The Flamenco Academy

A Novel

by Sarah Bird

The Flamenco Academy

Hardcover, 381 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25 | purchase

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The Flamenco Academy
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A Novel
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Sarah Bird

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Book Summary

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, two young women—shy teenager Cyndi Rae Hrncir and Didi Steinberg, the school bad girl—become entranced by young flamenco guitarist Tomás Montenegro and by the hypnotic storytelling of Doña Carlota, Tomás's great aunt, and decide to dedicate themselves to the disciplines and demands of the university's Flamenco Academy. 35,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Flamenco Academy

The Flamenco Academy

Chapter One

Flamenco has Ten Commandments. The first one is: Dame la verdad, Give me the truth. The second is: Do it en compas, in time. The third one is: Don't tell outsiders the rest of the commandments. I come here, to the edge of the continent, to honor the first commandment, to give myself the truth.

Waves, sparkling with phosphorescence in the darkness, crash on the shore just beyond my safe square of blanket. I cup my chilly hands around a mug of tea that smells of oranges and clove and search for that first streak of salmon to crack the far horizon. There might be one or two early risers, insomniacs, troubled sleepers, who will see the light of a new day before me. But not many. I am alone with my tea and my thoughts.

The waves roll in all the way from Asia and slam against the shore. Their roar comforts me. It almost drowns out the sound of heels, a dozen, two dozen, pounding on a wooden floor, turning a dance studio into a factory manufacturing rhythm. That is the ocean I hear. It is broadcast by the surge of my own blood, pulsing en compas, in time, to a flamenco beat. My heart beats and its coded rhythms force me to remember.

Once upon a time, I stepped into a story I thought was my own. It was not, though I became a character in it and gave the story all the years it demanded from my life. The story began long before I entered it, long before any of the living and most of the dead entered it.

I start on the night that I saw the greatest flamenco dancer of all time perform. That night I had to decide whose story my life would be about.

Chapter Two

It was early summer in Albuquerque, when the city rests between the sandblasting of spring winds and the bludgeoning of serious summer heat to come. New foliage made a green lace against the sky. The tallest trees were cottonwoods and they spangled tender chartreuse leaves shaped like hearts across the clouds. It was the opening evening of the Flamenco Festival Internacional. A documentary about Carmen Amaya, the greatest flamenco dancer ever, dead now for forty years, was to be premiered at Rodey Theater on the University of New Mexico campus.

I dawdled as I crossed the campus. The air smelled like scorched newspaper. The worst forest fires in half a century had been blazing out of control in the northern part of the state. Four firefighters had already been killed and still the fires moved south. That morning, the Archbishop of Santa Fe announced that he would start saying a novena the next morning to lead all the citizens of New Mexico in prayers for the rain needed to save the state, to save our beloved Tierra del Encanto.

I slowed my pace even more. I wanted to reach the theater after the houselights were out so that I could see as much of Carmen Amaya and as little of "the community" as possible. I dreaded being plunged again into the hothouse world of New Mexico's flamenco scene. Tomorrow, when I started teaching, I would have no choice. Tonight was optional and only the promise of glimpsing the greatest flamenco dancer ever could have dragged me out.

Although we, all us dancers, had studied every detail of Carmen's mythic life, although we had pored over still photos and read descriptions of her technique, none of us had ever seen her dance. Film footage of her dancing was so rare and so expensive that we'd had to content ourselves with listening to the legendary recordings she made with Sabicas. We memorized the sublime hammer of her footwork, but hearing was a poor substitute for seeing a dancer move.

Only the news that the documentary contained footage of Carmen Amaya performing could have gotten me out of my bed and into the shower. The shower had removed the musty odor of rumpled sheets and unwashed hair I'd wrapped myself in for the past several weeks since I'd taken to wearing my own stink as protection, as a way to mark the only territory I had left: myself. I wouldn't have been able to face the humiliation of seeing "the community" at all if I hadn't had my newly acquired secret to lean on.

