The first time I danced flamenco, they crushed glass in my shoes.
We were backstage at the Teatro Lope de Vega in Seville, Spain. Ruffles were everywhere, along with hair combs, silk flowers, embroidered shawls, fake nails, and the smell of strong Spanish cologne. Ashtrays overflowed with cigarette butts ringed with lipstick in every shade of red. I heard them whispering about "the new girl."
I sat quietly in my corner. I looked and spoke like them, but they could not quite figure out who I was—an Indian Lebanese girl trained in Indian classical dance, a Bryn Mawr graduate who for the past 12 years had been the consigliere for Dan Rather at CBS News. And now a soloist at the Teatro Lope de Vega?
On that night I was performing a seguiriya, one of the more primal forms of flamenco. It begins with a martinete, part of a series of songs with origins in simple village life: a blacksmith singing as he pounds his anvil, a farmer humming as he prods his animal to plow the field. The musicality comes from nothing but the raw voice of the singer and the percussive rhythm of the dancer's feet.
My costume, a heavy black dress with scarlet roses and blood-colored ruffles, was made for me by Rocío Montero, one of Seville's most famous couturieres. Just when I was about to put on my shoes, I saw the girls watching me—one was in the middle of gluing on false eyelashes, another was adjusting her bust into a corset. I picked up a shoe and heard a strange clinking sound: the broken glass.
I still managed to dance that night, thanks to an extra pair I had. Much later in the evening, I was told that what I'd thought was the usual din of a concert hall was actually thunderous applause and shouts of "¡Olé!" from the crowd. People in the audience threw red roses onto the stage.
No matter that the other girls looked at me as if I were an outsider. I always knew that flamenco was inside of me, part of my blood.
My flamenco life began with a full moon over Granada.
We were on a family holiday in Andalusia. I had started my kathak training three years before and desperately wanted to see the gypsies dance. "Flamenco starts too late," my father told me.
Later that night, the old woman who ran the B&B quietly took me to a gypsy's cave up in the hills of Sacromonte, which is next to the Albaicín, the old mazelike Arab quarter of Granada. I remember peering through a grilled window. I saw the skirts fly, the ruffles twirl. Under the bright yellow moon, I turned to thank the old woman, but before I could say anything, she smiled and gently put her hand on my face: "Tienes la luna en tus ojos" (You have the moon in your eyes). And I never forgot.
The next day my family visited the Alhambra palace, where we sat in a courtyard surrounded by azahares (spring orange-tree blossoms). More than 25 years later, while unpacking boxes in my New York apartment, I found the handmade chest my father had bought for me in Granada. Inside were the dried orange blossoms I had picked up in the gardens of the Alhambra.
It was time to start flamenco.
New York, January 2000
I looked into the flamenco scene in New York and worked with a few teachers before finding Nelida Tirado, by far one of the best. Determined to move quickly to the next level, I started weekly classes at Lotus Music & Dance on 27th Street.
Just about a year later, I was sitting with some friends at Taperia Madrid on Second Avenue, when I was approached by the Brazilian owner, Max. He'd seen me dance, he told me, at the same bar a few weeks before and he wanted to do some live shows to bring in business. I admitted I was only a student, but he still offered me a job for $100 a night. And thus my flamenco career began.
Seville, October 2003
Three years after my first flamenco lesson—and several performances at Taperia Madrid later—I decided to go to Seville in search of the holy grail.
Juan Polvillo was a legend, reputed to be very patient with his students. He was offering classes in a studio in the center of Seville. (He now has his own school, Escuela Flamenca Juan Polvillo, where he provides instruction at all levels.)
He confessed later that when we first met all he could think was, What does this americana know about flamenco? After an hour of watching me dance, he was convinced I had gypsy blood in my veins.
It appeared that flamenco was a part of me—instinctive, natural. I like to think that something magical happened that night so long ago with the old woman and the wish I made in the Alhambra.
New York and Seville, 2003 to present
I am back and forth a few times a month. My trips to Seville begin following a familiar pattern. From the airport, at about 5:30 p.m., I meet the extended family of dancers and musicians at Miguel's Café Puerta del Sol, next door to Juan's studio. By 6 p.m. we get to work.
Juan, a gypsy by birth, is flamboyant, outrageous, and demanding about everything—including his food—but especially about his hair and clothes (he just ordered yellow flamenco boots!). He and I can get into 15-minute arguments about whether or not there was a double heel in a particular step. During these episodes our faithful guitarist, José Manuel Tudela, calmly puts down his guitar and takes out his nail file (all flamenco guitarists have a few fake nails).
Manuel "El Tañe"—my gorgeous but oblivious-to-time singer, always wanting to know what I've brought him from New York—is another stunning gypsy, with a big, raspy voice. Emilio Cabello sings as if he's giving you his heart and soul. Then, during the most serious moment in the dance, he'll sing something completely ridiculous.
Sometimes rehearsals are more fun than the performances. We laugh, we work, we enjoy, we argue, we shout, we throw things, we pull our hair, we storm out, we drink, we cry, we fight. Then the moment arrives when you get it just right. After a few seconds of silence, even if we have been yelling at each other for hours, someone will nod and say, "Olé."
Since my life has taken on the feel of a modern-day gypsy (New York to Seville, Seville to New York) I decide it's time to buy a flat and find an attic duplex in an 18th-century building in the middle of Seville.
