Excerpt of The Flamenco Academy by Sarah Bird
(Page 3 of 6)
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"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
"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
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.
Excerpted from The Flamenco Academy by
Sarah Bird Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Bird. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a
division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may
be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.