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 by Sarah Bird
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2007, 400 pages

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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.

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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