Dancers get in a workout by staying in sync with their fancy footwork.
UPON THE FIRST resounding, authoritative clack of shoes in my first flamenco dance class, I was relieved and grateful that teacher Encarnación Muñoz had handed over a pair of worn flamenco dance shoes. I hadn’t realized how important the shoes, with tiny nails hammered into the heel and toe, would be.
I only wished she’d had an extra fringed shawl to wrap around my waist. I loved the attire the dancers wore to class at VAM Studios in Fremont, including dramatic ruffled skirts and beautiful, colorful heeled shoes.
Flamenco is a dance from southern Spain, which is all I really knew about it before attending class. Encarna had encouraged me to attend an intermediate/advanced class and do the best I could.
I was game, though as soon as we started, I was transfixed and slightly overwhelmed by the complexity of the dance. The students started with a dance they appeared to know, hitting the ground with their heels with a resounding clap, all in sync, while also fluttering their hands and arms into circular motions. Their eyes were fiery, and they moved around the floor with flair.
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I, on the other hand, decided mimicking their arm gestures was hopeless. I fixed my gaze on their feet and tried to keep up.
Encarna took them through additional choreography with music, and I stayed focused on my feet while they worked on coordinating arm movements.
We also did technical work, spending time challenging our feet to keep up with a percussive rhythm Encarna demonstrated. I realized quickly how much ankle and foot strength and mobility are required to get the rhythm down, including accents on the heel at varying times. The speed of footwork was mesmerizing, and it made my legs burn. Encarna made it look gorgeous and easy; it was not.
We moved to one side of the room for diagonals, or traveling steps with zapateo, footwork and turns. My years of ice skating finally kicked in, and I spun across the floor without falling over.
We added footwork that got progressively faster. I tried to hide in the middle of the pack, though my clacks during pauses gave me away. The dancers were almost always able to keep the percussive drumbeat of their feet constantly in sync. It was amazing.
We finished by focusing on technique. We gathered in a circle. Encarna demonstrated the footwork, then we all joined in. After noticing a lot of blur in the sound, rather than a sharp clarity in the rhythm, she had us slow down. Finally, for one step, with a toe-heel-heel on each foot, then three toe-heel singles, all repeating in a row, I finally got it, even when we sped up. I was thrilled.
We worked on contratiempos, or contrasting time, stomping our feet on the offbeat. Encarna went around the circle, having each of us do it solo. I was relieved when other dancers asked her to do it with them. I also asked for assistance. I managed to get sections of the rhythm, which, considering the skill of dancers around me, felt good.
I learned some dancers have been doing flamenco for more than a decade. (I felt much better after that.) Flamenco was far more fun than I expected. I love shoes with a good stomp, and flamenco’s percussive beat is addicting. I also loved the drama and beauty of the art form.
Rhythm is the most important thing in flamenco, Encarna said. The beauty and the flair come with time.
Learning flamenco requires time and dedication, and the results are inspiring and physically challenging. It’s my kind of movement.