DUENDE - When Flamenco Works

If you're following DeeCaf Writing regularly (If not, we need to have a word. Meet me outside), you know that I have been to a flamenco show recently, which later became the tipping point of my love for this music and dance. It's like I find myself in the intensity of the whole experience: the clapping, the dancing, the guitars, the powerful stomping that makes a unique statement each time the heal and ball of the feet hit the ground. The fact that flamenco encourages one to process all feelings from sad to happy; grieving to playful simultaneously is enough to evoke such a strong connection between the performance and the audience. A few weeks ago on that night, I decided that I could no longer be just a part of the audience; I had to be on the other side of the experience and even more so become the experience itself.

So I took up classes; beginner level of course, thinking even the best needs practice. We spent most of our first class just talking about flamenco and why we were there. There were six of us, all women though flamenco welcomes everyone. At first, we all seemed to have showed up for the feeling of feminine empowerment, the passion, the strength but the more we talked about flamenco the more unique, underlying reasons surfaced.

I, for one said I was there to silence the voices in my head. I said I wanted nothing but flamenco on my mind and in my heart when the time comes for me to become it. Our instructor, Dionisia, took my reasoning very seriously, as she did with everyone, and said that she would observe my progress throughout the class not from a technical point of view but from a mental one to see if I get better at being in the moment.

Another woman said a Spaniard broke her heart and this was her way of letting him go. This came as a surprise to Dionisia, who said with big eyes "J'ure in the wrong place, no?" "This is where we remember Spaniards!" she added with laughing eyes.

Most interesting and mysterious reason came from the woman sitting next to me. She was the first to go in fact and she opened the sharing circle with one word: duende, which was followed by silence. I could tell she was a cool person. Not only because she knew a cool word, meaning of which none of us understood but also because she had several tattoos on her arms and hands. For me, chicks don't get cooler than that easily. But why Dionisia remained silent, I couldn't understand. She was looking directly into my cool, new friend's eyes with an expression on her face that showed disappointment rather than excitement.

She said "What j'uyu mean by that word? Do you even know what that word means? J'u can't use it like saying, I do'knoo, chair or window or somethin'. You have to feel it to understand it".

We were shocked. No wonder she was described as "the whiplash of flamenco". Clearly, we hit a home run because she was getting all worked up; unable to stop herself from explaining that duende was a concept way above us amateurs and we weren't showing it the respect it requires by bringing it up on our very first flamenco class. It was almost forbidden to use the letters that became the word to describe the feeling, the experience, the precious moment within oneself before we actually met with it.

I could see my cool friend regretting to have brought it up and Dionisia trying to let it go. It was an intense moment for all of us but that was exactly what we were there for: intensity. So of course, when my turn came right after the cool girl with tattoos and big words, I didn't let it go. I was very curious now and besides I've always liked to poke hidden holes with my curiosity stick whenever I got a chance. This was my stick and duende the hole. I said " Yeah but what does it mean? Now you have to explain it, no?" She said "No." "That's the whole point. We cannot explain it. Duende has to be experienced."

It was an amazing first class and from the very first second as a flamenco student, I knew I was going to keep coming back to that studio and many more perhaps until I mastered the art of it and silenced the voices in my head.


Two weeks after my first class, I've already been to a new show in Brooklyn. Pretty crowded team: five dancers (two men, three women), one percussionist, two guitars, two singers, one flute/harmonica. I had a front row seat and it was a small room. Though I've been to many flamenco shows in the past, this one easily wiped out all past experiences, possibly because I could literally feel every single heart beat of each dancer. Being physically so close to them allowed to me peek into their insides. I could see their duende. They were there in the room with us, with each other and within themselves but it was also easy to observe that simultaneously, they were not. They took a trip dancing to their past life, future and their very selves right there in the moment. I went with them. Whatever they sent through the floor with each stamp was delivered to me through my seat.


It was at this point that flamenco was no longer a dance for me; it became an instigator. It touched something; pressed a button; turned on the lights after years of pitch black. It kissed me, and I sure kissed it back.


As I was watching the professional dancers stepping their feet ever so strongly and at lightning speed, I realized how much work it would require me to get to that level if I were to keep at flamenco. I had a flashback of myself from a few days ago, confusing simple steps of a 10 second sequence. Compared to what was happening right in front of me, my flamenco attempt was like Queen Elizabeth doing a belly dance show for the King of Saudi Arabia. In fact, my attempt should look twice as ridiculous.



In other words, normal me, the girl I've lived inside of for 30 years would have two options: either move to Seville, study flamenco until she's 50 and completely dedicate her entire self to flamenco until she became the best or give it up entirely.

Obsess much? Me either.

Watching these beautiful dancers would have been too intimidating for me to even try to learn the dance. Since moving to Seville is not an option (at least for now), I would have said "Why even bother?"; just finish the beginner level class and call it a day.

During the performance though, something happened. I suddenly felt free of perfectionism. Like it was OK to not become the world's best flamenco dancer and just keep doing it because it gives me joy. Like I suddenly had a loving, warm blanket of patience around me. It dawned on me like a blinding flash of light that I had spent too many years being patient for things I didn't enjoy that when the time came to being patient for things that I like, there is none left. For years, I used my patience reserves so aggressively that they're all dried up.

Now that I am slowly but surely finding my sources of joy and excitement, I can't wait around to get good at them. I am as patient as an 8-year old kid in a toy store; I want them all and I want them now. But flamenco seems to be teaching me the right ways of toy shopping. I am learning to respect the toys and the precious moments I will spend with them. Love is an internal reaction to having the luxury of showing patience for things that are good to my soul.

Yeah, I am pretty sure that's what duende is. I saw it in dancers eyes and in my brief, flash lighting moment. I can't wait to go back to class next Wednesday and tell Dionisia what I added to my reasons for wanting to learn flamenco: to be patient not because of obligations but love and respect.