When people ask me how I started flamenco dancing, I state the simple answer: my teacher lived on my street.
I'd see her driving around our neighborhood in Atlanta's Virginia-Highlands, the name and number for her studio, Caló Gitano, in large white letters on the back of her SUV. One day, I just up and went.
The first couple of months went as expected: women of all varieties struggled to learn Sevillanas, each new step more befuddling than the one before.
After several months of awkward flailings (mine), she clapped her hands and announced the date of the spring student show.
"Oh, I won't be there," I said apologetically. "I'm just here to learn, not perform."
I don't remember Malita's response, but it was essentially, "Yuh huh."
Malita was always equally formidable and familial. She's a shade under six feet tall, with long, lean arms and a voice like a foghorn (her description, not mine). (Though I will quickly corroborate this.)
My first student show turned into a second and third, each slightly less terrible than the one before. That's not false humility. Anyone who's met me knows my ego is well-fed and regularly groomed.
But the more I studied with her, and the more progress I made in technical skill and style, I began to understand how much I could learn about myself through moving my body and experiencing --and surpassing -- new limits.
Moves that were impossible one week were done without thinking a few days later -- and replaced with newer, more impossible moves.
We learned how to perform. We learned about duende. "When you finish dancing, everyone should want to talk to you but be too afraid to come up to you."
We also learned how to not just value ourselves, but to embrace ourselves and let ourselves be loud and impressive and anything but humble. We had to be strong.
"Más fuerza!"Malita would intone as we finished a round of footwork, sweating and out of breath.
"You have to be confident. Everyone is watching you. If someone falls during a performance, guess what? That is your solo. That is your time to shine," she would say with a smile, then pantomime stepping over an imaginary, upended flamenca with a puffed-chest flourish and half-swallowed laugh.
I danced with Malita for years. I impatiently, angrily waited through healing from a spine injury to dance with her again. I would sit propped up on the couch in the studio, in pain and crying while I watched my friends practice solea, a dance I'd been wanting to learn for months.
As soon as I could walk for more than a few minutes, I stood in the back of the class to start to learn the movements of the choreography. After a few weeks, I could raise my arms. Then I could hold them above my head for more than a few seconds. After a few more months, I'd perform in my last student show with my family of dancer friends.
When I told Malita I was leaving indefinitely and would be on the road, the first thing she warned me about was falling off the flamenco wagon. I wouldn't be dancing much. It's easy to get rusty, faster than I'd think.
"I'll find classes! I'll dance my way around the country!" This was a time my flamenco confidence was wrong.
I didn't think it would be easy to find classes, but I didn't think it would be this hard, either.
I struck out in New York, had sprained my ankle by the time I reached Boston, and didn't stay anywhere except Denver long enough to take a class.
It wasn't until I made it to Seattle -- about five months since my last flamenco class in Atlanta -- that I found a class I could attend.
The Empire State Building.
I was so excited. I'd contacted the teacher beforehand and told her about my experience -- how I'd danced with a company, had an injury, was well behind and certainly rusty but, all in all, a good dancer. I described myself like a used horse who's seen some hard labor but still had a good few years left in her.
She warmly welcomed me to join one of her intermediate classes. I decided to take a beginner class as a warm-up, too.
Holy lord. As Malita would say in her thick Venezuelan accent after a particularly bad execution: "Disaster."
But it wasn't just my dancing. I wasn't amazing, but I wasn't awful. Less awful than I'd thought I'd be, anway.
It was the teacher. God, what a wretched class that was.
I knew I was on par with the other dancers and, at the least, just about keeping up. I didn't want to impress anyone, and followed the usual new-dancer rules (let everyone find their spots first, avoid disruptions, don't be challenging, etc).
Nonetheless, she criticized every move move I made. No, really. She stopped the class every thirty seconds to release a frustrated exhalation, stand next to me, and make me repeat the move.
Dancers watch other dancers. It's what we do. By the third time she stopped me, I decided to covertly start observing the others to see just how far off I was.
I saw imperfection everywhere. Completely normal, totally okay, same-as-mine imperfections. A didn't lift her heel enough, B bent her knees too much and sat into the footwork, C's arm alignment was off. All things you'd expect to see in a class and warranted minimal correcting.
Unless I did it. Then I was in her crosshairs. I'd danced long enough to know this wasn't normal. That my mistakes were negligible, or not even actual mistakes -- just stylistic tweaks she wanted to make mid-movement.
Then it went beyond corrections. She snapped at me to stop sniffling (I was heavily allergic to Ginsburger after all), passive-aggressively telling me where to find the Kleenex (behind me, apparently). She rolled her eyes and smirked to herself when my palmas were off.
But what blew me away was when she told me my footwork was too strong. "What are you doing?! You're going to ruin my floors!" she yelled. Actually yelled.
This literally stopped me in my tracks as I stammered a surprised apology.
For as long as I'd been dancing, Malita admonished us to add more force, more strength. I started joking with her that if I broke her floor, I would get free lessons for life. And then the joke became a goal. Flamenco shoes ain't cheap.
Yet there I was, being yelled at by a stranger in whose eyes I couldn't do anything right.
I stuck with it, though, and finally it was over. There were only a handful of dancers in the final class, all incredibly sweet and politely chatty. We stood in a circle making small talk and the teacher joined us.
For a moment, I didn't know what to do. Should I confront her? Duck my head? Leave quietly and write this one off?
Naw. Not this reformed door-slammer.
I took a couple of steps towards her, smiled as warmly as I could, put my hands on her upper arms, and said with all the sincerity I could muster, "Thank you so much for such a wonderful class. I really appreciate all the feedback you gave me. I learned a lot from you, and this is exactly why it's so important to study with different teachers whenever you can. You gave me so much perspective." [lovingly squeezing her arms] "Thank you."
Now it was her turn to stammer. She could hardly look me in the eyes, and muttered a feeble half-sentence that contained "You're welcome" and something about different teachers having different styles somewhere in its foggy structure.
I caught and looked deeply into her stunned eyes, gave her arms a final, friendly hold, and walked away.
If it's possible to kill someone with kindness, I pray no one dusts that studio for fingerprints.