Excerpt from The Flamenco Academy by Sarah Bird, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Flamenco Academy

by Sarah Bird

The Flamenco Academy
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 400 pages
    Oct 2007, 400 pages

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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 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.

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.

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