“I have the best religion, in the world” I declared to a group of friends. We were sitting around a table at the Templeton , a diner nestled among the cinemas, sex shops, and XXX video stores along the seedy side of Granville Street in downtown Vancouver. “Would you like to know what it is?” I continued. Everybody’s head popped up and I knew I had their attention. My friends had been discussing religion and somehow we got into discussing Pentecostal church, which led us to discussing the finer points of speaking in tongues and condemnation. I was worried that my boredom with the discussion would lead me to faint face down into my burger and fries. I was desperate to change the subject and willing to say almost anything to avoid the embarrassment of having to wipe ketchup and burger grease off my face.
“It is called Flamenco”. I answered my own question. You can be the most evil person in the world or the most pious person in the world, in flamenco it doesn’t matter, as long as you do what you do passionately.
Take the Joker character from the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, he is psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic with bad fashion sense. But he goes about it with such flare that you can’t take your eyes off him. After all, how many fictional villains would create an elaborate scheme to steal billions of dollars only to pile the cash into a mountain and set it on fire just to prove that he doesn’t care about money. Lots of people say they don’t care about money, but how many can prove it beyond any doubt. With the Joker there are no shades of grey only absolute purple. While you fundamentally disagree with all his actions, you can’t help but admit that his cleverness makes the batman, despite all his fancy gadgets and good intentions, seem boring.
Six years ago I walked into a flamenco dance class, thinking that I would spice up a dull routine with an amusing hobby. As I plunged down the rabbit hole, I found myself looking through a key hole into a fantastical world, where dancers wear colourful clothes and garish earrings, stomp their feat in rhythmic patterns and modulate fast energetic moves with sudden pauses of eerie stillness. O, how I wished I could drink a magic potion and join them in that garden of splendour.
Before, I could dance, I had to learn to stand. Up right, shoulders down, chest up, suck your tummy in, chin up and squeeze you hind side muscles, don’t forget to breath. So many things to remember and I haven’t even started to move. In flamenco, you are supposed to move with intensity as if you are moving through think liquid, yet you need to exude an air of confidence as if it was all easy. Which was the first of many contradictions that my rational mind couldn’t reconcile. Be powerful but don’t allow it to look laboured. Follow the rhythm, yet be spontaneous. Make loud tapping noise with your feet, while hovering lightly across the stage as if you were a feather.
I can’t remember the number of times I came home after a dance class, sat on the couch and cried tears of frustration at my inability to place enough yin in my yang. “Why don’t you give up and stop dancing”, my husband would say trying to console me. Why haven’t I given up? Stubbornness, tenacity or some masochistic tendency that enjoys the humiliation? I don’t know why I haven’t given up. There were times when I thought that I must be the most clumsy, frumpy and inadequate person to have ever set foot into a dance studio.
Happiness , sadness, joy, suffering, anger, beauty, ugliness, revenge, mocking and desire to kill somebody are all examples of emotions that can be expressed in flamenco. The only emotion that you need suppress while performing, is stage freight. Technique took me years and hard work to acquire only to realize that strong technique doesn’t matter in flamenco, what matters is the strength of your expression. Duende is the Spanish word for it, which is hard to translate or explain. It is irrationality, earthiness, an awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical all mixed together. The duende resurrects an old demonic gypsy spirit from the Andalusia region of south of the Spain that comes to shows you limitations of your intelligence, reminding you that you will end up buried and eaten by worms; and commands you to create once in a life time spine-chilling in the moment performance. It lives in the sad notes and revives old stories of darkness and suffering. “Forget about style or charm” the gypsy spirit says. “Come over here and battle in a hand-to hand combat”, she challenges you. It seizes not only the performer but also the audience, until the intensity becomes almost unbearable.
While my friends go to meditation retreats and read spiritual books hoping to reach enlightenment. I spend my quiet moments hoping, praying and yearning that I can dig deep and mine the darkness that I know is abundant in my soul, enough so that I can be privy to a visitation from the old gypsy spirit one day.
Recently, I have been kicked out of a flamenco amateur dancing group that I was a member of because the dance teacher found out that I was taking classes with another teacher as well. An unforgivable offence in her eyes. Seemed ridiculous to me. I could imagine her as a magnificent queen who has taught me much yelling “Off with her head! Off with her head! Off with her head!”
When I woke up from my day dream back at the Templeton diner, I found that my friends were discussing the difficulty of securing affordable rental units in Vancouver. It seems that I have managed to divert the conversation only by a tiny bit. I don’t think I converted anybody’s soul on that evening.
Perhaps this preacher needs a more compelling sermon.