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La Fernanda y Miguel Funi
Photo © Mark Johnson


Connecting the Dots

by Lorin Piper

I missed the 60s in Spain by some kind of accident.  I was actually there, in Andalucía in 1968, hitch-hiking through Malaga on my way to Morocco.  Somewhere around Torremolinos I stopped for a flamenco show, which turned out to be both a puzzle and a disappointment. I sensed that I loved flamenco and I was pretty sure that what I’d seen wasn’t it. I thought what it was might have something to do with the gypsy caravans that you still saw sometimes on the roads of southern Europe.

In Morocco I got excited about going overland to India and that was what happened next. Sitting in a Katmandu café I listened to a Sabicas record and promised myself that I’d go back to Spain and find real flamenco, but it took a while before that happened.

Over the next few years in California I kept my eyes open for flamenco, which was scarce in those days.  In the phone book I found the number of a guitar teacher from Spain, who referred me to a Spanish classical dancer who taught me a slow balletic Sevillanas clicking my castanets. Then I discovered a weekend flamenco club in San Francisco and a teacher who had been in Spain and I began pounding out my footwork. I went to Madrid and pounded out more footwork at Amor de Dios. In California I danced with a rag tag group on street corners and campuses. I visited Sevilla and saw a dancer I liked at a tablao. I thought I had a clue.

In the mid seventies Augustine Rios – a gypsy artist from a famous family in Morón de la Frontera – and his American wife Toten, came to live in the San Francisco area.  Augustine was teaching guitar and cante, and I wanted to study with him, so cante it was, regardless of my aptitude or lack thereof. I was about to wrap up a segment of my life and go, finally, to live in Andalucía.  When I needed a place to stay for a few months before I left, Augustine and Toten invited me to stay in their house, and that’s where it began to become apparent that I really didn’t have a clue at all.

I tried to sing bulerías with Augustine – it was hard – and Toten gave me some fiesta steps for bulerías. I thought they were easy.  The great fiestero, Ansonini del Puerto, recently arrived in California, came to the house often. The first time I met him he danced in the kitchen and everyone was ecstatic except me.  I couldn’t figure out how that was dancing – barely a discernable step, no footwork, but all of the things that I couldn’t see yet – gracia, compás, subtlety, nuance.  One day I asked Toten what she thought of my dancing and she answered me seriously, kindly. “I think”, she told me “that everything you’re doing is in very bad taste, but that you are sensitive enough so that when you get to Spain, and see how people dance there, you’ll be able to change it.”

So off I went to Sevilla, a decade late, on the coat tails of friendships forged in the 60’s in Morón .  To an almost free, almost unlivable, totally wonderful rooftop apartment in Sevilla, passed on by a friend of Augustine; out to Morón bearing gifts for the family who called Augustine’s brother, the dancer Pepe Rios, to formally send me to his studio for dance lessons.  In Morón’s Casa Pepe I re-met Evelena, a huge aficionada who I had met at Augustine’s house in California.  She was with a group of friends that included Pedro Bacán, the great gypsy guitarist from Lebrija. From that meeting many friendships grew.  A friend from England who I had danced with in California showed up in Sevilla and moved onto the rooftop with me.  I was living in a beautiful place and time, with flamenco at the center of it. When I woke up at night and looked out over the rooftops of Sevilla I knew how lucky I was.

As Toten had predicted, it didn’t take long for my eye to begin to register a whole world I hadn’t seen before, and for my ear to begin to listen. I fell in love with it easily. It was, after all, what I’d been looking for. I was seeing the best of Andalucía -- Miguel Funi and Paco Valdepeñas, the great fiesta dancers, and whenever he came back to Spain, Ansonini.  He was magic. El Farruco was dancing on stage with his daughters in those days and Angelita Vargas and Manuela Carasco were in their prime.  I may have seen more technique since then, but I’ve never seen better dance.  Meanwhile getting my own body to let go of its badly habitualized dance stance wasn’t so easy.  For that first year I lurched about like someone recovering from a physical injury.  But I loved the process.  I spent my weekdays in Pepe’s studio, and after a while in the studio of Manolo Marin.  I had a very funky but great practice space and I was dancing at least five hours a day.  I was in that very privileged space of seriously training the body.  And even though it seemed unlikely that my dance was going to contribute anything important to the art form the art form was giving me a lot.

Some weekends I went out to Morón, where things were quiet, and some weekends I would go out to Lebrija, where the flamenco scene was alive and well; people at the Pena into the small hours of a Saturday night, Curro Malena standing at the bar, singing, a gusto, or Miguel Funi singing and dancing all night.  One Sunday, only a few months after I’d arrived, Miguel Funi insisted on taking us into a gypsy wedding in Lebrija.  Pedro Bacán was against it, there were non-gypsies in our group - but Miguel insisted. “They go in with me” he said, and we did.  We’d been drinking all that day and going strong the night before. When we walked into the room, with more than 100 people, the Lebrija groove of bulerías palmas had been going on for a few hours and didn’t stop over the next several hours that we were there.  The room was washed in a kind of group ecstasy, maybe one of the stronger presences I’ve ever felt.  Everyone was a gusto.  Old men were dancing with their shirts ripped into shreds and everywhere I turned there was something to watch.  Pedro was right about taking us in, in my case at least.  I really didn’t quite know where I was or how to behave and as the night rolled on, full of alcohol but  no food, and surrounded by art, I was barely able to keep myself quiet and respectable.

At one point I saw Pedro and Miguel and another man in the middle of the floor – Miguel, full prince of the blood, danced for a minute and then the friend, and then Pedro started to dance, and I’d never seen anything like it before, it was so totally – excuse me – “organic“, so pure, coming up from a deep low place, the whole body integrated and intense. It was as exciting as maybe seeing a whale burst unexpectedly through the surface of the water, some total thrust of nature.  There was an unconscious and involuntary reaction on my part and – I can barely remember this, and am mortified when I try – I went spinning around in a sort of Isadora Duncan dance move and the next thing I knew Pedro was hurriedly packing us up and moving us out, and saying no, really, it had nothing to do with me, it was just time to go.  Later a friend told me that she’d been blotto herself and making wild enthusiastic jaleo and every time we saw each other for weeks we would laugh and laugh and say how embarrassed we were, and how great it had been and how we would never get that drunk again.  And though I’ve seen a fair amount of beautiful flamenco in my life, that picture of Pedro is there in my mind, unforgettable, gorgeous.

I had a great two years more in Sevilla and when I moved off the rooftop and into a real apartment I made some ladies luncheons and approximations of Mexican food for people (the first Mexican restaurant in Sevilla was still 15 years away) and I worked away at my dancing.

But was there anything really that I gave back in kind to the people whose lives and art I got close?  When I try to give an answer to that I think of something that was very clear to me one night watching Miguel Funi.  We were all packed into a tiny peña somewhere, and I think it’s safe to say that all of us lived and breathed Miguel’s every move.  There seemed to be no separation.  We were with Miguel and he was with us. We needed Miguel and he needed us – none of us, not even he, could have gone to those places alone.

For a few years after I left Spain everything seemed flat. Decades later I still can’t bear to be around derivative flamenco.  It was always the essence of it that I was looking for, and after I had been around that the imitations were uninteresting to me at best, and often painful. But everything that I learned and saw in that world of purity and high art informs my life still, shows me what is possible, what people are capable of, what people who call themselves artists should hold themselves to. Flamenco is where I experienced authenticity in art and how that is inseparable from life. For the people who carried that in the past and those that carry it still, I am filled with respect and deep gratitude.

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