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.
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.
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