The voice of someone singing an aria emerges from a private-lesson room and floats down the hallway at the University Center for the Performing Arts in Davie, but students waiting for their classes to begin are drawn instead to the cacophony coming from one of the studios. A peak inside reveals a flamenco dance classfor beginners, who alternate between clacking castanets and clicking their heels on the dancefloor.
During a break in the action, the instructor, Damaris Ferrer, walks gracefully around the studio, her waist-length brown hair flowing behind her, and shows her class how to use the castanets. "Just work the fingers, don't move the wrists," she says patiently. Originally from Puerto Rico, Ferrer peppers her lessons with Spanish words: tacones are heels; claras are crisp, resounding claps; and sordas are muted claps.
Dressed in flowing skirts and black shoes with buckles, the ten women in the Thursday-night class clap their hands together, trying to achieve the right sound. Some of the dancers, who range in age from teens to fiftysomethings, have taken lessons before. Others are first-timers, but beads of sweat are evident on every face. It's clear this class offers more than just random foot-stomping. The students "come to the first or second class and realize, 'Wow, there are so many layers to this dance,' and it really gets them going," says Ferrer.
Anyone who's seen a flamenco performance knows the dancers do some fancy, fast-paced hoofing to keep time with the lightning-quick flamenco guitar. For that reason Ferrer eases students into the art. During the first couple months, they learn the style's various components: clapping, castanet-playing, upper-body movements, and foot techniques. Each element is practiced separately, without music. Later they're all incorporated into thedance.
Foot technique is particularly demanding. Dancers strike the floor with their heels, alternating between furious and gentle steps. They also use their toes in ways that tap dancers do. The lifeline of flamenco dance -- which originated more than a century ago with Andalusian Gypsies -- is the feet, which are supposed to reflect the emotions stirred by the music. Flamenco is more a means of expression than anythingelse.
"I don't think students are in it to become professional flamenco dancers, as opposed to going to a salsa class, where they have intentions of eventually going to a club and dancing it," Ferrer explains.
In the United States, flamenco is largely a performance art. Even in Latin America, small clubs called tadlaos cater to people who eat meals while watching flamenco shows. But Mari Fernandez, a 21-year-old college student who took up the dance as a hobby, says that "people dance to it for fun" in her native Venezuela. "I'm not going to quit school and go off to Spain" to become a professional dancer, she continues. "But flamenco is one of my top priorities. I have met a lot of great people in the class. People are there to havefun."
Some of Ferrer's students, however, are aspiring professionals. Lea La Greca, age 17, has been taking lessons from Ferrer since 1995, and she tours with a flamenco troupe run by the National Theater For the Arts in New YorkCity.
Before Ferrer cofounded her professional dance company, Bailes-Ferrer, and opened the flamenco department at the University Center in 1995, Broward County residents had to drive to Miami for flamenco lessons. But it was only a matter of time before flamenco spread northward, because the dance style is popular all over the world. "It's everywhere," Ferrer states emphatically. "Even in Japan. Ah, they love flamenco there."