LEARNING FLAMENCO, PART I
I once had an Argentine tango dance teacher say to me that most new tango students tend to drop out within the first six months of taking class. I had no trouble believing that; as a flamenco teacher I experience that same drop-out rate among new students year in and year out. For the most part, new participants realize learning flamenco is far more difficult than they had imagined, and it's not happening in the time frame they had set aside.
Part of this phenomenon has to do with context: this country is very results-oriented. Everything from jobs, to hobbies, to raising children, comes with a series of near-impossible expectations. The idea of undertaking a journey for the sake of the journey, and not the final destination, is an idea associated with a lack of ambition. In other words, what's the point of pursuing something that won't result in a raise, or recognition?
We also live in a time where everything is designed around the pursuit of instant gratification. Social media relationships and a focus on consumption of goods to achieve happiness and gratification, fuels this need for instant results. Fast food, fast fashion, fast relationships, fast everything.
So what can we do to prevent the high probability of dropping out so early in the process of learning a complex dance form? How can we stay focused on enjoying the process?
Flamenco is not just dance. It's a cultural art form encompassing music, movement, improvisation and choreography. And like all art forms, it demands skill, passion and presence of mind. It also requires patience, perseverance, and an understanding that failure and success are very relative terms.
In my classes, I often talk about the importance of being thoughtful when repeating movements over and over; that focusing on improving ONE small thing within a given movement sequence is better than trying to perfect the whole sequence. Improving on that one small thing will provide a greater sense of success and accomplishment, while trying to improve everything all at once will likely lead to feeling overwhelmed and a sense of failure.
This is not an exercise limited to beginners. This is crucial at at all levels, especially with more advanced dancers that take a lot of what they've learned for granted.
Another factor that can lead to the high drop-out rate is the idea that time spent in the studio is the only time devoted to the learning process. It's important to take some degree of responsibility for one's training. By that I mean a minimum amount of practice time outside the studio. And that also includes listening to music, something that is often neglected. It doesn't have to be hours per day in front of a mirror. It can be just ten minutes reviewing a footwork combination in gym shoes, moving the upper body while stabilizing the hips, practicing flowers, hand clapping rhythms, and listening to various rhythmic forms... it all counts and it provides a sense of accomplishment in between classes.
Another crucial factor that is fundamental in enjoying the process is simply accepting that you will not be very good at first. It's normal, it's expected and it is not a reflection of your abilities, your intelligence or your efforts. It's just hard. There's a lot of information coming at you and just like a beginner tennis player, you're not going to be hitting a lot of balls at first. The fun comes when eventually you do hit the ball and you feel like a million bucks, and all you want to do from that moment forward is find ways to hit it better! Before you know it, you're spending months and years trying to finesse each hit. Along the way, you've learned a thing or two about yourself, and you're better off for it.
Throughout my years of teaching, I've learned that patience is not necessarily innate. It's a skill that one can master if one has enough invested in what one's learning. I'm a notoriously impatient person, yet when it comes to flamenco, I'm happiest laboring over small details over the course of many repetitions. I enjoy the process of setting my ego aside and pretending that I'm performing a movement for the very first time. This is one of the reasons why I love teaching as much as I do; it forces me to not take anything for granted, and to see things with new eyes all the time. This is a skill that is achieved over time and if one allows oneself to get to this point, the reward is well worth it.
There's a reason why professional ballet dancers begin each class, each rehearsal, each warm up with a simple plié. I'm pretty sure they're past the point of figuring out how to bend the knees to just the right degree, in a turned out position. But it's a way to focus the mind on the present, on the details. It's a reminder that because the body today doesn't quite feel the same as it did yesterday, this is a new opportunity to discover each movement.
The truth is, you never really get to your final destination because the bar keeps moving in relationship to your progress. The more you know the more you want to learn and the more you learn, the more you realize how deep the thing goes.
I'm going on seventeen years of flamenco study and while I'm intimidated every single day by what I don't yet know, I'm able to look at myself in the mirror with confidence, something I wasn't able to do at first. I see my weaknesses and my strengths and on most days I'm compassionate and patient with myself over the things I don't like. I appreciate that, thanks to my training, as my body gets older, it has the ability to move in ways it didn't when I was younger. I'm grateful that the perseverance that got me this far has also helped me with countless challenges I've faced in my personal life these past seventeen years.
I remind myself that what I know today is good and it's enough. Tomorrow is a new day. And if I want to be able to call myself a flamenco dancer, I have to work for it...just like everyone else.