Flamenco: Amor de Dios Studio
This is the first in a four-part series on flamenco, an art form that was named to UNESCO‘s Representative List of intangible cultural heritage items in 2010, while I was travelling through Spain. The criteria for that designation requires that the practice must be transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity.It is something traditional that is passed on from the past but is also alive and constantly evolving. This series is intended to share my experience of flamenco as embodying Andalusia’s heart and soul, with its people as a prism, offering glimmers of the art’s history and future. —MP
From the hallway, I felt the floor shaking from a rapid-fire burst of pounding and heard a man wailing. Looking in a doorway, I saw a couple of dozen people drenched in sweat, their faces contorted in both pain and ecstasy. The group ranged in age from what looked like an eight year-old girl to a man in his 30s. All eyes were on two men in the front of the room, both dressed in black. One had long hair pulled back into a pony tail; the other had the stubble of a six o-clock shadow and sat in a folding chair.
The man standing gave an authoritative clap and barked out a series of commands. The seated man began keening, his husky voice rising in a soul-stirring, other-worldly cry. The assortment of people in the small, bare room burst into movement, simultaneously frenetic and controlled. Arms were flung skyward, hips swayed rhythmically, feet hammered against the floor, eyes shone. The energy was palpable; the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the walls dripped with condensation.
When the kinetic swirl of motion suddenly came to a stop, my heart was racing. Moved by the intensity of experience, tears sprang to my eyes and grinning both inside and out, I shouted “Ole`!”
The traditional cheer originates from the Arabic, meaning “my God,” an appropriate accolade at Madrid’s legendary flamenco school Amor de Dios Studio. Housed in a pink building on Calle Santa Isabel, its name translates from the Spanish as “love of God.” While one might be excused for thinking the lofty moniker arises from the heavenly dancing that is transmitted within its walls, the school was named for the nearby street on which it was originally located.
With a mixture of curiosity, excitement and perhaps even reverence, I had come here to pay my respects to one of Madrid’s most beloved institutions. Indeed, its reputation as a national treasure and cultural icon is renown throughout all of Spain and beyond, with admirers worldwide. So many students come from Japan, where there is a fervent flamenco fan base, the school has been nick-named “Amor de Buddha.”
I had been told that my chances of admittance were best if I came in the early evening and so despite being delirious with jetlag, I moved through the streets of Madrid’s centro historico as the soft light of dusk descended. The warm glow of the streetlights flickered on and I allowed myself to be carried along the avenues of the ancient neighborhood by the tide of its residents returning home from work.
Arriving at number 5 Calle Santa Isabel, I entered the building and was flummoxed to find a bustling market, with well-stocked stands selling lush produce and pungent cheeses alongside butchers’ counters strung with hams and fishmongers’ displays of the catch of the day. A merchant explained to me that Amor de Dios was on the second floor, above the Mercado de Antón Martín.
Climbing the stairs, I ascended into a cloud imbued with the cloying scent of pot and a cluster of thin young men with dark and slightly dangerous good looks gathered on the landing. In the school’s reception area, the walls were plastered with colorful posters for flamenco performances of all kinds being held near and far. A matron in a mink coat flirted with a white-haired man with a creased face and gleaming guitar lovingly ensconced in his lap.
A gaggle of teenage girls flew through the doors, flamenco shoes in hand, passing a middle-aged man strolling in the opposite direction, who absent-mindedly clacked a pair of castanets. Presiding over the well-practiced pandemonium behind a plate-glass window was Joaquín San Juan, who manages the school, which is a private institution.
With permission from San Juan to roam about, I stuck my head in the first door I came upon. An autocratic-looking woman with gray hair pulled back into a tight bun presided over a class of six women. In a corner, a young man with a sweater draped over his shoulders and high-top sneakers on his feet strummed a delicate and mournful tune on his guitar.
In contrast with the high voltage display I would soon see down the hallway, in this studio the emphasis seemed to be on subtleties. The women focused on form–backs ramrod straight in a regal posture, arms bent just so, and the hems of their ruffled skirts held in a certain manner. I noticed each student’s flamenco shoes were a different color—red, beige, purple, black, shades of blue—and their stylized stance mirrored that of their teacher facing them from the front of the room.
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