My flamenco dress has hung in my closet flaunting the same stains for almost two years, but I refuse to clean it. Each splotch and crease reminds me of a different moment from my brief dancing stint during my semester abroad in Sevilla. I hesitate to say “study abroad” because studying is not the point of going to Spain– not when the sun sets at 10 p.m. and the streets reawaken with sangria and smoke at 2 a.m. As an American living there, I quickly learned that Spain defies all study.
I went to Spain because I wanted to become Spanish. The Spanish language, I believed, would guide me into a whole world of tradition and history, of thinking and behaving, of breathing and seeing. To some extent, this was foolish idealism. My plan of making Spanish friends fell through almost immediately when I realized that there was no “campus” at the Universidad de Sevilla, and that Spanish students tend to stick with their established groups of friends outside class. Most of my American classmates preferred speaking English most of the time, and my friends from other countries faded in and out of my life. Even the city itself was in constant flux. I watched wooden seats in the main plaza be constructed and demolished for Semana Santa, during which groups of Nazarenes cloaked in white carry Christian icons around the city. For one week in April, thousands of women in flamenco dresses migrated in bright-colored flocks to the Feria festival in Los Remedios, which returned to its dull 1950s-apartment character as soon as the sun set on the last Sunday festival. As an American, I was an outsider and observer. I wanted to do something to fit in with Spaniards. When my American roommate Sofia suggested dance lessons, I jumped at the chance.
Sevillanas, the local flamenco-style dance of Sevilla, involves dancing with a partner for four distinct parts of an upbeat guitar-based song. Each part involves delicately rotating your wrists, taking small but precise steps, and twirling and stomping in a proud “¡Olé!” I learned to dance sevillanas from a fiesty blonde Spaniard named Nuria. Her pudgy body took up most of the space in her living room as she impatiently showed Sofia and me the four movements of sevillanas. My lack of coordination did not bring out my teacher’s sunny side. When I couldn’t remember one of the parts of the routine and mistakenly stepped forward with my right foot several times, she slapped my left thigh and ordered “¡la izquierda!” She also accused me of not standing close enough to my partner (her smelly self). Besides sevillanas, Nuria taught us that you could save 40 euros on the high-speed train by buying a ticket to Córdoba and just staying on until Madrid (we never did try it), and that Madrid men are “stiff, cold” dancers (we never did find out). I’d had just about enough of Nuria until she took Sofia and me to a dress shop around the corner from her house. That was when I saw the dress: black with large white polka-dots. I’ll never forget going into the cluttered dressing room and zipping up the long skirt, then slipping on the matching blouse and jacket. I had the spent three months in Spain until that point feeling too white, American, useless. Suddenly, I had a style and a purpose.
To date, I have spent seven months of my life in Spain, but I have felt the most “Spanish” dancing sevillanas in that dress. For the festival of Feria, my American friends and I proudly walked the San Telmo Bridge in our trajes de flamenco and tap shoes, with flowers in our hair, just like thousands of Spanish women around us. When we got to the festival, we saw hundreds of striped tents with a different party in each. The public tents, sponsored by municipalities and political parties (the socialists seemed to have the best music), offered dancing and drinking for one week straight. When people got tired of dancing, they could play carnival games or ride the Ferris wheel. At Feria, no one sleeps. During the day horses carry men and women with their feet and skirts hanging off the sides. At all hours of the night someone is singing about the dance queen of the Triana or Macarena districts, and someone is dancing the four sevillanas movements. I understood that this dance was my ticket into the Spanish world, as long as I kept my feet going, and as long as I kept returning to Feria in my dress.
For sure, I was one of the clumsiest dancers there. I tripped on my skirt several times, as the dust on the skirt’s bottom ruffles reveal. Nuria had failed to teach me the hand movements for two entire dance segments, so I had no idea what to do after the 360-degree turn on the third movement, or during the entire fourth part. But I had the basic vocabulary in my heels, my mind, and my lips. I could go up to anyone–old or young, male or female– and ask to dance. That way, I met Spaniards from all over Spain, and improved a different step of the dance with each new encounter. I watched them rotate their waists, stomp their feet, and circle their wrists with startling precision all week. Confident and passionate, they had duende, that nearly-indefinable force and spirit that propels much of Spanish art and motion. I was jealous that even a 7-year-old girl out-danced me, and laughed when I got confused on the third movement. Her movements were as spotless as her blue dress. My dress had already collected splotches from the puddles at the foot of the bridge where Sofia and I were carried on the backs of a German and a Cypriote, and near the bar where I first learned how to speak the lyrical Spanish of an Argentine, around the time Sofia and I started having long conversations about injustices and politics. When I look at my dress, I realize that I wouldn’t trade my smattering of international encounters for anything. Insofar as I learned so much about many nations and ways of thinking, I had indeed “studied” in Spain.
Flamenco dresses have bata de cola skirts– layers of taffeta extending to the floor that puff out at the bottom as the dancer twirls in circles. Twirling faster and faster, just like the cycles of my life in Sevilla. Comings and goings pushed the months forward. I met an American who said he was leaving for good in April because he hated teaching Spanish, and then returned two weeks later to pass a language proficiency test for teaching abroad. I saw my roommate Sofia grow disappointed with her Spanish flings, then decide to spend an additional year in Sevilla. The French girl who lived upstairs and barely spoke in January became my roommate for a week in May. The bar where my flat-mates and I went our first night in the city and ordered scathing plum sherry was also the last place I saw flamenco before I left.
As I sit here with a dirty flamenco dress I haven’t worn since April 2004, I subscribe to the city’s motto “NoDo.” The acronym stands for “Sevilla no me ha dejado,” meaning “Sevilla has not left me.” I don’t know when I will physically go back to Sevilla, but the splotches on my skirt tell me the memories will never wash away.