A chimpanzee and flamenco dance lessons; that’s all I wanted when I was 12 years old. The pet never materialized, but many years later the flamenco lessons did. It was *JC that found the classes through the Chicago Park District. At a cost of $25 for six sessions on a Saturday morning, it was hard to decline. We excitedly signed up together.
First things first; this called for some shopping. It went without saying that for us to do our best, we had to look the part. It took some time to choose just the right flamenco shoes, flared long skirt and fitted top. We tried them on over and over again and had fun twirling around and breaking them in.
The class was held in the guest house behind an old mansion that the Park District now owned. Arriving early, I had time to explore. The stone structure was now one big room, with only a narrow path and some boulders separating it from Lake Michigan. I didn’t realize then how inspiring it would be to dance while watching the water “dance” outside along with us.
I must admit, I was a bit taken aback when Señora walked into the class that first day. She was older than I had expected with a soft body and a lined face. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun and her shoes looked as if they had accompanied her on many a dance floor. But, as she walked up to each of us, asked our name and gave us a welcome hug, I noticed her black eyes. They were piercing, bright, twinkling. There was something special about her. Then, without saying a word, she played a CD, started dancing and we were transfixed. At that moment, her body changed. Her posture was straight, her hand movements so elegant, her feet moving so quickly and precisely and her dark eyes sparkling.
As she explained the class format, we focused on her every word. A combination of Spanish, Spanglish and English, it required concentration. We would be learning four Sevillanas. These are festival dances with simple choreography; easy to master for practice and training. Or were they? The class was made up of women, all ages, shapes and sizes. Initially, we all were so intent on clumping through the steps that we forgot to use any hand movements at all. I wondered how week after week Señora had the patience to watch this clumsy group assault the classic beauty of the art form that she had dedicated her life to
What the class lacked in structure, it made up for in entertainment value. Señora would stop abruptly at any time and start regaling us with a story from her colorful past. Sometimes, she’d carefully pass around a creased, yellowed article featuring her and her husband; a handsome young couple; carefree and excited for where life would lead them. From these snippets, we were able to piece together her life story.
Growing up in Spain, she had learned flamenco at an early age and had excelled at it. She had caught the eye of a young man in her village, a bit older than she, who convinced her parents that she should join him and his musicians and go on tour. From then on, she lived and breathed flamenco. After performing all over Europe, they immigrated to the U.S. and danced in Las Vegas, getting to know all the big stars of the time and living large. Señora’s husband was not a businessman, so when his health deteriorated and he ultimately died, she was left with nothing but her memories.
Each Saturday, we’d arrive early to class and stay late, hoping for another story or anecdote, so were disappointed when a stern, young woman was waiting for us this particular morning. She told us her mother was not well and she would be taking over the class. Based on her demeanor, we could tell that she wanted to be anywhere but there. We tried asking questions, but she stoically answered as little as possible.
Nothing was the same. I gave up hope that I would ever speak to Señora again, until I noticed that the young woman was on her cellphone one day and politely asked if it was Señora. If so, could I please speak with her? I was so happy to hear the combination of languages that I could now magically decipher. I asked about her health and told her how much she was missed. I asked if we could come visit her, but she said it wouldn’t be a good idea.
I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to speak with her again and didn’t want to hang up. I was looking for something from this woman who sparkled, who had lived through the ups and downs of her life with such vivacity, such robustness. “What is your secret?,” I asked. She seemed to know exactly what I was referring to and responded with one word. “Duende,” she said softly.
This Spanish term refers to a magical spirit and was traditionally used in flamenco music or other art forms to refer to the mystical or powerful force given off by a performer to draw in the audience. Nowadays, the word also refers to one’s unspoken charm or allure; that certain something that captivates. Yes, this one word encapsulated Señora and duende seemed to be the Latin version of moxie.
I thought of Señora often, especially Saturday mornings, and how I never wanted to forget her influence on me. She may very well have been my inspiration for starting this blog and a way of remembering that we need to package all we were born with into one powerful fireball and use it as the spark to live the very best life we can live.
*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.