’s a balancing act to figure out the things we can and should do together and the things we should do alone.
Claudette: I admit I had mixed feelings about taking the class with Charles. Would I enjoy it more on my own? Married life, post-kid, is about balancing separate time and together time; throw off that balance and you throw the relationship out of orbit. Would it be selfish of me to keep this to myself, or better to have my own experience that I could bring home to talk about?
I figured that if I didn’t encourage him, Charles would probably let the idea fall into the “someday” category.
Except that the next day, Susan, in the office next door to mine, threw up her arms flamenco-style and clapped when I told her I’d signed up for the class, and asked on her next breath, “Is your husband going to do it, too?”
“Yeah, he’s thinking about it.”
“You have to do it together!” she insisted. “Flamenco has such” — she looked around for a word —“so much yum-yum.”
I called Mari back to ask if it was open to men. “Yes,” she said, but I sensed she was fielding the question for the first time.
Okay, Charles. We’re on.
Charles: As soon as I found out I could take the class, I immediately had misgivings: I can’t do this. I’m scared. Do guys really do this stuff? I wanted to try one class and see if I liked it, but they were so affordable, and everyone was so open and inviting, that I signed up for the whole series. Everything about it was unthreatening; it was in an old gymnasium, in an old closed-down school. Yes, men could take the class, but as it turned out I’m the only man in the class of anywhere from six to 20 women.
Claudette: We started lessons on the first Tuesday in October. Our teacher, an adorable young woman named Emi, with a Jean Arthur voice and jet-black hair, has gone through ISA’s Next Generation pre-professional company, and at 20 is already performing professionally with Antonio Granjero. She started us with the basic steps: golpe (stomp hard), planta (plant the sole), tacon (drop the heel); the arm positions; and the floreo — how the hands and fingers curl into long-petaled flowers. How to clap: Palm to palm or fingers to palm, with their different sounds. How to stand: Chest out, shoulders down. Don’t break the line from shoulder to fingertips. Keep a space between the torso and arms — pick an apple, put it in a basket; pick an apple, put it in a basket.
“Thaaaaat’s it!” she said as we clomped around like elephants reaching for apples with our trunks. “Great job, guys!”
Charles: Our teachers are gentle but firm. Certain movements are different for men, and they point those out to me, but at the beginner level those differences are small. Nothing is made of the fact that I’m the only man in the class. I don’t feel any expectations of me other than to try to follow along and learn. For now I’m just trying to keep time and learn the footwork that everybody has to learn. I’m just another body in there trying to learn how to do this dance.
Claudette: “Have we started too late?” I ask Charles, getting into the car after our third class. It’s an obvious, nearly idiotic question. We’re starting in our 50s. We’ll never attain the grace of our teacher Emi, who began studying with Maria Benitez when she was 4. Or La Gran Maria herself, who has mesmerized me since I first saw her perform 20 years ago.
But unlike classical ballet — with its metaphor of weightlessness, effortlessness, floating — flamenco honors maturity, passion, life. Unlike classical ballerinas, who peak in their 20s, a flamenco bailaora can perform well into her 60s. Flamenco is a dance of earthiness. Experience. Hips.
So the question becomes: too late for what?
Charles: I’m getting the steps and working hard on adding the arm movements. It’s no longer a total mystery – there’s some rhyme and reason to what we’re doing.
Claudette: For a while, each lesson feels like an isolated bubble, floating for an hour and then popping. But after several lessons I begin to remember enough to practice at home. It’s still dizzyingly hard, but too fun to consider stopping.
Emi left at the end of October, to dance with Granjero in San Antonio. Panic! But her replacement, Amanda, has an equally wonderful, complementary teaching style. Jaime, a flamenco guitarist, plays accompaniment for each class. Amanda has taught us the steps of a basic sevillana, the southern Spanish folk dance.
“Ok,” she nodded after this week’s class. “I think you got it.”
“Got it” is a very, very relative term. But I’ll take it.
Charles: It’s kind of cool in midlife to have these opportunities, and to take them. To do them with my wife is kind of the icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned.
Claudette: I’m learning that life-post-kid has as many phases as child-rearing. A year or so ago I did clamor for space in our post-kid married life. I’m glad we were both willing to stretch our relationship to allow for that. I’m glad we can — and both want to — do this class together.
And what a treasure Santa Fe has in the Maria Benitez’s Institute for Spanish Arts. Many thanks to the Santa Fe Public Schools, which rents space to ISA and the Santa Fe Youth Symphony in the former Larragoite Elementary School. It’s gratifying to see one of these erstwhile elementary schools providing arts education to kids — and some very lucky adults.
Charles: You know the saying about riding a bicycle and chewing gum at the same time? Putting the pieces together that make up flamenco is difficult. Hard but very satisfying. When I stomp my feet — loud, hard — it feels great. I feel like I have shoulders and a chest. It’s a very powerful experience. I feel like a bull when I do this!
We didn’t set out to focus this issue of Tumbleweeds on the arts, but it drifted that way. When Santa Fe High School’s theater department was one of just 26 programs selected from 2500 schools in the U.S. and Canada for the Edinburgh Theatre Festival Fringe next summer, we knew we had to get them in here. Then two creative teachers from Rio Grande School asked to share their first grade class’s “story paintings,” an inspired project merging art with literacy, which you’ll find sprinkled throughout this issue and on our website. Then, a group of amazing high school students who spent a month together on the Bali Art Project agreed to share some of the lasting influences of that journey. You know how art is…got a mind of its own….
Charles: ¡Hasta luego!