“Make sure you go out and meet people” concerned friends and family told me before we left. “Find a hobby” they suggested. It was invaluable advice, and I was keen to report back with some positive updates! So, within 2 weeks of arriving in Madrid, I signed up for a week-long intensive Spanish language course, by day, and Flamenco dance classes, by night.
The language classes were ok, although I wasn’t convinced that learning the names of classroom objects was going to help me “get by”. I met a few English-speaking classmates to have lunch with and compare language struggles – of which there were many. But for the dance classes, I was flying solo.
On the first night, I entered the small studio apprehensively. With my (very) basic Spanish pleasantries already exchanged in the changing room, my current language limits had been reached but I smiled and listened politely. I chose my position in the back row, flexing my toes in the too-tight Flamenco shoes borrowed from the dance school reception (I quickly decided that I would buy my own, as a memento if nothing else)!
I panicked as the teacher launched into rapid Spanish, introducing herself and the art of Flamenco. The authenticity was enthralling but, how was I going to follow? The others seemed to relax, nodding and understanding but I was sweating as we adopted the starting position. I hadn’t yet acclimatised to the constant 30-degree heat and the AC provide little relief! I imitated the teacher, who bunched a handful of her skirt in her tiny fist and placed it upon her waist. I stood poised (in my not so authentic gym shorts) ready to be transported.
The sound of the guitar drifted into the room and the teacher who had been chatting and laughing before, now looked pained. I watched transfixed as she demonstrated; I was under the spell. A master of technique, yet spontaneous in choreography, this was the beauty of the Flamenco dancer (I had read in my Lonely Planet guide).
Then, it was our turn. In beats of four, she counted us in “uno, dos, tres, cuatro”. She shouted commands, but I was relieved when I realised that I didn’t need to understand them, I simply had to watch. I studied her closely whilst copying the intricate movement of her fingers and the twist of her wrist, as we raised our arms high in unison. She caught my eye in the mirror to confirm understanding and I smiled, realising. We were communicating through movement just as people had done for centuries, connecting countries and cultures all over the world. My arms shook as we held the position for an impossible length of time when, the tension broke with a rapid machine-gun stamping of the feet and a flourishing “Olé”!
I was hypnotised by the sporadic shouting, the skirts, the SWEAT. Then, the spell broke as the class ended and we clapped encouragingly. I was elated! I felt part of something! And so, I stamped my feet through 3 hour-long classes that week, and the weeks that followed. During those hours, I thought about nothing else. My fear of not being able to understand was left outside the studio door because here, I understood perfectly.
But it wasn’t all lost on me! In the studio, I learnt to count, and the names of body parts. I realised that ‘derecha’ was right and ‘izquierda’ was left, and when to “cambio” (change). I understood the commonly used phrases “entendéis?” (do you understand)? and “eso es” (that’s it) and I found my own method to remember these – “in 10 days” and “SOS” – simple, but effective!
My body ached. Who needs weights?! Mastering the technique would take time, yet I was so proud when I thought I could “dance in Spanish”. Later, as I sat in the sun reflecting (my favourite hobby of all) it occurred to me that in fact dance has no language and if it does, then it can be understood by all.
The language of dance is universal, and this was all I needed to know.