When I was certain that Rodey Theater would be dark, I slipped in the back and took the first empty seat. Only there, alone and unseen, was it safe to take the secret out and examine it. It strengthened me enough that I corrected my slumped posture. I'd leaned on my new knowledge to get this far; tomorrow, somehow, some way, the secret would guide me to what I needed, what I had to have. Of course, tonight it changed nothing. To everyone in the theater, which was every flamenco dancer, singer, and guitarist in New Mexico, I was still the most pathetic creature imaginable: the third leg of a love triangle.

The credits flickered; then Carmen Amaya's tough Gypsy face filled the screen, momentarily obliterating all thoughts from my mind. It was brutal, devouring, the face of a little bull on a compact body that never grew any larger or curvier than a young boy's. As taut with muscle as a python's, that body had made Carmen Amaya the dancer she was. A title beneath her face noted that the year was 1935. She was only twenty-two, but had been dancing for two decades.

She oscillated in luminous whites and inky blacks, gathering herself in a moment of stillness, a jaguar coiling into itself before exploding. A few chords from an unseen guitarist announced an alegrias, Carmen's famous alegrias. The audience, mostly dancers as avid as I, leaned forward in their seats. Hiding from random gazes, I slumped more deeply into my seat, considered sneaking out. Even armed with my secret, I wasn't strong enough yet for this. There would be questions, condolences, sympathy moistened with a toxic soup of schadenfreude. I wasn't ready to be a cautionary tale, the ultra-pale Anglo girl who'd dared to fly too close to the flamenco sun.

I was pushing out of my seat, about to leave; then Carmen moved.

A clip from one of her early Spanish movies played. The camera crouched low. Her full skirt whirled into roller-coaster arcs that rose and plunged as those bewitched feet hammered more rhythm into the world than any pair of feet before or since. I dropped back into my seat, poleaxed by beauty as Carmen told her people's hard history in the sinuous twine of her hands, the perfectly calibrated arch of her back, the effortless syncopation of her feet.

I tore my eyes from the screen long enough to pick out the profiles of other dancers, girls I'd studied with for years, women who'd instructed us. They were rapt, mesmerized by the jubilant recognition that Carmen Amaya was as good as her legend. No, better. That not only was she the best back then, but if she were dancing today none of us, forty years after her death, could have touched her. I wished then that I were sitting with those other pilgrims who'd made flamenco's long journey, who understood as I did just how good Carmen was.

I joined in the muttered benediction of oles, accent as always on the first syllable, that whispered through the theater; then I surrendered and let Carmen Amaya's heels tap flamenco's intricate Morse code into my brain. Though I had willed it to never do so again, my heart fell back into flamenco time and beat out the pulses with her. Flamenco flowed through my veins once more. From the first, flamenco had been a drug for me, an escape from who I was, as total as any narcotic, and Carmen Amaya hit that vein immediately, obliterating despair, rage, all emotion other than ecstasy at the perfection of her dancing.

The brief clip ended. We all exhaled the held breath and sagged back into our seats. An old-timer, white shirt buttoned up to the top and hanging loosely about a corded neck, no tie, battered, black suit jacket, appeared onscreen. A subtitle informed us that he had once played guitar in Carmen's troupe.

"Tell us about Carmen's family," an interviewer, offscreen, asked.

"Gitana por cuatro costaos," the guitarist answered. "Gypsy on four sides." The translation of this, the ultimate flamenco encomium, made my secret come alive and beat within me. Blood, it was all about blood in flamenco.

The withered guitarist went on. "Carmen Amaya was Gypsy on all four sides. We used to say that she had the blood of the pharaohs in her veins back in the days when we still believed that we Gypsies came from Egypt. We don't believe that anymore, but I still say it. Carmen Amaya had the blood of the pharaohs in her veins. That blood gave her her life, but it also killed her."

"What do you mean?"

