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by Colin Barraclough

"Flamenco," whispered my Andalusian friend, "is passion, freedom, sadness, and love. One day, we'll dance it together."

It was an exciting thought. Flamenco dance, an amalgam of gypsy rhythms with the folklore of Andalusia, encompasses the whole range of human emotion. By turns melancholic, rapturous, lustful and sad, it more than just a dance. Its dramatic blend of passion, colour, and sensuousness embraces all the dramas of life itself.

Sadly, I realized it would be hard to accept Marisa's offer. Even those exposed to the flamenco culture from birth can take years to master its techniques. For an outsider like me, it could take a lifetime.

In its present form, flamenco is only 200 years old, yet its origins stretch back centuries before. Gypsies, arriving in southern Spain from India in the fifteenth century, claim the music as their own. Certainly, flamenco's complex musical rhythms, etched out with syncopated clapping, known as toque de palmas, and vigorous stomping of feet are taken straight from the gypsy tradition. So, too, is the mournful voice telling tragic tales of hardship and struggle in the face of adversity. The words weave stories of love won and lost, of passion unbridled, or of a death that comes silently on a dark night.

But other influences are easy to spot. The popular songs and dances of Andalusia are there, entwining the clash of castanets with the mellow note of the guitar. Traces of Judaic and Catholic influence can be found, offset by a strong dose of the Arab tradition, a legacy of the 700-year Moorish occupation of Spain.

Mastering this complex mix of cultures might be tough, but experiencing the hob and vigor of the dance is simple enough to arrange. Perhaps the best way is to visit an Andalusian flamenco club, known locally as a pena. While the country's leading dancers perform in the larger cities, even the smallest Andalucian village boasts a flamenco festival of some kind during the year.

I began my first flamenco experience at a table laden with tapas of olives, goat's cheese, and well-cured local hams. Spicy rioja washed down the local produce and helped build an atmosphere of ebullience. The odors of wine and smoke hung heavy in the night air. At midnight, with a moon silhouetting mountain crags, the music began.

The deep resonance of a guitar was the first to break the silence. Plucking fingers picked out a melody that curved first among the lower strings, somber and slow, setting the scene for the drama ahead. A voice emerged, a melancholy baritone that carried me away to the caravanserais of North Africa, distracted and nostalgic, evoking a memory of a love lost long ago. Then, abruptly, a rhythm of percussive insistence broke through. Fingers exploded on strings, drumming a deep and regular beat into the tables around me. Additional musicians broke in, clapping and stamping, their beats and counterbeats marking out the compass, the distinctive rhythm of the flamenco style.

And into the maelstrom stepped the dancer. Eyes smoldering, long dark hair carving an arc in the light of the moon, she was passion itself. The musicians accelerated the guitar gushing forth a torrent of notes, sprinting through soaring turns and frills, before returning time and again to the anchor of the root chord.

The dancer kept up, her long skirt skimming the stage, its flowing folds accentuating the serpentine movements of her body. Heels kicking hard into the wooden floor, arms sketching a circle above the head, she kept her upper body poised in a state of grace before surrendering to the insistent demands of the beat.

Time and again the rush of movement was punctured by abrupt halts, as if the certainty of love had failed. A moment's doubt, and then on once more, back to the urgency of life and love, chasing, teasing, soaring, and lilting.

I watched entranced as strutted, stomped and span her way across the stage, lissome and lithe, stretching every sinew, manoeuvring every muscle, and attempting every twist and turn that the human body could make. It was bewitching. For a dizzying moment, I felt connected to the earth, as if floating far above. I glanced around and saw that fellow guests, too, were transfixed. Then the rhythm halted abruptly and the crowd began to applaud. The spell was broken and I returned to earth.

Colin Barraclough is a freelance journalist based in London. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Miami Herald and GQ.

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