Since I last wrote a proper post, a great storm has passed, bringing
tragedy and chaos to a great city. By way of reflection I wanted to share a personal tale
of a storm and an extraordinary woman from that very same city with whom my life crossed paths with briefly.
Many years ago, when I went out to live in small town in Andalusia to study flamenco, I
came to live in the house of an older flamenco dancer who went by the
stage name of La Tormenta - The Storm. She had been living in
Spain for decades but was actually a native of New York.
For many years beforehand, I had been visiting this same town and whenever I was there I would go with friends to a small
tablao, tucked away in the corner of a grand plaza lined with tall, majestic
palm trees. On entering there was a raised stage immediately on your right facing a
restaurant and a bar ran along the left. There would often be a
row of formidable looking gypsy women seated on wooden chairs along the
back of the restaurant in polka dot dresses, with dark arched brows and
long black hair, their dramatic black eyes made all the more so lined in thick black kohl. They would fan themselves languidly with intricately
painted wooden fans, shouting their approval at moments of intensity
during the performances of those on stage, many of whom were gypsies
themselves and likely to be family members.
The usual quadro would be the big heavy gypsy guitarist who owned the bar, a gypsy singer, and two young wiry dancers with barely enough flesh on them to fuel the stamina required to get through their energetic routines. Then there was La Tormenta, a much older dancer, regal in stance with elegant sinuous arms. She would be more composed in her delivery on stage than her younger counterparts, majestic and calm almost, until suddenly, she would explode, bringing the house down with her. Her speciality, it was said, was the Siguirias, a dark and stormy dance whose mood is steeped in tragedy and in which the dancer revels in the expression of anger and deep sorrow. After seeing her dance once, I remember hearing an Irish man at the table turn around and say to his companions, "This woman is fifty! Can you imagine being this sexy at fifty?" It made me wonder to myself - what sort of woman will I be when I am fifty?
Years later, I had arrived in the middle of a scorching summer looking for a place to live, my mission above all being to learn how to dance the Siguirias. It had an incessant, obsessive rhythm that over the years had got under my skin. I had an Italian girlfriend, Manuela, who at the time was also living in the town taking private classes with La Tormenta. She informed me that La Tormenta had flats to rent. So I accompanied Manuela to her private class to see about renting a flat. We arrived at an old dusty street lined with white washed houses. La Tormenta's house was a typical old Andalusian casa de vecinos with several smaller cottages arranged around a tiled patio. It was distinguishable by a heavy dark wooden door with a gilt doorknocker in the shape of a woman's slender hand with long delicate fingers.
A striking looking woman with a mass of tight dark curls, heavy lidded eyes and a strong nose emerged to greet us. In the flesh she was much more petite and much softer looking than she appeared on stage. Her skin was a deep olive, which, despite being in her mid fifties remained mostly unlined except for smile lines around the corner of her eyes and lips. Although she had a generous smile something about her emitted an air of the tragic, as if she was peering out at the world through a cloud of deep sadness. She spoke perfect English with a New York accent whose strength had long been beaten into submission by years of living abroad.
There was a large dance studio in her house where she gave her private lessons and hanging on the walls were several large framed photos of her dancing throughout her life. There was one in which she was young and fresh faced at age nineteen, looking very much like a Spanish gypsy in her flamenco costume. In another she was swinging a large, heavily embroidered shawl about her shoulders, the thick silk fringing flying out around her, a bird with giant wings about to take flight. In others she was photographed dancing, her strong facial features contorted with passion. In these you could see a fierce beauty which had no doubt conquered the hearts of the two men in her life, both of whom were not just local flamenco legends but globally renowned artists. The first, a famous gypsy flamenco singer she married and bore two kids, and the second later in life, a great gypsy guitarist. However, when we met it seemed she was alone.
I stayed to watch Manuela's private class. I had already
made up my mind who I was going to study with and I had no plans to
study with La Tormenta. She danced an older style of flamenco and I had arrived hungry for the new and contemporary. The town was small and still in those days,
relatively impoverished. Teachers guarded their students fiercely and
petty jealousies erupted if it was discovered that you were studying with someone else and
not them. I came to learn that such unfaithfulness was bound to colour a relationship from the outset. The
question we all faced sooner or later as students on meeting a new teacher was "and
who are you studying with?" to be met sniffily if it wasn't with someone
they approved of. I suddenly felt awkward that I had coming to ask about renting a flat from her when I wasn't actually studying with her.
