This spring marks two significant milestones in my life: I’m turning 45 and celebrating 20 years as a flamenco dancer. Few things have touched my heart and soul the way the Spanish art form has.
I would be lying if I said I haven’t had moments of panic realizing that 50 is right around the corner, but I am happy to have had a life of pleasure and pain, sadness and joy. I am here, and I am still dancing.
Dance has been a lifelong passion as well as an escape from a childhood that wasn’t easy. I started ballet and tap when I was 4. I fell in love with everything about dance — the leotards and slippers, the tap shoes that my best friend and I shined with Vaseline until they were like mirrors, and, most of all, the movement and sounds. Shuffle step. Shuffle step hop. Shuffle step hop ball change.
As a kid whose family moved around a lot, my weight went up and down, and I was often teased by classmates for being chubby. As an overweight tween in Southern California, I endured a lot of insults and snickers. But I was never made to feel less than when I danced. In dance classes, I was accepted by my peers, and teachers praised me. When I danced, I didn’t think about the fact that I carried too many pounds. As an adult, however, that changed, as both fellow students and teachers alike judged my weight more than my dance skills.
I was 25 years old and living in San Francisco when I took my first flamenco class. For years I’d been living with an illustrated poster of a flamenco dancer and a crescent moon on a purple background. It read “Rosa Montoya at the Herbst Theater.” The night I decided to take a flamenco class, restless after quitting smoking, I discovered that Rosa herself had a dance studio in the Mission District. I couldn’t get there fast enough.
Flamenco is hands-down the hardest form of dance I have ever tried. It challenges every part of your body and your mind. There is footwork to master. And different rhythms. There are castanets and palmas. Graceful arms and hands. When I first started, I spent 10 hours or more a week at Rosa’s studio. I danced and I danced. I also sweated. A lot.
Murmurs of “because she’s fat,” “because she’s out of shape,” “because she has trouble moving her body” floated through the studio.
Rosa was demanding and loud, unflinchingly direct, and expected excellence. One night she pointed at me and implored the class: “Look at her! Look at how much she sweats. Why do you think she sweats like this?”
Murmurs of “because she’s fat,” “because she’s out of shape,” “because she has trouble moving her body” floated through the studio. Ouch, but true, I thought as I looked down.
“Because she push it!” Rosa yelled in her Spanish accent. “Because she doesn’t hold inside! Don’t just do steps. Dance! Por favor!”
Rarely have I felt so happy.
On another night she said to me after class, “You have duende.” I had no idea what that was, but I learned later that it is a power fueled by emotion that overwhelms both performer and audience. It’s the reason a song gives you chills or a play causes you to burst into tears. For a flamenco student, it is the ultimate compliment and validation.
Unfortunately, Rosa moved back to Madrid and I moved to Texas. To my surprise, I found a flamenco teacher at a ballet school. She was sweet and competent. She wasn’t Rosa, but I still gave my all. I still danced with every part of myself.
The school held an annual performance for schoolchildren. During my second year, a local TV station was planning to film the show for a teaser about the arts. The school owner tried to arrange the show so that I would not be able to perform on the day the TV station was filming. She wanted to leave me out of that one. “Just that one,” she said. “You can still dance in all the other shows.”
I was dumbstruck. Wasn’t I good enough? Didn’t I perform with passion? It was my weight. She didn’t want me on TV because of my weight. My heart sunk. It felt as if dance itself told me I was fat. But it wasn’t dance. It was one ballet school owner’s opinion of me. Not even my teacher’s opinion. My tears turned to outrage — and I danced in that show.
My second teacher in Texas also tried to prevent me from performing in shows — and she succeeded. She told me I would never be allowed on stage with her featured flamenca and collaborator. The dancer is stunning and sultry and exactly what you think a flamenco dancer should look like. A true muse. And my friend.
I was devastated. I know I don’t look like that flamenca, but few women do. I also know that I’m sultry in my own way. To really pour salt on the wound, the teacher allowed students who were stiff and awkward to dance in those shows — but they were all smaller than me.
To really pour salt on the wound, the teacher allowed students who were stiff and awkward to dance in those shows — but they were all smaller than me.
I stopped dancing for five years after that. I didn’t even listen to guitar or Jose Merce sing my favorites. I erased flamenco from my future blueprint. Until I saw Antonio Arrebola dance and found out he was teaching in Texas. One YouTube video of Antonio performing with strength and elegance rekindled my passion for flamenco. I couldn’t wait to learn from someone who gave me the chills when I watched him dance. I couldn’t get there fast enough.
He reminds me of Rosa. Not just because he is a professional dancer from Spain and has been dancing flamenco his whole life, but because his dancing is transformative. It’s a gift to be his student. He’s tough, and not everyone can hang in his classes. Some students leave for easier teachers. But I won’t. The icing on the cake is that he doesn’t hide me or diminish my presence in class or on stage.
“Why did you choose dance, Julie?” a fellow student once asked me. She was the kind of skinny that I used to pray for. “You know you are overweight, so why would you choose a hobby that requires you to be thin?”
I’m not sure if I responded right away — or if I just stared at her. Flamenco is infectious and couldn’t be contained to the Spanish gypsies who created it. Why would a flamenco student from Texas think that this art form could be contained to skinny people?
Did I choose to dance? No. Flamenco chose me. It reached up and held on.
No amount of body shaming can make me stop dancing again. Likewise, no one can intimidate or coerce me into turning in my shoes. I may be overweight, but I have confidence no matter what the scale says. I am a dancer with a dancer’s soul. Every ounce of me is passionate about flamenco. And I plan to dance my way into my 50s, 60s, and beyond — wrinkles, wobbles, and all.