Sarah Bird The Flamenco Academy: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780345462381

The Flamenco Academy: A Novel

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9780345462381: The Flamenco Academy: A Novel

“Bird captures the staccato passion of flamenco in a rapturous love triangle.”
–People

“The Flamenco Academy opens so boldly . . . that you have to wonder how [Sarah] Bird can sustain such high drama. But it quickly becomes apparent that she’s mapped her novel’s treacherous terrain and planned accordingly, building characters sturdy enough to stand firmly, even when their emotions are spinning out of control.”
–The New York Times Book Review

The first commandment of flamenco is Dame la verdad–Give me the truth. But for Cyndi Rae Hrncir, a shy seventeen-year-old, the truth is too painful to share. When Rae becomes infatuated with the devastatingly handsome flamenco guitarist Tomás Montenegro, she and her best friend, Didi, immerse themselves in the exotic world of the Gypsy dance and in the spellbinding stories told by their legendary teacher, Doña Carlota, Tomás’s great-aunt. Locked in a volatile triangle and driven by obsession–Didi with fame, Rae with Tomás, and Tomás with the mystery of his origin–the three sharpen their performances, while danger, longing, and betrayal pulse beneath each step. When a heartbreaking longheld secret comes to light, Rae is duty-bound to honor the laws of flamenco and finally reveal the truth.

“The stuff bestsellers are made of . . . [The Flamenco Academy is] funny and beautifully structured to create anticipation and suspense, with lush moments of romance and a surprisingly sturdy backbone.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Good conflict makes good fiction, and that’s what gives The Flamenco Academy such irresistible energy and narrative drive. . . . A heady brew of a novel, lushly romantic at one turn, wryly and wittily observant at the next.”
–Houston Chronicle

“A deft exploration of love, desire and jealousy told against the backdrop of that most complex of dances, flamenco.”
–Baltimore Sun

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About the Author:

Sarah Bird is the author of five previous novels: The Yokota Officers Club, Virgin of the Rodeo, The Mommy Club, The Boyfriend School, and Alamo House. She is a columnist for the Texas Monthly and has written for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, O Magazine, Glamour, and Mademoiselle, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, George, and son, Gabriel.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Flamenco has Ten Commandments. The first one is: Dame la verdad, Give me the truth. The second is: Do it en compas, in time. The third one is: Don't tell outsiders the rest of the commandments. I come here, to the edge of the continent, to honor the first commandment, to give myself the truth.

Waves, sparkling with phosphorescence in the darkness, crash on the shore just beyond my safe square of blanket. I cup my chilly hands around a mug of tea that smells of oranges and clove and search for that first streak of salmon to crack the far horizon. There might be one or two early risers, insomniacs, troubled sleepers, who will see the light of a new day before me. But not many. I am alone with my tea and my thoughts.

The waves roll in all the way from Asia and slam against the shore. Their roar comforts me. It almost drowns out the sound of heels, a dozen, two dozen, pounding on a wooden floor, turning a dance studio into a factory manufacturing rhythm. That is the ocean I hear. It is broadcast by the surge of my own blood, pulsing en compas, in time, to a flamenco beat. My heart beats and its coded rhythms force me to remember.

Once upon a time, I stepped into a story I thought was my own. It was not, though I became a character in it and gave the story all the years it demanded from my life. The story began long before I entered it, long before any of the living and most of the dead entered it.

I start on the night that I saw the greatest flamenco dancer of all time perform. That night I had to decide whose story my life would be about.



Chapter Two

It was early summer in Albuquerque, when the city rests between the sandblasting of spring winds and the bludgeoning of serious summer heat to come. New foliage made a green lace against the sky. The tallest trees were cottonwoods and they spangled tender chartreuse leaves shaped like hearts across the clouds. It was the opening evening of the Flamenco Festival Internacional. A documentary about Carmen Amaya, the greatest flamenco dancer ever, dead now for forty years, was to be premiered at Rodey Theater on the University of New Mexico campus.

I dawdled as I crossed the campus. The air smelled like scorched newspaper. The worst forest fires in half a century had been blazing out of control in the northern part of the state. Four firefighters had already been killed and still the fires moved south. That morning, the Archbishop of Santa Fe announced that he would start saying a novena the next morning to lead all the citizens of New Mexico in prayers for the rain needed to save the state, to save our beloved Tierra del Encanto.

I slowed my pace even more. I wanted to reach the theater after the houselights were out so that I could see as much of Carmen Amaya and as little of "the community" as possible. I dreaded being plunged again into the hothouse world of New Mexico's flamenco scene. Tomorrow, when I started teaching, I would have no choice. Tonight was optional and only the promise of glimpsing the greatest flamenco dancer ever could have dragged me out.

Although we, all us dancers, had studied every detail of Carmen's mythic life, although we had pored over still photos and read descriptions of her technique, none of us had ever seen her dance. Film footage of her dancing was so rare and so expensive that we'd had to content ourselves with listening to the legendary recordings she made with Sabicas. We memorized the sublime hammer of her footwork, but hearing was a poor substitute for seeing a dancer move.

