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Contratiempo

Finding balance on the dance floor.

SPANISH STEPS Newton's Carol Reichert learns to dance flamenco from one of her teachers, Carmen Alvarez. (Photograph by Jerry Shereda) SPANISH STEPS Newton's Carol Reichert learns to dance flamenco from one of her teachers, Carmen Alvarez.
By Carol Reichert
March 27, 2011

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My train rolls out of the Granada station, and I smirk like a fugitive. I feel as if I’ve gotten away with something, even though my husband and two small children know I’m on board.

For the second time in two years, we’ve swapped our suburban East Coast American life for a rural one in Albunuelas, a scruffy, whitewashed village in Andalusia. The children attend the village school, my photographer husband takes pictures, and I dance. Our trips to Spain are long enough to push us from tourist to temporary resident, and we carry a card just to make it official.

With my flamenco profesora in Granada, I learn the firecracker footwork and florid hand movements, but I still can’t hear the beat. There’s no one-two-three about this fusion of Arabic, Indian, and African rhythms, and without learning it, I’ll never be able to dance. So I head to Seville for flamenco boot camp: five days of undistracted study at a school that teaches the “beginner with experience.”

The train chugs into the countryside; sunflowers tilt toward the sun, and fiery orange poppies shimmy as we pass. My husband is parenting solo for the week and expects nothing but lots of sex when I return. I’ve struck a good deal.

I arrive in Seville in early afternoon on the last day of feria, the celebration that occurs just after Semana Santa, Holy Week. I assume the Spaniards will be weary from weeks of partying, but there is relentless vitality. Men swagger down the streets in their wide-brimmed bolero hats and tight, high-waisted pants. Women swish past in brightly colored flamenco dresses that cinch their torsos then flare out mid-thigh in tiers of wide ruffles. They sweep their hair up with peinetas – combs decorated with flowers. Everyone is on display.

But I have no time for parties. I roll my suitcase over the cobblestones to my hotel and swear the wheels beat out the rhythm of a tango: uno, dos, tres, cuatro. Breathing in the air of yet another Spanish city that claims to be the birthplace of flamenco already helps my rhythm.

When I arrive at class the next morning, the school is closed. I wonder if the employees are still sleeping off their hangovers. Eventually, the office manager arrives and introduces me to my teacher Antonio and my classmates, Trina from Belgium and Emma from Australia.

Antonio is bleary-eyed and unshaven, with wild, uncombed hair that falls in black ringlets around his shoulders. He has the strong body of a dancer: powerful thighs, broad shoulders, narrow waist. We start with plantas, striking the soles of our feet on the ground – left, right, left, right, over and over again. Antonio shows us how high he lifts his leg back, until his heel almost touches his butt, and then he brings it down to the ground in a snap. “Alta, alta,” he says. “Higher, higher. That’s how you get the sound.”

Antonio seems annoyed with the entire class, but my Spanish teacher in Albunuelas warned me that most flamenco teachers are mean. They belittle you, beat you down. Thankfully, my classmates and I are about the same level, so Antonio hates us equally.

I walk past the school office after class, where the flamenco teachers gossip and smoke. My Spanish is good enough to understand that Antonio and his colleagues are complaining about poor pay. I meet my rhythm teacher, David, also known as La Gamba de Jerez, the Shrimp from Jerez. We sit in the tiny classroom, and David turns on the music.

“Do you know this rhythm?”

I listen hard but can’t recognize it.

“A tango.”

A tango. Easy, I think. I know this. Four beats. But it isn’t easy, after all. Bing, one, two, three, four. Bing, one, two, three, four. I’ve never noticed the bing before, an extra beat in the rhythm. David nods his head at the bing, then claps on one, two, three, and four. I ask him about the bing.

“No, no, no. The bing isn’t in the beginning. It’s between the two and the three. Contratiempo. Do you know what that is?”

“No.” I learn later that it’s the offbeat between two whole beats.

David doesn’t talk to me. He barks.

“You’re not holding your hands correctly. Look. Sordas. Quietly.”

He cups his palms and extends and spreads his fingers. He grabs my hands and turns them at a diagonal to each other. The sound is deep and soft. Then he slaps the fingers of his right hand on the palm of his left hand. It makes a loud crack. “Fuertes.” I try it. Sometimes I make the cracking sound and sometimes I miss. David turns on a metronome and startles me by shouting: “Tango. Fuertes.

I try to clap the four beats with the popping technique.

“Cup your hand a little.”

I try again and again until my hands sting. There are people, palmeros, who are hired just to keep the beat for the singer, the guitarist, and the dancer. The palmero glues the whole show together rhythmically, clapping with the precision of a metronome.

“OK. Now rest,” he tells me.

I rub my hands together.

“What do you do for a living?”

How was I going to explain this complicated job in Spanish?

“I started a company that writes medical education programs for the pharmaceutical industry. I don’t run it anymore, now I consult for the new president.”

“You’re a doctor.”

“No, I’m not a doctor. But I work with doctors, and they help us know what to write and make sure it’s correct.”

“You’re a doctor.”

