Flamenco courses through my body, and enlivens my heritage

Any second now and my quadriceps are going to burst, I think to myself as painful muscle spasms vibrate down my left thigh.

For what feels like a half-hour, I stand on stage behind the curtain, waiting in a frozen, circus-contortionist position: half-crouched, one leg bent and one straight, my torso twisted toward the audience and my head in a perpendicular profile.

Perspiration glues my outfit — black pants, leotard and a white flower in my hair — to my body. I haven’t even begun dancing, and already I’m sweating.

With just enough time to ask myself (for the 10th time), ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ the curtain lifts, and I can hear the opening chords from Jorge’s guitar: slow, rhythmic and inviting.

My body quickly turns into a percussive instrument — my black shoes tapping staccato beats and my hands twisting and turning in quick, feminine flores.

As the self-conscious part of me fades, I remember why I am here, performing with a flamenco company at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco.

I’ve always loved dance. From age 6 when my mother began sending me to the ballet studio across the street, I was enamored of toe shoes and pink silk ribbons, Tchaikovsky waltzes and, most of all, the sheer elegance of saying that I was “going to ballet class.”

Since then, my love of dance has matured. I learned not only to enjoy the beautiful “image” of dance, but also to rely on it as an effective emotional and physical outlet and a constant challenge. I tried modern, jazz and kathak, a style of dance from India. Then, in Santa Fe, N.M., I found flamenco.

There was something about flamenco that set it apart from other dances I had tried. It was colorful and vivid, feisty yet gentle, technically difficult but highly self-expressive and individualistic.

And it was from Spain.

I had never been to Spain and I didn’t speak any Spanish. Other than a natural affinity for Spanish music and tapas, all I knew about Spain was that many years ago — sometime between 1478 and 1834 — my family was forced to flee from Seville to North Africa because of the Spanish Inquisition.

To my young ears, 1478 and 1834 sounded like a really long time ago. Besides, I grew up in Israel and America, and it was difficult to understand what was so “Spanish” about “Sephardic” (which, by the way, just means “Spanish” in Hebrew).

It was exceptionally easy, however, to completely engross myself in flamenco, and I quickly went from one dance class a week to four.

I spent $130 on flamenco shoes from Spain, watched all the flamenco videos I could find and bought flamenco CDs and books.

I don’t know why, but flamenco felt like such a natural obsession. When I danced — although I had never experienced those specific movements before — flamenco flowed through my body as if prearranged by some ancient muscular memory. As I read more about flamenco’s origins, I was surprised and delighted to find out that, though flamenco is primarily rooted in the culture of Spanish gypsies (who are believed to have come from India), it is also influenced by Arab and Jewish rhythms and music.

While the Jewish connection is not well documented — flamenco used to be more of an “underground” art form — it is accepted by dance ethnologists and flamenco historians.

It has been a few hundred years since the Spanish Jews were wiped out, evacuated or forced to convert, and here in San Francisco, I am thousands of miles away from Spain.

But for me, the connection is intact.

The flamenco company I dance with has an Argentinean Jewish singer who started out as a cantor’s apprentice, then later moved on to flamenco (coincidentally, a flamenco singer is called a cantaor).

On stage, when he sings, I can feel the wail of the Kaddish and the pain and suffering of Spain’s ancient Jewish population.

I can also feel the sweat, the rhythms and the beauty of this art form.

Though my quadriceps have never felt such pain, I love every second of being on stage, enveloped in flamenco.

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected]