FLAMENCO, FIVE BELOW
by Meghan Dimmick
John and Beatrice are dating. Eric and I are their friends.
Beatrice and I met on the first day of grade school. We were six. We were all six, but somehow she seemed older, cooler, “in the know” about I don’t know what. She wore hoop earrings the size of bracelets and had a fringed jacket. She lived right by me. I started to linger helplessly when I passed her house on my way to school and the first time she saw me and hurried to grab her bag and make it down the steps in time to meet me, I felt like I’d finally made it to the big time, that real life had started, and on the merit of proximity alone, something big was bound to happen, if not to me then near me, as near as she was.
John and Eric met playing baseball. John was the pitcher and Eric was the catcher. This is supposed to be meaningful. I don’t know anything about baseball. I know even less than they think because they still tell me things like this and imagine that there’s something there for me to understand. To be totally honest, I’m not even sure which one of them is called the catcher. Aren’t they all catchers?
Beatrice and Eric met at work. They’re lifeguards at the Y pool. The lifeguards are very chummy. The pool closes at ten which means several of them are walking back to their cars with nothing to do and a significant bit of the night left. They take advantage.
Beatrice told everyone at work that she had a boyfriend. It just makes it easier, she said. What she means is that she can count on the fact that a healthy percentage of the people she meets in the world are going to hit on her without a specific directive against it. It gets annoying. More so for me than for her, I imagine. But, also, for her.
Eric has a crush on Beatrice. He doesn’t say so, but he spends an awful lot of time complaining about the fact that John always gets the girls on the bare merit of his drop-dead gorgeous good looks. He says that girls always complain that men are superficial but hanging around John just goes to show you that girls are the worst. They swarm him like bees just because he has a chiselled chin, a broad expanse of shoulders, a slow-moving grin.
John is very good-looking. Beatrice was so impressed she ditched her imaginary boyfriend on the spot. John asked her if she had one and she just said no. Eric spent the rest of the night looking for explanations. He grilled me for about ten hours in the back corner of the bar while John and Beatrice kept leaning into each other on the dance floor trying to hear what the other one was saying.
Eric and I started fooling around. We’re not dating. We’re just in close enough proximity at the end of enough nights to make it convenient. I don’t know what to think about it. I vacillate wildly between thinking I’m totally cool enough to handle it and worrying that, regretfully, nauseatingly, I’m not. It makes it hard to get ready to go out. I tell myself I’m not going to dress up if it’s not a date; I flirt with the idea of dressing aggressively down. I’ll wear sweats. Put my hair in a ponytail. No make-up. I tell myself I don’t actually care, but I always get stuck on the good underwear. I wish I were brave enough to go for comfort, the fruit of the looms with the distended elastic, or break out the period pants, but it wouldn’t be him that would be embarrassed, it would be me. So I end up getting dressed up anyway. If only for myself. I wonder about that. I wonder about the implications of doing it only for myself. But it isn’t considered masturbation if any of his parts are involved, I looked it up.
Beatrice thinks Eric is nervous or shy about officially asking me out. She thinks that he’s trying to find a way to date me. She thinks he’s reluctant and self-conscious and that’s why he avoids me at the beginning of the night, but that he can’t help himself and is inevitably, ineluctably drawn to me in the end. She says you can track it. The wide circle he sets and then the slow spiralling in. I think Eric still imagines that he will be somehow able to win over Beatrice. He’s always trying to get her to talk about work. His eyes keep sliding in her direction almost helplessly and he’s too busy paying attention to what she’s doing or saying to look in my direction. But then the night gets longer, and Beatrice and John’s conversations quit allowing for outside input. I try to think of a scenario where I would imagine winning John away from Beatrice. Where I would think that worth doing to Beatrice and where I would think that possible with John. I can’t think of one. Is this the essential difference between men and women? Yes. I think it is.
Beatrice and I went to Spain last spring. My dad told us to eat as much bread as possible. He said the whole of Europe has a bakery in quick walking distance from wherever you are with the best bread that you’ve ever eaten in your life. Her mum told us to enjoy the tapas. She said that in Spain bar food was neither bad for you nor deep fried. She said Spain makes drinking and eating a part of a well-lived life rather than a momentary, guilt-inducing retreat from a busy one.
