"Can anybody learn flamenco?"
I can't count the number of times I've been asked that question and to be perfectly honest I've always struggled with the answer. Somehow it never felt like a simple 'yes' or 'no' question. To say yes was to be over-simplistic and to say no sounded a little too precious. What is that question really asking? Can anybody learn steps? Sure. Can anybody interpret a song while dancing in rhythm and communicating shifts in dynamic to live musicians? Uhh... maybe?
Can anyone learn to clap a12-count rhythm? Yes. Can anyone internalize the subtleties of syncopation and express them through precise footwork? I don't really know.
What are we really asking? I think a far more interesting question could be "can anyone learn from flamenco?" Realistically, limits in talent, time and energy will prevent most of us from achieving the mastery of the art form that we once dreamed of attaining. But does that mean we have failed? Does that mean the effort wasn’t worthwhile? I suppose the answer to that depends on how we view the learning process.
Grappling with something immensely challenging is mostly valuable because of what it can teach us about ourselves. It can teach us humility, patience, acceptance, perspective, and in so doing open up the possibility of a richer and happier life.
What else can teach us these things? Nothing else. Binge watching Game Of Thrones may feel life-changing. But it just isn’t. If you want to know yourself, there is simply no substitute for pushing yourself to the limit.
A lot of us start off thinking that the goal is about true mastery of the art form. But if we're really paying attention we realize It’s about learning to tolerate the fact that we will not achieve mastery. It’s about learning to tolerate failure and frustration and mediocrity. It’s about learning to enjoy the process, because any creative endeavor has far more to teach us than many of us are willing to allow...
Years ago, as a graduate of The Theater School at De Paul University, I assumed I would be one of those rare break out stars of the program. Statistics would of course, favor me. I worked in the theater and had varying levels of success but I found the whole thing tedious; meeting agents, dealing with casting directors' lack of imagination, auditions, waiting... waiting.. waiting.
Then in looking for a monologue to prepare I stumbled across "Franny and Zooey" by J.D. Salinger and a specific quote that read: “I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” That was the psychological equivalent of getting hit in the face by someone wearing a double stack of brass knuckles. It hurt. Because it hit all too close to home...Was this the choice: a star, or a nobody?
For a while, I thought it was. I spent the next few years cleaning homes, selling jewelry, working in a gym, temping in an office, and riding a motorcycle. I was trying to find serenity in this business of being a nobody but not surprisingly, it didn’t exactly work out.
Then I took my first flamenco class and everything changed. Or rather, I changed. Slowly and painfully over the course of eighteen or so years, I realized the way I defined success and failure was all wrong.
While learning steps and technique and weird new ways of moving, I learned that bodies change, but only to a point. We are at the end of the day, pre-determined genetic masses hurtling through space and our acceptance of that fact is going to determine a lot about how compassionately we view ourselves in the mirror. How we embrace our uniqueness.
I learned that if I breathe and focus on the smallest of tasks, such as completing a full circle of the wrist while teaching "flower" movements, I can experience the joy and peace of living in the moment. The joy of the process, for its own sake.
I discovered I love teaching and yes, I also love the freedom and expression of performing flamenco and enjoy the relative mastery I've achieved. But the thing I will always be most grateful for, is what I learned from the process of being a student (a process that continues to this day). How to slow down. How to allow myself to take satisfaction in the small sucesses and pleasures that, after all, are most of what life has to offer.
If I hadn’t learned this lesson, how would I have survived getting married at 46, the dark mood of a step-son, the endless demands of a two-year-old daughter? I don’t think I would have. I wouldn't have understood that holding on too tightly to anything including your idea of who you are, doesn't work. Life has a way of reminding you that you're not in charge. Flamenco taught me that too by chipping away at my ego.
When my husband first met me he said he was taken by my air of confidence and general togetherness of my shit. Now he knows just how much of a put-on that was and laughs, lovingly, at just how untogether my shit really is.
Come to think of it, we both laugh about it, because If it hadn't been for flamenco, I would have kept believing my own hype.
Being "an absolute nobody" is still not exactly my bag, but at least I'm no longer afraid of the truth.