"Her kidneys. The doctor called it infantile kidneys. They never grew any bigger than a little baby's. La Capitana only lived as long as she did because she sweated so much when she danced. That was how her body cleansed itself. Otherwise, she would have died when she was a child. Her costumes at the end of a performance? Drenched. You could pour sweat out of her shoes. She had to dance or die."

"Bailar o morir." As the guitar player pronounced the words, his lips stuck on his dentures, tugging them up, holding them rolled under so that he looked like a very sad, very old marionette. "Dance or die. Dancing was the only thing that kept her alive."

"Bailar o morir." He was right. I had to start dancing again. The last few weeks had brought me too close to the alternative. For the first time, I was happy I'd agreed to teach. But that was tomorrow. Tonight, it was essential that I be gone before the lights came up. I glanced at the exit and debated whether I should leave.

When I looked back, though, a clip from one of Carmen's glitzy Hollywood movies was playing. I settled into my seat; I would risk a few more scenes. Carmen was dancing in a nightclub in New York. She wore a short, cabin boy-style jacket and high-waisted white pants that jiggled about her legs as she pounded the wooden floor, creating an entire steel band's worth of percussion.

"Before Carmen Amaya," a narrator intoned, "flamenco dance was a languid, matronly twining of arms, legs rooted to the earth like oaks. Eighty years ago, Amaya's father, El Chino, put her in pants and Carmen broke the spell that had frozen the lower half of las bailaoras' bodies for all of flamenco's history."

The narrator pronounced bailadoras the cool Gypsy way, bailaoras. To show that we were insiders, we did the same, using Gypsy spelling and pronunciation whenever we could. Dancer, bailadora, became bailaora; guitarist, tocador, turned into tocaor; and once we'd gobbled the "d" in cantador, singer, it emerged as cantaor.

The guitarist returned and stated unequivocally, "She never rehearsed. Never, never, never." Nunca, nunca, nunca.

The other dancers in the theater snorted at that statement. We knew how ridiculous it was. It was like boasting about a Chinese child never rehearsing before speaking Chinese. We knew better. We'd read the biographies. Like all good Gypsy mothers, Carmen's had clapped palmas on her belly while she was pregnant so that her baby would be marinated in flamenco rhythms in utero. Carmen danced before she walked and was performing in cafes in Barcelona by the time she was six years old. As the other dancers leaned their heads together to whisper and laugh, I wished I were sitting with them. We would all share our favorite complaint, the near impossibility of a payo, a non-Gypsy, ever being truly accepted in flamenco. Compared to Carmen Amaya, Gypsy on four sides, even those Latinas who believed they had an inside track were outsiders.

I counted few of the dancers as friends. I knew this world too well. Friend or not, I would be the subject of hot gossip and, since I'd been asked to teach at the festival, envy. There were those who believed that the honor had been bestowed out of pity.

Pity—that was what would be the hardest of all to deal with. No, tomorrow would be soon enough to face them all. At least then, when I was teaching, I would have my flamenco armor on, my favorite long black skirt, my new Menke shoes from Spain with extra claves—tiny silver nails—tapped into the toes.

On the screen, home movie footage from the fifties played. The colors of the old film had faded to sepia tones. A much older Carmen sat on the concrete steps of a porch and held her arms out to a chubby-legged toddler in sandals who staggered toward her. Offscreen, an ancient voice recalled, "Carmen couldn't have any children of her own so she asked us for our son." That image, a little boy, just learning to walk, wobbling toward the most famous flamenco dancer ever, one who had earned her crown with blood, caused the polarity in the room to reverse. The air beside my head trembled as the secret beating in my chest recognized its double on that screen.

Carmen couldn't have any children of her own so she asked us for our son.

The home movie ended and the speaker, an elderly Gypsy man identified as Carmen's nephew, appeared. The harsh light glistened off his bald scalp, sweating beneath a few wisps of ash-colored hair.