In Spain, walking the streets at night, there are no mini-marts or vendors selling street meat. Well, there probably are, somewhere, but in the old part of town, you wander through cobblestoned streets and, beneath the high stone walls of the cathedral, a man plays an accordion. The slow, mournful notes bloom around you until you are surrounded by echoes that you can feel on your skin, that move through your chest and straddle your heart. The sweet, deepness of the night, the soft glow of the lamps and the man’s white shirt belong to no time that holds itself separate from the centuries that have swept through this place. You’re not just yourself; you’re here, and you can feel time’s immoderate bulk pulling on you like a tide.
In Spain, all the guidebooks recommend the flamenco shows. We book one. It’s a bit expensive. It’s in a bar with a stage on one side. Everyone sits at tables in chairs and the waitresses bustle around delivering drinks before it starts. On stage, there’s a guitarist playing a six stringed Spanish guitar and a man that sits on a white, plastic, industrial sized tub that he pounds on with his hands, reaching down between his knees. There is a singer and a couple of dancers. The main dancer is a woman. She has on an elaborate skirt and a plain black top with fringed sleeves. She isn’t young. She’s maybe in her forties, maybe older. She isn’t particularly beautiful. She has her dark hair gathered up on top of her head in a large bun. She’s a little bit thick set for a dancer. Not a willowy ballerina, or some other-worldly waif, but a matron: a woman who has delivered children and scrubbed dishes and made it a regular habit to deal with the ordinary, tedious affairs of a less than privileged life. At the beginning, when the musicians start playing, she stays off to one side and claps and urges the male dancer on. She smiles and calls out every once and awhile. She could be a back up singer but for her skirt that swings heavily around her and gleams.
The show is well worth the price before she really even does anything, but when it is her turn, a palpable thrill of excitement runs through the room. Everyone in the group, the musicians, the singer, the male dancer, turn to her expectantly, as if deferentially, and she does this kind of slow walk to centre stage. While she walks, she dips her chin down and looks around the room at the crowd. She spreads her arms out wide as if she’s encouraging everyone’s expectations and desires, as if she’s gathering them in, welcoming them because all of them, every single one, would not tax her, couldn’t. And she begins to dance.
At first, she just kind of sways to the music. She just kind of plays with it and as she moves her hands it’s like she’s twining notes in between her fingers and teasing the music out from the band. It’s as if the music is responding to her rather than the other way around and she tosses her head and claps her hands and the drum reverberates and the singer responds. Then, all of a sudden, the blurring staccato of her stomping feet starts to fill all the spaces. She lifts her skirt and looks down at her shoes and it looks like she’s riding her feet, riding the storm of her dancing feet, and all the musicians start to sweat. They stop looking at each other. They stop trying to look around; they stop blinking into the lights and casually smiling. Suddenly they all shift to get a better seat, a tighter grip and they quit remembering that they’re being watched. They start to bear down on their instruments with a kind of ferocious concentration. As if they need to struggle to keep up, as if the dancer is pushing them all out a little farther than they’ve ever been before and they need to hold on, lean in. The singer sings tremulously through several phrases and then seems to get caught on long, plaintive notes that won’t agree to release her. Every note seems to swerve dangerously close to a wail and her voice keeps breaking right on the edge of disaster, of a sob, or a crack or a collapse, only to continue. Suddenly it is too much for everyone. It’s hot and the musicians are frantic; the singer has totally lost control and the dancer is overwhelmed, agitated, feverish. She shakes her head like she can’t take anymore, like she has to stop. She smacks her legs and chest as if the music is going to break her and we will all be there to witness it, her total and complete subjugation, her painful, her violent evisceration. But just at that last moment, just as her desperation seems poised to overtake her, she dredges down and finds something hard. She falls all the way to the bottom and rather than breaking finds an indestructible sense of resolve, an answering steel that makes her bigger and stronger than everything else. Suddenly her haughty self-possession is back. It seems to rise up from her feet and engulf her. It moves up her body and over her face, and her feet beat the musicians’ frenzy back into a steady cadence over which she exerts a swift and exacting control. With a look of furious determination, she is in charge of it all again. She is the centre. She is unbeaten. And with a glancing, mocking triumph, she gathers it all up inside her in a fanatical, final spin and then throws it at her feet for the audience to witness. Swinging into a concluding pose, her hands raised, her breast heaving, her skirt circles around her dizzyingly and then slowly, heavily, slides back into place.
