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A 'Look at Me' Kind of Dance : After some awkwardness, a writer surrenders to the flamenco rhythm and gains appreciation and confidence.


VAN NUYS — When a Spanish guitarist plucks the strings of his instrument, the sound reaches into a place deep inside me. Fans, or aficionados , as they are known in Spanish--know that the flutter of those strings can profoundly inspire the soul. It's nearly impossible to imagine further transcending that deep emotional plane--unless you've seen it enhanced by flamenco dancers.

Highly trained heels impact wooden floors with excruciating precision. Female dancers gracefully manipulate their flouncy skirts, rapidly click their heels and toss their be-maned heads with alluring abandon.

Male dancers dazzle spectators with intricate footwork and captivate them with their powerful, beguiling demeanor and tiny beads of sweat on their arched eyebrows. As their fingertips brush their svelte frames, dancers communicate a powerful sensuality without evoking the overtness of, say, Madonna.

OK, so I'm passionate about it. It all started when I saw my first flamenco performance in Spain in 1992. Dog-tired after a long day of sightseeing, I found myself moved beyond belief by the guitarist's music, the singer's sad tales and the dancer's graceful movements. I was immediately hooked. When I returned, I quickly became a regular at our local bar, where professional flamenco dancers perform.

Van Nuys resident Robert Amaral is an accomplished flamenco dancer (considerable hunk appeal notwithstanding). He offers classes for beginning (and more advanced) students. Although I could never perform in front of an audience, the dancing had to be more fun than the wind-up-doll mechanics of aerobics.

I show up for an entry-level class, since no reservations are required. Walking into the room and seeing a clique of castanets-carrying coquettes with ruffled skirts initially intimidates me, but most of them turn out to be fairly friendly. Instinctively, I bond with a couple of other newcomers--inexperience loves company. Decked out for the class in an orange T-shirt, full navy skirt and an old pair of tap shoes, I look like a cross between the Great Pumpkin and an airline stewardess headed for the Mrs. America talent competition.

Amaral puts on the record and starts some simple footwork exercises. Surprisingly, there is no guitar in the drill music, just the click-clack rhythm required to keep footwork steady. I quickly realize that wearing tap shoes has its down side: My mistakes are louder than everyone else's. Goof-ups feel more tolerable with Moe and Curly, the other two Stooges--er, newcomers--at my side. Unlike the snooty attitude that prevails at my local health club, the mood here is more fun, and not as competitive.

When I finally get the footwork (mostly) down, Amaral says, "Now arms." At first, trying to do both is a little like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time. My efforts yield a mix of failures and successes. Best of all, I am sweating, therefore obviously burning calories and having fun doing it. (StairMaster, take a hike.)

Into the first hour, Amaral introduces a clap called the sordas. I learned this in Spain, a method of cupping the hand for a more hollow tone. Smugly, I correct Moe when she attempts basic applause. Gently, Amaral corrects me! I have the sound right but not the finger position. I am beginning to learn there is more form to flamenco than the virtually seamless performances often suggest.

Just as my hands are tiring, we proceed to body movements. This comes easier for me, having taken ballet. Unfortunately, it is the shortest segment in the 90-minute session. Attitude and posturing seem to play a big part in pulling off this aspect of flamenco. I pretend I am a tall, willowy, sultry brunette, thinking that the official skirt (and possibly liposuction) would definitely enhance my mirror image.

Vueltas que bradas-- broken turns--follow the body movements. Moe feigns a few attempts while Curly and I find ourselves the odd Stooges out. I'm thinking about ducking out the back door when I find myself actually getting it almost right. If I go with the music, immerse myself in the rhythm and don't dwell incessantly on the counts, it seems to help.

In retrospect, I expected to feel more frustrated over my ineptness during the class. Now, I must admit that I'm thinking of taking a few more. The sheer pleasure of flamenco's novelty and sensuality appeal to a part of me that vows to peel myself off the couch.

It's important to note, however, that flamenco isn't for everyone. It requires confidence--it's a very "look at me" kind of dance. The anonymity afforded in aerobics, square dancing or other group activities is not a part of the flamenco tradition. Its independent nature seems to lure folks who are definitely part ham. Much as I hate to admit it, I guess a side of me must fit that bill.

Until I get in the groove, you can find me hiding behind the castanets coquettes.

Where and When

What: Flamenco classes at Roberto Amaral Dance Studio.

Location: 14643 Hamlin St., Van Nuys.

Price: Group classes $10 per session.

Call: (818) 785-2359.

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