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The Furious Heels of Flamenco

The first time I met Manuela Carpio, I was terrified. I wanted her to like me; the best flamenco teachers in Jerez had a reputation for denying beginners entry into their classes (they only want to spend their precious time with advanced dancers and had no patience for novices). And I was a real beginner. I had never even heard a bulería song before moving to teach English abroad to Jerez (Spain). I had vague notions about what flamenco was, the glimpses I’d seen and heard throughout my multicultural upbringing, but in reality, I had no idea.

teach english abroad
My flamenco shoes, right before attending a buleria class
teach english abroad
After a class with a colleague and my Spanish dance teacher

Jerez, as it were, is the epicenter of flamenco. The true history is much more complicated than that (it is actually spread out between three cities—Sevilla, Cadiz, and Jerez), but for our purposes, we’ll say it’s Jerez. Either way, the strand of flamenco we learned (bulería) was born in Jerez, and it is one of the forms that most captures the essence of the city. It is improvised, it is wild, and it is close to the earth.

It was somewhat surprising, then, when Manuela turned out to be a magnanimous being, her eyes glittering with something like mischief and joy. No, really, I now understand the cliché description of someone’s twinkling eyes. Her long, dark hair was usually pulled back with a flower or colorful hair tie, and she was always dressed impeccably with a gold cross adorning her neck.

I was invited by a friend to sit in on a group class. Manuela’s studio is in San Telmo, a typically Gypsy neighborhood of Jerez. There are pink polka-dotted curtains, and the walls are covered in photographs of all shapes and sizes: pictures of Manuela’s epic performances, photos of her stunning youth, and portraits of the flamenco gods.

The group class was simple. Six dancers arranged their chairs in a semicircle, Manuela among them, and they all began clapping to the bulería beat (stomp-2-3-4-5-6). Manuela sang her powerful flamenco song (called a cante), and one by one the dancers completed their choreography, stopping for corrections every now and then. Most of them looked as intimidated as I felt, but Manuela was uplifting and impossibly charming (“anda, guapa!”). At one point, she turned to me and gestured for me to take the floor, to which I shook my head furiously and said, “yo no sé nada!”

“¿Nada, nada?” she asked incredulously. I confirmed that indeed, I knew nothing about bulería, thinking surely this meant she’d deny me classes.

At the end of the class, I thanked her profusely for letting me watch and I inquired about private classes. “Listen,” she said, “you’re a friend of one of my girls, and I can tell you’re a good person. I like you. Even though you know nothing, I’ll take you. Find a friend who also knows nothing, and we’ll do private classes.”

I was elated! Here was an opportunity to work with a legend in her own right, to throw myself wholeheartedly into something I knew nothing about. The next week, my good friend Natasa and I showed up to her studio, our brand new flamenco heels in tow. And so the work began.

When our local friends learned we were taking flamenco classes, they were surprised to find we were learning bulería. “But that’s so hard!” they cried, expecting us to learn the typical sevillanas, a much simpler folk dance that is common at the annual fair. We accepted the challenge, and oh what a challenge it was!

We met with Manuela once a week at her studio, and she gradually taught us two different choreographies. The most important thing, she said, was finding the compas, or the rhythm. Unlike many teachers, Manuela didn’t really count out her steps—she simply taught us beats (pa-pa-PA PA PA), and we had to mimic them and truly interiorize them. When we became familiar with the steps, Manuela began to sing along. At her core, she is a performer, and it is almost difficult to concentrate on the dance when Manuela starts to sing.

For our last class, Manuela brought a guitarist. I only wish we had the guitar sooner; it completely changed the dynamic of our dance. I often lost myself in the choreography (when I wasn’t busy trying to get the difficult zapateo steps that were at times like a complex tap dance), but was completely transported by the live music accompanying our fierce stomps.

Manuela was incredibly proud of our progress and said that she had seldom seen beginners with our competency. In the end, Manuela became more than a teacher; she was our confidant and inspiration. Our classes were a process of self-discovery, of launching ourselves into something completely unknown to us, and we emerged with a little more rhythm and plenty of memories to show for it.

2014/2015. Posted by Thais M.

29 July, 2019

An experience that will challenge you, teach you, and change you

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