However she was very charming and took to me immediately. Though we would not have passed for sisters, there were enough physical
similarities between us that people might have believed that we were
more distantly related. Perhaps she recognised a younger self reflected
back in me, but I felt as if she wanted to take me under her wing. "How pretty you are!" she beamed, "Why you look just like a gypsy! You'd better not go to the tablao," she teased, "if my boss sees you he'll immediately ask you if you have a dress and want to see if you can dance." She seemed very interested that I was learning to dance Siguirias, which was her favourite palos. I felt that perhaps she was itching to say that she would rather I took classes with her.
She showed me the flat she had for rent, a tiny bedsit tucked away in a corner of the patio with nothing but a bedroom, shower unit and kitchen with a window opening out to the street that let any passing noise drift in. But as she also said I could rent her studio cheaply to rehearse when she wasn't using it for classes, the thought of a place nearby to practise after classes won me over.
So it was that I took a flat from La Tormenta. In the other flats were other people also studying flamenco, a Swiss lady studying guitar, a French guitarist, a flamenco dancer from Granada who lived half the year in Switzerland. In the late afternoon and late evenings of summer, we would all eat in the patio. Often friends would come around, guitars would come out and we would talk and listen to flamenco guitars playing late into the night. Sometimes La Tormenta would join us after finishing teaching a class or if we were still out late at night, when she arrived back from her session at the tablao at night. She continued to dance regularly at the tablao and would emerge in the early evening with her make-up immaculately applied, her thick curly hair tied back tightly off her face. Often wearing a wide gypsy style skirt, she would mount her battered old bicycle and cycle to work, her skirt flapping behind her, to dance up a storm at the tablao with her Siguirias.
When you are young and embarking on your own adventure you want to do so on your own terms. Often the last thing you are open to hearing is the received wisdom of those who have gone before you. My friends and I were ravenous to learn from the bright young stars giving courses and classes, we wanted the new, the complicated, the technically challenging, the cutting edge. The traditional bored us. We thought we knew better.
La Tormenta soon became a frustration for us. We would often rehearse together in her studio and congregate in the patio afterwards to relax and take some refreshments, only to be joined by her, whereupon she would ask us about our classes and courses. She would become critical of what we were doing, of our approach to learning this art form. We began to feel the undercurrent of what she was saying all the time was that we should really be taking classes with her in order to understand flamenco better and not running around doing all the things we currently were.
Why are you studying with this teacher? She would ask us. They were not gypsy, you are wasting your money. What does he or she really understand about flamenco? Bewildered we would convene later and whisper amongst ourselves. Who does she think she is? Why does she say that? She is not even a gypsy herself! She is a woman from New York!
Other times we would come back from flamenco shows and she would ask us who was dancing. If it was a young local she knew then she would have taught them at some point. "Oh yes, I've taught them all," she told us. "When they came to me they were full of all this movement and all this fast footwork, but is was I who taught them to stand still". She seemed to be very proud of this. My friends and I, however, were unimpressed. We wanted to be dazzled with footwork and the faster and more furious it was the better.
La Tormenta's dance studio was by the kitchen in her house and often when I would be rehearsing she would be preparing a meal. I would see the curtains twitch giving away that she had been there watching. It made me feel uncomfortable, self-conscious and then angry. Rehearsing can be such a private thing, it is so often a place where one struggles, fails and tries to overcome ones limitations. Before you accomplish something you may die many little deaths along the way. I felt suddenly like the teenage daughter who finds out that her mother has been reading her secret stories of hope and heartbreak in her diary.
Deciding there was safety in numbers I would get my friend Sarah and a guitarist to come around to rehearse the Siguirias we had learnt together in a course. We would get into deep discussion as to how we should be counting the timing. After postulating one version I had been given by another teacher I was studying with we heard an angry voice interject from the kitchen, shouting in stern Spanish, "No! That is not how you count Siguirias, you count it like this..." and she beat the rhythm out while counting. We continued our rehearsal in shamefaced silence knowing she was eavesdropping on every word.
She would surprise me sometimes by suddenly coming by and
asking if I would like to accompany her on an outing somewhere. I was
always too busy running from one class to the next to be able to accept. After one rehearsal La Tormenta had asked my friend Sarah if she was Jewish as she was looking for someone to accompany her to the synagogue in Sevilla. I began to get the impression that despite the large number of people
coming and going from her house as tenants and students, that she was actually incredibly lonely.
One day rehearsing alone I heard her on the phone to one of her sons by the gypsy flamenco singer in a neighbouring room. A reputed drug addict like his father before him, he was forever ringing her up and asking her for money and refused to let her see her grandchild unless she conceded. A heated argument ensued ending with her sobbing and screaming hysterically at him. No amount of stamping I could muster in the studio could drown out the sounds of her sorrow. I felt awkward and unsure of what to do, as if I had heard a private moment I should not have and yet also as if she had wanted me to hear it.
I quickly began to feel suffocated. I wanted to spread my own wings
and discover this world on my own terms without someone constantly
trying to persuade me to look at it through a particular lens. Her
interest in what I was doing and having to comment on it all the time
started to chip away at my confidence. I began to dread rehearsing in her studio whilst she was there. I even dodged her offers to take me to the tablao to introduce me to the gypsy guitarist to see if he would let me dance there.
Something of her terrified me - the tragedy, the intensity, the suffering, the
loneliness. A fear was creeping into my consciousness, a fear that if I
unlocked the secrets of dancing Siguirias that I would somehow be
opening Pandora's box and descend into a similar hell. Nothing chokes creativity more than fear and it was if she was putting her slender hands around my throat and slowly strangling
With the summer coming to an end many of my friends had now left to return home. Sarah had returned to London and Manuela to Italy, leaving me without friends to rehearse with. A loneliness and melancholy crept into my heart. "I am turning into her," I thought one day, and I made the decision then and there to leave the bedsit at the end of the summer, take a short break back to London and on my return to Spain find a new place to live. I needed air. I needed distance.
When I finally left, La Tormenta told me she hoped that I would finally learn to dance the Siguirias. She might as well have slapped me in the face. Knowing how she had been spying on my rehearsals, I felt she was implying that she thought I had no idea what I was doing and that I had missed out on a chance to learn it properly with her.
In my week back in London, I caught up with Sarah in a pub over a drink. "Look!" She pulled something from her bag with a cheeky grin and waved at it me laughing. It was a flier with that same picture of La Tormenta that hung in her dance studio, swirling a large shawl around herself, the fringes splaying out in a wide halo of silk threads. We snickered together over our drinks at the memory of our trying conversations with her. Why would we ever want to pay her to teach us to stand still? We wanted to dance!
That night, I got a phone call from a guitarist friend. He told me that La Tormenta had died. She had been killed travelling up to Sevilla to go to the synagogue in a hit and run accident. I was stunned. We had parted ways only days before. The image of her, a dark bird with the great fringed wings of her silk shawl sprang instantly into my head. I suddenly felt deeply ashamed for my earlier conversation with Sarah and called her immediately to tell her the news. Sarah, although also shocked, was more philosophical "you know, there are some people whose energy attracts tragedy. She always felt to me like one of those people."
When I got back to Spain I searched for news of what happened. There was nothing but a small obituary in the local town newspaper explaining the circumstances of her death and a cursory reference to the fact she had danced in the tablao regularly. I felt saddened for her, that the town she so loved and where she lived for so long, the birthplace of the art form she dedicated her life to, showed her so little affection or sense of loss in return.
Autumn descended on the town, and brought with it fierce thunderstorms
that battered the white washed buildings and regularly flooded the cobbled streets until water ran down them like rivers. Although I had moved to a new flat it seemed I couldn't quite escape La Tormenta who persisted in haunting me in my sleep. I would dream of her
appearing on the balcony outside my bedroom, crying out to me and beating her slender hands
violently against the long glass doors, her wild dark hair flying in the wind, her face wet with bitter tears. And I
would wake with a start to the sound of high howling winds rattling the doors and heavy rain thrashing
against the glass.
Later that Autumn I met a gypsy. Frustrated with what I felt was a lack of progress in my understanding of flamenco and in my dancing I allowed my flamenco dancing flat mate to introduce me to her gypsy teacher. So many classes, so many new steps learnt and yet I felt something was still missing. I had sat listening to MP3 recordings of my flat mate's classes, fascinated by the sounds emanating from them, the energy being emitted. It sounded like five people were in the room making noise, clapping, shouting, footwork, and yet all that sound was from this one woman teaching. Already hungry for the input of a new teacher, I decided I wanted to study with her too.
I accompanied my flat mate to her class where I met the Gypsy, a small solid woman with bright eyes and boundless energy. She was seated in a wooden chair dressed in a cross over blouse and wrap tie skirt trimmed with cascades of frills, her long dark hair was tied up and piled high up on her head, almost like a beehive. Seated beside the Gypsy, was her aunt, an identical but older version of her, wearing her hair in the same style and dressed in a prim pencil skirt and cardigan. The dance studio felt much like the tablao where La Tormenta used to perform. A battered raised wooden floor on one side faced an open area where chairs and benches were arranged and on which were seated numerous gypsy relatives, her aunt, her grandfather and a motley collection of cousins. On finding out that I was here to enquire about taking classes with her she subjected me to a trial by fire. Narrowing her eyes, she said, almost mischievously - let me see how you dance first.
Luckily I had been forewarned of this audition by my flat mate and I had come prepared with a short dance, a bulerias, so when the guitarist started up I was able to overcome my nerves and launch straight into it, dancing it without any mistakes. On finishing the Gypsy turned from watching me with a look of genuine surprise to her aunt. "Tienes...algo." she said. She has...something. I hoped desperately that the "algo" was something good. The aunt nodded and smiled approvingly. The gypsy relations seated on the benches and chairs watching had all broken into wide grins and were also nodding.
Relieved, I felt that I had at least passed this first test. Well done, I was told. You danced with a lot of rhythm and good technique. But, she chided, flamenco is not for butterflies and right now she thought there was too much of the butterfly in the way I danced. I must have looked crestfallen because she poked me playfully to indicate there was hope for me yet. Don't you worry - "Soy gitana!" she declared proudly - I'm a gypsy, and if you study with me you will learn to dance like a gypsy.
So it was I came to study with a real gypsy. The autumn storms receded and with them so too did my nightmares of La Tormenta. In the following months I would eventually study Siguirias with the Gypsy. She would sing to me while I danced and suddenly it felt like pieces of a great puzzle were finally coming together. She would show me where in the song I had to stop and just listen, to respect what the singing was trying to tell me, she taught me how to stand still and yet still say something without seeming to do anything at all. She showed me how doing less sometimes had more power than trying to do too much. She taught me how to use quiet and to build a crescendo from the silence. Indirectly she showed me that an understanding of the traditional was essential to put the contemporary into context. I practised and practised and practised the Siguirias like a maniac, a woman possessed, until one day the Gypsy dropped to her knees on the tablao after I'd finished dancing it in class, her hands clasped tightly together as if in fervent prayer. "Gracias a Dios!" she shouted almost in disbelief, you've finally got it.
Sometime later I thought back to the things La Tormenta had said to us over that summer, of the value of learning flamenco from gypsies, of the value of learning to stand still. She had been right of course and I had been too blindsided by other things at the time to appreciate it.
A year later on a hot summer's evening out in the town I bumped into an American woman who had been both her friend and student and had also been staying at La Tormenta's house that turbulent summer before. We started up a conversation about her untimely death and she recounted many things about La Tormenta's life I had not known. That her first husband, the gypsy singer, regularly beat her and it was only until she took refuge in a shelter for battered women that she finally had the courage to leave him. That she even had to flee back to the States for a time to get some distance from him. She told me of the drug addicted son that was the cause of so much of his mother's sorrow and pain.
But, sighed, her old student, she lived life the way she wanted to, on her terms and without any regrets. By having the courage to allow herself to be consumed by her passion she no doubt reaped rich rewards as an artist, although in doing so, she also suffered the consequences in her personal life. I realised what an incredibly strong woman she had been to have dealt with all of that.
Whenever there is a great storm now I remember La Tormenta and a summer of starting an adventure that she subtly influenced the direction of, even if I did not realise it at the time. Years later I was to find out that La Tormenta was of Sephardi-gypsy descent. Strangely enough, I had by then discovered that surnames in my family tree may well be old Sephardic Jewish surnames adopted by Portuguese and Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion during the Middle Ages. Perhaps she and I had more in common than I had realised.
A storm is neither good nor evil but energy pure and simple and even the wildest of storms has a calm eye at its core from which all its energy radiates. As flamenco is a metaphor for life so too is a storm. Life is being in the path of a storm, where you never know when the calm might end and what things will then be thrown at you, or how they will change the course your life.
La Tormenta, I hope you have found peace. Although I was never your student thank you for trying to share your knowledge with me. At the time I didn't understand your gypsy heart, it took years of absorbing the wisdom of another gypsy to finally do so. With the passing of the years I now understand what it was that you had tried to tell me all that time ago. That there needs to be time to stand still amidst the fury of the storm. That we must seek stillness and quiet to make sense of the cacophony of life, because sometimes, it takes more courage to stand still and face the world than by continuously moving in reaction to it. And, at last, I finally understand how to dance Siguirias.
To all those in New York who have lost loved ones to the storm, may you find solace, comfort and peace.
Photographic evidence of my mint craze. Mint leather to be precise! These were taken in the grounds of St John's College at Cambr...
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