WHITTIER — Juan Talavera is as graceful as the sound of his name.
When Gypsy music follows him, Talavera's tapping feet make rippling rhythms that speak of passion and arrogance, of freedom and life.
A professional flamenco dancer since age 17, Talavera said he feels "alive" and "euphoric" when he is in motion. "It's a very nice feeling," he said.
Fittingly, flamenco means "bird in flight" in Spanish, but for Talavera the thrill of flamenco is momentary.
"It's a happy feeling but it's very short. And then you have to become the person you normally are and it's back to real life," said Talavera, who performed at the Olympic Arts Festival last year.
The dancer also makes his living as a teacher's assistant at the Charo Child Development Center in Whittier, where he has worked for six years. Previously, he worked at Azteca Headstart in East Los Angeles and West Whittier Elementary School.
On a recent day, Talavera, 45, who lives in Whittier, looked like a high school student in jeans, sneakers and blue cotton shirt. On the school playground, the children called him "Mr. Juan," running to him with their troubles.
"Real life" for Talavera means being the "daddy image" at the preschool, telling one child playing with insects to "leave the bugs alone" and warning two others tumbling on the grass that "no, no, no, no, no, we're not going to beat anybody up." Later, he set out the children's lunch trays and unfolded cots for nap time.
At noon, at a nearby restaurant, Talavera talked about his job and his art.
The father of Antonio, 22, Luis, 19, and Juan, 13, Talavera said he really learned how to be a father while working in child care.
"Before, I was real strict," he said. "It was all black and white--no gray. But you can't be like that with these kids. You have to listen to them if you want to reach them and reason with them."
Talavera's own childhood was difficult. The dancer was taunted and beaten for his love of dance.
"Back then," he recalled, "if you were a boy who liked to dance, you were called a sissy. It's easier now. It's OK for a boy to dance."
Started by Accident
Talavera started dancing when he was 6, almost by accident. One day he went with a cousin to her dance lesson at the Corina Valdez studio in East Los Angeles, where hundreds have learned Mexican and Spanish dance. The teacher noticed him sitting in a corner watching and asked him to join in. His talent for dance was revealed.
Nevertheless, he kept his art a secret until high school, when a classmate spotted him dancing at a fair. When Talavera came home, a group of boys were waiting to beat him up.
Now, when former classmates see him perform, "they say they know me," Talavera said. "But I remember how they used to beat me up at the corner."
Talavera stayed with Valdez until he was 19, when the teacher told him she could teach him nothing more. He then studied with Antonio and Luisa Triana, renowned flamenco dancers who taught in Hollywood.
In 1962, when he was 22, Talavera helped found the El Cid Flamenco Nightclub in Los Angeles, known worldwide for its entertainment, cuisine and menus in Spanish and Japanese.
The club, which is still open and where Talavera danced for 23 years, is one of a handful in the nation that showcase the art. Nevertheless, Talavera, who has worked some as an actor, left the club in April to concentrate on getting more acting jobs.
"I don't want to be dancing when I'm 50," he said. "You look real strange."
Talavera now can be seen in commercials, films, television shows, operas and plays, and has established Dance Espanol Inc., a nonprofit organization that offers flamenco classes and television commercial workshops for beginning actors.
In pursuing acting, however, Talavera said he is finding that the competition for Latin parts is tough and also that the handful of Latin actors who show up time and again resent him and will not speak to him.
"I'm the new boy on the block and the day I get a (major) part, they're really not going to talk to me then," he said.
In addition, Talavera said his youthful appearance works against him when he auditions for roles his age. Producers are usually looking for someone who is the stereotypical paunchy, middle-aged father, he said, and "I'm too skinny and look too young."
Receiving recognition in the world of dance is also difficult, he said.
Although Talavera's 15-member troupe, the Juan Talavera Spanish and Flamenco Dance Company, performed at the Olympic Arts Festival, local booking agents tend to hire European dancers and overlook local talent, he said.
Meanwhile, he continues to dance and relies on his child-care work to pay the rent. And he takes the occasional offer to tour with dance concerts or operas such as "Carmen."
Talavera said there are about half a dozen other male Mexican-American flamenco dancers in the country. They are rare because the steps of flamenco are more intricate, the moves more demanding than Mexican dance such as folklorico.
Freedom to Improvise
Flamenco, he said, is like jazz, where there is freedom to improvise.
It is difficult for Mexican dancers to make the transition to flamenco, he said, because "they're used to following the music. They can't accept that, in flamenco, you are the beat. They can't handle that freedom."
The dance originated with Gypsies, the poorest and most persecuted people in Spain, and is a blending of all the civilizations that inhabited that country, he said.
When he performs, Talavera, in slim, tight pants and ruffled shirt, takes the art of flamenco beyond the stereotype. His reverberating steps become a heartbeat, his face reflecting whatever he is feeling. Rhythm and movement become beauty and in that moment, Talavera's spirit is a bird in flight.
Talavera will perform with the Lola Montes dance company at the Redlands Bowl on Aug. 23.