The noise of 50 drumming heels in a warehouse-like chamber with high ceilings was deafening. Heel- drumming was our first exercise, followed by progressively more complicated stamping. Our goal was to learn four linked dances, Sevillanas, in five days, and a handful of lively rumbas, which entailed learning the correct way to lift our skirts and flourish them waist-high.
Nuria Trinanes, 27, who ran the course, started dancing flamenco at the age of six in South Africa, inspired by a Sevillian gypsy woman. She left for Spain as a teenager and has taught since she was 16, travelling between London and Jerez. She has an open, smiling face and a mane of crinkly hair. Jingle, her British-born guitarist who lived for years with gypsies in Spain, is a good-natured, hippyish-looking fellow, besotted with the music and the intricate art of flamenco clapping, or palmas.
The ancient folk art of Andalusia's gypsies was virtually driven underground during the Franco years and was then cruelly hijacked by the Spanish tourist industry. But in recent years a new wave of authentic flamenco dancing has, says Nuria, 'taken off' among the young and become hugely popular in Spain and abroad. 'People look for a form of self-expression, of letting their emotions go, and are attracted to the combination of wildness and discipline in the rhythms of flamenco,' she says.
The rhythms are built round a count of 12, and in Sevillanas you come in after nine. I would get to, say, six, lose count and wait for the heels to crash around me. By the end of the first day the soles of my feet were agony, as though I had spent a week at Harrods' sale. We had just about mastered the first Sevillana. I went home and lay on the sofa until bedtime.
The lessons went at a cracking pace and the penalties for failing to keep up were severe: a helper would draw you aside or, horrors, into the corridor to practise the problematic footwork, so that you missed what came next and ran the risk of falling behind for ever. We scrambled to get our feet and bodies around the stamps, kicks, steps and, most difficult of all, turns. 'Up, up]' Nuria would call encouragingly, her head and arms aloft. We reached out awkwardly, as if to some giant, elusive Heathcliff. 'No, like this,' and she showed us how to do it properly: stretch from the waist, from the back of the neck, hold your shoulders down, look imperiously ahead (never down), fling your arms up. I felt inches taller. 'Again,' she ordered. Seven, eight, nine, I muttered, computing furiously in my head, STAMP, step, step, step, turn, two, three, STAMP, STAMP, kick, four, five, six. 'Better. Again]'
Two hours of this and we were limp and drenched with sweat. During the break we sprawled on the floor and compared skirts and shoes. My full-skirted black taffeta number bought years ago in a Colchester junk shop was fine, but my shoes were too flimsy for this kind of thing. An off-the-peg flamenco skirt with its acres of bias-cut panels can set you back pounds 100, but there is someone who runs them up for pounds 35. The sturdy shoes can be found in a shop in Brick Lane and, yes, they all come with that off-white elastic strip across the instep.
By the time we had learnt - or clumped our way through - three Sevillanas, we began to get them hopelessly muddled up. Sevillanas are danced in pairs. 'Change partners, change partners. Again]' We stamped and turned, as Jingle quickened his tempo. A dumpy, roly-poly enthusiast, with spectacles sliding down her nose, undulated like a siren. 'It's the music that gets you, isn't it?' she gasped. A rangy young woman who lifted her arm and seemed to fill the room agreed it was 'better than aerobics any day'. Both looked beautiful. The three chaps exuded cool. Several felt inspired to sign up for Nuria's summer course in Ibiza.
On the final day we were relegated to what seemed like a huge garage in the windowless basement. But nothing could stem our whoosh of excitement. We had learnt all four Sevillanas, just about, and could rumba convincingly for minutes at a stretch, wearing the obligatory raunchy smirk. The man who was to film our souvenir videos started trailing cables across the floor.
OK, this was it - the final run- through for the cameras. We would do it with the arm movements. So total had been the concentration needed to get the feet in order that we had done most of it with hands on hips. Now we had to orchestrate arms and legs simultaneously. I faced my partner, Sheila. We fixed each other proudly in the eye. Ready? Nuria started clapping, the guitar trickled in . . . seven, eight, nine, STAMP . . . Our arms lifted and dipped in unison. We beamed with triumph. Stamp, stamp, KICK, two, three. Our arms carved the air, in time, matched like a mirror image. We crashed our feet to the floor, swirled those ruffles.
This was more than fun. This was artistic achievement on a heroic scale.
Nuria Trinanes teaches flamenco at the London Studio Centre, 47-50 York Way, London N1; call 081-968 6782 for further information.
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