“OK, I’m a doctor,” I smile and turn myself over to David’s authority. I’m no longer a CEO or wife or mother but a student, a beginner. The music whirls its bewildering melody around me, and I try again to hammer out the four beats.

“That’s enough. Now go to your hotel and practice.”

I have three hours until my next round of disgrace. I comfort myself at a nearby cafe with spoonfuls of the most delicious gazpacho I’ve ever had, the color of a terra-cotta tile.

How easy it would be to give up. No one would care if I just walked away and spent the rest of the week as a tourist in Seville, going to museums, eating tapas, reading in my canopy bed, playing it safe. Five days of rejuvenation instead of the humiliation of studying an impossible rhythm. But I can’t. I’m inexorably hooked, not just to the movements and the beat but to the duende – those moments when the dancers and singers and musicians expose what it is to be human. They reach out to the audience with tenderness, but as the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca once said, it’s a tenderness behind volcanoes. It caresses and it burns.

More is at stake for me with flamenco than when I founded my company on two credit cards. I know in this dance is the possibility of giving myself over to my bliss. I let the music touch me, claw at me with authentic feeling, truer to me than running a company ever was.

At 4 o’clock, I begin my private class with Laura.

“We’re going to work on how you hold your body,” she says. “Beginners do this all wrong.”

At least we’re starting on a positive note, I think. Laura gives me a set of instructions fit for a contortionist.

“Sit into your butt. Lift your chest. Drop your shoulders. You have to carry the emotion in your chest.”

I try to follow her instructions, but I arch my back and my shoulders rise.

“No, no, no. Like this.” Laura walks behind me and pushes her hand flat on my upper back between my shoulder blades. “Let your shoulder blades crawl down your back. If you arch, you’ll get back problems.”

I let my shoulder blades fall like weights.

“Good. That looks good. Now stay like that.”

Laura turns on the music, and I stand in my form, a concrete flamenco statue. Posture good, posture bad, back and forth, until I ache, until I’m sure I have done it all wrong.

After class, I ask the office manager to recommend a flamenco show. She gives me a list of venues, and I decide on Casa de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the long period in Spanish history where Moors, Jews, and Christians lived together, mostly amicably, in Andalusia. It doesn’t seem possible that the world will ever again know such peace.

I buy a ticket, then call my family to learn that my kids have spent the afternoon careering over a dry riverbed filled with boulders on the zipline that our neighbor set up for his son’s birthday party. Only in Spain, I think, where there aren’t as many lawyers.

I’m relieved that my children sound happy, but I still feel guilty. I tell myself that maybe my friend is right when she says, “It’s good for your kids to see that you have your own dreams.” I want to believe this, but I know the truth is different. My kids want my life to revolve around theirs. They want me home where they can be sure they can find me, inert on the couch like I’m hatching an egg. They can’t help it. Their job is to survive, and to do this best they want me available on demand to provide affection, read a story, witness their greatness.

Isn’t this just what I wanted from my own mother? To come home to her soft hugs and a pantry stocked with Twinkies and a refrigerator bursting with parfaits of chocolate pudding swirled around cubes of strawberry Jell-O? I resented any sign that she had her own life; I hated it when she started working as a reading teacher and I was forced to come home from sixth grade to an empty house. To try to convince myself that leaving for five days will be good for my kids is pure rationalization.

Inside Casa de la Memoria, I sit in a courtyard draped with ivy. A guitarist and singer come on stage and perform a few songs, then the dancer walks on and begins to clap. She wears a tight white dress with red polka dots and enormous, dangly red and white earrings. She dances a llamada, attention-getting footwork that calls to the guitarist and singer and tells them something is about to happen.

I listen hard as the music plays. I think I can hear the rhythm of the siguiriya the way my teacher in Granada taught me to count it: one and two and three and a four and a five. Yes, I hear it. I clap softly in my seat, but then the feeling slips away. The dancer rolls her hips back and forth in the outline of a crescent moon. She bends forward and shrugs her shoulders to keep the beat, raw and earthy like a Gypsy. I study her style, how she sits into her legs but doesn’t stick out her butt, how she keeps the rhythm with her hands as she circles them in the air. The tension she creates is almost unbearable. It builds and then explodes in a thunder of footwork.

The show ends, and I feel humbled to have seen the real thing. I head to a restaurant nearby for dinner and eat the tapas that Seville is famous for: fried squid, grilled pork in a spicy sauce, spinach and chickpeas, a shot of gazpacho. I wonder what would have happened to my life had I discovered flamenco much earlier. Who would I be now? Would I turn myself over completely to dancing, forgoing marriage and children? Guilt tugs at me, because I can imagine such a life.

The next day in class, Trina says, “I don’t remember a thing we learned yesterday.” When Antonio arrives, we freeze like schoolgirls, afraid to be chastised by the headmaster for doing it all wrong. He turns on the music, begins the footwork, and, again, seems deeply inconvenienced by our presence in the studio. He yells at us for stepping too lightly instead of dropping our heels with a clean snap. He’s right; we’re hopeless.