The crowd jumps to their feet and cries out, and then, disoriented, bewildered, starts to remember themselves. They clear their throats; they lean forward and laugh. They clap. It takes about a full minute for Beatrice or me to react. I only notice that I’m standing when Beatrice sinks back down to her chair beside me. I look at her and she sits back. “I think that changed my life,” she says.
Eric will, eventually, turn to me and say, “Hey.” I’ll laugh at the note of resignation in his voice, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I’ll say, “Oh, are you still here?” Or, “Oh, there you are, I thought you didn’t make it.” Comments that he greets with unaffected bafflement. He’s depressed and I can’t help but notice that he’s asking me to make him feel better. I think that’s the idea, that we’re both supposed to be making each other feel better. Instead, I say I’m going to call it a night and leave before he really even believes I’m serious.
Beatrice and John are dancing so I slip out. Walking home, I get myself a sausage and eat until it makes me wish I hadn’t. I consider throwing the rest away but by the time I see a garbage can I’ve finished it. I stay on the brightly lit streets as long as possible as if the vapid glow of fluorescent light might counterbalance even the possibility of my defencelessness. A girl, walking alone, in the late night/not dark. My underwear keeps creeping up and I have to resist the urge to stop and spend time picking it out of my bum.
Beatrice and I join a flamenco class. The first lesson is about clapping. In flamenco, there are two distinct ways of clapping. The first, fuertas, makes a hard, brilliant sound. To do it, you have to tense the palm of your receiving hand and then smack the centre of your palm with fingers equally tense in a short, hard clap. This makes the sound ring out and it can be piercingly loud. The other way, sordas, is softer. It requires that you cup your hands and bring them both together so that the outer parts of your palms meet around a hollow in the middle that sort of pops and creates a soft, warmer sound.
Manuela, our teacher, spends several classes walking up and down from student to student as we all clap in unison, intervening. She’ll stop someone’s hands and try to rearrange them, try to make them stiffer or rounder, tell the student to try and hit her palms squarely. And each one tries, but too many hands seem to fly out of control as soon as they start. They careen off at wild angles and bang bones and smack odd, less fruitful planes of the hand and Manuela hesitates, seems to stand there for a minute, wondering how in the world to explain clapping.
Beatrice and I can both do it. I’d say I’m surprised, but really I thought everyone could. When Manuela makes her way down our row, she doesn’t even hesitate but walks by both of us nodding. We grin at each other triumphantly. I’m sweating.
Beatrice and I walk to class. Every time we arrive it seems too cold for flamenco dancing. It’s January and at the beginning of every class, women arrive and spend minutes unraveling from scarves and discharging static between hair and hats. Coats pile up in the corner and wet boots discharge puddles by the door. We pull out our hard-soled black leather shoes from crackling plastic grocery bags, and strip to t-shirts or leotards. Everyone’s cold when we begin, but Manuela turns up the music and starts coaxing us through our steps and the movement as well as the music warm up the room and seem in their way to transport us to somewhere sunny, sun-kissed, sun-drenched. By the time Beatrice and I are walking home, we’re too warm for our scarves and hats. It feels like we must be letting off steam and the cold fails to dissuade us.
I think the next time Eric complains about how superficial girls are, I’m going to ask him what he sees in Beatrice. I’ll ask him, what is it exactly that you see in her? A certain depth of character? Her good sense of humour? Soul? He’ll gaze over at her perfect proportions, her luminous skin, her long legs, her hair, eyes. And say, yes.
In Spain, at the flamenco show, there was a group of people standing at the back. One man stood on his chair and shouted to the dancer hoarsely in Spanish. He was sweating, disheveled and as people started to calm down and collect themselves at the end of the show, he became slightly frantic, calling to the dancer repeatedly: mi corazón! mi corazón! They had raised the lights to encourage everyone to turn their attention from the stage where the musicians now sat chatting, gratefully accepting drinks and the dancer lingered, smiling serenely at fans, nodding her head and signalling her intention to leave. The man yelled once more fiercely, and so desperately that it resounded like a gong into the farthest reaches of the room. The dancer looked up, raised a hand to shade her eyes so that she could see past the lights to the deepening shadows at the periphery where he stood. He yelled out once more to fix her attention, and then, his purpose clear, and with all of us watching, he put one hand to his chest and then extended his arm out emphatically: his heart clutched, pulsing and livid, throbbing in the palm of his hand.
About the Author:
Meghan Dimmick teaches literature at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. She loves to travel, has seen some truly life-changing flamenco shows and can really clap.