Only the news that the documentary contained footage of Carmen Amaya performing could have gotten me out of my bed and into the shower. The shower had removed the musty odor of rumpled sheets and unwashed hair I'd wrapped myself in for the past several weeks since I'd taken to wearing my own stink as protection, as a way to mark the only territory I had left: myself. I wouldn't have been able to face the humiliation of seeing "the community" at all if I hadn't had my newly acquired secret to lean on.

When I was certain that Rodey Theater would be dark, I slipped in the back and took the first empty seat. Only there, alone and unseen, was it safe to take the secret out and examine it. It strengthened me enough that I corrected my slumped posture. I'd leaned on my new knowledge to get this far; tomorrow, somehow, some way, the secret would guide me to what I needed, what I had to have. Of course, tonight it changed nothing. To everyone in the theater, which was every flamenco dancer, singer, and guitarist in New Mexico, I was still the most pathetic creature imaginable: the third leg of a love triangle.

The credits flickered; then Carmen Amaya's tough Gypsy face filled the screen, momentarily obliterating all thoughts from my mind. It was brutal, devouring, the face of a little bull on a compact body that never grew any larger or curvier than a young boy's. As taut with muscle as a python's, that body had made Carmen Amaya the dancer she was. A title beneath her face noted that the year was 1935. She was only twenty-two, but had been dancing for two decades.

She oscillated in luminous whites and inky blacks, gathering herself in a moment of stillness, a jaguar coiling into itself before exploding. A few chords from an unseen guitarist announced an alegrias, Carmen's famous alegrias. The audience, mostly dancers as avid as I, leaned forward in their seats. Hiding from random gazes, I slumped more deeply into my seat, considered sneaking out. Even armed with my secret, I wasn't strong enough yet for this. There would be questions, condolences, sympathy moistened with a toxic soup of schadenfreude. I wasn't ready to be a cautionary tale, the ultra-pale Anglo girl who'd dared to fly too close to the flamenco sun.

I was pushing out of my seat, about to leave; then Carmen moved.

A clip from one of her early Spanish movies played. The camera crouched low. Her full skirt whirled into roller-coaster arcs that rose and plunged as those bewitched feet hammered more rhythm into the world than any pair of feet before or since. I dropped back into my seat, poleaxed by beauty as Carmen told her people's hard history in the sinuous twine of her hands, the perfectly calibrated arch of her back, the effortless syncopation of her feet.

I tore my eyes from the screen long enough to pick out the profiles of other dancers, girls I'd studied with for years, women who'd instructed us. They were rapt, mesmerized by the jubilant recognition that Carmen Amaya was as good as her legend. No, better. That not only was she the best back then, but if she were dancing today none of us, forty years after her death, could have touched her. I wished then that I were sitting with those other pilgrims who'd made flamenco's long journey, who understood as I did just how good Carmen was.

I joined in the muttered benediction of oles, accent as always on the first syllable, that whispered through the theater; then I surrendered and let Carmen Amaya's heels tap flamenco's intricate Morse code into my brain. Though I had willed it to never do so again, my heart fell back into flamenco time and beat out the pulses with her. Flamenco flowed through my veins once more. From the first, flamenco had been a drug for me, an escape from who I was, as total as any narcotic, and Carmen Amaya hit that vein immediately, obliterating despair, rage, all emotion other than ecstasy at the perfection of her dancing.

The brief clip ended. We all exhaled the held breath and sagged back into our seats. An old-timer, white shirt buttoned up to the top and hanging loosely about a corded neck, no tie, battered, black suit jacket, appeared onscreen. A subtitle informed us that he had once played guitar in Carmen's troupe.

"Tell us about Carmen's family," an interviewer, offscreen, asked.

"Gitana por cuatro costaos," the guitarist answered. "Gypsy on four sides." The translation of this, the ultimate flamenco encomium, made my secret come alive and beat within me. Blood, it was all about blood in flamenco.

The withered guitarist went on. "Carmen Amaya was Gypsy on all four sides. We used to say that she had the blood of the pharaohs in her veins back in the days when we still believed that we Gypsies came from Egypt. We don't believe that anymore, but I still say it. Carmen Amaya had the blood of the pharaohs in her veins. That blood gave her her life, but it also killed her."

"What do you mean?"

"Her kidneys. The doctor called it infantile kidneys. They never grew any bigger than a little baby's. La Capitana only lived as long as she did because she sweated so much when she danced. That was how her body cleansed itself. Otherwise, she would have died when she was a child. Her costumes at the end of a performance? Drenched. You could pour sweat out of her shoes. She had to dance or die."

"Bailar o morir." As the guitar player pronounced the words, his lips stuck on his dentures, tugging them up, holding them rolled under so that he looked like a very sad, very old marionette. "Dance or die. Dancing was the only thing that kept her alive."

"Bailar o morir." He was right. I had to start dancing again. The last few weeks had brought me too close to the alternative. For the first time, I was happy I'd agreed to teach. But that was tomorrow. Tonight, it was essential that I be gone before the lights came up. I glanced at the exit and debated whether I should leave.

When I looked back, though, a clip from one of Carme...

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