No one was happier about my little abode than my two costumers: Rocío Montero and La Pili. Rocío's runway shows are attended by the crème de la crème; she has dressed all the best dancers, society mavens, even Queen Sofía of Spain. Pili, on the other hand, who has never left her hometown and has no idea where New York is on a map, designs out of her atelier, really just a tiny room in her house. Our phone conversations go something like this:
"Darling, it's Pili! You have to come to my house tomorrow morning at ten-thirty."
"But Pili, I'm in New York."
"What the hell does that have to do with trying on the green skirt?"
"Pili, it will take me a while to get there. I have to take a plane."
"Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the Three Kings! Take the bus! If you leave now, you'll get here in time."
Because most of the time flamenco is performed on a bare stage, costumes are essential, especially for a female dancer. All dancers have their costumes made. It's sort of haute couture without the price tag.
New York, May 2004
In May, Bill Bragin, the genius behind Joe's Pub, the cabaret space at New York's Public Theater, approached me to ask if I could perform there four nights in November. I think it's the best place for flamenco in New York—intimate enough so people can experience the drama, watch the sweat pour off the dancers and singers, and revel in the agility of the guitarist's lithe fingers.
I agreed to four performances, forgetting that we were right on top of the 2004 presidential elections—which meant my job as Dan Rather's aide (yes, in between all this flamenco I managed to keep up, thanks to the wonders of the BlackBerry) would become the priority. The date was quickly changed to January 2005.
I spent every free moment that summer in the sweltering heat of the studio. Feel-ing horribly uninspired, I began translating some of my old kathak choreographies into flamenco. Over Thanksgiving I went to Seville to showcase the dances for Juan.
Three dances later and sweating profusely from exertion and nervousness, I waited for the verdict.
Shortly after Juan asked La Señora (his nickname for me; another is Mari Carmen: I've no idea why) to be the lead female in the Compañía Flamenca Juan Polvillo. My jaw dropped. The young kathak dancer who sat in the Alhambra so many years ago dreaming of doing flamenco had come full circle.
The Compañía Flamenca Juan Polvillo (i.e. Juan and moi) performed for two sold-out nights at Joe's Pub in January 2005. We returned that November and the following May. Before each show I stand backstage, veiled from the audience by a heavy black velvet curtain. I pray. Then come the first chords of the guitar, then the singer's call to the muse. An energy surrounds me, a life force grabs hold of me. I move to the stage. I see nothing. I am alone with his voice and the music. He sings.
Al infierno que te vayas. Yo me quiero ir contigo. Porque yendo en tu compañía. Llevo la gloria conmigo.
Into the inferno in which you are going. I would like to go with you. Since going there with you. Is glory unto itself.
Akhtar's next performance is slated for December at Joe's Pub. 212-539-8778; joespub.com.
In Her Footsteps
Visitors to Seville often pack the city's tablaos, hoping to see great flamenco. These small dance clubs, however, are mainly tourist traps with shoddy service, bad food, and below-average performers. To see "the really fantastic stuff," Akhtar says, go during the biennial (bienal-flamenco.org), held this year from September 13 to October 15, when flamenco's greatest stars come from all over. (In case you miss the event, the best of the tablao bunch are old standbys such as Los Gallos, El Arenal, Casa Carmen, and El Patio Sevillano, where many of flamenco's big names got their start. Just don't eat the food. Order a drink and then do as the Spaniards do: Go for a meal someplace else after the 10:30 p.m. show). Stateside, the annual Flamenco Festival, presented every February in New York by the World Music Institute, hosts some of the art's premier dancers. Akhtar warns that once you see truly great flamenco, everything else will look like a group of random people wildly stamping their feet too loudly on some stage.
The look of flamenco—red ruffles, silk flowers in the hair— is as integral to the experience as the music and the clapping. At Akhtar's most recent performance at Joe's Pub, the crowd gasped when she came onstage in a fitted white top with calla lily–shaped eyelet sleeves paired with a wildly printed red-and-white skirt with a train. The ensemble was the work of Seville's Rocío Montero, who also designs for Spain's Queen Sofía. She works out of Lina, her mother's dress shop on Calle Lineros (from $1,000; 34-95/ 421-2423). For mantones (shawls), Akhtar recommends Bordados Foronda (from $115; 33 Calle Sierpes; 34-95/422-7661) but with a caveat: Be sure to ask for the handmade shawls. Intricately embroidered vintage mantones are at Bastilippo, the antiques shop owned by Fernando López and Braulio Vazquez on Calle Acetres (from $1,260; 34-95/421-1213).
A Family Passion
One night in 1906, while in Madrid for King Alfonso XIII's wedding, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh saw Anita Delgado dance flamenco. They married soon after and lived in India, in Kapurthala in the Punjab, at the base of the Himalayas. Soon their son, Ajit, was born. Delgado, by all reports a beautiful and gracious woman, began an affair with one of her husband's other sons. The marriage ended in 1925. Ajit grew up to become a dilettante and philanderer. Last year, while sorting through papers looking for her birth certificate, Kim Akhtar discovered that Ajit was her biological father, and Anita, who had won the heart of a maharaja with her flamenco, her grandmother. Pasión India, a book chronicling Anita's story of a poor girl from Málaga turned Indian princess, is a best seller in Spain. Rumor has it that Penélope Cruz is making the movie.