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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Pity—that was what would be the hardest of all to deal with. No, tomorrow would be soon enough to face them all. At least then, when I was teaching, I would have my flamenco armor on, my favorite long black skirt, my new Menke shoes from Spain with extra claves—tiny silver nails—tapped into the toes.

On the screen, home movie footage from the fifties played. The colors of the old film had faded to sepia tones. A much older Carmen sat on the concrete steps of a porch and held her arms out to a chubby-legged toddler in sandals who staggered toward her. Offscreen, an ancient voice recalled, "Carmen couldn't have any children of her own so she asked us for our son." That image, a little boy, just learning to walk, wobbling toward the most famous flamenco dancer ever, one who had earned her crown with blood, caused the polarity in the room to reverse. The air beside my head trembled as the secret beating in my chest recognized its double on that screen.

Carmen couldn't have any children of her own so she asked us for our son.

The home movie ended and the speaker, an elderly Gypsy man identified as Carmen's nephew, appeared. The harsh light glistened off his bald scalp, sweating beneath a few wisps of ash-colored hair.

His wife, portly and silent, nodded. Her husband continued speaking. He was as passionate as if he were pleading his case before a jury, though the incident had occurred half a century ago. "Why did she ask that of us? It was like he was hers anyway. We were all one family anyway. Why did she need to adopt him? Simply because she wanted a child who was of our blood?"

The old man finished and a rustling swept through the auditorium as heads steepled together and whispers hissed back and forth. A few dancers, those who knew the most, craned their necks searching the auditorium. Doña Carlota was who they really wanted to see, to search her face for a reaction. When the other dancers discovered that she wasn't in the theater, the glances sought me out. I ducked my head, hiding until the bat-wing skitter of attention had dissipated.

When I looked up again, Carmen Amaya's funeral procession was winding across the screen. It snaked for miles down through hills thick with rosemary, leading from Carmen's castle on a bluff above the Costa Brava to her burial plot in the town of Bagur. This home movie footage was old and jerky, but rather than fading out, the colors had intensified into a palette of cobalt blues and deepest emerald greens. The devastated faces of thousands of mourners were masks of grief as profound as if each one had lost a sister, a wife, a mother.

The documentary returned to Carmen in the last year of her life. A clip from a Spanish movie played. She was only fifty, but Carmen’s ferocity had been blunted. The feral lines of her face were swollen with fluid her infantile kidneys could not eliminate. She sat at a rickety wooden table in a dusty neighborhood, a slum, like the one in Barcelona where she’d been born in a shack. She was surrounded by Gypsy children as dirty, ragged, and hungry as she once had been. She began to tap the table. One knock, two. Just enough to announce the palo, the style. Then in flamenco’s code of rhythms, she rapped out a symphony that held the history of her people during their long exile from India. She told all the secrets her tribe kept from outsiders. All the secrets they had translated into rhythms so bewilderingly beautiful that they lured you in like the honeyed drops of nectar hidden in the throat of pitcher plants. You got the nectar, that’s true, but you could never find your way back out again. You never wanted to find your way out again. All you wanted was to burrow even deeper, to break the code, to learn one more secret.

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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