His wife, portly and silent, nodded. Her husband continued speaking. He was as passionate as if he were pleading his case before a jury, though the incident had occurred half a century ago. "Why did she ask that of us? It was like he was hers anyway. We were all one family anyway. Why did she need to adopt him? Simply because she wanted a child who was of our blood?"

The old man finished and a rustling swept through the auditorium as heads steepled together and whispers hissed back and forth. A few dancers, those who knew the most, craned their necks searching the auditorium. Doña Carlota was who they really wanted to see, to search her face for a reaction. When the other dancers discovered that she wasn't in the theater, the glances sought me out. I ducked my head, hiding until the bat-wing skitter of attention had dissipated.

When I looked up again, Carmen Amaya's funeral procession was winding across the screen. It snaked for miles down through hills thick with rosemary, leading from Carmen's castle on a bluff above the Costa Brava to her burial plot in the town of Bagur. This home movie footage was old and jerky, but rather than fading out, the colors had intensified into a palette of cobalt blues and deepest emerald greens. The devastated faces of thousands of mourners were masks of grief as profound as if each one had lost a sister, a wife, a mother.

The documentary returned to Carmen in the last year of her life. A clip from a Spanish movie played. She was only fifty, but Carmen’s ferocity had been blunted. The feral lines of her face were swollen with fluid her infantile kidneys could not eliminate. She sat at a rickety wooden table in a dusty neighborhood, a slum, like the one in Barcelona where she’d been born in a shack. She was surrounded by Gypsy children as dirty, ragged, and hungry as she once had been. She began to tap the table. One knock,two. Just enough to announce the palo, the style. Then in flamenco’s code of rhythms, she rapped out a symphony that held the history of her people during their long exile from India. She told all the secrets her tribe kept from outsiders. All the secrets they had translated into rhythms so bewilderingly beautiful that they lured you in like the honeyed drops of nectar hidden in the throat of pitcher plants. You got the nectar, that’s true, but you could never find your way back out again. You never wanted to find your way out again. All you wanted was to burrow even deeper, to break the code, to learn one more secret.

In that moment, watching Carmen, it was still all I wanted. Even after everything that had happened, all I wanted was one more sip of nectar.

Mi corazón,” a singer wailed the start of a verse in the background behind Carmen’s image fading into history, into legend. I knew the letra, had danced to it dozens of times, and my cheeks were wet before the translation appeared in subtitle: “My heart has been broken more than the Ten Commandments.”

The line sung in flamenco’s unearthly quaver stabbed straight into my chest because I realized then that my own heart was not broken so much as missing entirely and no secret, however carefully interpreted, would ever return it. I was groping in the dark, ready to escape, when the lights unexpectedly came up. I had missed my chance. I was scrubbing tears off my cheek when a hand grazed my shoulder. Thank God it was Blanca, universally recognized as the least bitchy of all the serious dancers. We’d started out together back when Doña Carlota had taught the introductory class.

“Rae, how are you doing?” Blanca patted my shoulder and stared with the damp sympathy I’d dreaded.

“Pretty good.” I injected as much pep as I could into my answer, gesturing toward my reddened eyes. “Allergies are bothering me. All the smoke from the forest fires.” There was no smoke in the air inside the theater.

Blanca nodded. “It’s good to see you, Rae. Really good.” She put too much emphasis on the last good, speaking to me as if I were a patient who doesn’t know yet that she’s terminal. But Blanca was nice. I’d discovered far too late that I should have put a much higher priority on nice. I should have been friends with someone like Blanca instead of Didi.

“Keep in touch, okay?” she said. Her solicitous question was drowned out by the thunder of applause that erupted when the incandescent Alma Hernandez-Luna, director of the flamenco program, bounded onstage. “Bienvenido a todos nuestros estudiantes. Welcome, welcome, welcome to the more than two hundred students who are with us this summer from China, Germany, England, Belarus, Tokyo, Canada, and nearly every state in the union. We welcome you all to the country that we will create for the next twelve days. The country of flamenco!”

