MELISSA BLOCK, host: Manhattan public defender Toni Messina, is a devoted flamenco dancer, but for her, mastering flamenco is about more than dance moves. She just returned from the Festival of Horses in Jerez, Spain. It's a mecca for flamenco dancers and she went in search of the one thing her dancing lacked, duende.

TONI MESSINA: I've been dancing flamenco for years. I love it. Flamenco's got attitude. It makes me feel like I've got attitude. It's like letting out a scream from the feet up, all emotion and passion. Flamenco recharges me. It's exotic, it's fun and I'm good at it. But no matter how long I've been dancing, I'm never as good as I want to be, maybe because I'm not a professional, maybe because I'm not Gypsy.

What I'm missing is duende, a magical moment of abandon that's part of Gypsy lore. It makes men rip off their shirts or listeners bang their heads against walls. I've never lived that moment of pure passion, but I wanted to and so I went to Jerez.


MESSINA: Jerez is the birthplace of flamenco. It lives and breathes it. It streams out of people's car radios and kids learn it as soon as they're born. As soon as I got there and opened the windows in the apartment where I was staying, flamenco floated in. A mother was teaching her three-year-old how to do palma and seguidillas. I couldn't wait to get to the festival and see what I'd find.


MESSINA: Once a year, the town throws a giant party celebrating its three main attractions, sherry, Andalusian stallions and flamenco. In a huge, dusty fairground covered with casetas - that's tents the size of big ballrooms with facades of Spanish houses and thousands of lights overhead - people were listening to pounding music, drinking sherry and dancing flamenco. The women wore bodice-gripping dresses and bright colors and polka dots with flowers pinned in their hair.

There weren't many tourists, at least not American. This was a fiesta for friends and neighbors and, even though they all danced freely and with great joy, I didn't see duende there.

The next day, I decided to take a private class with a Gypsy woman, Manuela Carpio. She was the real thing, people said. She had an aida, a way about her that made her flamenco fun, but still deep. She was small and chubby and her round face broke into a smile when I asked her about duende.

MANUELA CARPIO: (Speaking foreign language)

MESSINA: It's like being touched by the hand of God, she said, a moment of pure pleasure, like when you're making love.


MESSINA: Hearing what duende meant to Manuela Carpio, I had even more incentive to find it. I headed back to the feria and stopped in the first caseta I saw. People were sitting and standing in a semicircle craning for a look. A dance space opened up and an older woman from the crowd pushed her way inside and improvised her steps.

I wondered if I'd have the nerve to dance. Here I was, a 50 year old suburban mom from New Jersey. I stood still, watching.


MESSINA: When the next dancer finished, I pushed my way to the front and started concentrating on the music. It was now or never. I started my palmas, clapping my hands to the rhythm and moved to center stage. I was improvising, doing bulerias, the 12-count dance step, the mark of a real flamenco.


MESSINA: It took all my nerve to dance in front of that crowd, people who have been steeped in the tradition of flamenco their whole lives. It was over in a flash and, in that moment, tears filled my eyes. Maybe what I felt wasn't duende. Nobody ripped his shirt or slapped their face, but it was close enough for me.

For NPR News, this is Toni Messina.

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