“Carol,” Antonio tells me, “your problem is that your elbow flips back when it should be forward, and your left hand is in front of you when it should just stay close to your body.”

Emma sometimes laughs out loud as Antonio berates us.

“Just imagine he’s a tiny fly standing at your feet,” she says, “and if he isn’t careful, you’ll drop your heel on him. That’s what I do.”

I try to embrace his scolding as a valuable lesson not only in dance, but also on how to remain centered in the presence of a bully. I want to keep my two flamenco shoes firmly planted on the ground and stay radiant even around Antonio’s negativity. Maybe I’m becoming more like a Gypsy, able to use the dance to rebel against indignity, to let the movements and music wring out the pain so I can soak up the ecstasy.

In rhythm class, David and I clap the buleria again and again until I hear the accents. Then he plays the music and asks me to clap with it. When I do it right, he smiles and his eyes sparkle.

Later, in Laura’s class, she grabs my bra between my breasts and pulls it up toward the ceiling. “That’s the correct position for your chest. Stay like that and walk to the middle of the room.”

I am stiff, not sinuous like the dancer I saw two nights ago. The hour speeds by, and Laura pulls and twists my body, shaping me like a lump of bread dough. “OK. For now you’re doing it right. But tomorrow you’ll have it all wrong again.”

I vow to practice in my hotel room and prove to her – and to myself – that I can do this.

On Wednesday night, I take Trina and Emma to Casa de la Memoria. A man and woman dance together in a romantic duel. “I want you – but my family thinks you’re a bastard,” she suggests with her body. “When can I see you again?” She lures us into her drama of desire and obligation.

Each day seems to shave five years off my age. By Thursday night, I’m in my late twenties. As I walk to my hotel after a show, a young man asks me out for drinks. Can this be happening? I’m decades older than he. I’m flattered but not tempted. My life this week beats out its own contratiempo. I am the definition of the word: literally “against time.” I am at once young and old, radiating youthful energy and in middle age, racing to learn the rhythms of flamenco before it’s too late – hoping that the dance will age with me, that what a former teacher told me is true: “When you’re old, you have more duende.” I remember once watching an old Gypsy dancer in Granada. She no longer had the fiery energy and suppleness of the younger performers, but with the slightest gesture of her hand, the languid rise of her arms, and the fragile look in her eyes, she flooded me with the feelings of anguish and hope.

During my last class with Antonio, I picture him as a fly on the floor and try to stomp on him. His words don’t sting as much, and just as I’m beginning to actually absorb some useful instruction, the office manager pulls him out of class. His wife is in labor with his first child. Antonio runs out the door like someone on fire, and we laugh so hard we can’t dance. We replay the past week with the new piece of information that our tormenter is about to become a father. I imagine Antonio coaching his wife through labor, yelling orders at her and telling her she’s doing it all wrong.

But Antonio has toughened me up. They all have, because they’ve taken me seriously.

During my last class with David, he sings for me. He holds out his arms and seems to pluck his vocal cords with his breath. He has the duende I want, and I feel it surging over me, an expression of grief that makes me feel alive. We continue to work on the mysteries of the rhythm. He tells me I’ve learned a lot but have a long way to go.

At the end of my final class with Laura, I ask her, “Do you have children?”

“No, I’m not married,” she says, turning her eyes away from me. She seems practical about what she’s had to sacrifice for her art. But I sense wistfulness, too. “You can’t get married and be a dancer. My friend got married and her husband made her quit dancing.” I don’t tell her that I know of married flamenco dancers, some who are even mothers. In Laura’s world, maybe this is her truth.

With the workshops over, I walk back to my hotel. On the way, I drop into a flamenco shoe store. A pair of red leather heels with thin straps crisscrossing in the front calls to me. I slip them on and try a few steps when the storekeeper isn’t looking. Funny how shoes play a part in the feminine fairy tale: ruby slippers with magic powerful enough to transport a girl back home, glass in a size that allows a prince to find his wife, and shiny red leather that condemns a girl to dance and dance and dance.

I feel like the girl in the red leather shoes, the one who should have been more careful what she wished for. I want it all – the dancing, my family, my work, to be needed and independent at the same time. I slap down 90 euros.

My family is heading to Seville, and I’m impatient; I stand in front of the hotel until I see them turn the corner. The kids run to me and we hold each other. They yell, “Mommy, mommy, mommy.” I never want to let them out of my sight again. My son buries his head in my shirt.

“Mommy, you lost your smell.”

“What smell?”

“Your mommy smell. You don’t smell like you.”

The mommy smell. Maternal pheromones, sweat, and perfume all mixed up in a fragrant stew, overpowered now by five days of dancing and drinking around swirling cigarette smoke. By tomorrow, with my family around me every minute, my mommy smell will return, but for now, I inhale what’s left of my independence.

Excerpted from the book The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011,which will be released in May. Copyright©2011 by Carol Reichert. Reprinted with permission of Travelers’ Tales. Carol Reichert lives in Newton and is working on her first book, about her family’s travels in Spain. She continues to study flamenco in Boston and Spain and anywhere the flamenco rhythm moves her. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.