The applause fell briefly into compás and the audience laughed at us all speaking the same language with our hands.

“It is strange to be welcoming you. For the past fifteen years our founder, Doña Carlota, has always opened the festival. She cannot be with us here tonight in body, but her spirit fills this hall! We are all here because of Doña Carlota Anaya. She created the first academic home for flamenco in the New World.”

That part was true.

Alma continued, “The festival is her baby.” That part wasn’t true. Alma means soul, and Hernandez-Luna had been the soul of the program for years. The festival was entirely her baby. Through her connections, she was always able to lure la crema del mundo flamenco to our little sunblasted campus. Whoever the reigning god or goddess of flamenco was, Alma would hunt them down and bring them to the festival to perform and teach. I was one of only a handful of locals on this year’s faculty. The night should have been a triumph for me. I knew it wasn’t going to be that, but, until the film, I had thought the festival would be an opportunity for me. An opportunity to learn where Tomás was. To start using my secret. The film, the image of the coveted child toddling toward the world’s greatest dancer, had changed all that.

“I hope everyone has their tickets for Eva La Yerbabuena’s show”–a burst of applause for the acclaimed dancer interrupted Alma–“because they’re going fast. I would like to thank our visiting documentarian”–the maker of the Carmen film stood to a hearty round of applause–“for helping us to kick off this summer’s festival with that astonishing film. Okay gang, the fun is over.”

Laughter erupted.

“Tomorrow we get down to work.”

The loudest applause yet broke out.

“But before that could you, all you visitors, please, join us in a moment of silent prayer. Pray for rain, okay? Because if we don’t get some rain Dios only knows what’s going to happen to our poor state.”

As the theater fell silent, Alma stared at her palm. When the moment of prayer was over, she read the note she’d written there. “Oh, big announcement, people. It’s about Farruquito.” A chorus of squeals greeted the name of the Elvis of flamenco, a young dancer with the talent and, more important, the right genes, to be crowned the Great Bronze Hope. Like Carmen Amaya, like all the members of the true inner circle, Farruquito was gitano por cuatro costaos.

Alma gestured for the squealing girls to calm down. “This is a good news—bad news sort of deal. We’re not going to have time to publicize this, but I think we can probably fill the KiMo Theatre just with word of mouth. We have a last-minute change in the lineup.”

For the second time that evening, my skin began to prickle and the air around me seemed to become denser, the molecules slowing down as if the barometric pressure had suddenly dropped the way it does before a storm. Because it was the worst thing I could imagine, I knew before
Alma said the words what her announcement would be.

“The bad news is that Farruquito has had to cancel.”

A wave of groans swept through the crowd at learning that the boy wonder of flamenco and heir apparent to the title of king of old-school flamenco, flamenco puro, was not coming. The deadened thud in my chest accelerated with a rhythm like horse hooves pounding nearer.

“But the good news is that our most famous alumna has agreed to fill in.”

I prayed, I begged all the flamenco deities to, please, stop what I knew was coming. They ignored me.

“So let’s spread the word. Ofelia is coming home!”

That name, those syllables, Oh-fay-lee-yuh, filled my head with a rushing like storm water surging down a drain. It blocked out the sound of clapping. I had to leave. Immediately. I staggered to my feet. Heads bobbed in front of me like a collection of people-shaped piñatas, a gauntlet I had to run.

Outside the theater, I tried to inhale, tried to make myself breathe. The scorched air chafed my lungs as I ran across the campus. I was coughing and my eyes were streaming by the time I jumped into my truck, which I’d left in the Frontier Restaurant parking lot. I pounded my hands on the steering wheel to drive that fraud of a name, Ofelia, Oh-fay-lee-yuh, out of my head. One name, that was her entire life’s goal, to be a one-name celebrity. I refused to give her that, to think of her as Ofelia. To me she would always be Didi. Didi Steinberg.

A long time ago she had been my best friend. Not so long ago she stole the only man I will ever love.

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